Elevators for Your “Country Home”
Missouri-based Country Home Elevator & Stairlift has found the formula for success.
The Midwest has been good to Country Home Elevator & Stairlift LLC in Brighton, Missouri, only a short drive from the Ozarks. Since transitioning from a ThyssenKrupp Access location in 2000-2001, the company has built a solid niche for itself as a full-service elevator provider to the residential and light-commercial markets throughout the region. In addition to its 10,000-sq.-ft. warehouse, showroom and corporate offices in Brighton, Country Home has locations in St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri; Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Little Rock and Rogers, Arkansas. The company provides elevators, stairlifts, platform lifts and limited-use/ limited-application elevators.
With an eye toward maintaining 10-15% year-over-year revenue growth companywide, CEO/founder Craig Jones’ main focus these days is on growing in existing markets by establishing fixed locations. These are not necessarily traditional brick-and-mortar storefronts. In Arkansas, for example, Country Home bought and renovated a house to have an office and a demonstration elevator. In Kansas City, a Country Home elevator was installed in a model home in a subdivision in the suburb of Leawood. “The model home is a great place to meet customers for the next several years, until the model unit sells,” Jones says. “Many of the homes in the subdivision will have elevators planned into their design.”
Country Home can trace its beginnings to a group of residential/accessibility elevator industry friends who met at National Association of Elevator Contractors conventions in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They formed a peer group consisting of representatives from seven companies. Rick Crane, president of Peoria, Illinois-based Bella Elevator, LLC, approached members of the group to see if they were interested in selling a residential elevator he conceived that would end up becoming Symmetry. Jones and his partners took him up on it, and, “on a shoestring startup, we built one of the top-selling brands in the U.S. — Symmetry Elevating Solutions/Bella Elevator,” Jones says.
Symmetry’s key features, he says, are its relatively easy installation and utilization of a nonproprietary programmable-logic- control (PLC) control system. Jones says:
“With a PLC control system, you’re able to replace small components you can buy at Granger and other supply places and get the system back in operation easily, versus a complete rebuild of the circuit board. We wanted to provide a product that was better for the customer in that they will be able to get service way into the future. Control-board issues can be major. There was an ongoing problem with the proprietary circuit board of a major residential elevator brand that would release the brake and allow the elevator to go into the pit with a very loud ‘thunk.’
We’re still dealing with some of those issues today. A home elevator system should be able to be maintained almost indeflnitely, and not based on one single component or circuit board.”
Just north of Springfield where Jones grew up, Country Home’s headquarters are surrounded by verdant flatlands — pretty much the opposite of what one thinks of when one thinks of elevators. Jones enjoys being in the “country,” though, and establishing the business here was by design. “It was a natural fit to move my family here, so my kids could go to school in the country rather than a big city,” Jones states.
Jones, who has an electrical-design background and is a Certified Elevator Technician (CET®), began his career in the industry in 1988 with ThyssenKrupp Access predecessor American Stair-Glide in Kansas City. As a design draftsman, he created drawings on a drafting board using AutoCAD. Learning the business from a technical-engineering perspective made him more comfortable stepping into sales and business-management roles when the transition to ThyssenKrupp Access occurred. During his time with ThyssenKrupp Access, he helped develop markets throughout the Midwest, including Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Country Home is technically in the Ozarks, an area served by the home office in Brighton. Jones’ other business/ hobby, Barn Find Classic Cars (barnfindclassiccars.co), is also in the Country Home headquarters building built approximately five years ago.
In the beginning, there were two people on the payroll: Jones and mechanic Matt Miller (who is now back in his home state of California working for partner firm Arrow Lift). Country Home grew steadily. It is currently at 13 mechanics and always looking for new ones, which Jones says is one of the most challenging aspects of running his business. He states:
“It is hard to flnd good mechanics. It used to be that we could hire 20 to 24 year olds with some experience welding or building cars, but the lack of great high-school shop classes these days has really hurt the pool of talent. Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew Crawford is a great read on the challenge of getting back the basic mechanical education we have lost.”
By the time Country Home came into the picture, the effects of the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, were mostly in the rearview mirror. Up until about 2006, the company still found itself handling a “flood of new accessibility projects,” installing multiple units in public schools and government buildings. As the economy contracted, that began tapering off around 2008, Jones says.
The lion’s share of Country Home’s business these days is residential. Jones says there isn’t really a typical customer. He states:
“They range the economic spectrum, from the owner of a 16,000-sq.-ft. mansion down to the 1,400-sq.-ft. ranch house with a basement and laundry they need to get to. So it makes marketing difficult to balance hitting the 50 year old who is assisting their parents with mobility issues with the family building their dream hideaway on the lake.”
One job that was particularly challenging was installation of a used stairlift for a customer on a fixed income. The company had two service calls in the first month, then a weekend service call that Jones himself took. “I spent some extra time going over equipment operation with the customer and the issue was resolved,” he says. “Often, we do have to go beyond what’s normal to solve customers’ issues, and that’s OK.”
Establishing and maintaining customer relationships sets Country Home apart from the competition, Jones says. The company has forged strong bonds with homebuilders associations, leading to a significant amount of repeat business. Country Home is on its 20th elevator with some of these associations.
It has also picked up work from customers whose original home-elevator provider went missing in action. Some people find what they think is a great deal online, then discover otherwise. Jones says:
“I’ve been involved with the internet since it began, but it has slowed our business considerably. Now, there are so many bait-and-switch companies that work from out of state and sell an elevator without ever meeting their client to understand what they need or how to match the product to the customer. Some customers think all home elevators are the same price, but there is a very wide range that depends on factors such as number of stops, conflguration, number of doors and door operators and flnishes. Do you want birch to match the cabinetry in your kitchen? Is your home located on the top of a mountain that’s hard to reach? All this factors into the cost, but people are looking online and seeing some ridiculously low prices.
“They’ll get their elevator, but companies aren’t being honest with them. We’ve gotten numerous calls about a company failing to provide aftersales service or flnishing the job. It’s a big problem, particularly in the Midwest.”
Jones plans to expand and strengthen Country Home’s online presence as it launches The Stairwell Elevator (ELEVATOR WORLD, October 2018), a space-saving innovation designed by a colleague, and the Transporter home elevator, a compact system touted as the only battery-powered residential elevator. “I think product innovation will be key to continued expansion in our markets,” Jones says. “Offering something different is necessary in the confusing world of the World Wide Web.” Country Home can be found online at CountryHomeElevator.com