Business Operations

Saving a Sinking Ship

The construction industry is an extremely tough breed of people. It takes a slightly off-kilter mindset to be up and ready to go before the sun rises, crowing long before the roosters get out of bed. Slogging through long hard 12 to 16 hour days in extreme heat, freezing cold, rain, snow, mud, blisters, aches and pains with broken fingers and busted knuckles, undoubtedly leaving a little of our blood and soul on every artistically crafted new creation we leave behind for our clients.

As I write this article, we are knee deep in a crippling worldwide pandemic that has us all quarantined and in a state of distress. Many people are in disbelief as their businesses are going down like a sinking ship. Over the past month it’s become painful to watch what we and our families have sacrificed so much for over the years taken away by this invisible enemy. I’m noticing that people have been going through the five stages of grief:

Denial: This can’t happen to me and my company. I’m too good to be affected by this.

Anger: How did this happen to us? Who did this? I want to know who’s at fault and make them pay for what they’ve done.

Bargaining: Please don’t let this happen to us. If we’re spared we will be better, do more in our communities, and be more prepared in the future. Please don’t let me or anyone I know catch it. Don’t let it destroy our companies.

Depression: I can’t survive this. People are getting sick and dying. Business associates have gone under, their ships are sinking. The economy is in the tank and job losses are at record numbers. Doom and gloom blots out the sun on the horizon, and I feel like I can’t move. The humanity. The pain, the agony.

Acceptance: Yes, this really did happen. We pretty much all have been affected (my heart goes out to every family that has suffered a catastrophic loss). As of this week we have already witnessed the passing of over 100,000 American lives and the number is climbing. We have endured the impact of this mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally and financially. Now that we have accepted the boat we are in, it is our duty to figure out a way to keep it from sinking, even if that means plotting an unfamiliar course. Our only other option is to lose everything we’ve worked so hard for. Many of us have had our companies for so long we refuse to go down without a fight.

Someone said “We are all in this boat together,” and I thought to myself, ” I don’t see you bailing out my boat, would you mind paying off this stack of bills?” That was a bit of a selfish observation on my part because in reality, even though we aren’t in the same boat, all of our ships are in the same armada. We are all suffering the loss and pain on so many fronts, that collectively we do need to focus on the same goal: the light at the end of the tunnel.

The construction industry is an extremely tough breed of people. It takes a slightly off-kilter mindset to be up and ready to go before the sun rises, crowing long before the roosters get out of bed. Slogging through long hard 12 to 16 hour days in extreme heat, freezing cold, rain, snow, mud, blisters, aches and pains with broken fingers and busted knuckles, carrying loads that would cripple a mule, we then stand with our chests out peacocking like a proud poppa with a newborn when we complete another project.

Undoubtedly leaving a little of our blood and soul on every artistically crafted new creation we leave behind for our clients. I wake up every day giving thanks (between grunts and groans) for having the opportunity to be a member of, and associated with this profession. As devastating as this global pandemic has been to our world, I have a powerful belief that our industry will come out stronger on the other end.

Deck builders are like Santiago from The Old Man and The Sea. They will grab hold of their businesses and not let go just like Santiago, who went 84 days without catching a fish and finally caught a giant marlin on a handline. For three days he fought that fish while it dragged him in his little skiff out to sea. Warding off Mako sharks, starvation, dehydration, shredded hands, pain and fatigue, he refused to let go and give in to defeat. I don’t know, sounds to me like a typical day on a jobsite. Reminds me of the majority of successful deck business owners I have had the pleasure to meet over the years, at a NADRA banquet or at the DeckExpo. It is this internal fortitude and grit that will allow us to not only survive but win this battle.

Recently I’ve been interviewing other successful deck building business owners and realized some interesting observations. For starters, I’m sure we have all experienced the rash of so-called “Bob in his Beater” type of would be (not really) competitors that were already the cheapest guys in town who are now dropping their prices to unrealistically low numbers. An owner actually showed me where one of these guys submitted a written proposal of $17,000 on a deck that was valued at 21 grand. Unreal. He obviously laughed and moved on even though he was extremely frustrated at having spent the time developing his own bid proposal. This has become a rampant issue spreading like wildfire.

I personally witnessed where a carpet company built a deck with a screened porch and a grill extension. The work was so poor that you could visibly see a ” V” shaped dip in the middle where they spliced the framework, it stuck out like a sore thumb. Unfortunately it was located at a prominent visual location in the neighborhood. They really blew that marketing opportunity. I’m sure that client got what they paid for but I doubt they will be recommending those guys. Thankfully this wasn’t some thing we bid on.

These companies have been around forever and always will be, they are like gnats, an annoyance but not a difference maker. The client that is willing to accept those offerings are not the ones we Deck Specialists seek, they will never appreciate our level of expertise. I no longer even let it affect my day when we lose those. Like the world famous Carey Bros. are so famous for saying during their discussions. “It puts you one no closer to a yes.” Thank you Morris and James, for those encouraging words and such positivity.

Bill Zinnert of Diamond Decks in Severn M.D., related to me that instead of getting into any price battles or chasing discounted work, he has successfully raised his prices a few points to ferret out the tire kickers and hone in on a more discerning caliber of clientele. Though the quantity of sales has gone down, the quality of closings has risen, the profit margins have gone up, and he’s not fighting for table scraps. Ultimately he has put a positive spin on this situation and found a way to plug the hole in his sinking ship. Bill has emphasized the value of his time and that of his salesman. Why create a liability with minimal profit? Who said contractors have to work for free? Way to go Bill. You are an inspiration.

Brendan Casey

Brendan Casey is president and founder of Casey Fence & Deck.

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