Tabletop Beginnings

Success unfolds for Tundraland by ‘doing good’

Posted on Aug 1, 2016 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Opportunity doesn’t always knock. Sometimes, it comes from the sky like a sun shower.

It would have been easy for Brian Gottlieb to miss the opportunity that slipped into his consciousness about a year after founding Tundraland Home Improvement. At the time it was essentially a startup company doing sunroom installations in a home improvement market struggling to shed the doldrums of a recession. 

There were other distractions besides being the owner of a fledgling company. After all, his mother — still living on her own in Green Bay — had recently fallen in her bathtub and sustained a life-changing injury. Despite the distractions and his focus on his mother’s condition, he couldn’t get a statistic someone mentioned to him out of his head.

Then the lightbulb went on.

“Did you know that more than 250,000 people in the U.S. fall and injure themselves in a bathtub every year?” Gottlieb asks as he tells the story. “That’s a business opportunity.”

So the fledgling sunroom builder added tub and bath replacement to its repertoire. Fast forward six years, and Kaukauna-based Tundraland is now one of the largest single-site providers of walk-in tubs and showers in Wisconsin in addition to its other custom tub and shower installation services. Overall, the company handles about 150 tub and bath remodeling jobs a month.

Stark startup

It all started with a folding table.

In May of 2009, at the height of one of the worst economic stretches experienced by the home construction and remodeling industry, Gottlieb started Tundraland in a Little Chute warehouse with nothing more than a folding table and $3,000 cash.

True, the banks weren’t lending money and those initial projects were hard to come by. The first sale would come during a home improvement show hosted at the Fox River Mall where Gottlieb was able to make a single appointment.

As bleak as the business landscape seemed, Gottlieb sensed there was opportunity.

“I knew a lot of home improvement businesses had gone under, but I also know that meant there were a lot of great people out there looking for work,” Gottlieb says. “What I needed to do was to create a business that was about more than just the products we sold.”

Gottlieb defines that as a business that can both “do well and do good” — that is not only profitable, but also improves the lives of its customers, employees and the community.

Clearly, it’s working.

Rapid returns

Tundraland has come a long way since that first sunroom sale. Indeed, the company sold more products on one day in June than it did during its first year in business. Bath remodels were added in 2010 and a few years later replacement windows were added to the mix.

The company quickly outgrew its initial location and now has its showroom, offices and warehouses in a two-building complex along Interstate 41 in Kaukauna, home to 140 employees and counting. The company expects to hit roughly $28 million in sales this year and has a goal for 2017 of $40 million.

Crews from Tundraland work on about 300 home improvement projects a month.

“I have no idea how to grow at just 5 percent,” says Gottlieb. “We are constantly chasing ourselves.”

As the company has grown, so has its presence in the community. Through Tundraland, Gottlieb has partnered with the Green Bay Packers and is a sponsor of regional community events such as Mile of Music and Fox Cities Restaurant Week.

“We had an instant connection over our love of the greater community,” says Dave Willems, CEO of Willems Marketing & Events and a co-founder of Mile of Music. “He really has a passion for trying to do cool things for the community and the region.”

Basic beginnings

As big as the profile grows, Gottlieb always tries to stay true to the company’s origins — every new division or project starts on a folding table.

There is a definite method to his madness, and it’s all about maintaining a startup culture and using the successes it breeds as an example for others to follow. If other employees can see a new product line grow from a barren tabletop to a major success, perhaps they will be inspired to share their ideas as well.

“There is a satisfaction that comes with seeing those ideas grow,” Gottlieb says. “Everyone involved has a story they can tell. It’s inspirational for others.”

Creating those inspirational stories is a key part of the company culture at Tundraland. In addition to maintaining a startup environment, the company has initiated several other efforts to inspire employees and encourage exceptional efforts.

It doesn’t have to be complex. Installers, for example, earn stickers for their doors when they complete one of the company’s monthly Tundraland Cares projects. It’s similar to the helmet stickers college football players receive when they make a key play that helps the team succeed.

