Recession Start-up J & D Sealcoating Grows by Keeping the Customer Satisfied

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 – if they could. That timing was something that 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.

Growth in customers, equipment

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 6000-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,” Kothlow says.

So where he started cleaning cracks using a wire wheel, in his second year he bought a used Marathon router so he could upgrade his cracksealing operation. In 2011 he upgraded his sealcoating operation from a 550-gal. machine to an 850-gal Seal-Rite spray unit with an extra large trailer to make it easier to haul all his blowers and other tools and equipment. Last fall he bought a Crafco 100 melter, and over the winter he added a heat lance.

Partnering with Small Contractors

Along the way he began partnering informally with two other small contractors (CCM Line Painting for pavement marking work and Behlke Property Maintenance for infrared patching) which enables him to get more work and also enables him to offer a greater variety of services.

“It isn’t always subcontracting – it’s easier from a bookkeeping standpoint to allow each one of us to get paid directly,” he says. “But 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 says he follows every year.

Keeping the Customer Satisfied

“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 have a good relationship with the customers. 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. I go right back 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.”

And he says the numbers tell the real story. J&D Sealcoating finished 75 residential driveways in 2009, then in 2010 began quoting on commercial parking lots – and Kothlow got just a few. But by the end of 2012 when his number of completed jobs had doubled to more than 150, almost two-thirds of the jobs were done on commercial parking lots, and one big job was sealcoating pavement 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.

“They seem to be happy with my work,” Kothlow says. “As you get more and more people happy with your work you get more and more calls and it makes you feel good that you’re doing something right.”