If big is good, bigger is better, right?

I hope many of you were able to attend Total Solutions Plus the last week of October in Dallas, Texas. It is always very rewarding to gather with industry professionals and learn from them how they are overcoming the challenges and changes we are all experiencing. 

Are you wondering what’s coming to a tile distributor near you?

The answer is probably not surprising to many of you. I’ve just returned from attending the Cersaie Tile Fair in Bologna, Italy, for the second consecutive year. What I learned is that tile manufacturers are heavily investing in the technology to produce panels/slabs of porcelain tile larger than 1.5m x 3m and in thicknesses ranging from 3.5mm to 30mm. The push to sell much larger panels/slabs is just around the corner for the U.S. market. 

This is positive news for those of us who take the professional installation of our products seriously. The training, education, tools, equipment, warehousing and transportation required to properly install these products will separate those who invest in their craft from those who don’t. Once again, the role of professional tile setter will be associated with skill and craftsmanship and the value of all installations will increase. When all tile was installed using mud-bed or wet-set methods, trained and skilled craftspeople were a must. The value they brought was respected, rather than seen as a commodity that just about anyone could do. Unfortunately, in the last 20 years, that is exactly what tile installation has become: a commodity with declining value and stagnant wages.

This change will open the door for tile manufacturers, mortar manufacturers and labor associations to work together as never before. With many of the properly trained installers beginning to age out of the workforce, we must create a pipeline that recruits, trains and certifies a new generation of professionals. Wages must provide a viable career and keep pace with the skill and training required. The alternative is to miss a great opportunity and allow commodity products with commodity wages to take away market share.

We have a short window of opportunity. How will we respond? I look forward to hearing from you with your ideas and perspectives as we take on this challenge together.

This is my last president’s letter to you – the members – and industry at large. I must express my gratitude for the opportunity to serve. It has truly been one of the greatest privileges of my life. The staff of NTCA is second to none. They bring passion and devotion to their work every day because they love what they do. I want to express my heartfelt thanks to the staff and the Executive Committee for the help and support you have given me. Without you and your friendship it would have been impossible.

As I pass the gavel of the NTCA to your next president, Mr. Chris Walker, I do so with total confidence, knowing that he will take us to much greater accomplishments. 

Keep on tiling!
Martin Howard, NTCA President
Committee Member ANSI A108
[email protected]

Passing the test of prosperity

The economy is showing strong signs of continued growth, business is moving at a fast pace, the backlog for next year is filling up and it’s fun to come to work every day. We all know that the economy is cyclical and it’s only a matter of time before the next downturn. But, for now it feels like the business environment is back to normal, and relationships and quality are once again more meaningful than low price. We are stretching and growing our teams to maximum capacity as we grow volume in manageable increments.

I truly hope this is describing your experience as we start the 4th quarter of 2018. For those of us who were in business back in the early 2000s this is a familiar feeling. So, you’re asking, what’s up with the title, “Passing the test of prosperity”? This all sounds like a bed of roses. 

Let me explain. I’m sure you feel as I do, but I hope we never see another economic period like the one from 2007 to 2012. Although business was better in 2012, the market was still very choppy and uncertain until 2016. That’s almost a nine year period of very tough times to be running a business.

I’m confident that we all learned many lessons during those very difficult years, suffering the adversity of hardship. We cut fat out of our companies until we couldn’t cut anymore. We got smaller and then we downsized; we squeezed and did everything we could to survive. We learned ways to work smarter; we established procedures that maximized efficiency. We found ways to reduce and manage risks and improved our skills at negotiating contracts. We figured out what our strengths are and how to improve on them, and decided to move away from our weak areas and stop losing money on them. It became clear who our best customers are and what they need and expect from us. 

Did you have a similar path through the recession? Congratulations! You have passed the test of adversity and come out on the other side.

All these lessons learned can be called “Best Practices.” This series of letters I’ve written for TileLetter were things I learned during multiple times of adversity, including this last one. That’s the disappointing part: some of these lessons I learned prior to 2008 unfortunately did not pass the test of prosperity in the time leading up to 2008. 

