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Manifest Destiny: A Family Business's Blueprint for Success

April 17, 2014 By:
Beth D’Addono, Inside Magazine feature
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Naomi and Andrew Stein

As far as Andrew Stein knew, none of his four children were anxious to join him in the family business.

Stein, who was born and raised in Lower Merion, founded Design Manifest, a full-service residential contracting firm with a specialty in artisanal craftsmanship, in 1974. Stein and his wife, Carol Parker Stein, always encouraged their children to follow their dreams, which led his oldest daughter into fashion design, his youngest to teaching and his middle daughter, Naomi, into the mortgage business. Their son is still in school, but other than working summers, he isn’t planning on following his dad’s lead. “It’s a tough business,” said Stein. “It’s dirty and very physical — it’s not for everybody.”

So it is easy to imagine his surprise when Naomi, the middle daughter, came to him “completely out of the blue” with a written proposal in May 2004. “She was doing well selling mortgages, but she didn’t love it,” recalled her dad. In the proposal, Naomi outlined what areas of the business needed improvement and why she should be the fixer. “She even proposed how much I should pay her. Turns out, she was right about everything.”

“I didn’t want to rest on my laurels and join my dad’s company right away,” said Naomi, 32. “But I found the mortgage business stressful and boring. I wanted to get my hands dirty.” Although her idea was to “turn the business around in a year or two,” Naomi found it took more like six or seven — not to turn the business around, but to learn the necessary skills and make her mark on the company.

Dynamics between fathers and daughters are always interesting. Add working together on a daily basis into the mix, and there can be challenges. The road’s been a relatively smooth one for this family duo, though, with Stein leading the charge on the construction side, working closely with Naomi as she’s gradually taken over and developed the design aspect of the business.

European Craftsmanship

Stein’s own parents weren’t thrilled when he informed them that he was pursuing construction as a career. “They’d been grooming me to be a lawyer or something like that,” he recalled. His dad was in the financial business, and tinkered around the house as a hobby. “Growing up, I was always helping him. He was always building something and I took an interest in it. By the time I was 13, I was better at it than he was.” What his folks considered a temporary summer job as a teen turned serious when he apprenticed with Otto, an old-school, Old Country carpenter from Czechoslovakia.

“Otto taught me some of the old methods of working that a lot of people aren’t doing anymore,” said Stein. While he is constantly staying up to date with new advances in his field, knowing traditional methods is something that has set his career apart for more than four decades. Stein, 60 (“Sometimes at the end of a hard day I feel 80!”), is a veteran carpenter, as well as a skilled tile-setter, cabinetmaker, craftsman and designer. The company maintains a wood shop to handle custom work. Recognized by the National Kitchen and Bath Association as a certified kitchen and bath designer, Stein works primarily in the Main Line and takes tremendous pride in personally overseeing all projects.

Like virtually every other contractor, Stein said that working on a renovation while the clients are living in the home is especially challenging, with the care and management of the construction dust the No. 1 concern on all sides. “It’s very important to communicate to the client, prepare them for what to expect and how to live most comfortably through the project,” he elaborated.

Job costs include equipment and time to set up exhaust fans to maintain negative air pressure and prevent dust from migrating. Main Line clients have a reputation for being particular, which suits Stein just fine. While working on a full-home mold remediation job in Gladwyne, the crew covered all of the house’s beautiful wood floors with 160 sheets of 1/8-inch Masonite, a steam-cooked and pressure-molded hardboard. “The floors were perfect at the end, and that cost just got built into the job,” Stein explained. “The end result — a happy client — is paramount to us.

“Everybody is in such a hurry to get things done with a close eye to costs,” he continued. “Obviously, I’m in business and I’m conscious of costs, too. But there’s a way to do a job properly without cutting corners. It’s about educating yourself, knowing what works and giving a damn.”

Old School Meets New School

When Naomi first approached her father, the idea was to put her business degree to use by managing the office. “She wasn’t a great office manager,” her father said. “Both of us are creative — we don’t like doing the paperwork. Naomi found her passion with design, and I hired an office manager. It was the right move.”

Unflappable in the face of the problems inherent to construction, Stein considers himself a practical contractor at heart. Although trained in design, it isn’t his favorite flavor. “It turns out, with Naomi’s talent with design, we make a great team,” he said. Naomi jumped in with both feet, learning skills like CAD on the job and taking classes through the National Kitchen and Bath Association and Moore College of Art & Design. “I trust my dad completely,” she said. “If there’s any way to make my vision a reality, he can do it.”

As is the case in every successful family business, keeping home and work separate is critical. “We’ve always gotten along well,” said Andrew. “That being said, there’s a built-in tension between designers and builders. Builders always want to build and get it done efficiently; designers want to elaborate with detail, to pursue all options.”

Longtime clients get a kick out of the father-daughter dynamic at meetings. “We sometimes bump together in a good way even if we don’t always agree,” he said. “It produces the best compromise between design and practicality.” Now the company’s vice president and principal designer, Naomi admits that sometimes she finds her dad set in his ways. “The problem is that a lot of times, his ways are right. I bring a different energy into the mix, though, which is good.” One area of disagreement has to do with the locations of the company’s jobs. Her dad doesn’t like commuting past the Main Line; Naomi is interested in working in Philly. “I sometimes take on design projects outside of our usual area if the job is really special,” she said.

Another way Naomi has impacted the business is through her design blog on the company website (www.designmanifest.com/blog/), an approachable, chatty forum for her experiences with everything from rugs and color schemes to lighting and girly glam. “Both my dad and I like interesting custom details and beautiful finishes. We may have different tastes, but together, they mesh perfectly.”

Beth D’Addono is a longtime contributor to Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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