Building Relationships

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Every dream kitchen or bath starts with an idea, and a desire to make that dream a reality. But, no matter how good that idea is, and how stunning the ensuing design becomes, the truth is that completing a project can become a nightmare if things aren’t handled correctly. Misplaced orders, miscommunication and disappearing or unreliable workers can make the stressful renovation period almost unbearable for consumers and designers alike.

Though this can be a source of frustration, kitchen and bath designers often have little choice but to hand off their dream projects to subcontractors to get the job done. Designers are the creators, but subcontractors are the skilled craftsmen that make the design come to life.
“I am only as good as my subcontractors are,” admits Klaudia Spivey, CMKBD, IIDA, president, Design Times Inc., in Denver, CO.

Subcontractors can make you or break you. They can make you look like you are creating magic, or they can make you look like you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.”

Subcontractors also help design firms take on more jobs, and therefore make more money. Notes Ed Cholfin, president, Advanced Kitchens in Marietta, GA, “The main reason that we’re moving to more of a subcontract environment is to control overhead. At the same time, it will allow us to do more jobs concurrently. Bringing in more subcontractors, or utilizing subcontractors more frequently, allows us to increase the amount of jobs that we can address concurrently which, in the long run, will maintain our margins and increase our revenue stream.”

The Right Stuff

Of course, there are some basic steps to follow when looking for a good subcontractor. Checking references and reviewing job sites is just the beginning.

“When we’re looking for a good subcontractor, we look for reputation, number one,” notes Cholfin. But then the firm goes through a multi-step process of review. “Before we allow them to work for us, they need to provide us with a portfolio and carry the necessary insurance including workman’s comp and preferably liability. We also talk with their customers.”

Monty Moore of Neil Kelly Co. in Portland, OR adds that Neil Kelly Co. maintains a database of trade contractors that have been approved for use by the firm’s designers and project managers. “We review their application for inclusion to the approved list and check references,” he states. “In order to be accepted, the subcontractor must be in good standing with our state contractors’ board and may not have had any disciplinary actions taken against the firm by the board. In addition, the subcontractor must maintain insurance during all of our projects, have and manage a safety plan as well as a hazardous materials plan and list NKC as an additional insured.”

Peggy Deras, CKD, CID, owner/president, Kitchen Artworks, in South San Francisco, CA notes that she never simply accepts a subcontractor who is prospecting for work, nor does she refer a subcontractor for work without having first worked with him or her. “My best source for finding subcontractors is through my local chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), as well as my clients,” she remarks. “When my clients come to me, they are often already committed to a contractor, so I go through the project with their contractor. I continue to work with that contractor and refer work to him when that past project has been exceptional.”

When recommending a subcontractor for a project, a key to success is matching the personality of the sub with the client, according to Randy O’Kane, CKD, designer, Bilotta Kitchens in Mamaroneck, NY. “You’re basically making a marriage,” she explains. “If you have a customer who is very particular in terms of detailing with regard to tile, you want to find a tile guy that has the same personality. And, if you have a client who is really easy going, generally that client will want to work with somebody who is like that. They want to have a subcontractor who sort of mirrors their personality so it’s comfortable, because these things are pretty high stress as it is.”

O’Kane also recommends selecting a subcontractor who works in the customer’s area. “Familiarity is important, because the client will know if the person did work on the neighbor’s house. Also, if the subcontractor only works in one area, he’ll be around the job site a lot more often,” she stresses.

The questions to ask when looking for recommendations are basic, but they’re important, adds O’Kane. “Were they clean? Were they on time? Did they stick to the schedule? When responses are “yes” and the customers have a good experience, that subcontractor goes on my list as someone I would refer to people.”

John Noel, owner, Kitchen Design Center in Valley View, OH, stresses that timeliness is a key issue for his subcontractors. “If a guy doesn’t come until 11 a.m. one day and 2 p.m. the next, he’s not reliable. And we stress good work habits, as well as good customer service and a clean appearance,” he notes.

“Their appearance needs to signify that they’re not a bum,” agrees Cholfin. “Since most of our work is high end, the customer has to have a comfort level when someone steps in the door. We don’t want them to be nervous or afraid. We want them to present themselves as though they are a part of Advanced Kitchens.”

Critical Communication

Moving past the basic requirements, kitchen and bath designers note that clear and open communication is critical to making the designer/subcontractor relationship work. Good communication with each other, and communication with the client, can make a difficult process that much smoother. On the flip side, poor communicating can undermine every aspect of the job.