You see, prosperity can be an adversary to all the discipline and hard-learned lessons and battles won during times of adversity. Prosperity can make us lazy, unfocused and carelessly forgetful of our best practices and core values.

When times are good, and business is easy, the temptation is to take our eye off the goal and allow mediocrity and the tyranny of the urgent to creep in. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we are too busy to stick to our proven best practices and we allow little slips here and there. The monthly P&L statements look strong and profit is coming in on every job. We are failing the test of prosperity. 

Once this happens, the chance that we will awaken in time to save our business in the next downturn is less likely. I urge all of us to keep our eye on the goal. Use the lessons that helped us survive and pass the test of adversity to now thrive and become “Best in Class” contractors during times of prosperity. Don’t settle for simply gliding along on the crest of a big wave thinking we have conquered the world, when the reality of the shore is approaching fast.

Success to you all!

Keep on tiling,

Martin Howard, NTCA President
Committee Member ANSI A108
[email protected]

In pursuit of best practices through international collaboration

President’s Letter – September 2018

The NTCA Board of Directors has identified international outreach as one of its main strategic objectives. The goal is to establish dialogue and collaboration with other associations with shared interest in promoting and advancing the proper professional installation of tile and stone in the marketplace. NTCA seeks opportunities to learn and collaborate with other associations to build consensus within the industry where advantageous. 

In February 2016, a delegation of NTCA representatives attended Qualicer, the XIV World Congress on Tile Quality in Castellon, Spain. There it presented on how the NTCA has become a major force and contributor to the development of tile installation standards in the United States. In September of 2017 NTCA was represented at Cersaie Ceramic Trade Fair in Bologna, Italy, and met with delegations from 12 member countries of the EUF, European Federation of National Tilers Associations. During this meeting relationships were formed, and consensus was reached on a number of important topics. This month NTCA will participate again with the EUF at Cersaie with an agenda focused on learning and sharing the strengths of each country represented. 

Our interest is focused around the areas of recruitment and training of new workers and contributing to the development of International Installation Standards. 

We hope to learn how other countries recruit young workers into the trade and how they assess their skills to pair them with the appropriate training program. Some countries use technical colleges, vocational schools or trade associates to facilitate training and we want to gain insight into their best practices based on what has proven to be the most effective.

Others have various certification(s) that identify the skill and knowledge level of workers. We want to understand how these were developed and what impact they have on career development. A key element will be understanding the certifying process and the necessary preparation. 

Tile manufacturers participate on various levels in different countries. For example, in some areas manufacturers also provide installation of their products. In others, manufacturers work very closely with labor associations to provide support for the training process, including financial, facilities, materials, tools and instructors. What opportunities may exist here for NTCA to open new avenues of training with the help of manufacturers, and what might that look like?

Because the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) does not have any installation standards, we hope to learn how contractors and design professionals determine which methods are used on any given project. We hope to collaborate with our international partners working toward the development of installation standards within ISO.

Our goal is to pursue best practices and incorporate them into the NTCA’s efforts in the United States. I look forward to providing information on what is learned during this important exchange soon.

Keep on tiling!
Martin Howard
NTCA President
Committee Member ANSI A108
[email protected]

Best Practices: Project scheduling and job cost/ productivity goals and feedback

President’s Letter – August 2018 – The Green Issue

Most of us are not responsible for developing the construction schedule for an entire project, but we all will benefit greatly from identifying and monitoring the activities of our scope of work. However, we’re more knowledgeable than the general contractor, owner or developer when determining the most efficient schedule, sequence and durations that will maximize our opportunity to meet or beat our estimated labor costs. 

Monitoring the construction schedule

When bidding most commercial projects there is a “contract schedule” or “base line schedule” that should be available. If it’s not provided in the bid documents you should request a copy prior to submitting your bid. This schedule will show you the way the general contractor plans to construct the building and allows you to develop your work sequence and crew size within the overall project schedule for maximum efficiency and profitability. 

