Business owners can’t always pick the “right” time to start a new company, but most people would have avoided 2009 – the near-bottom of the recession. That timing crossed the mind of Jeff Kothlow’s family as he prepared to start J & D Sealcoating, Menomonie, WI, but Kothlow had a different idea.
“I just think that maintenance of parking lots is a lot like changing the oil on your car,” says Kothlow, who was introduced to the business by his uncle. “It’s got to be done or you’ll pay the price later.”
So economy be damned, Kothlow started J & D Sealcoating (the “D” represents his middle name Donald and his father’s name Don) with a 550-gal. trailer-mounted spray unit and a whole lot of drive. He printed up business cards, then went door to door to door throughout Menomonie’s residential areas, handing them out. “I stopped at houses where it looked like people needed to have their driveway sealcoated, and I just kept on doing it,” Kothlow says. “My goal that summer was just to see if I got enough business where I could see the company being successful.”
And one tactic he used was to encourage several homeowners in a neighborhood to commit because if he could sealcoat several driveways in the same area on the same day it helped keep his travel costs down. “Then I can pass some of that savings on to them,” he says.
That first year he sealcoated about 75 driveways – not a windfall by any stretch -- but Kothlow, a former dairy farmer, liked being outdoors and found that he enjoyed the work. So he printed up more cards, printed up some yard signs, and by year two he was getting a good number of calls for driveway sealcoating. In fact, he got enough work that he enlisted the annual aid of stepson Austin (who has since expressed interest in running the company some day). In 2011 Kothlow decided J & D Sealcoating was doing enough volume that he was losing time and money driving to and from sealer suppliers, so he installed a 6,000-gal. bulk tank in his yard.
“Every year I try to upgrade some part of my business to make the work easier and to become more efficient.”
So he started cleaning cracks with a wire wheel, added a Marathon router in his second year, upgraded his sealcoating rig in 2011 to an 850-gal. Seal-Rite spray unit, bought a Crafco 100 melter last fall, and over the winter he added a heat lance.
Along the way he began partnering informally with two other small contractors (CCM Line Painting for striping and Behlke Property Maintenance for infrared patching) which enables him to get more work and offer a greater variety of services. “It's worked to all our advantage. I specialize in sealcoating and crack repair, and they each specialize in another. None of us wants to become a really big company so this helps each of us get more work.”
As one customer told him, “You don’t always have to be the biggest to be the best.” And that’s a mantra he follows.
“I believe in good customer relations and staying about this size enables me to have the kind of customer relations I want and that I think are important to the business,” he says. “All my customers are important to me, and that’s who I focus on,” he says. I try to do what they want me to do and I try to do it when they want it done,” he says. “If people have a problem with any of my work and they call me I respond right away and fix it and that helps keep my name good. If I have a bad name in the market I know it’s going to be hard to find more work.”
But numbers tell the real story. J&D Sealcoating finished 75 driveways in 2009 and began quoting parking lots in 2010. In 2012 he completed more than 150 jobs with two-thirds done on parking lots (and one for an entire school district).
““I don’t wait for a phone call, I go find work,” he says. “I’m a go getter! I started out knocking on doors and I’m still out there knocking on doors today.”
Only these days in addition to residential houses the doors belong to property owners and property management firms.