Business View Magazine interviews Rob Douglass, Managing Partner of Texas Custom Patios, for our focus on best practices in the U.S. Home Building Industry.
After 20 years as a non-profit executive director for the YMCA, with a lot of facility responsibility, Rob Douglass was ready for a change. “My wife Katherine and I both grew up in Houston, then went away for college and career building. A few years later, when we moved back to Fort Bend County in southwest Houston, there were all these new homes springing up in one of the fastest growing areas in the country. It was just right for an outdoor living type of business. Everybody needed shade, that’s a big issue in Houston.” That’s how Douglass, Managing Partner of Texas Custom Patios, describes the spark that ignited formation of his award-winning design/build company.
When Texas Custom Patios started in 2004, outdoor kitchens and living rooms were trending. Everyone wanted entertainment, lighting, fire features; even in hot Houston, where outdoor patios are used year-round, there are certain cooler months when you want to take the edge off. Fireplaces and fire pits were the perfect answer.
Douglass recalls, “I started the business in partnership with my wife, but she continued teaching school for the next few years. About six months in, I hired our first employee, Steven Schell, who I’d worked with at the Y. He was a go-to guy, and is now a partner in our business. We are a general contractor and use sub-contractor crews. A typical project for us includes almost all the same trades involved in building a home. You’re pouring a slab, framing and building a structure, you have electrical, plumbing, a painter.”
The industry has changed significantly since Texas Custom Patios began. The homeowner is more sophisticated regarding outdoor living, a vast variety of resources are available, and competition among design/build companies has increased. The scope has evolved tremendously from the days of simple decks and decorative patios. Today, it’s about a seamless outdoor design that looks original to the home. Douglass says, “People used to want shade in the backyard, so they’d add a simple patio cover with a metal roof, and a ceiling fan. But we want it to look like it was built with the home. And, while a memorable outdoor space certainly adds value for resale, it’s not a good investment unless you’re going to stay there and enjoy it for a long time before you sell.”
Texas Custom Patios still has its original office in Houston, with a second location having opened in the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) area in January 2015. The company has 12 project developers (seven in Houston, five in DFW), who design, build, and manage projects. They are territory-based, generally working from home in the area they live, so they can visit job sites frequently. Katherine Douglass manages the Houston office; a DFW office manager and part-time receptionists are the only other employees. Everyone else is a sub-contractor.
The company covers Greater Houston and the DFW area, and will build about 150 sizeable projects this year, averaging in the $50,000 range. Plenty of projects in the $20K to $40K range are still its bread and butter, and a sweet spot it enjoys. That’s offset by massive projects over $100,000 – all residential work, no commercial.
“We are technically a remodeling contractor,” says Douglass, “but we only do outdoor living spaces. If it doesn’t fit that category, it’s probably not the right project for us. We have done an outdoor addition on a historic home, where we had to get approvals through a commission that was ensuring the heritage integrity of the design. So, it’s not out of our realm to do that type of work. But we don’t do restorations, or take on whole house remodels.
“Our typical customer is mature, living in their home three to five years, has been thinking about this project for awhile, and has the financial wherewithal to make a significant investment in their home. We do offer financing, but not many people take advantage of that. We generally do work for people who can afford it, or have made their own financial arrangements.”
Custom projects are fairly low maintenance and designed and built for the life of the home. However, the work is warrantied: two years on materials and workmanship, five years on structural. Problems usually appear in the first couple of years, usually due to a foundation issue or wood that has warped or sagged, and the company deals with issues immediately.
When expertise is required for a permitting issue, Texas Custom Patios works with an engineering specialist. Douglass adds, “We sell the product we build, not the design itself. It’s specific to that project. We use an off-the-shelf design software that we’ve modified for our purposes. We spend a lot of time on design with our employees – understanding home styles, what’s going to look best, and submitting new ideas; things we’ve tried on a job and why. We even bring interior designers in to share their expertise for training purposes.
“We want to be a good resource for clients, meeting them at a stone yard and a tile place to help steer them in the right direction based on their tastes. We’ve built over 1500 projects in 14 years, and we know what’s begging for a maintenance issue, what finishes can cause problems for a homeowner. We come to the table with a wealth of experience in what looks good and works well.”
Competition includes the handyman working out of the back of his truck; custom builders doing outdoor living space and remodelling; landscapers and pool builders with add-ons such as hardscaping, fire pits, and outdoor kitchens. And several companies that have a similar look to Texas Custom Patios. “We’ve been around in Houston long enough that people know who we are and some have emulated that,” Douglass admits.
Sub-contractors are at the heart and soul of the business, and many have been there since the beginning. They are critical relationships that the company relies upon for their consistency and timeliness. “Our subcontractors make it a priority to get us scheduled in their calendar because we pay them on time and we pay them a fair price for their work,” says Douglass. Stallman’s Lumber in Houston and Frisco Wholesale Lumber in DFW are important supplier relationships, for first-out deliveries, and next-day job site pickups, as well as having account reps that give exemplary service. Cunningham Gas Products in Spring, Texas supplies outdoor grills, appliances, and stainless steel for outdoor kitchens, and is a great partner. Other important vendors in Houston are Alamo Stone, Apex Stone, Stone Quarry, and QDI.
For the future, Douglass wishes for a much bigger presence in north Houston in Montgomery County. “It’s a fast-growing market where my wife and I grew up, and it’s just out of reach for our trades and current employees. And, in DFW, we could have double the amount of project developers. We’re servicing the middle of the metro area, the east, and northeast really well, but there are swaths we’re not advertising in, and we might even decline a lead if it’s too far out. We hope to get back with that.
“We’ve done a feasibility study in the San Antonio area, and that’s a strong possibility for a new office in the next two or three years because of the population center. These initiatives are all related to growth and how we train and help new project developers become productive quickly. Steven, Katherine, and I are the three partners, and Steven and I still design, sell, and manage projects. We’re getting so big, that it’s almost impossible now. We’re trying to move towards a scenario where we’re just resources for our employees.”
Looking at the outstanding results of all that experience and talent, what amazing resources they would be!
Texas Custom Patios is proud to announce they are recipients of The Texas Association of Builders 2017 Star Awards. Two projects made it to the finals and took the title for Best Outdoor Living Space Remodeler for our Project of the Month featured in July. In 2016, they won TEXAS ASSOCIATION OF BUILDERS – STAR AWARD for Best Outdoor Living Space 60K – 100K – Remodeler and Best Outdoor Living Space 40K – 60K – Remodeler.
Douglass admits, “It’s fun for us to see that kind of recognition spread out among our project developers They’ve all designed and built something unique and got a lot of attention. Even our website, which was created by my son, has won awards. From a family business perspective, that’s very special.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Texas Custom Patios
WHAT: Award-winning design-build firm specializing in outdoor living spaces
WHERE: Serving Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas
Cunningham Gas Products – Cunningham Gas Products is the parent company of CunninghamLiving.com, Gaslights.com, CGProducts.com, RusticOutdoorCoolers, as well as HaggardsRusticGoods.com. Originally chartered as Cunningham Plumbing Company in 1957, this family-owned business has been serving its customers for over fifty five years. Its products include: grills, BBQ accessories, firepits & fireplaces, heaters, patio furniture & accessories, outdoor kitchen equipment, gas lights, gas logs, and installation parts & fittings. – www.cunninghamgas.com