ANY CONTRACTOR who feels that he’s been dealt a bad hand should look to Ted Puzio for inspiration. “It’s not so much the hurdle itself, it’s how they approach it that holds them back,” Puzio says. For his resilience, resolve and determination not to let anything hold him back, Ted Puzio, the founder and CEO of Southern Trust Home Services, Roanoke, Virginia, is our Contractor of the Year.
Let’s start with near death in 1995. He went into the hospital for surgery, went into insulin shock and then caught spinal meningitis. “I just remember spinal taps,” he says. He went into the hospital December 5 and didn’t get out until Christmas. His boys were little then.
Many good things have happened to Puzio in church and this was one of them. The congregation had taken care of his boys and made sure there was a Christmas tree up and they had bought all the presents the boys had on their lists. “I cried like a baby when I came home,” he recalls.
A bad divorce comes in a close second in terms of big setbacks. His house was under contract so he didn’t have a place to stay, he had custody of his boys, then 14 and 16, and had to ferry them to sports, had to run his business, and put supper on the table. He wouldn’t let the challenge get the best of him. “I’m a very determined type of person and I won’t let anyone or anything get me down,” he says. “I was determined to survive through all of that.”
After his divorce went through, Puzio’s ex-wife got nearly everything, and he got his boys and $60,000. His boys were devastated but Ted told them, “I got the best end of the deal — I got you two. That’s all I need. $60,000 and I can start all over again.”
Started with a farmPuzio took his $60,000 and his persuasive personality to his local friendly banker and bought a 62-acre farm in Hardy, Virginia. He and the boys gutted the farmhouse, installed new central air and heat, redid the floors, pushed out the back walls and installed sliding glass doors and decks, and then sold it for a profit. Puzio was left with 26 acres on the property.
Fortunately for Puzio and his sons, the buyer was more interested in the pastures and the barn for his horses than he was in the house, so he let them stay there while they built a 28-ft. x 50-ft. two-story storage building on their remaining land. The three lived upstairs and the lower level was the shop, storage and inventory. He built his house 14 years ago and moved the business into what had been their upstairs living space.
He’s running a much bigger operation today — he bought a 40,000-sq.ft. building in Roanoke where Southern Trust is occupying 8,000-sq.ft. and he’s renting the rest.
Southern Trust Home Services wasn’t always Southern Trust. He began as TP Electric, wiring new home construction with the idea that the faster he could install wiring, the more money he could make. As is the case with most contractors who work for homebuilders, he found himself exhausted and still not earning what he thought was his true potential. In 1997, he changed his business name to Southern State Electric and began wiring commercial properties.
At one point his office was a container box until he was able to move the company into its first 1,700-sq.ft. office. He was able to employ three to four full-time employees but growth was miniscule.
“I’m very strong in my faith,” Puzio says. “I was raising the boys and making sure they went to church, and I had to give them someone to look up to. I’m very glad because I look back on it now and I see that it was better for myself and the boys.” His older son is a trauma surgeon and younger son Matt joined Southern Trust and is currently running its bathroom remodeling business.
“When you’re at that point, it’s hard to see where you’re at or what the future could possibly be,” he says about his past troubles, “but once you get out of it and look back, you can see each step of the process.”
Robbed of $83,000
Puzio was still running two trucks when he took his next big hit. One of his techs stole from him and he lost $83,000 in revenue, tools and equipment, never mind his time and costs. Much of it was avoidable and Puzio admits that he made many mistakes, mistakes that he’s willing to help other contractors avoid. His email address is [email protected]. He’s willing to talk to any contractor, especially any young contractor trying to find his way.
The guy was doing flat rate service work for him but as Puzio looked at the numbers, the expenses for fuel and inventory didn’t add up. He confronted him and the guy’s response was how could you possibly think of me like that? This was a guy who had worked for Ted for six or seven years and who was being groomed for a management position.
Puzio was still in a truck at that time and he took an emergency call from an irate lady who had paid the guy $200 in cash and he refused to come back. Ted demanded that the guy take an in-house drug test — mistake number one: in-house drug tests do not stand up in court. He refused and took off in Ted’s truck and refused to come back.
Puzio grabbed one of his 9mm, got a ride to the guy’s house, walked up to the door and took his keys back. Mistake number two — he went there without a sheriff’s deputy as a witness. He opened the back of his truck and it was nearly empty, but by opening it without a deputy, he had broken the chain of custody and couldn’t prove that his employee had stolen his tools and materials.
Mistake number three — he contracted with an online drug test reporting company and picked the cheapest price. Unbeknownst to him, the cheapest price was just for the county. The middle price would have done background checks for the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the most expensive was for a national records search. It turns out the guy had a long record of drug convictions in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“It was quite an experience,” he recalls. “I couldn’t do a thing.”
