Royce Ard fully understands the roller-coaster that both a corporate career and business ownership can be.
He spent more than a dozen years with cable company Knology, rising from general manager of the Columbus market to vice president of sales and marketing at it's corporate headquarters in West Point, Ga.
That was before Knology was purchased by Denver-based WOW! and decided to go in another direction with most upper-level management.
Ard and his wife, Tamara, both Florida natives, had prepared for such a moment, however. They launched My Right Hand Man, a handyman service, in 2006, just in case Royce lost his proverbial day job and needed a new career avenue.
Never miss a local story.
His exit from the cable industry in 2012 put him in position to help Tamara run the handyman business. The timing was tough, however, with the Great Recession exploding less than two years into the venture. But the Columbus residents didn't flinch.
"We really hunkered down over the last several years when the economy was tough," said Royce Ard, 49. "We just said we're going to try to build our customer base up. We're going to do everything that we can so that when the economy comes back, we're going to have a huge base of customers to do work for. I think that was a good strategy for us, and we now have over 3,000 customers."
The couple also made another move earlier this year, launching My Amazing Maid, a concept that fits well into the home-service arena in which they were already operating. They now are banking on that business as well, with hopes it will grow significantly as the economy improves.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Royce recently to get his thoughts on his job, his handyman operation, what it entails and why he thinks it will succeed. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
So My Right Hand Man was your backup plan?
We were looking for a business that could be Plan B, something that we could go ahead and have started so when and if something ever happened to Knology, we would have roots in Columbus and a reason to stay here.
We looked at a lot of different franchises and other things, and we liked the home maintenance business. We didn't have a lot of experience in it. But taking customer service calls, and creating great customer service, and routing trucks and workers, that was very similar to what I was doing in the cable business.
Is it a competitive field?
There's a lot of competition, but a lot of it's a man and a truck. We wanted to really professionalize the handyman business and provide great customer service, provide a warranty, provide something that people could trust.
When we first opened the business on a weekly basis, it seemed like we would get calls from people who said: I gave someone some money to go buy materials and they never came back to do the job. There's just a lot of unethical folks in this business. And I'm not putting down everybody. There's a lot of ethical people as well. But it doesn't lend itself well to hiring somebody off a classified ad and they take your money and never do the work.
So home improvement can be a dicey proposition?
That's right. In fact, when I went to the Better Business Bureau to join the BBB, I believe we were like the only handyman that was a member. So we really spend a lot of time and effort to provide great customer service. When you call the office, you talk to a customer service representative. We have five different handymen that we can send out to your house.
If somebody goes out and they don't gel with the customer or the customer is not 100 percent satisfied with the work they've done, they don't have to confront that handyman. They can call us, and we'll send somebody different out to their house.
We do a criminal background check on all of our folks, and they're good honest people, but sometimes there's personality conflicts and we understand that. So we make it very easy for people to do business with us.
These are employees and not contractors?
They are 100 percent our employees, which is a very different type of business model. We get to know these guys and what their skill set is. We know what they can do well and what they struggle with. The handyman business is a very broad set of services. These guys are pretty good at a lot of things. But they're experts at certain things.
If someone has a door that needs to be replaced, we send a certain two or three of our guys. However, if they have drywall that needs to be repaired, I've got two guys that are experts at drywall repair. So the customer calls us and tells us their honey-dos that they want to have done, and we route the right person to that job.
Your website list indicates there's not many things you can't tackle.
We are almost like a concierge service. Our customers call up and say, gosh, I would like to have my carpets dyed. We don't do that work, but we have been in business for a long enough time that we have run across folks who do that work and do a good job at it.
We've built a whole list of local folks who do the work that we don't do. If you need a plumber or a heating and air guy, our customers can call us and we will refer them to someone who is highly ethical, with great pricing, and a great guy to do business with.
What's the biggest challenge of your job?
It's really making sure that things run smoothly. We do a lot of different jobs every day and home repair is not an exact science. You don't necessarily know everything that can go wrong on a job. So we may schedule a job for four hours and it takes six hours. Well, you've got to be able to juggle that schedule. It's not completely unlike the cable business.
Have you had any unique or humorous experiences?
Most of it, about 98 percent of it, is centered around home repair. But there have been times when someone has said something like my cat has gotten under my oven and I can't get it out. I guess they didn't know who else to call, so we went over there and helped them get their cat out from underneath the oven.
Is pricing and estimating a service or project difficult?
Our typical competition goes into a house and they quote a price based on the total job that's being done. When they do that they have to look at that job and say, what could possibly go wrong, because they don't want to get stuck on the job and not have enough money to finish it. So their quotes tend to be high.
