It’s commonplace to hear about or read the mocking, and sometimes scathing, letters people have angrily penned to corporate executives or newspaper editors when they’ve felt ripped off or received poor service. For the writers, the exercise is often therapeutic, and once in awhile, someone in a position of authority might even take the correspondence to heart.
But it’s not so common that 45 people (in a single year’s time) would take the time to compose elaborate, glowing letters about one person.
Based on those 45 letters, as well as work done so expertly that no one asked him back to fix anything twice, local carpenter John Thompson was hand-picked from more than 4,000 nominees as International Craftsman of the Year for Handyman Connection, a business of tradesmen who answer call-ins from homeowners for a variety of complaints.
Handyman Connection’s local franchise is owned by Dennis Shelley. He said his employees do “small jobs,” ranging from installing ceiling fans or shelving, to painting rooms and hanging doors, which is Thompson’s specialty and the job he’s most often asked to do, although he’d like not to be pigeonholed.
“Sometimes I want to tell them, ‘hey, it’s not the only thing I like to do,’” said Thompson, whose weathered face attests to his enjoyment of repairing decks in the summertime.
Born in Anchorage, Alaska, and raised in Colorado Springs, Thompson, 46, is a “good ol’ boy” according to Shelley, who hired him in 2000. Shelley, a Michigan native who’s experience in business ranges from sales and marketing to managing a technical support call center, said Thompson is “laid-back” like many Coloradans he’s met, and has “strong values.”
Those values apparently include modesty. “Winning out of 50 guys at the office … that was almost a bigger deal than the whole thing, you know, because the guys I work with are really, really good at what they do,” Thompson said. But making the journey to Las Vegas, where he accepted the honor, he admits was pretty exciting, it just took awhile to sink in.
After working as a superintendent for several companies, Thompson was working for a temp agency just over four years ago when a newspaper ad searching for a “handyman” grabbed his attention. “When I was interviewing John, I asked what frustrations he’d had as a carpenter,” Shelley said. “He told me about working up in Denver with guys who did just horrible work. He seemed to take a lot of pride in the work he did.”
His customers agree.
The International Craftsman award meant something more to Thompson, who worked many hours in 2003 after taking time off the year before as his wife, Tanny, successfully battled cancer. Thompson said winning the award came as a wonderful surprise to him and his family, which includes two sons, Chris, 22, and Sean, 14.
A handyman at heart, Thompson’s calling comes naturally. He comes from a long line of carpenters, mostly cabinetmakers, including his father, grandfather and several uncles. Working with wood and fixing household items that have fallen into disrepair, which were sometimes extracurricular activities for family members, is a vocation Thompson feels fortunate to do full-time, and “it’s never hard to find work.”
Calling Thompson on the phone, he claimed, laughing, that he was “lost somewhere in the Broadmoor area” though he has lived in Colorado Springs since he was a child. Then he clarified that it was his day off but he was on his way to “fix a job somebody else messed up.” A happy-go-lucky guy with a smile for everyone, Thompson in 2003 never had a single call-back, a customer who was dissatisfied with a job he’d done. “I do a lot of other people’s warranties,” he said.
But Thompson doesn’t want anyone to think that he alone earned the International Craftsman of the Year award. He said he works with a lot of good people, and “without everybody doing really good, I couldn’t get a lot of the jobs I get.”
And Thompson has done his share of dirty jobs, always working with his hands, ranging from construction in Colorado to building yachts in St. Augustine, Fla. Yacht building is “nasty work,” he said, because working with fiberglass causes nonstop itching. Thompson helped build a yacht for easygoing singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, whom he casually calls “a nice guy” with country-boy common sense.
It’s Thompson’s healthy dose of good humor that makes the most lasting impression. He recounted a story about a fence, wood stain and a beautiful white hunting dog.
“On the garden sprayer I was using, the nozzle got stuck and I knew spray was about to go everywhere. I pointed it at a dirt patch in the grass as I tried to fix it,” he said, starting to laugh. “The owner had this pure white dog, just beautiful, and I told him to keep it on the leash so the dog wouldn’t get into the stain.”
But the owner didn’t listen, saying the dog would never go near it.
“Of course, as soon as he was off the leash, he went straight for it. He rolled in it, just covered in red stain. And [the stain] was oil-based, so that doesn’t just come off with water.” He shrugged, grinning. “I don’t know what they used to clean him up, but he was white again the next day.”
Despite occasionally painting a white dog red, Thompson’s professionalism comes across in his work. For student and homemaker Veronica Vigil, Thompson fixed a set of French doors in her bedroom and the front door to her house in November. “If he had to leave for a minute, he let me know. He let me know what he was working on and explained everything to me,” Vigil said. “He looked and acted very professional, and he was very friendly.”
According to Shelley, Handyman Connection’s location in Colorado Springs gets a lot of calls from women over 45, usually with household incomes of more than $70,000 a year. A handyman goes to the house personally for an estimate, and each bid is free of charge. The customer pays per job, not per hour, so there are no hidden fees.
Shelley employs five full-time workers, as well as 47 independent contractors, of which Thompson is one. He claims his franchise is set apart by its commitment to high standards. “We’re never late. Period. No excuses,” he said, and when asked how his employees feel about that, such as if a fellow worker is reprimanded or fired because of tardiness, “Amazingly enough, they love it. What it does, by setting the standard, is they take pride in their job.”
Shelley submitted Thompson’s name for consideration for the company award, filling out a multi-part application with nearly a dozen sections looking at different facets of the employee: revenue, jobs finished, call backs, close rate and community service as well as letters from customers. “I picked about 20 letters that elaborated the things that made them appreciative of John’s work,” Shelley said. In addition, Shelley turned in five before-and-after pictures of jobs that Thompson had completed to Handyman Connection headquarters in Cincinnati.
Thompson worked with Habitat for Humanity last year and is a regular face at the Salvation Army, helping to serve Thanksgiving dinner and ringing bells for donations at Christmas time. As Art Owens put it, “Quality is an intense part of my life, and John’s one of the few people who’s ever really satisfied it.”
Owens, a sales manager at Outpost Harley-Davidson, a motorcycle shop in Pueblo, needed to qualify for a VA loan to refinance his house. Painting the house was a necessity. “We were just lucky we got John to do the job,” Owens said. “If he makes a promise, that’s how it’s going to be.”
Cutting tree limbs out of the way, scraping away old paint, sanding and cleaning a 60-year-old house that had probably never been maintained according to its owner, it seems no job is too big for Thompson. “It looks as good as new,” Owens said. “John is one o
f those people you run into rarely. It’s nice to see him recognized for his excellence.”