Later, during the construction process, if the general contractor changes the schedule in ways that negatively impact your efficiency, protecting your rights and working to find a solution that will return productivity is paramount. Monitoring the construction schedule is a very important key to your opportunity to succeed on every project. Understanding and protecting your rights regarding construction schedules are among the most important aspects of contract management and risk management.

Set goals for your crew tailored to each project

When thinking about job site efficiency and crew productivity I remember this quote by Zig Ziglar, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” This is exactly what happens when we send our crews to a job without daily and weekly production goals specifically tailored to each project. If they don’t understand how much production is required for each room type and tile type, they will most likely miss the mark. Helping them understand how their wages relate to the estimated budget and providing them with regular feedback as the job progresses helps them connect their performance with overall profitability. Projects today are using many different types of tile and different installation methods that require more detailed and accurate information supplied to field installation crews. Not properly planning and executing this part of each project could eat away large amounts of profit in a short period of time. The more budget information shared with field crews the more they will work to meet the realistic goals set for each project.

Recoverable Lost Time

According to a study released by FMI, field employees spend 42% of their 8-hour day installing work as planned, 26% of their day is spent planning, material handling, lay-out, set-up and mobilizing, while 32% of their day is considered Recoverable Lost Time. This time is lost due to waiting for information, materials, equipment, tools, additional manpower or other trades and reworking items already installed. While I’m sure your projects never experience this level of inefficiency, there are at least 5-10 minutes per hour of lost time that could be added to the productive part of the day. This small improvement can have a big impact on your bottom line profit at the end of the year; just run the numbers.

Best in Class contractors work hard to empower their employees to know their daily goals so when something outside their control impacts their productivity, they can alert management to get the situation corrected. Every other subcontractor and most general contractors don’t care if we have a productive path to do our work. Protecting our ability to be productive in the field is a major key to overall profitability. 

Keep on tiling and pursuing best practices!
Martin Howard, NTCA president
Committee member, ANSI A108
[email protected]

NTCA success story

President’s Letter – July 2018

As business leaders and entrepreneurs, we usually enjoy the chance to share our successes because we all like to WIN! I hope you will indulge me the opportunity to congratulate the NTCA on achieving major growth as an association. Back in 2003 the association had approximately 400 members and five full- time staff. Since that time, NTCA has grown to almost 1,600 member companies representing tens of thousands of tile professionals. We now have 15 full-time and two part-time employees serving our members and industry. One of my strategic goals as president is to work with the excellent staff, Executive Committee and Board of Directors to structure the organization for the future. 

In 2003 the staff had an all hands on deck mentality in which each wore many different hats in order to get the job done. As the years went by and membership continued to grow, staff was added to fill the needs that seemed most urgent at the time. This is probably not much different than what has happened in many of our businesses. The traveling workshop program has grown exponentially to now offering more than 130 half-day events around the country. All are completely free and open to the public. This year we are rolling out a new program to serve NTCA members and Five Star Contractors by offering 20 Regional Training events specifically tailored to the needs and requests of the members in each region. These events are one- and two-day educational and training sessions available for up to 20 attendees at no cost to our members.

Okay, enough bragging and back to the organizational structure. During many discussions with the Executive Committee it became clear that Bart Bettiga, Executive Director, and Jim Olson, Assistant Executive Director, were assigned too many of the major responsibilities to allow them to effectively lead the association overall. It was decided to implement a plan to create a Director level of key leaders within the staff to share and focus on various responsibilities. Recently we’ve announced the addition of Stephanie Samulski as Director of Technical Services and Avia Haynes as Director of Communications, who will be joining Amber Fox as Director of the Five Star Contractor Program, Mark Heinlein as Director of Training, Michelle Chapman as Art Director, Becky Serbin as Education and Training Coordinator, and Lesley Goddin as TileLetter Editor. Our association is ready to take on the future growth of our membership and the services they need to succeed. All of this will allow Bart and Jim to focus on providing vision and leadership on a global level. 