All of our work is done on an hourly rate plus the actual cost of materials. If we peel back some rotten siding and there's some rotten wood underneath it, yes, your price is probably going to be a little higher than we originally talked about because the job is bigger. But a lot of times we go out and give an estimate for a job and because we only charge them for the hours that we're there, the job actually costs less than what we originally estimated.
That doesn't (typically) happen in this industry. ... Our pricing model is the fairest way to do it that we've found.
What are the most common things you tackle?
We paint a lot of homes, that's a big thing. We replace a lot of rotten wood. And we repair a lot of sheetrock. Let's say you had something happen and you've got a hole in your sheetrock. Who are you going to call to come out and repair just a small hole? That's the perfect kind of job for us. We have a one-hour minimum on our work, but our average job is four hours long. Now we do get a lot of one-hour jobs. But we also get a lot of two- and three-day paint jobs.
Do you handle plumbing types of things?
There are some items that you need special licenses for. Heating and air, plumbing and electrical are the main three. So we tend to not fool around in those areas. But we have created partnerships with a good plumber and heating and air contractor and electrical contractor, and we refer that work out to them.
You said Tamara ran the business while you were still in cable?
Yeah, and she still does a lot of the estimating. She has really built up quite a breadth of knowledge about home repair.
Why did you start My Amazing Maid?
It goes hand-in-hand with the type of folks we work with on the handyman side. ... All of our maid customers actually get free handyman services once a quarter. They can use it for a lot of different things. But what folks usually use it for is changing out light bulbs that are blown or changing an air filter or pressure washing their deck. It's some of the smaller maintenance items that might remain undone for a long period of time.
Are there popular jobs this time of year?
We start doing a lot of small paint jobs and drywall repair this time of year as people get their homes fixed up for the holidays. We hang Christmas lights and ornaments and things like that as well.
How do you and Tamara co-exist as co-owners? You each have your strengths?
It's really evolving into what areas I work well in and what areas she works well in. And there's a door between us. That helps. (laughs)
We both have very natural strengths. So what I'm tending to do more of is the back-office type things like setting up systems to pay the bills and the payroll. The business has changed a lot. Last year we had about five employees. Right now, with the maid service and growth of the handyman service, we're closer to 14 employees. So we've grown quite a bit in the last year.
What does the future look like for you in the next year or so?
To be honest with you, we sit on sort of the tip of the front end of the economy. When the economy's doing well, we do great. When things slow down, we feel it first. It's amazing to see how much when things are bothersome in the news, our business really slows down. As an example, we were really, really busy until the government shutdown. When the government shutdown happened, our business slowed down. So we really feel the effects of the economy on the positive and negative side.
What I think will happen is, after the first of the year, the economy will continue to strengthen and as long as gas prices stay on the lower end, next year will be a good year for us. It helps us when homes are being bought and sold because people tend to fix up their houses to put them on the market. Or when they buy a new home they need drapes hung or certain small jobs done. Or they want to have a room painted a certain color. So we do a lot of work when the home business is going well.
Is part of your job changing or adding to the business?
Yes, and one of the things we're going to do next year is we're starting to specialize a little more. We've been doing pressure washing since we started, but we're going to grow that side of our business.
The other thing is we're going to grow our house painting business. House painting is not branded very well. Typically, you pick your house painter by who your neighbor picked. We have all of these customers that we've done business with over the years and they need their house painted every seven or eight years. We're a natural fit to make that a big part of our business.
What do you enjoy most about your job, and for Tamara as well?
I think we both would answer the question the same way. We know that our customers are being treated fairly when we're able to go out and do work for them. Like I said earlier, you see a lot of folks that have been taken advantage of in the home-repair business. When we're able to go out and help people and get the repairs done or the additions that they want done to their house, at a fair price, and know they're going to get what they pay for, that's very satisfying.
Names: Royce and Tamara Ard
Age: He's 49 and she's 55
Hometown: He's from Jay, Fla., and she's from DeFuniak Springs, Fla.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: He is a 1982 graduate of Jay High School, earning a bachelor's of science degree in multinational business from Florida State University in 1987; she is a 1976 graduate of Walton County High School, earning a bachelor's degree in social work and a master's degree in social work administration from Florida State University.
Previous jobs: He served as general manager and vice president of Knology for 12 years; she worked with The Georgia Academy in Atlanta.
Family: Daughter, Emily, 22, a senior at Georgia Tech, and Will, 18, a senior at Columbus High School.
Leisure time: They both love spending time with family, traveling and visiting Orange Beach, Ala.
Of note: Both have been very active in the community. Royce was the director of the West Georgia Honor Flight and is a past president of the Kiwanis Club of Columbus and the Better Business Bureau. He has served on the boards of the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation and the Columbus Technical College Foundation. Tamara has served on various school organizations and as president of the Columbus High School Band Boosters. She is currently serving as the secretary of the Columbus Georgia Tech Alumni Network.