Building An Idea

Home consultant intends to build on idea

By Robert Berner, The Patriot Ledger, March 30, 1990

Weymouth – Richard Connolly thinks his idea is so good he’s decided to franchise it.

Two years ago, Connolly founded Cornerstone Consulting, Inc., a Weymouth firm that advised consumers on remodeling jobs and the construction of custom homes. The company helps consumers with every step of the process, from making project specifications and buying materials to choosing contractors and making inspections.

Since then, Connolly’s business has mushroomed. Cornerstone’s revenues tripled to $56,000 in 1989, and in the first three months of 1990 the company has done half the business it did last year, he said.

"I’m so flat out now I am having trouble serving all my business," he said. Now the company, which has advised 102 consumers in the South Shore and Greater Boston area, is setting its sights on the New England market. By next March, Connolly said, he hopes to begin opening Cornerstone franchises in Massachusetts and the region’s other states.

Already, he said, he has concluded one franchise agreement in Hampden, Maine, and is close to completing agreements with potential franchisees in Sharon and Southboro.

"It’s an idea that will sell," Connolly said. "There is a lot of interest in this."

Others think the business – believed to be the only one of its kind in the nation – will sell, too.

"They will have no trouble franchising," said Ann Moriarty, features editor for Remodeling Magazine, adding that the company’s only hurdle will be to maintain the quality of its service.

Connolly’s timing in starting Cornerstone could not have been better. He has cashed in on a remodeling boom in Massachusetts.

The surge in home prices over the middle of the decade has made it difficult for many homeowners to move up into bigger and better homes, so they have chosen the alternative of remodeling.

The problem is that many homeowners do not know where to start. And because most homeowners lack building expertise, misunderstandings can develop between them and contractors. Moreover because of their lack of knowledge, consumers are vulnerable to fraud.

Thomas McNaught, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said consumers’ complaints about home improvement jobs are among the most common the office receives.

Cornerstone’s niche is simple: to help the consumers learn and to act as their advocate in the process of remodeling. Furthermore, the company says it saves consumers more money than it charges them in consulting fees.

Cornerstone provides these basic services:

Initial consultation. The company helps consumers determine what they want and what they can spend.

Material estimates. It determines what materials are needed and negotiates directly with suppliers to buy them.

Project specifications. Cornerstone develops project specifications and puts them out to bid with contractors. It provides homeowners with contractors names, but also likes consumer to supply some names so it does not appear that the firm favors some builders.

Contractor negotiation. The company helps consumers evaluate bids and negotiate the final contract with the chose contractors. It will check on unknown contractors’ work.

Work plan. the company develops a detailed work plan, establishing deadlines for each of the project’s phases.

Inspection. Cornerstone inspects the work as it is completed.

Cornerstone can also act as the general contractor, hiring all the subcontractors and coordinating all the work, or can work with a general contractor hired separately by the homeowner.

For each approach the company charges consumers an hourly rate. the fees add up to between 2 and 10 percent of the project’s costs depending on the approach taken.

Connolly said, however, that his company can save consumers up to $3 for each $1 they pay in fees because of reduced costs of materials and because contractors are willing to lower their prices somewhat because all the details of the job have been handled by Cornerstone.

Avrom Weinberg, a Marshfield psychologist, who is building a custom, four bedroom home with Cornerstone’s help, said the company has saved him about $60,000. Weinberg, who is acting as the general contractor, said the savings have come from materials and the fact he is not paying a general contractor’s overhead.

He said he has also liked having control of the project.

"They have saved us a considerable amount of money and given us a sense of control over the construction of our own house that we never would have had with a general contractor," he said. "We have selected virtually every item going into the house down to the very details."

Contractors also like the service.

Robert McGlone, a Marshfield contractor who framed Weinberg’s new home, said he does not have to waste time with consumers, because they know what they want.

The detailed project specifications Cornerstone draws up, he said, makes it easier to bid on a job with other contractors because they are all getting the same data.

"We’re bidding on an equal footing," he said.

Connolly believes consumers outside Massachusetts will want to use his service. Cornerstone, he noted, has gotten inquires from homeowners as far away as North Carolina and Washington.

Currently, Connolly said, Cornerstone is developing software and a database that will allow the company to standardize its operations. Over the next year, Cornerstone plans to work with six initial franchisees to develop the software before it aggressively starts to franchise the business. He expects it will take a year before the franchises will open.

To maintain the quality of the company’s services, Connolly said, Cornerstone plans to franchise only to people with extensive backgrounds in building.

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