Competition is King in Waukesha
JB Custom Drywall LLC fosters competitive spirit, commitment to do things right
Jon Brown is an interesting man. To understand Jon is to understand the mind of an athlete: Results-driven. Competitive. Singularly focused on success.
Jon is President of JB Custom Drywall LLC, a drywall, painting and insulation company located in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He and his business partner and Vice President, William (Bill) Neu (pronounced Nye), employ a full-time staff of 49, but the number can swell to 90 during the busy season. They have clients across the industrial, commercial and residential markets. The company is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year.
“We are doing great,” says Jon. “But we could always do better.”
Competition is a Family Affair
Jon grew up in Pewaukee, Wisconsin—population 13,195—in a family where competition was fierce. “To say that we are competitive is an understatement,” says Jon, who recalls that his father would say ‘Whatever you do, you want to be the best.’ ” Shy but athletically gifted, he excelled at wrestling and soccer, where his hyper-competitive nature led him to success.
From the beginning, Jon had his eye on entrepreneurship. “I couldn’t see myself working for a big business,” he says. “I have always wanted to strike out on my own, be my own boss and be great at whatever I did. I just didn’t know where or how.”
After college, Jon’s uncles offered him a job at the family business, Hucke Drywall, Inc. (Hucke). “It was fun,” Jon remembers. “I was working side-by-side with my cousins, who are competitive. It was a great way to learn the trade.”
Fast forward four years. Jon had married his wife, Stephanie, and started a family. Life was good, but he was getting antsy. He had started doing more side projects, mostly small repair jobs for private residences. He quickly built a reputation as a fast, professional and clean drywaller.
“In 2010, I knew the time had come for me to go out on my own,” he says. “I was making more money on my side jobs than my day job, and I had a family to support.” He was also getting more confident. “I realized that my shyness would disappear when I talked about drywalling.” Eventually, Jon quit Hucke. A month after leaving Hucke, he met his business partner, Bill, on a house flip managed by a mutual friend. “From the beginning, I knew he was a guy I wanted to partner with,” Jon says.
Bill grew up in Slinger, Wisconsin, where his family owns and operates Neu’s Building Center in nearby Menomonee Falls. After high school, Bill got an apprenticeship and eventually became a Journeyman Taper. He joined the Local 139 Painters Union, where he remains a vested member.
He met Jon while he was on hiatus from the union. “When I met Jon, I recognized his name from the store,” says Bill, noting that Jon’s uncles frequently visited Neu’s Building Center. “We clicked immediately—we’re cut from the same cloth.”
Bill, who calls himself a perfectionist, noted that the pair makes a formidable team. “We both believe in working clean and doing the best quality work possible. We have the same values of honesty, respect and doing the best work possible. And we work hard to achieve our ideas of perfection.”
Jon agrees. “Because Bill was a union finisher, he knew every step in drywalling,” he adds. “We share the same values, so it was a no-brainer. We broke it down like this: We would both do the work, but Bill would be managing projects, and I would sell our services. We haven’t looked back since.”
The Beginnings of JB Custom Drywall
The pair started strong, working seven days a week. “We were just grinding all day,” says Bill. “There was a lot of blood and sweat in the beginning.”
Jon started growing the business by cold calling clients. “I would drive around town and see signs for real estate agents and general contractors. And then I would pull over on the side of the road and cold call the agent or contractor and say ‘Hi, my name is Jon and I started my drywall business a year ago. I pride myself on working clean and doing really high-quality work. I would love an opportunity to show you what I do,’ ” Jon says.
“He was very aggressive, and it paid off,” Bill says. While Jon was getting the work, Bill focused on implementing technologies and processes to meet their high level of quality. “Drywallers get a bad rap because it’s messy, and a lot of people work dirty,” Bill says. “It’s just one of those things that’s dirty and dusty, and no one likes dealing with it. That’s where our innovation with technologies came in. We invested in air scrubbers, dustless sanders and other technologies that made sure we were the cleanest drywallers in the marketplace.”