Good communication is about more than just exchanging contact information and trading phone calls, notes Darius Baker, CR, CKBR, CEO, D&J Kitchens and Baths Inc., in Sacramento, CA, who also works as a subcontractor in the area. “It means talking in a language that everybody understands,” he explains.

Also important to communication is setting the guidelines for who is in control. “You need to establish boundary lines – who’s making the decisions, who’s ordering the products, who’s buying the permits,” Baker offers.

O’Kane notes that when she’s looking for a subcontractor, she wants one who “can not only communicate with me, but with the customers. That’s even more important, because they generally have a host of questions.

“A person who works with the customer and handles problems goes on my list as somebody I would refer, because the subcontractor needs to have a lot of communication with the customer on a daily basis. They’re going to have coffee with that guy in the morning,” she adds.

The Team Approach

Establishing good communication between the designer and the subcontractor often leads to the relationship both parties are looking for – a true partnership. Both sides agree that working together as a team is the most effective way to accomplish the goal in the smoothest way possible.

In fact, Neil Kelly Co. goes so far as to refer to its subcontractors as Trade Contractor Partners. “There is something about the subcontractor term that diminishes the role of these important members of the project team,” comments Moore.

Spivey stresses the respect that each party should hold for the other as a key in making the team concept work. “We know we’re in this together and we just want to make it work. We want the clients to have a wonderful end product,” she states.

And here is where communication comes in once again. “You have to always be aware of what’s going on. If there’s a problem on a job, you don’t want a subcontractor who stands there and rants and raves in front of the homeowner,” Spivey adds. “I want the person who will go out to his car, get on his cell phone and discreetly call me so that we can discuss any problems.”

“We stress that we’re a relationship entity. Subcontractors are part of our family,” states Cholfin. “If they’re having a bad day, we want to know about the issue and how we can help. All we expect them to do is their job and put our customers before any other situation.”

“I always look for subcontractors who want to work as a team because it’s important not to burden the homeowner with why we’re losing sleep,” remarks Spivey. “It’s up to us to put our heads together, put our best foot forward and make it happen.”

“I’m only out on the jobsite if I get a call that I need to be there, or if something needs to be clarified,” notes Deras. She adds that it’s in that kind of interaction that a designer finds out whether the subcontractor is a team player and is really working so that everybody is happy at the end of the project, or whether he is someone who just wants to push off blame onto somebody else. “The ones who really want to develop a relationship – a long-standing relationship with the client and the designer – they are team players,” she stresses.

“The bottom line is, be respectful to those who are working with you,” concludes Spivey. “To other people, he may just be a carpet installer, but to me he is ‘my’ carpet installer, and I know he will take care of my best interests. It may be something I’ve designed, but we have created it.”

The Other Point of View

While kitchen and bath designers know what they want from their relationships with subcontractors, understanding what subcontractors are looking for only strengthens their partnerships.

“One of the things that we do as a company to maintain a good relationship with subcontractors is pay on time,” comments Noel.
“I’ve also been known to bake brownies and show up with coffee at jobsites,” jokes Spivey.

From a subcontractor perspective, Baker notes, “When a designer comes to me with a project, it needs to be a complete package. This includes all of the drawings, the electrical plan and specifications, colors, materials, products, all of that.”

He adds that this is probably one of the biggest problems that he has when working with designers. “I even had one designer tell me that those decisions don’t need to be made ahead of time – that it just happens after you get started!

“If the complete package isn’t in place, the communication starts going south when the contractor gets there,” explains Baker. “If you’re putting in the cabinets and ask the customer where the sink is, and the sink hasn’t been chosen yet, with that first simple question you’ve started undermining the trust that the client placed in the designer. It creates doubt on the client’s side about the relationship between the contractor and the designer.”

Noel recognizes the need to supply the subcontractor with the necessary information. “We give as much information about the job as possible – including design specs, layouts, etc. – so that they get an idea of what the kitchen looks like, what they need to do, the specs that are involved, the number of cabinets that go into it,” he comments. “We also write in the notation area some things they need to look for, so that they’re not going in just trying to complete it as best they can and forget about the rest.”

Deras goes a step further, including the contractor in the design process when she can. “The contractor is there to answer questions, so that all of the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted before anything has been torn apart,” she stresses.

Since she works primarily on houses built at the turn of the 20th century and in the 1950s that have been previously remodeled, there are many mysteries to be resolved. “Any mystery that can be solved ahead of time means that the bid is that much more solid and it won’t change,” Deras comments. “As a result, the client is that much less likely to run into financial surprises during the process. And that makes everybody happy during a stressful time."