Jeff Kuhn was a West Islip English teacher in the 1980s. This was when many public school teachers needed side hustles to pay their bills.
Kuhn’s side hustle was fixing roofs and installing windows.
And business was booming, especially after Hurricane Gloria struck Long Island in 1985. This was also back before cell phones.
“The phone would ring in the English department office and everyone knew to answer: ‘Kuhn Construction.'”
Kuhn, now 70, recalls those times with a smirk.
Eventually, he took a one-year leave of absence from education to see this business thing through.
He never looked back.
Today, Kuhn is the owner and president of Kuhn Construction, Inc., which specializes in kitchens, bathrooms, additions, finished basements and whole-house remodels out of 417 Main St. in Islip.
The company undertakes some 25 to 35 major design and building projects a year, with an average price somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000.
What made his business so successful? The answer is simple, at least to him.
“Being honest,” he said. “Doing what you say you’re going to do.
“That’s all people want.”
The Kuhn Construction process
What people also want is guidance.
“Our designer will hold their hands through the design and selection process. People really like that,” he said, especially if they’re used to contractors telling them to go to the tile store, “where their heads explode.”
This is the design-to-build process, which wasn’t exactly common in the 1980s.
“We embraced the concept early,” Kuhn said. “We would meet with people, get a scope of the project, then come up with a budget range and design toward that budget range.”
That’s still the process today at Kuhn Construction.
Except in 2022, they have a huge team of experts on hand, instead of Kuhn himself working out the designs.
“I could do enough [three decades ago] to sell a kitchen,” he said. “Then I started using freelance designers. Now we have in-house designers, project managers, skilled carpenters. And, we’ve partnered with a local architect that we’ve been together with for 25 years.”
The packages also involve Kuhn’s team taking care of the necessary permits.
“What makes us different is the process,” Kuhn explained. “We’re not a contractor who’s going to throw a number at you, then you never hear from him again. We come to your house, learn about all your wants and needs, then you come here to discuss scope and budget.”
Once a “partnership” is forged, in Kuhn Construction language, the planning begins.
The thoughts, ideas and, ultimately, a plan crystallize in the Islip showroom.
A changing industry
Decades back, kitchen, bath and home remodels were rare. Older Long Islanders will tell you updating a home is a relatively recent trend.
Generations before were focused on upkeep and maintenance, not style.
“In the beginning, there was repair and maintenance,” Kuhn said. “You were changing the cabinets because they were literally falling off the walls. Now with the internet, social media and HGTV, people have all these ideas.”
Aesthetics aside, Long Islanders nowadays are looking for more space, he said of the most recent trends in residential construction.
This ranges from clients looking to remodel a basement for their older children or, more recently, additions and garage conversions to welcome in parents and in-laws.
“The in-law apartment is big right now,” Kuhn said. “We have kids buying their parents’ houses and then we create an apartment for the parents who are now snow birds, so when they come back to Long Island each summer, they have a place to stay.”
If it sounds like a good idea, that’s because it is.
And once Kuhn Construction executes for one family on the block, neighbors and friends get to thinking — and want the same.
Especially when the homeowners’ reports are glowing.
“We get a lot of referrals,” Kuhn said.
The next chapter
As for the company’s longevity, it wasn’t all boom times for Kuhn Construction, which has now spanned four decades in Islip.
“There were a lot of down times,” Kuhn said. “But I had a lot of faith in God. A lot of faith. That’s very important.”
Along the way, God blessed Kuhn and his wife, Ruth, with a son, Zach.
That’s all now paying dividends for the future of the business.
After having graduated from Islip High School and SUNY Oneonta, and years working in sales in New York City, the younger Kuhn has now fully joined the team at Kuhn Construction.
Talks between father and son had been in the works for years.
Finally, Jeff leveled with his son back in 2019.
“I said, ‘If you want to try this, we have to do it now,” Jeff recalled.
You see, Jeff Kuhn wants to be a snow bird, too.
Zach joined the team in June 2019.
He’s never been happier.
As for sales calls, the father explained, having a Kuhn at the table is important. For generations that have gotten to know Jeff Kuhn, sending an unknown to the house isn’t a great business idea.
“It’s a huge advantage,” Jeff said of the arrangement.
And, Zach’s presence will help ensure another four decades of business.
But the younger Kuhn knows many challenges await him.
“Me personally, I’ve only seen good times so far in these three years, it’s almost been an easy time to sell, “he said. “I know it is not always going to be like this, but I also know staying consistent and keeping the team retained, and never getting too big or taking on too many jobs is the key.
“This company is about hand-holding,” he added. “It’s a white glove, concierge-type of service.”
The family vows, that’s how it will remain.
Contact Kuhn Construction, Inc.
Top: Jeff Kuhn with his son Zach at the Kuhn Construction showroom in Islip. (Michael White)