Serving Northeast Wisconsin
  Post-Crescent   Appleton-Neenah-Menasha, Wisconsin
 

October 26, 2002
 


Maintaining property key to Homefree


Prospective clients of Homefree, a residential property maintenance company, will not find "feeding the baby"listed in the firm's slick marketing materials.

Nevertheless, Homefree founder, Stephen Shepard, 53, says he stepped in while meeting at a client's home when the phone and doorbell rang simultaneously during the infant's meal.

Such timely action is indicative, however, of Shepard's goal to "not forget the client is our reason for being in business," he said.

The Appleton company, in a sense, allows its clients to buy time. They pay Shepard and his small team to handle some of the fundamental -- but hour-consuming -- property maintenance that keeps them from enjoying other aspects of life.

Shephard's business takes "the hassle out of home maintenance," said Appleton client Tom Schinabeck.

Schinabeck and his wife, Pat, bought an 80-year-old home in 1977 and had significant remodeling done. "When little things going wrong, one call to Steve and everything is taken care of," Schinabeck said, adding the it was usually the same day.

Shepard spent two decades formulating how his business should be structured. After graduating from Lawrence University in 1972 with a degree in geology, he worked as a paper mill supervisor while remodeling a kitchen and bathroom in his own home.

"In my 30s, as I got into sales and marketing, experienced more travel, and lost all that time at home. The challenge grew to get all my home maintenance done," Shepard recalled.

"When I became a vice president of marketing for a flexible packaging company, I really lost all my free time," he said.

Shepard reasoned that other busy executives might be in similar situations, so when the company he worked for was sold and he transitioned to a consulting role, he used his expanded free time to create a business plan and formulate the Homefree process.
Shepard offers not only maintenance, but also refurbishing and restorative care services, to those for whom time is money.

"We heard about Steve Shepard from our home inspector who we hired before we bought the home," said Katherine Reinke, an executive with Abbott Laboratories. "We were one of Homefree's initial clients five years ago." Reinke estimates a savings of approximately 10 hours a month by having Shepard handle repairing and preventive maintenance tasks.

"It takes the hassle out of taking care of a larger older home and frees us to spend more time with our four daughters," Reinke said.

Shepard's client base of 25 homes range in age from 10 to 120 years old and in size from 2,000 to 8,000 square feet. They are located from the De Pere-Green Bay area to south Neenah and are valued from $200,000 to more than $1 million.

"I love working on homes; it's kind of a hobby, but I don't have the time," said Ron Musil, executive vice president of Banta Corp.

Musil used Homefree for about two years and was so impressed with the service that he consented to be on the company's board of advisors. Although Homefree managed the remodeling of a master bedroom suite in Musil's home, Shephard is quick to point out that "we are not contractors or builders; we are project managers who interface between our clients and contractors."

Step one of Shepard's process for new clients is a thorough home inspection by a certified inspector. Wisconsin is one of only a few states that require certification of home inspectors, Shepard said.

"In about 50 percent of (our client's) homes, we found significant electrical and gas issues," he said. Projects are identified, prioritized, budgeted, scheduled, and completed according to client instructions. Homefree maintains a network of more than 250 service professionals in the Valley to provide repairs or replacement to structural elements and to do simple decorating or complete remodeling projects.

"For many years, I tried to keep the news of Homefree quiet, while I proved the business model," Shepard said. "During this time, I was fortunate to have satisfied clients tell others about our service and to acquire clients at a comfortable rate with my plans to grow the business. I'm at the point now where my marketing plan is in place to begin to accelerate client acquisition."

Shepard's business partner, Dennis DeCock will open a Homefree office in the northern Chicago suburbs this winter.

Offices in the north Milwaukee suburbs and Minneapolis are planned for 2004. Shepard's market research indicated his small firm could become the forerunner for the full-service process of home maintenance, refurbishment and restorative care.

"It is our intent to take this business nationally," Shepard said.

The Post-Crescent, Appleton-Neenah-Menasha, Wisconsin, October 26, 2002



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