Jeff Grundahl image

Founded in his garage, Jeff Grundahl's home construction and remodeling company is nearly 25 years old now.

When the housing downturn started drying up new business for Jeff Grundahl’s building and remodeling company in 2008, Grundahl made a bold decision to invest time and resources in a way he hoped would pay dividends long after the economy righted itself.

Grundahl, who founded JG Development in 1990, turned his focus inward, transforming his building in Blue Mounds in 2008 and 2009 into a showcase for the company’s best work. There are framed photographs of custom home and remodeling projects hung or arranged in display cabinets, and a library of designs and materials that visitors can peruse for ideas.

“We actually invested in the company during the downturn,” he recalled. “We did a complete makeover on our facility, as an investment in our future. It was an extreme makeover, where we doubled our space inside and converted it into a true art gallery.”

Grundahl, 42, said the new home market started coming back about 15 months ago, with the makeup of his company’s jobs now returned to about a 50-50 split between new construction and remodeling. During the downturn, it was 85 percent remodeling, he said.

JG Development is a design-materials-build general contractor. It employs 18 and operates in southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois and eastern Iowa. Services offered include construction, design, carpentry and materials, plus commercial construction through a side venture known as National Construction Inc., with a satellite office in Madison that serves both companies.

Along with more than 20 years’ experience in construction, Grundahl is a licensed real estate broker and immediate past president of the Madison chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. He now serves as chairman of the local NARI board.

Q. You started JG Development before you were 20 years old. What are the pros and cons of being an entrepreneur for virtually your entire career?

A. There are some big upsides and downsides. The upside is you get to pick any 70 hours a week you want to work. I always joke that I had the entrepreneurship seizure one day. But no, it just really felt like it was something I wanted to do.

I grew up in the dairy farm business, southwest of Mount Horeb. We were used to working hard and working for ourselves. My dad was much more of a business person than a farmer. I credit a lot of my earlier tenacity to him.

Q. Have you ever questioned your decision?

A. No, I really haven’t ever questioned it. Certainly, there are all kinds of challenges. But there’s been a lot more wins than there’ve been losses — not necessarily just financially, but in terms of relationships, watching the people you work with grow into the teams we have now. It’s been way more wins.

At the same time, it is riskier, because your name’s on the bottom line and you have to get up in the morning and make it happen every day: ‘If it’s got be, it’s up to thee.’ But the drive is there, certainly, to make it happen once you have a business and especially once you have a team that is relying on you.

Q. You build about 10 custom homes a year, including one I saw on your website near La Crosse that includes a watch tower. What’s that about?

A. That’s just purely for their personal use. The house is set high atop the hills and they wanted to have their own little lookout to see out into the distance.

Q. Any other unusual homes you’re working on?

A. We’re doing a home now where we’re using shipping containers as part of the construction. It’s one of the new trends. Around the county, people are starting to use shipping containers in the structural frame after insulating them and modifying them.

They’re just containers you would see in a shipping yard, with very uniform dimensions. But they need substantial modification to use in a home, partly because of what they’re treated with. People feel like it’s green construction because they’re recycling a container, but in some they’re using a new container.

Q. What are the latest remodeling trends?

A. Kitchens have been and still are one of the strongest and most popular remodels. We’re also starting to see a trend in what we call whole-house remodels, home makeovers, not just a room. We’ve had numerous inquiries about that.

It’s not necessarily every little last thing in the house, but in most cases it’s tearing the vast majority of it apart and making something completely different from what it was before, both internally and externally.

We’re also seeing people integrating businesses more often into their home. People are adding a business space to their home, or they started their business during the downturn in their home and now it’s growing, so they need a bigger space for it.

Q. What are some practical tips for people considering a remodeling job?

A. Always start with the end in mind, define your wish list, budget, scope, time frame, expectations, priorities, lifestyle and the current and future needs of you and your family. (And), are there any safety or structural issues that need to be corrected? If so, this could add to the cost of your project.

Q. What mistakes do people make with remodels?

A. Not choosing the right contractor for them. Make sure the contractor you hire is qualified and the right fit for your type of project. Ask important questions such as how long have they been in business, are they licensed and insured, are they members of industry associations, do their staff receive annual training, how do they handle allowances and change orders?

And make sure to check references and online reviews from places such as Angie’s List and the Better Business Bureau. My recommendation is to hire a NARI professional. NARI is dedicated to being the best resource for knowledge and training in the industry. This will give you the assurance that you’ve chosen a professional remodeler with experience, dedication to training and a commitment to ethical conduct.

Q. What else should people keep in mind?

A. Understand the “why” (of your project). This will help you uncover your wants and needs and better understand the “who,” “what,” “when” and “how much.”

Think about how you will really use the space and spend time planning. What’s best for you and your home? How long do you plan on staying in your home? Check your financial situation and how much your taxes will go up after the project.

If you’re thinking about selling, consider projects that will add value to your home. Know your time frame and make sure you get started early enough to accommodate design time and (getting) permits.

Q. What were the remodeling projects like during the downturn? Any different than now?

A. There were a lot more smaller projects then. Just based purely on people’s finances, the size of the projects went down substantially, and the average size of the project is coming back up now.

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Karen Rivedal is the education beat reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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