Located in Edmonds, Howard Chermak is selling Chermak Construction after 37 years. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Why going against grain helped Edmonds’ Chermak Construction grow

EDMONDS — For 37 years, Howard Chermak has run a construction business a little bit different than other construction companies.

For instance, he and his wife Judy would meet with a counselor every other week to talk about their thoughts and feelings about the business and personnel.

“I don’t think you and I could sell any of my construction friends on it now,” Chermak said. “That’s not a path very many people would take. Yet, for me, it was excellent.”

He credits it with helping Chermak Construction grow and get through tough times. The Edmonds firm, which specializes in home remodeling, also has won praise from clients and acclaim through a host of industry honors, including several national and regional awards.

Now, the Chermaks have sold the business at 655 Edmonds Way to Noah France, who owns France Construction, a wood finishing business in Woodinville. France is moving his operations to Edmonds and will continue Chermak Construction under its original name.

The Chermaks said they have had a few other serious offers over the years, but they felt France would be best to carry on the company.

“We have a wonderful new owner,” Judy Chermak said. “We’re very pleased and excited about him. He’ll be a wonderful asset to the business and the community.”

Howard Chermak didn’t set out to enter the construction business. He trained as a teacher and speech therapist. His family moved to Edmonds from Minnesota in 1962 when he was 15.

After graduating from Western Washington University in 1969, he served a couple of years in Vietnam in an artillery unit. When he got back to the states, Chermak was hired to teach in northern Minnesota where he was originally from. He didn’t see a future for himself teaching.

“I couldn’t see a clear path for where a speech therapist would go,” Chermak said. “You might be the regional person, but there’s one of those for 50 therapists. There’s not a lot of upward motion for speech therapy.

In the summer months, he’d head to Minneapolis for construction. After a couple of years, he moved back to Edmonds and went to work full time in construction doing a series of jobs painting, wallpapering, framing and tiling.

For six years, he worked for an architect who doubled as a builder. Chermak became the superintendent working on custom homes with often hard excavations, difficult foundations and sophisticated designs. When interest rates for mortgages shot up in the late 1970s, the architect couldn’t continue the business.

“He gave me the truck and tools I had been using for his business,” Chermak said. “He gave them to me and he shook my hands and said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t employ you anymore.’ That was completely understandable, however. I just went out and started working for people by word of mouth.”

And that’s how Chermak started his own business. Things started slowly at first. During a divorce, Chermak started seeing a family counselor, Frank Miller.

Although most counselors maintain a professional distance from clients, Miller and Chermak became friends and he met Judy Rice, Miller’s significant other, who took a job with Chermak Construction.

Chermak brought Miller and Rice onto the board of the company. Chermak brought the construction skills, but Miller and Rice added business acumen and knowledge of people.

It turned out to be an inspired match. Chermak Construction found its footing and began to grow.

Then, Miller died in 1995. Judy Rice remained working for Chermak Construction and became close friends with Howard Chermak. In 1996, they took the company out to lunch to announce their intentions to start dating.

“All the women in the unit said, ‘We knew it … ,’” Howard Chermak said. “All the men went, ‘Huh? You and Judy?’”

The couple were married a year later.

One of the ways the company went against the grain was on staffing. Traditionally, most construction firms have separate sales and production staffs, figuring each side needs its own expertise.

Chermak Construction has its project developers oversee contracts from the sale to the completion, with the idea that continuity would make the best project and best experience for the client.

The disadvantage is it’s difficult to find people who are good at construction and sales. The former is a must, Chermak said. So they look for people with construction experience who can be trained in sales.

Another key to the business has been its location on Edmonds Way just before going down into downtown. It was a 1,400-square-foot doctor’s office. He and his team expanded it to 4,000 square feet.

“It’s a nice connection to the town,” Chermak said. “It’s very visible with a lot of traffic because the road here goes to the ferry dock and downtown Edmonds. It’s a beautiful place to be.

Howard Chermak points to the human side of the business that Judy Chermak has helped nurture and grow. She was the one who made sure birthdays sre observed, birth of children are acknowledged and Christmas parties are celebrated at the Edmonds Yacht Club with bonuses.

Tension will always be present in a construction company, but it’s dealt with in the open and people move on at Chermak, they said.

“Everybody is there to lift one another up,” Judy Chermak said. “No one is there to compete with one another, I think that’s the harmony that makes Chermak what it is.”

That’s helped the company navigate through difficult times. In 2007, the company did $9 million in business, but that fell in half in just a few years after. They cut subcontractors, but the company didn’t lay off anyone.

“We went to people and said we either need each of you to take a 10-percent cut in pay or we’re going to have to let somebody go,” Howard Chermak said. “They chose to a person to take a 10-percent cut in pay. That’s the thing that Judy brings. We took it, too. I took quite a bit more than that. I took a 50-percent cut in pay, but I made a lot of money and that was fair.

In their meetings with a counselor, they have been talking about transitioning out of the company. Howard Chermak’s daughter, Dana, works for the business and will remain. He said she saw how hard it was to meet payroll and didn’t want to become an owner.

While they’re leaving, they hope they’ve left a path forward for the company.

“I brought the construction knowledge and (Judy) brought the heart and caring and collaboration into a rough-and-tumble construction company,” Howard Chemak said. “She taught me it’s OK to care. It’s OK to help someone do something that may cost you a little bit, but in giving you’ll receive more.”

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