I can’t close this letter without expressing my sincere gratitude to the entire staff for their dedication, commitment and hard work. I know that you see your work as much more than a job, it’s your passion to serve the members and the industry at large that makes your effort so effective. There are many volunteers who have labored long and hard to help us attain the success we now enjoy and we all owe you a huge thank you for your dedication and the countless hours and service you have provided.

Keep on tiling!

Martin Howard
NTCA president,
Committee Member ANSI A108
[email protected]

Coverings 2018 – NTCA shines

President’s Letter – June 2018

Coverings is behind us, summer is upon us and I’m sure you are in the middle of your busy season. We need to take a moment and give thanks for our improving economy and the amount of work in the marketplace. I am also thankful for the tremendous growth our great association has experienced in recent years and even more grateful for the excitement and enthusiasm generated by many of our newer members. 

Have you ever walked into a crowded room or event where you didn’t know anyone personally and felt a little uncomfortable? If you attended Coverings this year and stepped anywhere close to one of the NTCA venues, you probably had more than one excited member greet you. Thanks to the efforts of many – our trainers, our State Ambassadors, our workshop hosts and sponsors, our staff – the number of NTCA members attending Coverings this year was up significantly and the buzz and atmosphere around our booth, the Installation Design Showcase, the Installation Experience and the Installation Demonstration Stage was very positive with lots of networking. I’d like to thank all our members for being outstanding ambassadors and reaching out to those who wandered into any of these areas – meeting people, sharing ideas, asking questions and providing answers about installation products and methods and ultimately building relationships and friendships. This is just one of the reasons we have seen membership exploding to new heights. And at Coverings, we added another 18 members to the fold. It’s energizing and very exciting to be a part of such a dynamic and diverse group that’s brimming with enthusiasm and passion.

We all owe our outstanding staff a huge thank you for all the extra time and effort they put into this year’s show. A special shout-out goes to our training team that works so hard all year, traversing the country teaching and demonstrating our craft to all who are interested. On top of all that, this year they recruited many members to volunteer and join them in working very long hours in advance of the show to prepare the venues so that we could enjoy the experience, learn and engage with new friends.

The NTCA Board of Directors is working hard to keep our members on the cutting edge by finding more ways to put education and training in your hands so you can continue to grow and build your business. The Installation Experience and the CTI Challenge were new this year and offered interactive learning opportunities.

Every time I attend an event and have the chance to network with other tile contractors and industry professionals, it’s a learning experience. This year’s Coverings show was no exception! I hope to see many more of you at Total Solutions Plus at the Gaylord Texan Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Grapevine, Texas, October 27th – 30th.

Keep on tiling!

Martin Howard, NTCA president

Committee member, ANSI A108

[email protected]

Pre-job planning

President’s Letter – May 2018

The summer construction season is fully upon us. Let’s take hold of our schedules and not fall into the trap of allowing the tyranny of the urgent to keep us from properly planning all our jobs for execution in the field. Best in Class contractors make it a habit of pre-job planning every project because they know that without this critical tool, they will underperform in one or more aspects. Often the final quality suffers as well as the final profit when this step is overlooked.

Pre-job planning is a simple process with many steps that need attention prior to starting every project. The purpose is to ensure that the entire team is fully informed of the project specifications, site limitations, owner expectations, labor budgets, and material delivery dates. This is the time to uncover and work to resolve any issues.

Here is a good start on what to include in planning to make this meeting with your project team a success.

  • Specific scope review should include everything about the installation your field supervisor and crew need to know, including the specific expectations of the end user and all the installation methods, materials, patterns and details. Make sure the superintendent, foreman and crew leader understand all specific details and have a copy of drawings, details, product data, and SDS. This can be on paper or digital; whatever works best for your team.
  • List of equipment, along with a schedule for getting it to the job site.
  • List of materials including quantity ordered, identifying any delayed or backordered items.
  • Contact information for all the people involved on the project, including cell phone numbers and email addresses.
  • Job labor budgets and production goals for each unique area. This usually creates some good conversation about feasibility and practicality and helps create buy-in from the team.
  • The overall project schedule with all trade-specific tasks broken out and identified with start and finish dates, and any float days. Doing this will provide the best chance to stage and staff the project in the most efficient manner possible. It will also identify any potential manpower issues.
  • Identify any expected obstacles and concerns, mapping out a plan to mitigate them as much as possible.