Instilling pride in everything an employee does is infectious, and a key principle in driving both the employee culture and the growth the company has enjoyed, Gottlieb says.

While the talent supply has tightened in Northeast Wisconsin during the past few years, Gottlieb says the company has not struggled to find workers. In part, he says, it’s because he’d rather train folks from the region who are committed to the company’s philosophy than spend time chasing talent from elsewhere.

“We want to provide both an opportunity and a career path,” he says. “We want a job here to be about more than a paycheck. We are looking for people who we can trust in, can coach and who understand being part of something greater.”

The philosophy seems to be infectious.

Katie Casey, an operator in the company’s call center, joined the company slightly more than a year ago and has quickly adapted to its culture of empowerment.

“There is always something going on — it’s always busy,” she says. “You see people doing cool things and you want to do them too.”

Doing good

That workplace culture spills over into the  Tundraland Cares program, a multitude of efforts supporting the second part of Gottlieb’s business philosophy: Doing good.

As part of Tundraland Cares, the company takes on a remodeling project each month for someone in need at no cost. Many of them are never known to the public, though a few have gained some traction.

In one such case, Tundraland arranged for Mike Alsteen, a Gulf War veteran who has since developed multiple sclerosis, to receive a VIP tour of Lambeau Field and a night out with the Green Bay Gamblers. What Alsteen didn’t know was that while he was out, a crew from the company “crashed” his bathroom, performing a compete handicap-accessible remodel.

During the second intermission of the Gamblers game, the remodel was revealed to Alsteen while he was at center ice as part of Military Appreciation Night.

Other projects are a bit more visible from the start.

At Mile of Music, Tundraland challenged folks to sing in the shower displays the company had placed along College Avenue as a fundraiser for music education. If 250 people participate, Tundraland would pay a year of music education for a deserving student.

The first event was in 2014, and Jordan Oudenhoven received a guitar and a year’s worth of lessons at Heid Music. Oudenhoven performed with Mile of Music co-founder Cory Chisel at last year’s festival, and the 2015 winner will perform with him when the 2016 edition opens.

“I’m looking forward to the day when we have about 10 of them up there and can form a whole band,” Gottlieb says.

This year, Tundraland held its first Windows for a Cause event. More than 100 windows removed from recent replacement projects were given to regional artists and personalities with a challenge to create community inspired artworks. The windows were then displayed and auctioned off during an event at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.

The proceeds from the event will be used to purchase a new wheelchair for a veteran who has used a wheelchair for 40 years. The new chair includes supports and a lift to enable him to stand.

But there was also a second benefit to Windows for a Cause: windows and glass that would have gone into the landfill were diverted and given a more constructive purpose.

“We get to improve someone’s quality of life from windows that would have been thrown away,” Gottlieb says.

Peering ahead

While the past seven years have been a whirlwind, Gottlieb has made sure to take time to reflect on the past and use it to shape his future vision for Tundraland. He acknowledges the good fortune the company has enjoyed, and works diligently to ensure it will continue for both himself, and the employees who work for him.

Expansion is on his mind, though perhaps not the traditional models.

“I’d like to do more in the Madison area, and we’ve been talking about using some pop-up kiosks in other areas to see how that would work,” Gottlieb says, noting the company already services large regions in the state.

The idea of using pop-up kiosks — temporary settings that lower costs and require less overhead — is another nod to the startup culture Gottlieb tries to maintain.

“As long as the world has folding tables, we will always be a startup culture,” he says.

He seems just as committed to growing his involvement with community events and institutions, which now number more than a dozen — and there always seems to be something new. Again, it’s part of Gottlieb’s “do well, do good” approach.

“Events like Mile of Music are a chance to celebrate and say a lot about a community,” Gottlieb says. “I’m not just building a business. I’m trying to build an iconic company that’s woven into the fabric of the community.”