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© Copyright 2006 Work-4 Projects Ltd.

Focus keeps Victoria renovator on track

By Peter Mitham

British Columbia will see the biggest gains in renovation spending of any province in Canada this year, a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation forecast predicts, with homeowners expected to spend a total of $6.1 billion on upgrades.
Good times mean good business but the steady flow of cash isn't lulling Victoria-area renovator Greg Miller into complacency. Instead, he's made sure G.E. Miller Builder and Contractor Inc., his family's third-generation company, is ready for when the boom ends by focusing on high-end renovations.
Miller doesn't turn away small jobs, but he's worked to make a name for himself among clients who will be there regardless of what the economy does.
"We're looking at longevity for the company and being selective in the market we target," he explains. "When the economy turns again, the people that have money will still buy something - it might be a scaled down renovation - but they'll still have money to do something compared to the lower end of the market. That all just dries up."
The focused approach has paid off with revenues of between $2 million to $3 million annually and several honours, including awards last year from the Better Business Bureau for marketplace ethics and integrity and a national SAM award from the Canadian Home Builders' Association for the best kitchen renovation in Canada.
But Miller isn't about to turn away smaller jobs, some of which become on-going relationships.
"Whether they want to spend $1 million or $100, we give them the same service and we have the same interest in helping them out," Miller says of his clients. "We've had lots of small jobs turn into long-term clients. And we like to have a long-term strategy for home maintenance, and see that somebody does things in proper order."
He cites the simple example of a client who wants to have new windows but ignores siding that's damaged or in poor condition, and which could deliver a savings on the exterior makeover as a whole if done at the same time.
"We try to give people a game-plan and help them through the process," Miller says, noting that the service provided with the actual labour and materials may increase the cost of a job but ultimately result in a better piece of work.
"Our rates are essentially comparable to everyone else's in terms of an hourly rate, but we put in more time than most companies would, therefore projects cost a consumer more - as a result they get a higher calibre of finished product," Miller explains.
Miller's commitment to assuring the quality of its work and satisfaction of its customers goes so far as to include the publication of its quality assurance guidelines on its website.
That kind of transparency is one of the criteria the Vancouver Island Better Business Bureau took into consideration when it recognized G.E. Miller with a Torch award last year, said Jason George, special projects manager with the bureau.
George says the award is a significant achievement in light of the fact builders and renovators make up a significant portion of the bureau's membership and attract a large number of queries from consumers.
"There's a lot of competition in that industry," he says.
Miller believes renovators should be able to explain to homeowners the importance of prioritizing renovations and the value of an ongoing maintenance program to ensure clients not only receive the best value from their investment but also see the value of the improvements preserved as long as possible. Some renovations may grab the eye in an interior design magazine but Miller says a home's infrastructure shouldn't be overlooked.
"There's no buzz in the fact you've got a new waste line in the walls. But if it's not done properly, it'll back up later or create problems," he notes.
Award Winning Project

The renovation of a 1937 home in Victoria's upper-end, Oak Bay neighbourhood won G.E. Miller Builder and Contractor Inc. a National SAM award as Canada's best kitchen renovation.
A classic look and interior spaciousness are characteristic of Miller's designs, which combine the old with the new. Transforming the Oak Bay home meant preserving the original detailing on the exterior while creating a modern space inside that would meet the needs of the current occupants.
"We kept the old-style look of the home and complemented it, mimicking the original details, architecturally, and then on the interior we did modern appointments and the latest in electronics," Greg Miller said.
Achieving the new look meant stripping the house to the frame so that new wiring could be put in, raising the house to allow for additions and removing partition walls to open up the interior space. Structural steel carries the weight of the larger spans the new, open interior required.

While Miller credits home design magazines and television shows with boosting awareness of interest in home renovations, he criticizes the impression they sometimes leave that miraculous renovations can be done on a shoe-string budget in a week or less.
"The real world isn't like that," he says. "If we do a bathroom, we'll spend 500 to 700 man-hours on one of our projects. And there's a cost associated with that."
Where Miller is cautious is when a situation promises to deliver more headaches than he's willing to handle. Two areas of difficulties are unrealistic expectations of the contractor and unresolved conflicts between the clients.
"We're willing to work with somebody in whatever capacity as long as we feel they're reasonable," he says, adding: "Some people expect the world and they think you're going to give it to them for 1970 pricing."
Miller has no desire to go back to the 1970s; after all, as a third-generation business, the company's already been there.
The family business began under Rudolf Miller in 1928 as a general contractor hiring upwards of 80 people a job. Rudolf's son Edward handed the business to Greg, who had studied music at Western Washington University in Washington State.
Having put himself through school doing renovations, Miller looked at the business as a viable alternative to playing music for a living.
"We've gone through a lot of transformations over the years," he reflects. "The market changes and we need to change, but we're pleased with the way things are now."

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