This meeting can usually be completed in an hour or less, but it can save you many hours of frustration and most if not all of your profit margin. When the phone never stops ringing – and it seems like the team on the job needs information before they can make the next move – you’re operating in what I like to call “Fire Drill mode.” When this happens, no one is efficient, and profit is being wasted.

That’s why Best in Class Contractors avoid this scenario by properly pre-planning every project and executing a turn-over meeting with their field team.

I’d like to hear how you handle this aspect of your projects, so send me ideas and help me discover what I’m missing out on.

Keep on tiling!
Martin Howard
NTCA President
Committee member, ANSI A108
[email protected]

Best Practices – Evaluating bid opportunities

President’s Letter – April 2018

Last month we talked about best practices for estimating. This month, let’s look at procedures that can help us reduce estimating costs, making us more focused and profitable. 

As we all know, our trade is often price-driven when that’s all the homeowner or a general contractor wants to consider. Rather than joining the rush to the bottom by competing on price alone, look at your company and evaluate its strengths in your marketplace. 

Now let’s take a closer look at one of the common practices of companies that are high-performing “Best in Class” contractors and take the challenge of joining them: evaluating bid
opportunities.

Keep in mind the 80/20 rule: most of your profit is probably coming from a smaller segment of all your projects. Begin looking at projects and evaluating their compatibility with your strengths. Let’s face it, some types of projects are a breeze and some are a struggle from day one. All that’s needed is to begin to move away from those that seem to always be a challenge. The three largest components of this filtering process are easy to follow.

  • Determine what market segments hit your sweet spot. Is it new residential or remodel? Is it custom homes or tract homes? If you’re in the commercial area, is retail up-fit and restaurant your best fit or office and institutional? 
  • Determine your best geographic range and project size. If your team is not designed for a continuous flow of out-of-town work, then you should keep them close to home most of the time or suffer the consequences of high turnover and low margins. I’ve seen the advertising pitch, “No Job Too Small or Too Big” many times. If you can make the same profit margin on a $2,000 and a $1,000,000 job, you are a unique company. Yet you should still ask yourself the question, “Where in this range do I most often make the most margin?” That’s the range where you should focus
    your efforts.
  • Determine your best customers. Simply identify which customers you almost always make profit working with and which ones you frequently lose money working for. This is simple and easy to figure out, and you can probably name the good customers off the top of your head. All you need to do now is stop working for those that cost you money on every job.

Analyze your approach to business and see if you are scattering your resources or homing in with laser-like focus. If you scatter your resources aiming at everything that moves, you will sell less and efficiency in your organization will only be a dream. The more focused you can be in directing your job procurement efforts, the more efficient and effective the results, with a higher return on investment.

The goal is to know your strengths as much as possible and put yourself in position to capitalize on them more frequently. This requires some analysis and study of where you have been in the last year or two so that you can chart a course toward higher profitability, team morale and success. This is a trait of “Best in Class” contractors. My goal is to help every NTCA member raise the bar in professionalism, craftsmanship and integrity to become more successful.

Keep on tiling!

Martin Howard,
NTCA President
Committee member,
ANSI A108
[email protected]

Welcome to Coverings 29th Edition!

President’s Letter – Coverings 2018

By all measures, this conference we now know as “Coverings” has exceeded expectations and helped to grow the ceramic tile market domestically. The use of tile over the years has continued to increase for many reasons, and Coverings has been a focal point for the industry at large. Its goal has been to bring together manufacturers of tile, setting materials, allied products and tools, along with the installation community to create many powerful synergies and cooperation. 

