This is the second in a continuing series of quarterly round table discussions, powered by toolmaker Festool, to which highly regarded professional craftsmen from around the country are invited to discuss and share their insights about the profession. (For the first round table, see Qualified Remodeler, January 2013, p. 16.)
In addition to moderator Michael Williams of Festool, this conversation included custom furniture maker Jory Brigham, custom carpenter Darcy Warner, Pacific Coast Home Solutions founder Eric Martinson, and Chicago Window and Door Solutions owner Greg Burnet. The panelists chatted about a wide range of topics, from seasonal work and hiring extra hands to a shared love of white boards.
Michael Williams: Guys, thanks so much for taking part in this discussion to share your insights. In the remodeling and construction industries, a lot of work is seasonal. I’m curious; do you find that to be the case? Is there an influx of business in the warmer months, compared to the colder months?
Greg Burnet: We’re a window and door contractor, and we run the gamut from whole-frame and insert placements and restorations, to custom wood storms. For us, it really is seasonal. Frankly, the worse the winter is, the more demand we’re likely to have for our services. We tend to get pretty busy thanks to people planning to do projects going into spring and summer.
We also do quite a bit of multi-unit work, and we have repeat customers who will come back year after year. Very often we’ll confer with them at the very end of the year and try to schedule their project to where it’ll be better suited for everyone involved. We try to give customers a bit of incentive to push some work off until the end of the year or into the winter so we actually have some shop time.
Jory Brigham: For me, as a furniture maker, it’s not really affected by the seasons so much. It’s different around Christmas and the holidays, when it goes up a little bit, but it stays very steady. If things do slow down slightly, we tend to use that time to create extras of my more popular pieces. But in general, I have no idea when it’s going to hit and when it’s not going to hit. I wish I did.
Darcy Warner: There’s always something to do. There’s always something to do. That said, I suppose I’m usually busier in the winter than I am the summer — more people want me inside doing trim work, doors, hanging doors, interior work and so forth.
Michael Williams: Along those lines, could you elaborate on the types of work you do in the winter versus the summer?
Darcy Warner: Well, with regard to summertime, school is out; people with families tend to go on vacation and spend time together. A lot of people don’t really consider having anything done then. They tend push that kind of work into fall, winter and spring. At least that’s my experience.
Eric Martinson: For my business, it’s not seasonal in the way it used to be. We’re pretty aggressive about our marketing. I never turn off the switch to market it. We run projects that are inside and outside the house. We’re always calling people, giving them estimates and letting them decide whether now is a good time. As a result, I don’t see a huge downturn in the winter or a huge uptick in spring or summer or fall because we’re constantly marketing.
Michael Williams: Do any of you market different services during different times of the year?
Greg Burnet: We don’t differentiate or offer specific things. We do have seasonal incentives that we offer our prospects, but none of those have to do with the work — they’re mostly promoting the company. We might call with a different offering, but the projects are the same and the work is the same.
Michael Williams: So you use that as a lever to get more business during what could otherwise potentially be a slower time?
Greg Burnet: Absolutely. We look forward to every holiday possible. We’re always talking about the next holiday and the next seasonal event.
Michael Williams: And what kind of a lead time, from getting that call to starting the job, would you average? How booked do you get?
Darcy Warner: It depends. I could be there the next day. It could be quick, or it could be long and drawn out; it doesn’t make a difference.
Jory Brigham: For me, it’s really how customized the job is, what kind of details go into the furniture. It can be quite quick. Or, it can drag out if they switch things up. I just had a job where, throughout a year, the client was very particular on everything. His wife was even more particular [laughs]. It was a big investment for them, and they really wanted to make sure everything was perfect. So I suppose it can be anywhere from a year to a week.
Greg Burnet: We used to be a design/build/remodeling firm. For us, it just became a grind to go through the overall process. Realistically, from concept to completion, we could be talking a year or more. Now we specialize in doors and windows.
Michael Williams: We were talking about a long lead time in terms of the planning process. How do you guys assess your needs for a project?
Eric Martinson: My firm doesn’t do design and build in any way. All of the things that we do are on a menu. The homeowners choose the project they want. For any product we use, it’s a three- to five-day turnaround with my manufacturers. Over the course of 15 years, I’ve gotten us to that point where I choose manufacturers who can deliver quickly.
We’re on the job the very next day after the sale, during the revision period, remeasuring and recalculating all of our work. The admin work, calculating all the materials we bring or whatever, is done electronically now through an iPad. The information goes back to our warehouse, where we have people who gather and sort things for every job. Rarely do we run into a situation where we need an item that we don’t already have in stock, and if that happens, we still have a couple of days to get it after waiting for the other materials to get there.
Greg Burnet: For us, it really comes down to the scope of the work. Most of our projects tend to be pretty similar in terms of the actual work or the product we’re installing. But, in many cases, we may have issues where we’re going into a multi-unit building or a high-rise. It comes down to what a one- or two-man crew can handle versus a project that requires multiple sets of hands or multiple crews. So, it really is product driven: What are we installing and what’s the most efficient and safest way to install it?
Michael Williams: That leads me to ask how you book yourself? Do you generally get booked throughout? Do you take a project one after another? If you get three calls, do you just put them in succession?
Darcy Warner: I just overextend myself. I usually end up having two or three things going on at most points in time. There are some things that I get to a certain point on my own, and then somebody has to come in and do something else. There are always a couple of jobs revolving for me. I try to stay constantly occupied. It works best for me.
Jory Brigham: For my guys in the shop, I need them to be able to switch from one project and move to another one. I do give incentives when I’m building furniture — if I can build two at a time, or if I have two customers that want the same thing. If I can do a whole piece at the same time, that’s great for me.