He had $10,000 in canceled checks that the guy had cashed but the Commonwealth attorneys told Puzio that they couldn’t meet the prosecution standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Maybe he was just doing side work, they said. His tools were found in a pawn shop, but because Puzio hadn’t recorded the model and serial numbers of the tools, he couldn’t recover them or prosecute the ex-employee for stealing them.
“He got me good. $83,000 he got me for.”
After Puzio sent letters to all of his existing customers telling them that the guy no longer worked for him but that he would honor all warranties, many told him that they had paid the ex-employee in cash.
It took an emotional toll. Puzio felt betrayed. He had put a lot of trust in this guy and had paid for his schooling. “I felt very used,” he says. Then he was angry.
It took him a while to learned how to trust again. He knew where he wanted to take his business and realized that he had to learn to trust his employees in order to grow.
Learned his lesson
Puzio learned his lesson. He has GPS in all of his trucks. He has a purchase order system in place. He has a truck inventory system and weekly truck inspections. He now has 15 vehicles, including service trucks and vehicles for managers.
Puzio uses Sage-Quest GPS-based fleet management software from Fleetmatics. The trucks are geo-fenced and Puzio receives alerts if they are driven on nights and weekends. He also gets alerts for harsh driving, such as rapid acceleration or slamming on the brakes.
‘I’m happy with how my life has turned out at this point.’
Southern Trust, post-thievery, has taken a huge turn for the better. Puzio is dedicated to providing good jobs for his employees and knew that he had to change himself and the company.
In 2006, he began training and mentoring from an international best practices organization. He shifted his focus to the residential service business and learned the customer service skills necessary to be successful in the home services business. Involvement with Mike Agugliaro’s CEO Warrior organization has been instrumental.
In 2010, Southern State Electric stopped performing all new construction and commercial work and began to focus 100 percent of its energy and expertise in residential electrical service.
In 2011, Puzio went back to school to get his Master Plumber’s License and added a plumbing division to the company. Within a year, the company had added three trucks and personnel dedicated to residential plumbing service.
Puzio went back to school again in 2014 to obtain his Master HVAC, and Master Gas Licenses, and then added an HVAC division.
In 2015, the company shaped into its present form with new branding and company name as Southern Trust Home Services. The team at that point numbered 18 employees in January 2016 when the firm moved to its current large, commercial location in Roanoke.
New hiring procedures
His experience with the thief has guided him in how he hires new employees. First, he interviews them on the phone and then has them come in for an in-person interview during working hours. He discovered that serious people come in for interviews during working hours. People who realize they can’t pass a drug or background check want to be interviewed nights and weekends but often never show up.
During the in-office interview, Puzio goes over the basics of the job and its requirements, then asks the CSRs and dispatchers to come in. Puzio casually leaves the room while the ladies give the applicant a “creeper test,” to see if he gives off a bad vibe as someone they would not want in their homes.
Puzio makes the applicants pay for their own drug and background checks. If they pass, he reimburses them. Even though they are paying out of pocket, Puzio is astounded that he still has applicants who go knowing they can’t pass a background check. He just had a convicted sex offender apply for a job in November.
Puzio has assembled an impressive group of 19 full-time people and one part-timer, who are advocates for why homeowners should want to do business with Southern Trust. The company’s core values include keeping its customers safe in their homes. To its employees that means, “think twice, act once,” and make sure everything is up to par when going into a customer’s home. With each visit, the technicians look for possible safety issues and do the same thing they would for a client that they would do for a grandparent.
Service to veterans
The Southern Trust team believes in supporting the community whenever and wherever it can, especially when it comes to veterans. In addition to its ongoing veterans discount, each year, over the course of the winter, the company helps a veteran in need by providing him or her with a free new home heating system. This has been a great source of pride for Southern Trust’s employees, and a source of gratitude from veterans and their families. The firm plans to continue this annual tradition.
Puzio is a keen supporter of Roanoke-area organizations and businesses. He has served on the Carilion Brain Injury Support Board of Directors since 2011. He has also volunteered on the Board of Directors for the Better Business Bureau from 2009 through 2011, and the Smith Mountain Regional Chamber Board from 2012 through 2014. Puzio also served on the Associate Advisory Council of the Roanoke Regional Home Builders Association from 2007 to 2016.
As well as things have worked out for Puzio in his professional life, they’ve also worked out well in his personal life. Good things often happen to Puzio in church. Friends at church introduced him to a single mother, Lynette, who is now his wife. “Everything happens for a reason in life,” he says.
“I’m happy with how my life has turned out at this point,” he says. He can be. Faced with the most difficult odds, Ted Puzio is a remarkable success story.