Interview with Justin Menzia
Contractor Pro Justin Menzia is a Contractor in Wisconsin. His experience with major remodels and handyman projects makes him a great asset to the PocketSuite Pro community. Justin talks to CEO, Chinwe Onyeagoro, about his move from law enforcement to general contractor.
How did you get the name Lone Wolf? What’s going on there?
Originally, I started off as Justin’s Handyman Services. That was the company name. I subsequently changed that actually this summer and that was for a few reasons. One, I was gradually transitioning into primarily doing remodels. Remodels are now over 65% of the business that I do with minor home repairs and improvements as the other percentage. The other part was I wanted to kind of distance myself away from the handyman side of things. The reason being is that unfortunately, there are a lot of guys and gals out there who aren’t insured. They don’t have the license. They don’t have the education and they call themselves handymen, which is fine. I’m not saying they don’t do good work, but there can be a negative connotation with that term.
So I decided since I was moving on and doing bigger projects, it was time to drop that. That’s how Lone Wolf came to be. The Lone Wolf was actually a call sign I had too when I was a cop. So it kind of all came together because I am a working general contractor. I don’t just coordinate my projects and then sit at home in the office and say “Have at it guys”. I’m out there. I do the rough carpentry. I do the finished carpentry. I oversee plumbing, electrical, and HVAC, and then I also do all the finishing stuff, so tile work and putting in hardware and the like. So it kind of fit well with all that coming together and Lone Wolf being that I’m the primary interaction that my clients are going to have.
Well, when I saw it, I was like, “Gosh, I’m thinking kitchen remodeling. I was thinking bathrooms. I was thinking about beautiful new homes.” So it did the trick. I would have had a different association for handyman. So your instincts were right there.
Right, yeah. When you think handyman, you don’t think large projects, new construction. It was a good move. I am really happy that I did it. I’m looking towards the future. That’s the way it’s going to stay.
So you used to be a police officer and then moved into contracting. Can you tell us the story of how you started your career and how you got to where you are today?
Yeah, ever since high school, I knew I wanted to be a cop. I was working towards that all the way through college. I graduated with a four year degree in emergency and disaster management. I also had an associates degree in criminal justice. So I was fully geared for law enforcement. Before I actually got hired as a sworn law enforcement officer in the state of Wisconsin, I was doing high-risk security work in Madison and Milwaukee. That high risk prefix means that we are armed. In a way, we kind of act as a private police force for private clients. That was what our job was. So I did that for about eight years and then I got hired by the Wisconsin DNR, Department of Natural Resources. I worked as a deputy conservation warden for a few years.
I saw the way things were going with politics and law enforcement. I met my wife and at that point just decided that I was going to hang up the gun belt just because of everything going on right now. With the guys I know that are still serving, I’m glad I did it. So I was actually sitting there one night, I was like, “What am I doing?” I know law enforcement is a secure job and I still left.
Then that’s when my wife suggested, “Well, I know you’re handy. Your grandfather was a master tradesman. He taught you all these things. Why don’t you go ahead and use that?” And I did. I started off doing things on the weekend while I was doing some limited term work for a vacuum manufacturer, the big construction vacuums. The business just exploded. It just took off. I was getting calls up the wazoo and it just grew exponentially. I knew from there that with that kind of interest in my work, I was able to go full-time and here we are.
I think the biggest piece of advice I can give is to understand that that’s normal. You’re going to have your down days. But you’ll get there if you persevere. It’s just through hard work that a business is successful.
That’s awesome. Well, congratulations to your wife for hitting the nail on the head.
Yeah, she got me reeled back in. I think with anybody who has a big transition in their life professionally, it can be hard – where do I go from here. You can lose track of yourself if you’re not careful. Yeah, she brought me back and got my sights set in. So a lot of credit goes to her.
Well, what was the secret to your success? You said the business just exploded. Was it word of mouth? You just do such great work, the word started spreading?
Yeah, not to toot my own horn here, but I made sure that my work quality was top-notch because I knew I’d be competing against other big contractors in the area. My benefit was that I was doing the small things. I was doing the small things at a very good quality. A lot of the big contractors, they don’t want to do the small things. Then other handymen at that time when I started, other handymen weren’t capable of turning out the quality I was. So I kind of fit that perfect niche, which just blew up from there. I think another aspect of my success comes down to what I learned while I was a cop, which was that people really appreciate being communicated to.
