Now that Slaten Residential has acquired McDowell Remodeling, there’s unity between a commercial construction firm and a remodeling firm. Learn how the savvy John Slaten came about this opportunity.
John Slaten is guided by two core principles in life and business: treat your clients like yourself and surround yourself with people who do the same.
Leading with honesty, integrity and customer happiness has served him well as he’s built a multimillion-dollar, multi-state construction firm from his St. Charles headquarters – in just four years.
“People tell me I lead too much with my heart, but I treat people like I want to be treated,” he says. “I feel like, if that’s your foundation and you’re treating people the way you want to be treated, in business and in life, there’s only one direction for you – and that’s up.”
Still, it was hard to see in 2016 when Slaten set out on his own. He’d spent more than 20 years in the construction industry, rising from a 17-year-old laborer to a senior vice president. He’d always put others ahead of himself, even during the hard times after the crash in 2008, says Slaten. He loved his work, but he eventually hit a breaking point.
His longtime employer closed its doors; his next employer’s habits didn’t sit well with Slaten. Finally, one day he came home feeling heartbroken.
“I came home, and my wife saw my eyes. I said, ‘I’ve spent every day of my life in this business, never gotten overtime, I work 100 hours a week for these guys, I always put my men first, took a hit on pay when we had to,’” he recalls. “She said, ‘Let’s just use your own contacts and open our own company.’”
Three days later, he was knocking on doors and connecting with old contacts. “And they all said the same thing: John, we always went with you. We didn’t care where the check went,” says Slaten. “I vowed I would work by myself until I could honestly find people who were like me.”
He found them in sometimes unexpected places. The company’s very first employee, Nick Tomasetti, was working the men’s department at Nordstrom when Slaten offered him a job.
“He sold me a sports coat, and in the parking lot, I just said to myself, ‘The way he treated me he could’ve gotten another $3,000 out of me,” Slaten says. “I went up there and asked if he was happy with his job. He’s now the head project manager at our firm. He’d never done a day of construction in his life. He was honest, had integrity and, above all else, he ensured my happiness as his customer.
And so it’s been over the years, as Slaten continues to grow his business. His latest venture, Slaten Residential, continues that commitment to core values as it unites a commercial construction firm with the expertise and legacy of McDowell Remodeling, a St. Charles-based remodeling firm with nearly five decades of service in the Tri-Cities. Founded in 1971, the firm’s reputation for excellence and quality customer service stood out to Slaten long before he’d met owners Bob and Sue McDowell.
“I got a call to look at some work over at Lazarus House, and Bob McDowell sat on the board,” recalls Slaten. “I started talking with the board, telling them, ‘Here’s what we’ll do.’ Bob was really taken aback. Being a businessman and a remodeler, he was really taken aback by my showing all of the charges and showing them how much we had vetted everything out.”
Not long after, he got a call from Bob. “I really wish I had met someone like you 10 years ago, so I could have mentored them and handed them the company,” Slaten recalls him saying. “I have 15 employees and I’m getting ready to retire.”
The conversation reminded Slaten of a similar talk he’d had in 2010, when his longtime employer, Driessen Construction Co., closed its doors. His heart went out to McDowell’s team.
At the same time, he saw opportunity. Slaten mentioned how he was planning to enter the home remodeling business. “I’d like to talk to you before you do that,” Bob told him.
The pair talked, and in early 2019 Slaten acquired McDowell Remodeling.
Behind the scenes, sales manager Bret Boyles, who’d joined with McDowell shortly before the buyout, directed the transition. Building on his nearly 30 years in sales and home exteriors, Boyles spent the first months adopting new ideas and encouraging the team to expand its horizons. He also coordinated with Bob and Sue as things changed hands.
“I’ve done several buyouts in my career, and I feel like this transition has been really smooth,” Boyles says.
While the two firms maintained similar principles, it wasn’t always easy adjusting to new cultures and processes. Some team members had been there for 15 to 20 years and were accustomed to a certain process. When he sensed resistance, Slaten fell back on his values.
“I bought the company because I didn’t want you to go anywhere,” Slaten would say. “I want you to do this because I think you’re very good at it.”
The team has since developed new branding and reached out to McDowell’s former customers, some of whom were longtime, repeat customers. At the same time, Boyles has overseen the team’s transition from a well-kept old home on West Main Street to a newly refurbished office at 2325 W. Dean St., in St. Charles. The space includes meeting rooms, offices and a showroom to display options in windows, cabinets, decking and other accents.
In designing the new space, Slaten again put people first.
“We talked with Bret and the team and said, ‘If you wanted to design this thing, how would it look?’” Slaten says. “We let everyone have their two cents.”
Already eyeing the future, Slaten hopes to build a standalone office space a few years from now. He’s making plans for a vacant lot nearby.
“It gives us room to spread our wings and grow more, and my guess is that, in about a year and a half, we’re going to be running out of room and that’s when the building starts across the street,” he says.
In his earliest days as an entrepreneur, Slaten sketched out his future at the kitchen table. It started with a diagram resembling the sun. At its center was commercial construction, a firm that would take any job, “from a $4 sign to a $40 million hotel.” The sun’s “rays” pointed to new divisions that would help to diversify its revenue.
“I don’t ever want to look someone in the eye and say, ‘Thanks so much for what you did, but I’m going to close,’” Slaten says.
So far, he’s built divisions in railroad services, carpentry and drywall, and he’s actively building extensions in faraway places like Nevada, California and Texas.
His acquisition of McDowell Remodeling is simply an extension of the Slaten philosophy, trusting in people to lead growth.
Slaten extends those values not just to his team but to his customers, as well. Act like you’re the one writing the check, he likes to remind his team.
“You’re not going to have problems if you’re treating the job like you’re the owner,” he says. “You’re not going to throw a dirty shovel in his kitchen, because if it were your kitchen you wouldn’t do that. What you’d do is, if you saw something, you’d pick it up and clean up, and if you saw something had dented the drywall, you’d patch it up before anybody said anything. I think everything works itself out if you have those values.”