For 29 years, the trend in tile has been to expand in size from what was called “large-format” 8” x 8” to the 48” x 96” units on display at this year’s show. We’ve also seen the development of gauged porcelain panels/slabs as thin as 3.0mm, and 1.5m x 3.0m in facial dimension. While these size changes have created new and expanding uses for ceramic tile, its ability to replicate with great detail the look of natural stone, metal, fabric and even concrete in a variety of finishes has opened doors for expanded use.

I encourage each of us to make the most of our experience at Coverings by taking advantage of the tremendous educational offerings, including the free seminars and multiple demonstration and installation stages where the latest in materials and methods will be demonstrated almost every hour of the show. The Installation Design Showcase is back again this year with three new tiny houses being installed by craftspeople during the show for all to see and watch. This experience is designed so you can ask questions and learn from others how they approach their installation challenges. 

The Installation Experience is a “NEW” addition to the show this year. The inspiration for this pavilion came during our attendance at Cersaie last year. Assoposa, the Italian tile contractors’ association, put together a remarkable display of craftsmanship with their own version of an installation showcase that sparked our imagination. As you take a self-guided tour along the marked path, you’ll experience more than 20 different areas of tile installation. Each is meant to educate you on the difference between proper and improper installation methods, inspire your imagination with creativity that can be incorporated into your projects, and expose you to the very latest in technology, materials and methods.

All in all, there has never been more opportunity to learn, network and grow at Coverings so take advantage of all it has to offer. Your career and business will never be the same.

Keep on tiling!

––––––––––

Martin Howard,
President NTCA
Committee member, ANSI A108
[email protected]

Best Practices – Contract Negotiations

President’s Letter – March 2018

We’ve invested time and money in estimating a project, reviewing all the specifications, drawings and contract documents, communicated with our suppliers and vendors, priced out all the materials and labor, calculated the risks of the job and submitted our bid. Great news!! We have been awarded the project. It is critical that we not relax and assume the hard part is over. If we do, we put our entire investment at greater risk.
One of the biggest mistakes any of us can make is not negotiating a fair contract for our services. Unfortunately, this happens more frequently than you might think. One of the first things we all need to understand and accept as fact is that almost all general contractors write contracts that are slanted in their favor. In many cases, they are seriously slanted against the trade contractor and put us at a disadvantage before we ever start.
It sounds elementary and it shouldn’t have to be said, but rule number one is, we should never sign a contract we haven’t read and understood. We should never think that because we have a relationship with the customer that they will take care of us and not enforce the contract.
Another common belief is that trade contractors are never successful negotiating any of the conditions in their contracts. Well, that’s exactly what the general contractors want you to believe. When we read the contracts, the first thing we must determine is, “Am I willing to take the risks assigned to me and sign this contract? If not, then I must identify the objectionable clauses and either strike them or draft acceptable language I can agree to.” At the end of the day, if we aren’t able to negotiate acceptable language, we must make the business decision to either sign what we have or graciously walk away.
Some of the key clauses that need our attention are:

Payment terms, including any clauses about “pay when paid” or “pay if paid” as a conditional precedent. Some states have laws regulating this language. This means that the contractor only has to pay you “if” he gets paid or at some time “after” he is paid.

Set off provisions, which allow contractors to hold money on additional projects under contract with them other than the project in question.

No damage for delays, which puts all the risk of the construction schedule on the trade contractors and does not allow any reimbursement of costs for delays even if we are not at fault.

Work force supplementation, which allows the contractor to charge you if they supplement your crews, with or without notice or default.

Back charge clauses, which allow the contractor to backcharge the trade contractor without notice or with limited notice for an unlimited list of things.

Since I’m not an attorney and can’t give legal advice, the most important thing I can say is that you should consult with an attorney prior to signing contracts. Once you understand some of these clauses you can begin to negotiate with greater success. It’s always a good idea to work toward having your proposal with all your inclusions, exclusions and clarifying notes included as part of the contract.
Companies that regularly practice these principles are usually Best in Class contractors. That’s something we all aspire to achieve.
Keep on tiling!

Martin Howard, President NTCA
Committee member, ANSI A108
[email protected]

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