Tony Trapp Remodeling: From Independent Handyman to Full-Service Remodeling Company
Tony Trapp didn’t realize until he was almost finished with college that growing up on a farm near Columbus, Wisconsin, interacting primarily with people who earned their living through skilled trades, would ultimately influence his choice of career path. I learned maintenance skills from my family,” Trapp says. “We didn’t have as much money as some, but I had lots of other privileges.”
Trapp majored in computer science and electrical engineering at UW-Madison, but in his junior year of college, as he was completing an internship at IBM in Rochester, Minnesota, Trapp could no longer ignore the fact that programming was not the right fit for his interests. “It was sucking my soul,” says Trapp. “I had been working through high school and college with a very narrow focus and discovered it wasn’t the right career path for me, but I didn’t know what to do, and then my student loan bills started kicking in. I decided to hit pause and take time off to figure things out.”
To fill his time and support himself, Trapp landed a job at the Canterbury Inn in Madison, which at the time was a coffee shop, bookseller, and bed & breakfast. “I checked people in, helped prepare meals, served breakfast in the morning and wine and cheese later in the evening, and handled housekeeping and maintenance,” says Trapp. The Inn’s bookkeeper, Virginia Evangelist, was impressed with Trapp’s maintenance skills and encouraged him to consider becoming a licensed contractor. “She was a dynamic lady who had been around many businesses—her father had been a successful contractor—and she encouraged me to start my own business,” says Trapp, who soon began working as a handyman, relying on organic referrals to keep his business going. “I had great customers who kept coming back. I tried to keep the customer experience and quality work at the forefront of my focus.”
Local Madison referrals kept Trapp busy, and he felt he’d made the right choice.
“I liked creating, building, and maintaining things and making people’s lives better,” Trapp says. “It felt more rewarding than spreadsheets and coding for me, personally.” Trapp’s personal costs were low, but unfortunately, so were his earnings. “I had a Toyota Corolla sedan, an efficiency apartment, and a cordless drill, and I worked to buy tools and books,” he says. “I was teaching myself how to do projects, and if a client asked if I could do something, I’d tell them I could figure it out. I severely underpriced myself, taking in under $10,000-$12,000 in my first two years.” Trapp says he wouldn’t advise people to do that.
“Had I known about SBDC, my life would have gotten a jump-start,” he says. After about seven years of running his business, Trapp was working 70-100-hour weeks and hadn’t taken a vacation in years. He had hired some employees to help with projects but hadn’t yet figured out a way to delegate projects in a way that would allow him to take a break. He decided there had to be a better way to move forward and grow his business, and an online search led him to the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
“I had been looking at coaching options and saw that SBDC, offered the same things for free, so I filled out the form and interviewed for coaching,” says Trapp. Trapp’s first coach was Jack Reiners, who retired and connected Trapp with current SBDC director Michelle Somes-Booher. “Jack was great and really got me on the right path, which was super helpful, and Michelle has been wonderful,” says Trapp. “Michelle looks at the business holistically, not just at revenue growth, knowing lifestyle is important.”
Somes-Booher helped Trapp create a plan for working more sustainable hours and taking two weeks completely off every year and extending similar benefits to his employees. “My early employees had very limited benefits, and now we have paid time off, paid holidays, company vehicles, annual company events, end of year profit sharing and a 401(k),” says Trapp. “All that builds a culture that values and rewards employees.”
Trapp has been working with SBDC for about ten years now and has also sent his employees to the SBDC’s leadership and management series, which Trapp says is “a great opportunity for more formal management training.” “For folks who have the craft but not management skills, it’s a great way to boost their skills,” says Trapp. “I learned the hard way, and earlier courses would have helped me.”
Trapp and Somes-Booher meet monthly or bimonthly for a status check on Trapp’s business and his specific goals and questions, based on an agenda Trapp creates. “Having that structured, almost monthly, meeting is very helpful in planning for growth,” says Trapp. “We’re doing the work, and SBDC is providing the plan and tools for us to execute growth. I’ve gained countless knowledge from them, like internal surveys and benchmarking, which are super helpful. They have access to software tools that would be out of our price range.”
Trapp uses the SBDC’s paid consulting and presentation services for company efficiency training and communication with employees and has hired them to present at company learning days. “They have so many services, depending on the size of your business,” Trapp says. “It’s been really great.”
Trapp has leveraged SBDC expertise in every aspect of his business, from management, culture, and training to finances, office space, and marketing. “Michelle has helped me identify what I can afford to do, such as offering employee benefits, renting new office space, and paying for advertising,” he says. “You don’t know what you don’t know until someone gives you a tip on where to go for credit, or how to manage cash flow.”
Trapp says when he was trying to grow his business quickly in its early years, he thought he was doing well when he had three employees and a dog in a 100-square-foot home office, since he wasn’t in the unfinished basement anymore. The company quickly outgrew that space and now occupies an office on Medical Circle on Madison’s West Side.
Somes-Booher encouraged Trapp to hire Madison-based advertising agency Design Craft five years ago, and the agency still handles Trapp’s marketing, from putting logos on crisp new white vans to handling trade shows, yard signs, social media marketing, and ads in neighborhood newsletters and on local radio. “I was trying to do my own advertising, but I’m not an advertising expert, and I wasn’t being consistent in my timing or messaging, so DesignCraft has been really good,” says Trapp. “They work with different budgets, know the best ways to maximize a budget, and provide great service.” Trapp says he still does a lot of networking, much of it through his membership in the local Madison NARI chapter, but DesignCraft handles his digital and print marketing.
Trapp is currently in the process of working with Somes-Booher to define his long-term vision for his business. He wants to grow bigger and cultivate talent. “I’m trying to work on things that will offer career paths for my team members that also serve current and future customers,” he says. “There is a shortage of skilled labor in the trades, so I’m actively working on carpenter development with Madison College and NARI, to provide people with a career path into our industry.”
Trapp has worked with NARI, Madison College, and other partners to develop carpenter skills upgrade night classes. The pilot program launched in early 2019 with an evening class on working with difficult door installation and repairs. Now, the program is in its second module, which focuses on interior trim and molding installation skills. “Students who are employees learn from each other and the instructor, which provides a neat collaborative experience,” says Trapp. “We have to provide training, so folks can learn and work on these skills.”
“I’ve grown, with Michelle’s help, as a manager, helping develop my employees and culture,” says Trapp. “I want Tony Trapp Remodeling to be the place everyone wants to work, to learn and grow.”
Tony Trapp success story (pdf)