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Omaha business owner returns to his days as a kid lifting a hammer with purchase of handyman firm

Omaha business owner returns to his days as a kid lifting a hammer with purchase of handyman firm

Toby Asplin (center, flanked by his crew) was looking to make an offer on a small business information technology consulting firm when he got a call from his broker.  Bad news: the deal had fallen apart.  That was a big disappointment. But it was what the broker did next that took Asplin full circle, back to the time, when as a child, he often followed his dad and uncle to remodeling jobs with a hammer in his small hand.

By the time he could lift a drill, Toby was boring holes for new doorknobs; later, he'd pull nails out of reclaimed lumber, and be paid for every pound he recovered.

"So by a young age I was already on a production-based compensation plan," Asplin chuckled.

His first job was at age eight, selling greeting cards thanks to an ad in the back of Boys Life magazine.  With his parents urging him to save at least half the proceeds from that gig, the odd construction job and birthday money from relatives, by the time he was nearly 12, he had enough saved up to purchase two calves to raise on the family farm.  Asplin re-invested the profits from the sale of the two cows, after paying for the hay and grain he'd used for feed--and purchased more calves, eventually building up a small herd.

Asplin sold the herd before he graduated high school, and figured he'd have enough in savings to put himself through a private college. The money didn't last, though, and tapped out after the first year, Asplin joined the Army.  There, as combat telecommunications specialist in Germany, he was put in charge of a unit supervising soldiers with more stripes on their sleeves than he had.

"You know, I didn't have any employees when I was working for myself as a kid," Asplin said, "so that really helped me learn how to deal with difficult employee situations."

After his three years of active duty were up, he returned to college at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, balancing a full-time course load, a commitment to the Army Reserves and a job as a full-time maintenance engineer for a downtown hotel.

After college, and a gig at a bank overseeing their ATM network, Asplin seemingly put down his hammer for good, accepting a job with the city of Bellevue where he quickly got involved in the Chamber of Commerce helping small business owners craft marketing and promotion efforts to attract customers.  His efforts were a quick hit.

"One guy said, “Wow, you could charge for this," Asplin remembered.  Ever the entrepreneur, he started a small firm where, at first on a part-time basis, he would help his small business customers network their computers and build databases to track inventory, calculate job costs and payroll.  

When his nascent firm snagged a contract with a nationwide telecom to build a customer relationship management application to track sales and services for its on-demand TV service, that was the end of Asplin's job with the city.  Over the next 17 years, the company would handle contracts from some of the biggest names in logistics, technology and banking in the country as well as a number of early-stage and startup companies.

Next, Asplin would take six years away from life as an entrepreneur serving as First National Bank of Omaha's strategic partnership officer.  But he felt the entrepreneurship pull once more, starting Bluestem Corporation in 2012 to handle technology services and process improvement and project management consulting for Canadian financial institutions.

"We had a very small niche with a limited window of opportunity to do the kind of work we were doing," Asplin said, "I recognized the need to have a business life for this company beyond that.  So, I found a local small business consulting service for sale, dug a little into their books, and my company was ready to make them an offer."

Which brings us back to the start of our story.

There was another business out there for sale, the broker told Asplin.  But it wasn't an IT firm, or a consulting company, he warned him.

It was a handyman company.

"I knew I was qualified to do the work on the front end, learning the trade growing up on the farm and helping my dad and uncle," Asplin said.  Armed with his years of experience in consulting and banking, he could see that the business was a diamond in the rough.  What it needed was a realignment of its cash flow priorities and better leveraging of its marketing spending to attract and keep customers.  

So in March 2013, Asplin's Bluestem Corporation was approved for an SBA-guaranteed 7(a) loan through Wells Fargo to purchase the assets of Handyman Joes.

"The thing that appealed to me, given the timing and the market, was the ability to access the funds at a relatively low rate," Asplin said. "The business was a fairly asset-heavy business as opposed to the consulting companies I'd owned. With the handyman business, the bank knew, well, if the guy goes belly up, we can recoup our money."

Asplin brought a tried and true governing principle to the management of Handyman Joes: "Don’t expect what you don’t inspect" to make sure the work was getting done the right way, and money spent on the right things.  He also drew on his management experience first learned in the Army to balance the changes the business needed with the desire to keep the employees in the fold.

"Any time there’s new management it makes employees nervous," he explained. "I’ve been on both sides of that.  So, as the business succeeded I wanted them to participate in that success, and I made sure I’d have tangible proof fairly early in the process so they could trust me as an owner and the manager of the business."

Asplin also sought to bring his experience applying information technology to improve the business.  On the firm's web site, potential clients can find information for repair and improvement jobs on kitchens, bathrooms, basements and bedrooms, as well as service for decks, siding and gutters. Moreover, he said they're developing a "Homeowner 101" series of articles and videos to help first-time homeowners understand their responsibilities with simple repairs and maintenance.

It didn't take long before Asplin was able to create three new jobs.  While there's been 10-12 percent in revenue growth over the same time from the previous year, creative cost-cutting has led to a 25 percent increase in profit over the same time.  

Asplin also has more than quadrupled the number of "fans" the company has for its Facebook page, "that makes it very easy to reach out to a base of customers for no charge." 

He's got a short-term target for Handyman Joes to grow from four full-time technicians to eight, improve its closing on estimates and bids to move toward larger projects.

Long term, "I want to franchise the business on a national basis, and because of our approach, I think we’re fairly unique.  I want to make this model stable and repeatable here in Omaha first, then we can look at opening one perhaps in Lincoln or Fremont."

But to reach that growth, Asplin said, he'll have to avoid a common trap.

"There's a problem that practitioners of a trade who are owners of businesses often get sucked down into working in the business rather than working on the business. I can clean gutters to make a customer happy but that is not my intent.  I always need to take the panoramic view to see what I can do to grow the business."