According to Robert Criner, president of Criner Remodeling, if 100 remodeling companies open their doors today, in five years’ time, 95 of them will no longer be in business. “That is not an encouraging statistic for budding entrepreneurs,” Criner says, “and I’m glad nobody told me that when I started my company in 1977.”
This year the company celebrates its 40th anniversary. Residential remodeling is a demanding industry that tends to weed out those who think they know it all and can’t learn from their mistakes. “I have learned a lot from being in business over the last 40 years, including a few lessons along the way,” Criner says.
Criner worked in construction as a teen and loved the industry but was unhappy working odd hours and weekends. In order to control his own schedule and set high quality standards for himself and his workers, he started his own business at 21 years old.
As his young company began to grow, Criner made a crucial business decision to control the company’s growth. “I envisioned a “right-sized” business that was not the biggest but the very best,” he says. His early philosophy of “small and smart,” continues to this day. For this reason, his employee base runs approximately eight to 12 employees, operating three to five jobs simultaneously.
Criner learned quickly that a company is only as good as its employees. His first hire was Terry Thomas, who came to him at 21 years old. Thirty-eight years later, Thomas is still with the company as Criner’s right-hand man. Having employees who have made Criner Remodeling their career means a lot to its president. “I don’t ask anything of my employees that I don’t expect of myself,” Criner says.
Criner believes that to be successful, one must focus. When he started his business, he named it Criner Construction, but he quickly learned that remodeling homes with people living in them is a different skill than building new homes or commercial work. Homeowners live through every step of the process. So he has maintained a focus on residential remodeling for 40 years, mainly on kitchens, bathrooms and additions. That focus has enabled him to reach a customer base that understands what he does.
Previously located in York County, Criner says his move to Oyster Point has been a good one for him. “And,” he says, “I learned to not spread myself too thin geographically. It is so tempting to take that big job that is only 45 minutes away but I decided to stick to Newport News, Hampton, York County, Poquoson and Williamsburg because the Peninsula is where I live and run my business.”
A member of local and national industry boards, Criner was the nation’s first recipient of the Certified Graduate Remodeler in 1989 and Graduate Master Remodeler in 2008.
His company has been featured in local and national publications. He has won more than 200 local and national awards, including the national Master Design Award and the National Remodeler of the Year from the National Association of Home Builders. “Focusing on winning awards also has the side benefit of keeping us sharp,” Criner says.
In response to the question about one of the most unusual stories about remodeling for a client, Criner smiles as he recalls the time when his people were removing old kitchen cabinets and a helper spotted a diamond ring in the debris. He took it to the owner of the house, who was absolutely speechless. The ring was her 25th anniversary gift that she had lost years ago and never knew what became of it. I think she is still talking about us today,” Criner says with a smile.
Criner believes in giving back to the community that has given so much to him and his business. He teaches about the industry locally and across the country. Local board affiliations over the years include the American Red Cross, the Boards of Zoning and Building Appeals for York County, Habitat for Humanity and Criner’s alma mater, Peninsula Catholic High School.
“Never lose sight of the client’s perspective,” Criner says. After nearly 40 years of lessons learned the hard way, Criner thinks the final exam came the day his own house caught fire and was almost a total loss. No one was hurt, but the family was displaced for more than a year while he rebuilt and remodeled his own house. “I, the contractor, had to take myself on as a client,” he says. “I can’t underestimate the difficulty of being displaced, the emotional toll of all the decisions that had to be made and the inevitable frustrations of a major remodeling project.”
So what about the next 40 years? “I don’t have plans to retire,” he says, “but I am excited about developing the next generation of leadership for Criner Remodeling. This includes one of my sons, Paul, who came on board with us about eight years ago. I will teach them everything I know, and though I know I can’t teach everything needed for the next 40 years, I know some lessons only come by being in the business a long time.”
TO THE POINT
Address: 11836 Fishing Point Dr., Ste. 100, Newport News, VA 23606
Phone: 757-868-6200 FAX: 757-868-0180
Contact: Robert Criner, GMR, GMB, CAPS,CGP, president
Business: Personalized kitchens, baths and additions