Charlotte-based general contractor morphs into family of companies

Trent Haston calls it “polishing the diamond.”

It’s a phrase the 35-year-old company president and CEO picked up from a book by billionaire business magnate Warren Buffett. And it’s the perfect metaphor for what he’s done for the Andrew Roby name.

The work of the award-winning general contractor (and its signature red trucks) can be found all around the Charlotte region – from custom work on 15,000-square-foot homes on Lake Norman, to remodeling done to the Sunrise on Providence senior living center, to the current renovationof Johnson C. Smith University’s historic George E. Davis House, where the former dean and education advocate lived at the turn of the 20th century.

The late Andrew Roby started the Charlotte-based general contracting company that still bears his name in 1950. The company focused largely on remodeling projects for residential properties, and Haston’s grandfather, the late Glenn Haston, was Roby’s first employee.

In 1976, Roby sold the company to Glenn Haston and his son Ron, Trent’s father, who helped grow the company into one of the region’s largest custom residential remodelers.

But in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008, residential jobs dried up, cutting the company’s annual revenue nearly in half, from $13 million to $7.4 million. Trent Haston started polishing in earnest, desperate to boost other facets of the Andrew Roby diamond if the company were to survive and ultimately meet his long-term goal: to work for top earners across the United States and the top two businesses in every industry.

What followed were a series of gambles that ultimately left the business more diversified and stable. Trent Haston now oversees the Roby Family of Companies, which includes the residential work they’ve always done (still called “ Andrew Roby”), a separate entity that does electric work ( Roby Electric), and two new divisions overseeing commercial projects ( Roby Commercial), and maintenance services (Robee Handyman, a play on the “worker bee” phrase).

And in 2012, the company launched and a sales division known as RobyCross to promote the company’s specialty interior and exterior renovations for retirement and health care facilities.

Investing in support staff

Haston jokes that he grew up in a dump truck. And after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill in 2000, he returned to the family business full time as an estimator. His job was to take a project proposal, put a price on it and pitch it to the client.

Within three years of his joining, Andrew Roby had gone from $3.5 million in annual revenue to $7.5 million.

One of their biggest home runs was the decision to start doing their own electric work in 1998. They were tired of relying on electricians who weren’t as invested in the projects as they were, so they took that operation in-house, calling it Roby Electric. It also gave customers a reason to maintain the relationship after the project was completed.

On paper, the company was doing better than ever. But it lacked the support staff to make the growth sustainable. Haston was working 80 hours a week, often staying at the office until 3 a.m. And still many of projects weren’t completed on time.

“I was scared to go to SouthPark mall because I was scared to see the clients,” he said.

So Haston, who lives next door to his father, called a family meeting. His father wasn’t keen on investing in more administrative staff.

“Some of us didn’t want to spend the money,” Ron Haston said, because this investment would be in employees who wouldn’t be directly producing new revenue streams.

But his son persisted. And after making the hires, he focused on business development. By 2008, annual revenue was up to $13 million.

The plummet, recovery

In 2009, it dropped to $7.4 million. Residential projects were drying up. The family was worried about the future of the company. And Trent Haston proposed what looked like an expansion.

Roby Electric was a separate entity under the umbrella of The Roby Family of Companies. But what if they just began marketing other projects Andrew Roby was already undertaking to remind potential clients of the breadth of their portfolio?

That’s when the family began creating an official name and website for each of their nonresidential work arenas. They launched Roby Commercial in 2009 and Robee Handyman in 2011. They weren’t separate entities like Roby Electric, but they were now distinguished as other services. A designer developed a different logo for each.

Haston’s next idea: expand geographically.

His first big opportunity came in late 2010, when a local customer called: He wanted a multimillion-dollar house at Atlantic Beach and wanted Andrew Roby to build it.

Rather than send staff, Haston hired a project director on the coast. He tasked him with building a small team and told him to reinvest all the profits from the initial project into building the operation for the future.

He did the same in the Triangle. Then in Boone. Now a Wilmington office is in the works.

In 2010, annual revenue was nearly up to pre-recession levels at $13 million. In 2011, it was $16.5 million. In 2012, it grew to $23 million. Last year, revenue hit $31 million and Andrew Roby won the Contractor of the Year award from the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

This year, the CFO for the Roby Family of Companies is projecting $50 million in revenue.

“We’re building our holistic brand,” Haston says, “and polishing our diamond.”