What makes for success as an interior contractor and what are the basics of staying in business? An experienced contractor takes a look at some of the misconceptions that plague the industry and brings the focus back to fundamentals that can help you understand the full value of your skill set.
Being in business in this economy means understanding the fundamentals of our industry and where it's going. As a small business owner I've seen my fair share of ups and downs. Usually most of the misunderstandings and problems can be solved by a little inquiry and a lot of listening.
The following is a list of questions I am asked most often. Do they sound familiar?
From General Contractors
Will you break apart your package? How much money can you save us through value engineering? How many men can you put on the job? How much time can you make up? When can we paint? Do you paint? How long can you wait on your money?
Does the bus stop by your shop? Can I borrow your knife/tape/hammer/cordless? What are those little marks after the inches called again? Can I get an advance on my check this week? Can I have tomorrow off? What exactly do you mean by "you’re fired"?
I’ve got a crack in my living room ceiling… do you do side work? You don’t mind patching that, do you? If I pay cash can I get a lower price? I thought you would jump at the chance to work through the holidays – don’t you need the money?
These questions all illustrate one problem the interior contractor has: a lack of respect. This is not peculiar to interiors; every trade suffers from similar problems. What I have found to be peculiar to interiors is our own lack of self-respect. We do not know how to say "no!"
Maybe it's because we have so many competitors ready to snatch our customers away, or maybe deep down we know that people think that just about anybody could do our job. The thing is, just anybody cannot do our job. There is a reason we exist as a sub trade set. We are not the problem. We are the solution to the problem. When we realize that the interior contractor is just as indispensable as the excavator, the electrician, the plumber or the HVAC guy, then we will have the courage to stand our ground against unreasonable demands and ridiculous requests. Take a note from Nancy Reagan: just say no!
As contractors, there are questions we hear over and over again. Some are technical in nature, others run the gamut. The following questions give an introduction to who we are and what we do. Maybe if we spend some time back at the beginning, we will gain better perspective on the value of what we do.
Here are the five questions that really matter.
What do interior contractors do?
In residential, we hang and finish drywall and texture ceilings. Before the crash, we did much more new housing than we do now. Remodeling and additions make up the bulk of our residential work these days. In commercial, we frame, hang and finish drywall, insulate, and install acoustic ceilings. Some contractors paint, some do finish trim, and others do flooring, but primarily the package is the first four.
Framing may be wood but typically it is metal. Walls may be load-bearing, curtain wall, or partition. Exterior substrates commonly fall within our skill set. Metal roof framing falls more and more within our purview. Although there are plenty of specialized insulation contractors out there, because of its integral relationship with the "first side, second side" drywall installation process, fiberglass batts, and vapor barriers are nearly always ours to do. Acoustic ceilings, like radius and arched partitions, are becoming more and more exotic. The skill set required for the variables you encounter installing ceilings includes a sharp mind and an eye for finish detail.
Don’t lose sight of your work as a part of the bigger picture. No mud man is going to fix sloppy framing, no painter will repair poor miters or out-of-square grid. While framing, keep the hanger in mind. While hanging, keep the finisher in mind. While finishing, keep the painter in mind. While installing ceilings, keep the owner/end user in mind.
Add to this all the coordination you must do with the general contractor and the other sub trades, and the challenges facing the interior contractor and his crew are not slight.
Is it hard to become an interior contractor?
Well, no and yes. No, in that anybody with some experience, a few tools, and a truck can make a start of it, but not many make a go of it. I personally know many guys who are in and out of the business all the time. They have the desire but not the skill set or business savvy. Yes, it is difficult to establish yourself and stay in business. Cultivating relationships with customers, estimating, buying materials, scheduling jobs and manpower, and managing cash flow lack glamour but are essential to success. Most of the interior contractors I know, including me, came up through the trades. None of what we do is rocket science, but there are so many things to know that I would recommend at least 10 years in the trade before you take the plunge (the first four learning the trade and the next six learning people and the business).
Could you use some help?
The short answer is always yes. But, no, I do not need your cousin to hold the dumb end of the tape. We have plenty of untrained help already. Good help, trained help, reliable help that shows up every day and produces quality work in quantity is ALWAYS in short supply. The ambitious, conscientious types typically turn into contractors themselves. Pay your workers well. Treat them with respect. Give them incentive to take care of you and help to grow your business. Some companies like to hire only skilled journeymen while others train their workers in-house. Regardless, get and keep good help. It can make or break your business.
What is the toughest part of your job?
Honestly, right now it is making money. There are many competing business philosophies that generate income, but not every contractor can live with or is wired to operate in the most lucrative ways. Sound business principles always apply, but matters of conscience make a difference in the bottom line as well. Some jobs I just will not do and in some business practices I will not participate. In this current environment, it seems we are all in a race to the bottom. I, for one, do not want to get there first. I tried cutting my rates to the bone, but it just meant finishing the job in the red. I can do that without those slim margins. Making money keeps us in the game, but the true name of the game is relationships. Young or new contractors often have to "buy" a job to get their foot in the door, but after they prove themselves often they can relax their margins a bit and focus on serving their customers’ needs. I try to stay close to the market, but I do not want to be low every time. If you have established yourself, you have the luxury of being a known commodity, a go-to guy. Price gets you in the door, but relationships keep the door open. Never forget that.
What is the most satisfying part of interior contracting?
For me, it is the work itself. I like building things, but lingering after the final clean out, looking over the freshly completed job, knowing you have overcome obstacles, delays, and technical difficulties and helped to solve someone’s problem and helped someone to grow, expand, and realize a dream is the essence of what we do. We solve problems. We are a solution. That is very satisfying.
These questions are quite basic and the answers brief but, in the current economic environment, this is where you start. Know why you are in business. Know what your bottom line is. Know your limitations, what you will and will not do. Know your customers, your employees, your competitors. Finally, know your own worth. This knowledge will keep you in the fight, slogging it out through the tough times, building a head of steam as things get better.
Rob Thimmes, 30 year veteran of the interior trades and 15 year owner of Homefront Construction Company, still wears his tools most days. As owner/operator of a small business, he has worn all the hats: estimator, accountant, truck driver, warehouse man, project manager, superintendent, foreman, journeyman, and laborer. When he's not on the job he enjoys writing, blacksmithing, church, his family and 'solving all the world's problems'.