When I was in the academy, the biggest thing that my instructor taught us is that we always prefer to talk people into cuffs versus having to put them into cuffs. So I used that idea of communication and letting my clients know this is how the project is going to progress. This is what we need to do. This is why this costs so much or this is why we need to do this to correct this so we can do this thing. A, B, C, D, and so on and so forth. Just that line of communication that I’ve kept open with my clients, no matter how small or how big the job, I think has been huge. The other aspect, like I just mentioned being able to take on the small things and the big things. I kind of filled that perfect niche between the really, really big general contractors and the guys who are doing really small jobs and they don’t do the remodels and renovations.
So you really know your niche! It’s interesting because my husband and I have certainly hired a number of contractors and remodelers and the big thing that felt different from one to another is just the conversation about money. How did you get comfortable? Does over communicating make it easier to talk about money? Or is that still a hump to get over?
Yeah, that’s an excellent question because money is always something that can be uncomfortable to talk about. In fact, I’m sure, just like myself, you were taught as a kid – you don’t talk about money. You don’t talk about what a person makes or anything like that.
So to counteract that, I think it does come down to my ability to communicate with my clients. One of the first things I always ask when we’re talking about remodels and renovations is, “What’s your budget?” I think just asking that one simple question at the beginning of the project really helps to be able to talk about it. All right, with that budget, this is what we have available to us in terms of finishings and things that we can do. Walls that we can take down and so on. By just doing that at the start of a project, it helps me kind of keep the scope of the project in check. So that we’re not at the end of the project and now we’re ballooned $5,000 or $10,000 over budget. It does happen unfortunately, a lot in construction, and sometimes it can’t be helped. A lot of it can be helped if you have a good general contractor that has maintained the budget and is keeping track of it.
Whenever I’m asked the question, “What’s your budget?” I always feel a little uncomfortable because I’m kind of like, “Am I revealing too much here?” Do you find that the budget starts to expand as they know more about what’s possible?
Yeah, it’s going to all depend on the client and that’s where your job as a general contractor is to know where this is going. I’ve definitely had people where I know, after talking to them a little bit, I’m like, “They’re going to add stuff and want you to know it a few minutes later into the conversation.” They’re like, “Well, can we add this? Can we add a pot filler? Can we add all under cab lighting, et cetera, et cetera.” Really, what it comes down to is you’re not going to offend them by saying, “No, no, you can’t afford that.” That’s a very hurtful and very unprofessional way of saying it. Really, it’s just a matter of using your words and saying, “Well, we can certainly do that. I would love to do that for you, if you like that look, but just so you know, add this much to the project total. Either we can try to take something else away, maybe we don’t take this wall down, but we do that to add that look, or we expand the budget, if you want to.” But don’t say, “I know you don’t have the money to expand the budget.” That’s then up to them to make that determination.
So you’re a contractor and a diplomat, all in one?
I think if you’re a general contractor, you have to be, and sometimes you also have to be a marriage counselor.
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Exactly! That’s where I was going to go next. So in my own home, whenever our contractor who we trust implicitly comes, my eyes just kind of swell up and I think about all the things I want to get done in the home. My husband on the other hand, he says, “Oh no, I’ll take care of that one. No, no, no, no. I’ll take care of that.” This is something that he’s claiming to take care of for years that hasn’t been taken care of. Do you experience that and how do you navigate that sort of push-pull?
Yeah, absolutely. No, I’ve definitely experienced that. Whether it’s the example you gave where now the husband says he’s going to do that or even the wife, she says, she’s going to do that. Or it’s a matter of them not being able to decide on the type of countertop pattern or whatever the case is. Yeah, I absolutely do have those experiences. Again, it’s just trying to navigate those waters carefully. It’s not easy and I don’t know really that there’s a best way to say, “This is the way to do it.” It’s all going to depend on your clients. That’s why you take the time to get to know them and have small talk and have discussions because that’s going to help you when those things do arise and they will. Especially, if you’re dealing with a married couple to be able to navigate that and try to make everybody as happy as possible.
Oh, that’s awesome. I love it! We’re not alone. So what’s the best part of running your business for you? What’s the part that you look forward to the most.
I think the best part is bringing the project to completion and seeing the client’s face and seeing how their space has been transformed and what they now have with them, as a completed project. I try to be very involved with my clients. I have a designer that works very closely with me. So everybody becomes a little tight knit family if you will, during every project.