Eric Martinson: For us, probably again a little bit different. Our company will do between 100 and 130 projects a month. If we sell them this month, they’ll all be done by the next month, so we have a 30-day deal on how we accomplish that. We cross-train all of our employees, all of our workmen. We’ll take those crews that have been cross-trained and make sure they’re able to do the other project.
Michael Williams: I am curious; where do you find the talent?
Eric Martinson: For our company, I’ve hired a full-time crew for the past three years, and we’re constantly running ads for skilled craftsmen. We’re constantly interviewing, and we’re always wanting to improve our stable of installers. We have a full-time recruiter on staff that does the initial interview and, if they pass the initial interview, then they get sent up the chain. That’s how we build our crews.
Greg Burnet: We are a much smaller company, and what I’ve found interesting is that over the past 10 years or so, whenever we’ve needed employees, they’ve tended to find us. For one reason or another, when people find us, we keep their names on hand if they approach us and we’re not hiring at that point.
The last several people we’ve hired have come from online groups and forums that I belong to. We started a networking group about four or five years ago, so we have a pretty deep pool consisting of a number of contractors in the Chicago area, and we tend to trade work off back and forth as necessary.
Some of these guys are one-man operations; most have very specific strengths; and some of them dovetail really well with what we do. We tend to subcontract them, and it works pretty well because we all have a similar mind set. For us, because we are so customer-driven and focused, we have to make sure that they’ll reflect well on our company.
Darcy Warner: The only thing I have to add would be that I’ve been teaching my children how to carry lumber when I need them. [Everyone laughs.]
My 7-year-old daughter is getting pretty good at stacking boards. Seriously, it’s just me, and when I need a hand, I’ve got some other contractors and carpenters in town, and we’ll go back and forth and trade off a day here and there every now and then when someone really needs an extra hand.
Michael Williams: And do any of you use templates or software or anything like that to help you manage your work? Do you have someone else take care of all that?
Darcy Warner: I’ve tried a million different things. I’ve put up a dry-erase board in the shop to keep track of what’s going on, and then I end up drawing stupid pictures on it because I hate looking at what I didn’t get done. Organized chaos is the best way I can describe it. I know where stuff is, and I know what I have to do.
Greg Burnet: I realized that I had some bad habits coming from when I was a one-man operation. Then, when it came time to grow the business, I probably wasn’t really qualified for it. It was different when other people became involved, and I think it caused them a lot more frustration at the time.
I’m really lucky that my wife runs the office, and she really keeps things together. We’ve improved things dramatically since she took over some of the operations. She uses a combination of tools. I’m like Darcy — I still use a dry-erase board, and we have four or five of them in our offices. I love ’em, but I’m a low-tech guy. But my wife uses Excel spreadsheets and has played around with different software; we converted to smartphones four or five years ago, and we use a smartphone app to track some of that now. Our guys in the field use them, too.
Jory Brigham: I’m kind of along the same lines, with the white board in the shop. I have a huge 4 by 8, and that pretty much works for me. I have a list of what I need to get done, and I’ll put up little notes that I usually forget, because I’m all over the place. So I have to really put those right there so they’re in my face constantly. The white board is really the only thing that I’ve found that works for me.
Greg Burnet: You know, it’s funny you mention that, because I went back to white boards about a year ago. We had a bunch of different apps and software programs, but if it wasn’t in front of my face, it was out of mind. So I’ve put up white boards all over the place. We have one specifically for leads, one specifically for scheduled jobs, one for vendors and orders and so on. It’s actually gotten pretty systematic and works extremely well, far better than any software programs that we used.
Eric Martinson: I joined the white board team, too. We do have a CRM program that was built specifically for my company, and that does job costing and all kinds of stuff. It’s really neat, and it’s very smooth, but we still keep up white boards as well. We’ve created a systematic approach that works well with the computers and our white boards, because, like you guys were saying, if it’s not in front of your face, it can be easy to overlook.
Greg Burnet: It really all comes down to personalities and what people are comfortable with. My sister also works in the business for us, and she does the accounting. She’s big into computers and software and was adamant that she wanted to establish computer programs to do all these things. We had a business consultant we worked with over the past year, and he had a similar mind set. But it didn’t work for me, and it didn’t work for our lead carpenter. So, it finally came to a head for us about six or eight months ago. I got really frustrated and felt that we had invested a ton of time and money in some of these systems that, to me, just weren’t delivering a benefit. So, we went back and put up more white boards, because for me that’s what worked. My sister and my wife still use the software programs, but the lead carpenter and I tend to rely on the white boards more than anything.
I think we were looking for the silver bullet, and it just didn’t exist.
Eric Martinson, founder and CEO of Pacific Coast Home Solutions in Anaheim, Calif., has been a home improvement industry professional for 14 years. Also a founder and CEO of Jemstar Builders, Eric’s remodeling and construction companies have each been recognized in national contractor rankings.
Chicago-based Greg Burnet has been a professional carpenter and remodeler for decades. Greg, with his wife Sue, owns Chicago Window & Door Solutions, a full-service window and door firm that emphasizes durable installations and historically accurate components. He is also the co-owner of Toolbelt Productions Inc., a company devoted to building-industry education and training programs.
As a child, Darcy Warner worked with his father and grandfather to learn the many aspects of carpentry and remodeling. Now, he operates Warner Remodeling, a small remodeling and woodworking business in Auburn, Ind. His work ranges from custom hardwood decks, kitchen and bath remodeling, repair and replications work, and interior/exterior finish trim work.
As the owner and founder of Jory Brigham Design in Luis Obispo, Calif., Jory specializes in custom furniture design and fabrication. Jory’s handcrafted pieces incorporate various styles, textures, sustainable woods, colors, and more to result in unique, artistic creations that enhance any space and endure for generations.