Jon’s marketing methods and Bill’s focus on cleanliness soon paid off. Before long, they were getting more work than he and Bill could handle. “We would get comments saying ‘Wow, a drywaller who stays clean, who reaches out to me—that’s impressive!’ ” Jon adds. “There are not a lot of people who stay clean and are professional in our industry, unfortunately.”
Professionalism is a key differentiator that both Jon and Bill mention multiple times. Bill explains that, at the time, the market was overrun with general contractors or handyman-like companies that said they could drywall like professionals. “That is just not possible,” Jon says. “Many people don’t understand that drywall is a process. While the concept of drywall is simple, each phase of drywall takes so many years to master.”
Jon explains that there are four different phases to drywall that can be mastered: hanging, taping/finishing, texturing and repairs. “It takes many years to master each phase of drywall. Most drywallers stay in one phase over their entire career,” Jon explains. “At JB Custom Drywall, we have drywall hangers with over 20 years of experience that still have areas to improve in. This is why it is so hard to believe that a general contractor or handyman can be a professional drywaller. I tell clients that good, professional drywalling is a team effort—and watch out for anyone who says they can do it by themselves.”
Fast Forward to the Present
JB Custom Drywall, which now offers framing, drywall, insulation, woodwork, stain and paint services, still fosters the same competitive spirit on which the company was founded—only, instead of being competitive with rivals, they are competing with themselves.
“We are always striving to do better, to be more responsive, to be more flexible,” Jon says. “Our clients benefit from our focus on growth and learning and our obsession with being the best.”
Bill agrees. “Every customer who gives us feedback points out our communication and follow-through. They say ‘Wow, your estimate was nearly exact,’ or ‘You answered your phone on the first ring and showed up on time.’ GCs and homeowners are so used to being treated poorly by drywallers, so when someone actually does what they say they are going to do, it’s impressive.”
Based on client comments, JB Custom Drywall seems to be doing a lot of things right. Reading their reviews online, one sees comment after comment about the company’s flexibility, responsiveness and professionalism.
“I think most clients choose us because of our unmatched flexibility,” Jon says. “If a client needs us to come an hour early, we’ll come an hour early. If there is a third-shift emergency project, we’re there. If there is a million-dollar project starting in a couple of weeks because a different contractor backed out, we can make it work. We have the manpower and experience to make anything happen.”
Responsiveness is also a key. “One time, we had a client who had an emergency at 8 p.m.,” he says. “I saw the email come in and responded as soon as I got it. And then, we drove through an ice storm to get to his house and repair the problem. He was absolutely floored.”
But JB Drywall does not only excel when things go right. Jon explains that, in his opinion, drywalling is an art. “Many things can go wrong on construction and we have to be creative to solve difficult problems, especially in remodeling,” Jon says. “We have had many times where we have had to use our mudding skills to make a crooked wall look straight. We have floated drywall mud in to fill in gaps in crown molding or baseboard when a wall is uneven. It takes a lot of skill to make things look uniform. But we have a lot of talented workers.” Still, Jon is a realist and doesn’t shirk from telling the truth—even when it requires a confession. “Our team had made a mistake and didn’t shim our drywall out correctly,” he says. “It was not good craftsmanship on our part, so we had to make it right.” Jon sent a team out immediately to correct the problem. “In all, it took two weeks to fix. We didn’t charge the client anything for the repair. I know we lost a lot of money on the project, but it was the right thing to do.”
Doing the right thing in the community is important to Jon and Bill as well. “One time, one of our guys went to a customer’s home and realized the client was a cancer patient,” Jon says. “Our guy got to talking to him about his life and family, and we decided we wanted to make his life a little easier. We drywalled his entire basement, floor to ceiling—and we never have, and never will, charge him for that work. He was very surprised.”
In all, the future looks bright for JB Custom Drywall. The company is planning to open an office in Appleton soon and has another planned for Madison. Meanwhile, it is currently working on some large projects, including the exterior and interior framing for The Mineshaft restaurant in Oshkosh. “Things are progressing at a better pace than we estimated,” Jon says. Bill adds, “The economy is great, and we are growing our framing services. We are penetrating the commercial market. Now, we can handle almost any job—from a $400 repair to multimillion-dollar build-outs. And there’s not a lot of companies that can do that.”