So when we get to the completion, you get to see their faces and see how happy they are about it. The fact that they contributed to the project. One of the things I kind of always joke with people about is “I’m sorry this isn’t a Property Brothers type of reveal.” Because you watch that show and they walk in, it’s like, “Ah!” That type of thing. I can honestly say I’ve never had that, but that’s because the majority of the time my clients are living through the project. They’re not at another location or they’re not going to a hotel while the project is being completed. So they get to see it as it comes along.
But one of the things with the Property Brothers, with Jonathan specifically, is that he puts the project together. He has an idea of what the clients want, but at the end of the day, he’s doing the overall design and putting that in place. Whereas, the way I do things is, I’m letting the client make those decisions. I will provide any guidance and my designer, Tanya, she’ll provide any guidance, but at the end of the day, it’s going to be their decision. I think that’s really important because I want them to be happy with that rather than having somebody just come in and say, “Well, this is what we should do.” No, no, no, it’s your house. You should make the decision on exactly how you want it to look and how you want it to be finished.
Yeah, those reveals are quite exciting, but you’re right I always wonder if after the fact they’re like, “I would have chosen a different tile.” As you think about your business in the future, what do you think about? What is most exciting for you on the horizon?
The five-year plan with my wife and I is that eventually we’re going to get into flipping homes in our North Shore area. The North Shore here in the city of Milwaukee encompasses the smaller municipalities like Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Fox Point, Bayside, and the like on the coast of Lake Michigan. So the nice thing about that is there are a lot of houses in that area and they’re very old. I mean, some of them were built in the early, early 1900s and they’re still standing. So one of our goals when we do flip homes is to remain true to the character of the home rather than blowing out all the walls and starting from scratch. Both my wife and I really appreciate all the architecture and the craftsmanship that went into that kind of work, which is something that, unfortunately, we’ll never see again. Because even the people who can afford to put in a whole ton of fine craftsmanship, they’re not going to. They’re just not, because it’s not a practical budgetary thing that you would do if you’re building a house.
So a lot of the things that we see in the grand mansions around Lake Michigan or even some of the interior homes in Shorewood and Whitefish Bay, they still have beautiful craftsmanship with the balusters and crown molding and baseboards. And all the other features that are a part of those homes that are 100 years old plus. We want to maintain those and build around what’s already there rather than tearing it all down and starting from scratch. That’s our plan down the road. Take those homes, give them some TLC, nothing major, just something to give them a new lease on life.
Honestly, I grew up in a house that was built in the 1900s. The interior work, the craftsmanship, you don’t see that anymore. You really don’t. In Boston, there’s so many of those kinds of homes. So one question for you and this is news that I heard recently, the number of folks who are doing work on their homes has skyrocketed during COVID because people are spending so much more time at home. They are having to repurpose spaces that they were using differently as offices. I mean, I know I, on occasion, have to crouch in my closet, my toddlers are running around screaming and I’m like, “I’d like a home office. Please.” My husband has one. Are you seeing that uptick in your work?
The trades right now are absolutely on fire. Not just hot, it’s literally on fire with the amount of work that’s being done in the communities here. Not just in my own, the North Shore area, but across the nation. It is just a hot field to be in right now. The nice thing is that the trades, in general, are pretty recession proof. I mean there are times that you’ll not have as much work as you normally do, but right now it’s just so busy. As of right now, I’m booked out till May with projects. And it’s not done yet. People are still calling to get their projects started. So it’s just crazy. I’ve been talking to all my subcontractors because obviously I’ve been seeing them for the projects that I’m currently working on. Everybody’s saying it’s crazy with the amount of work that we have right now. And it is. It is in large part due to COVID and people being home. They’re like, “I hate that wall,” or like you’ve mentioned, we need another office. We’re both at home, working at home. I need an office too so I can actually have some space of my own.
It’s insanity. They say new homes now are being built with an office instead of a guest room.
I completely believe it because they’re kind of being built for these times. Who knows how many jobs are also just going to say, “All right, you’re going to work from home now. We’re not going to have a brick and mortar building that you come to.”
But it is crazy right now. When I do run into high schoolers who are looking to what they’re going to do after they graduate, I do let them know that the trades are an option. Unfortunately, I was in one of the generations that was told, the trades, that’s for the people who can’t hack it in college, which is just a gross falsehood. Unfortunately. I’m not afraid to admit that I got a lot of debt from the degree I pursued. Am I glad I did it? Yes.
But the debt is there. I’ll pay it off. I’m not going to complain about it, but it is something I have to deal with. The kids who are going into the trades, they’re doing their education, their Gen EDs. They’re getting their actual field education and then they’re being hired by a company. They’ll start off slow, at $12 or $15, $16 an hour, depending on what trade it is. But after that, they have the huge potential to get a very good salary for the rest of their lives and be very, very comfortable without any major college debt.
