Improve Your Shop’s Relationship with Builders

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“Your price is way too high!”

“We gotta have those cabinets in five weeks!”

“It’s got to be really high quality for this job!”

Ever hear any of this from a builder? Low cost, fast delivery and a beautiful job. Seems like these days they want all three.

We used to joke around that a customer could pick any two – price, speed, quality – but not all three. Now, if your shop can’t come through with the whole package, you’re just not good enough for many contractors.

Does your own shop work with builders? If it does, the work can take many forms: from the one-off kitchen remodel with the small, pick-up truck contactor to the multiple-floor commercial building or tract work with bigger builders. The issues are often the same, and if your shop is to thrive, you may want to think about how to deal with the different problem areas.

The key to working with builders is figuring out how to build loyalty in a business that is often somewhat lacking in love and affection.

With homeowners, you get one chance to perform their one job. Sure, you may get referrals from your work, but chances are Mr. and Mrs. Loopner will not be doing another kitchen remodel next year. Not so with builders. They’re constantly looking at their next project. And it’s that repeat business that can be a foundation of your shop’s health.

So, just how can you convert the constant challenges of working with builders into a steady and loyal relationship – one that repeats work and profitability for you? The answers may be in taking those three main concerns – price, speed, quality – and converting them into different issues.


Builders usually want the most competitive (lowest) price possible. Here is your first challenge, especially if you’re trying to get started with a new account. Chances are, a particular builder has a relationship with a shop; perhaps he’s used the subcontractor in the past for his work, and it’s an established relationship.

Your job is to provide value in addition to a good price. So, if you’re trying to sell your shop’s services to a builder, it’s good to probe beyond the pricing. Your reliability isn’t the only thing important here, but rather the small things your shop may bring to the table.

For example, does the shop he’s using right now provide samples? Can the shop deal smoothly and professionally with end users if the builder wants? Does the other shop provide shop drawings?

You may want to demonstrate that, while the potential builder may be paying a rock-bottom price, he may not be getting as much as he would from your shop – and that could end up saving him money if he changes to you.

Don’t hesitate to talk about the other two items, too, in the context of price. Is the builder getting a great deal right now, but also getting unreliable or slow deliveries? Those delays may actually be costing him money if he has to put off other subcontractors or material drops to his jobsite.

The schedule is something most builders live by, and how your shop can interface with a builder’s timeline is critical. If you can offer flexibility, you’ll be ahead of the competition. If there’s one thing most contractors can’t stand, it’s having the subcontractor dictate the pace of their job.

So, ask yourself, can your shop offer a speedy turnaround, along with the possibility of storing the work? Remember, too, that so often, the jobsite isn’t ready for you when you’re done building your work.

Again, the key here is going out of the box with regard to what the builder is used to – and providing more options than what his current supplier is offering.

With regard to quality of the work, you may want to “think different.”

With many shops, how things are constructed is really important. After all, we’re usually engineering types, people who want to build for keeps.

But for many builders, it’s more important how things look.

Can you cut some corners in the shop to make things go through the production line faster? Perhaps you could screw and not dowel? With a fat Conformat screw, maybe the rabbet you’ve always cut is unnecessary, and a simple butt joint will do? Have you looked at the way you apply your nailing strips? Is it quick and easy? How about your scribes? Are they easily milled out on the shop floor, and is there a simple method for applying them to the carcase?

How about the materials you’re using? Could you use a pre-finished maple melamine instead of plywood and save some money on the material or finishing?

When you’re trying to figure out how to keep the price down, the speed up and not sacrifice the quality, you’ll need to take a good, hard look at the quality of what you build. You may find you’re overbuilding for some contractors.


If you want to build and maintain a solid contractor base, there are a few more things to keep in mind – beyond buying contractors tickets for the game or taking them fishing.

First and foremost – it’s slow pay. Get used to it. It’s a way of life for builders. Unlike end-user homeowners (from whom you may often be able to collect a check upon delivery of cabinets), 30 days is quick pay. You may be able to move things along faster with deposits, progress payments and even discounting your final invoice.

So, make sure you have the ability to carry yourself while the builder processes your billing, then delays paying you. Many have a “pay when paid” policy: They won’t pay the subs until they themselves have invoiced and been paid by their client. A bank credit line can help here, as can your own “war chest” – cash in the bank.

Another area of builder appreciation is the ability to fix things fast. There’s nothing worse for a contractor than to have a lingering problem on a job. A door that’s sized incorrectly, or worse still, a cabinet that doesn’t fit, is just one example. If you can somehow make it a priority to take care of issues fast, you’ll be remembered well.

Finally, let the builder be in control – or at least let him think that he is. The contractor world is all about him being the boss. This goes for price, schedule and quality. If you provide all three, you’ll convert your builders into loyal and constant providers of work for your shop.

To read past columns on Shop Management by Steve Nicholls, and send us your comments about this article and others, visit Kitchen & Bath Design News’ Web site: