This owner’s passion for home improvement started in high school and led him into what’s become a thriving business. Learn the keys to his success and find out the important values he’s instilled in his company.
Sometimes, things have a way of hooking us in, drawing our curiosity and interest, and never letting go. Such a passion just might become your life’s work.
Brad Schlottman found his passion for home improvement when he was in high school and working at the Hornsby’s department store in Woodstock. He graduated, got hired at a lumberyard and never looked back.
“I like the building business, and I like building things,” he says. “I grew up around it, and once it’s in your blood you’re stuck with it.”
Schlottman started out with the basics – sales, stocking counters, taking orders – and in time moved into the more challenging roles, like designing kitchens, handling blueprints and coordinating with contractors.
After serving awhile as general manager he started looking beyond. In 1992, he and a partner joined up and created a business of their own.
Twenty-eight years later, Schlottman is still as passionate about his field as he continues building Blue Ribbon Millwork, 1401 S. Eastwood Dr. in Woodstock. The company, of which Schlottman is now the sole owner, specializes in selling quality windows, doors, cabinets and kitchen/bath remodeling services.
His 15 employees share his enthusiasm for their work – a factor that’s helped to drive business success and many a positive referral. Even in the hardest times, your values will guide the way, he says.
Success, he adds, boils down to two values. “Treat your customers right and treat your employees right.
That’s really the core of your business. Everything else can come and go, but if you treat people right, good things will happen.”
Like during the housing downturn of 2007-08, when the home improvement market in McHenry County dried up.
Schlottman and his staff made financial sacrifices, but there wasn’t a single layoff. And customers still came calling.
“We’ve built a great business on service and quality, and those things tend to carry you through a bad time,” Schlottman says. “A company that doesn’t have those values would just drop off. I think that’s what’s kept us going, is our service side and the quality of our products and people.”
Schlottman invests in his staff and sends them to training and seminars when possible. They return the favor with a deep loyalty. Many employees have been around an average 15 to 20 years.
“With our longevity, we’ve got very well-trained, knowledgeable salespeople, and that translates when talking to a customer,” he says. “They get that sense of confidence that we know what we’re talking about.”
The company’s familiar faces share a wide body of industry experience. General Manager Pat Creasy ran his own window and door business for about 15 years and learned the trade while helping his dad in high school. Creasy has been selling windows and doors for Blue Ribbon for 20 years.
Dave Wegner, lead kitchen designer, is one of the longest-serving employees, having joined more than 20 years ago. He arrived with almost a decade of well-recommended service.
“I was telling my carpenters, ‘Look, I need a kitchen guy. Who do you know?’” says Schlottman. “Dave’s name kept coming up. So, I met him, got to talking to him, and finally he came over here. That’s how it’s been with a lot of my team – referrals and connections.”
Part of Schlottman’s driving force is an eagerness to avoid bad customer experiences. Just as good word-of-mouth can raise a business, bad experiences can sink a company – especially in a tighter-knit community like Woodstock.
“I don’t want to walk down the street and have someone come up to me and say ‘You know, your company stinks,’” he says. “I always tell our team that, whatever it takes, we’ll make the customer happy, and we’ll worry about how it affects us later. Even if it costs us money, it’s OK. You’ve got to keep people happy to have them coming back or talking well about you.”
As strong as word-of-mouth is, Schlottman does what he can to cast a wide net for his customers, reaching as far as about 50 miles from Woodstock.
It helps that Blue Ribbon is positioned along a busy stretch of Illinois Route 47, just north of U.S. 14. When the firm moved there from a small local storefront in 2000, Schlottman noticed an immediate bump in business.
“We went from 1,800 square feet to 11,000 square feet,” he says. “By moving to this bigger location, people recognized us better, and it seemed to make us more legitimate in the eyes of customers.”
Though the exposure is good for passing traffic, it’s sometimes hard to attract potential customers from outside Woodstock, says Schlottman. He finds it odd how certain “walls” appear in the marketplace. He’s done some business around Boone County, but folks out there don’t frequent Woodstock, he says. And even in Algonquin, homeowners don’t often consider driving 15 miles north into Woodstock.
Reaching past his geographical limits, Schlottman opened a satellite office in Algonquin around 2003. The small storefront along Randall Road, near Algonquin Commons, sells only windows and exterior doors.
“By putting a location down there, it just grew our business there exponentially,” Schlottman says. “There were just a ton of vinyl windows down there that we thought were ready to be replaced.”
The satellite location, like Blue Ribbon’s Woodstock store, sells only the Marvin brand – another longstanding relationship that Schlottman believes has been essential to his company’s growth.
In the early days, Blue Ribbon carried up to five lines of windows, but Schlottman wanted a single vendor so he could maintain more consistent branding. Enter Marvin. Today, Blue Ribbon ranks among the top Marvin dealers around Chicagoland.
“That really changed our business, because Marvin was a great window for the homeowner and the contractor,” says Schlottman. “We got rid of our other window lines and we just cover that brand now. It was kind of a gamble at the time, but that’s now the engine that drives our ship.”
Then, as now, Schlottman valued the way that Marvin fit his own business’ philosophy as well as its ability to satisfy a wide range of price points. Marvin’s wide variety of product offerings allows Blue Ribbon to attract consumers across demographics.
The same goes for Blue Ribbon’s cabinet lines: the semi-custom Bertch and more budget-conscious Kith and Wellborn Forest. Both products attract consumers across the middle and upper income ranges. And, longstanding relationships with those producers have helped to sweeten the deal.
“The sales rep for Kith – I’ve known him for 35 years and he’s a solid guy,” says Schlottman. “In any business, salesmen come and go, and there are ones you trust and ones you don’t. This guy reps good lines, and so we’ve partnered up with him.”
Schlottman says he’s still growing his company in new ways, all while supporting the people – his employees and loyal customers – who’ve played an important role in his business’ story.
“I’ve built a great business with great people,” he says. “That’s what I like most about this business.”