I lived in Chicago for 10 years and there was a huge movement to expand the number of folks who went into the trades, including partnerships with community colleges and other groups. It was really, really hard. So is this a branding issue that the trades have in terms of what is my life going to look like? Is this a STEM issue at the early stages where folks aren’t making the grades enough to be able to get to those levels?
That’s an excellent question. I think it can be attributed to a lot of things. But I think one of the biggest things is just changing the view at the high school level of the trades. I think there’s just this stigma that’s still stuck in high school guidance offices that you do the trades if you don’t have a 3.0 or a 4.0 in high school and if you can’t get into a college. Honestly, I don’t know why that is there. Maybe at one point, I can see why the argument was made that you need to go to a four year school if you want to have a good future with a good salary. But that’s just not true anymore.
With all the offerings that the trades have at this point, it’s just patently false. So I think it’s a lot of things. Maybe the trades can probably do better with their branding, but I think high schools just need to work harder on not turning kids away from that career path, if they’re interested in it. Because what if you have a kid that has a 4.0 and they say, “I want to be an electrician.” Oh, no, no, no. You’ve got a 4.0. You can go to an Ivy League. Why do that if they’re interested? Have them do an internship during high school with an electrician. Maybe they’ll find out, yeah, that’s not for me. Then they’ll find something else. High schoolers, like all kids, are resilient. So they’ll be able to figure something out. So I think really what it boils down to is just trying to change the view that is in high school guidance offices right now. You can have a great life, a very comfortable life going into the trades, just the same as if you went to an Ivy League school.
Well, it’s funny because the future that you painted earlier about investing in homes and flipping homes, that’s literally almost everyone’s dream, right? Literally, regardless of what career path you’re on, most people are trying to invest in real estate and trying to own real estate. So if that narrative could be included – you have a skillset that fundamentally cuts out a huge cost structure in the context of making real estate investments. That’s the dream, that’s the absolute dream.
Yeah, it absolutely is. Income properties are such a hot thing right now and it makes sense. There are guys who are in their forties that retire, guys and gals that retire at that age, because they just got a whole bunch of income properties. But you’re absolutely right. If you have that skill set, you can reduce your costs even more. You’re putting more money back in your pocket. You make an excellent point. I think that would be a great way to get the interest in there because kids in high school now are aware of income properties. If you could tie that in and say, “You do this and you can retire early. You can also cut down a whole bunch of costs. Maybe it’s something to look into.”
Exactly, write your own ticket. That is very compelling. So what is one message that you have for the PocketSuite community. As you think about the set of folks who are coming up in this craft and are building their businesses, what advice would you give them for those who haven’t yet gotten to where you are?
It is really hard, because there’s no single good answer or a single good piece of advice that can resonate with everybody. But I think the biggest thing is just perseverance. There’s going to be times that it’s going to suck. I’ve had those days. Sometimes I still have those days, “Like, what did I do?” I think the biggest piece of advice I can give is to understand that that’s normal. You’re going to have your down days. But you’ll get there if you persevere. It’s just through hard work that a business is successful. If you get lazy and you don’t take care of your customers, if you’re not watching your accounts, if you’re not watching your budgeting, if you’re not taking care of your taxes. There’s things that are going to happen that are going to make it very difficult to keep moving forward. As long as you do good housekeeping and take care of your customers, you’re going to do all right, and you will succeed at what you’re doing so long as you keep that perseverance up and maintain those things.
What has been the difference maker for you as it relates to using PocketSuite? What has been really critical in terms of your experience?
Basically the one-stop shop. With the amount of features that you have available on there for video conferencing and taking care of doing card payments, scheduling, and everything. It really is nice that I can just open one app and take care of everything that I need to for the maintenance of the business and the maintenance of my customers. Now, granted, I don’t use everything on PocketSuite, just because there’s some things I have to use on my end that I have tailor made. But for the most part, I use a lot of the features on PocketSuite.
It’s nice to just come to one app on my phone, rather than opening a whole bunch for different things like signing contracts and swiping cards, and making schedules and all that stuff. It’s just made my life so much easier and more streamlined. When you’re running your own business, the more you can make things streamlined, the less stressed you’re going to be. That’s just had a huge impact as I’ve gone through these years of running this business now. PocketSuite has just made it so streamlined and so easy to get everything that I need to run a successful business. There’s just been a lot less stress because of the app.