COVID-19 Contractor Perspective: James Woelfel, Artcraft Granite, Marble and Tile Co.

James woelfel artcraft talks about his company and covid
James Woelfel, Artcraft Granite, Marble and Tile Company, Mesa, Ariz.

I am overwhelmed, I am sure all tile contractors feel this way. I have noticed the last couple of weeks that I am depressed. Some of my personal history may help to explain where I am coming from.

When I was pursuing professional golf, I had a lot of issues concentrating on the golf course and not getting bogged down in what I perceived as infinite details when preparing to hit a shot. These details were interfering with my concentration during the round. I decided to seek help with a psychologist, I was diagnosed with ADHD. Eventually I could not overcome my concentration issues and gave up on a professional golf career.

I now pursue the tile profession with the same abandon as I did my golf career. One of the things the psychologist told me is that anxiety breeds depression.I have always been anxious but never like this, combined with the stress this job brings, the anxiety has really put me on edge. I consider myself a leader in this industry and put pressure on myself to lead.

Combining all of these things — plus a pandemic — has led me to the state of mind I am feeling now. I am depressed; the anxiety of not knowing is driving most of this feeling. I am always thinking 6-12 months ahead, be it scheduling, finances, bidding and procuring work, or making sure I have the right people in the right positions. Usually my thoughts and actions are usually correct when forecasting, but now I have no idea what is going to happen.

As I write this I am forcing myself to take stock of the positives in my life. I have a wonderful and loving wife who is the bedrock foundation that our family is built upon. My son fights every day for his place in the world; he has overcome so much. I need to stop thinking that his issues are a negative and realize his fight is a positive for him and for us. All of my family is healthy, this is really great news. My friends are healthy and yet they too are concerned. It is impossible to always be happy; we are all human and have faults. I have plenty to keep me busy.

I am sure everyone out there in the world feels these issues. Am I feeling sorry for myself? Probably, but I really think this is the time that we need to take care of our mental health. To honestly share our feelings with our spouses, our partners our friends and even a mental health professional is imperative right now.

We have never experienced a pandemic in our lifetime. Two months of isolation has bred bad thoughts in my mind. I am sharing this selfishly to get my thoughts out into the world to ease the stress on my mind. I wish I had more tools in my mental toolbox to deal with these thoughts. I don’t. I am trying to work through my mental state with my family and friends, and I am hoping to clear my mind a little.

I was brought up with the “John Wayne” mentality: get it done, no time to feel sorry for yourself, be tough, show no emotion. This mentality is not working right now. If any of you feel the same way I would encourage you to talk about your feelings or thoughts with family, friends or a professional.  I am trying; how about you?  How we rebound mentally from this pandemic in my opinion, is what will guide us to success or lead us into failure. 

COVID Contractor Perspective: Ken Ballin, Skyro Floors

Ken Ballin, Skyro Floors, West Creek, N.J.

NTCA member Ken Ballin, CTI #1392, CFI #13604 of Skyro Floors in West Creek, N.J., shares his experience and his thoughts about life and work during the time of coronavirus.

I remember hearing about [coronavirus] and not thinking much about it. I remember hearing more and more about it and thinking about other times that I’ve heard similar stories in years passed.

I remember coming home from Surfaces, going to soccer practice with my daughter, and as we were wrapping up I let out a single cough. I looked up and said “oh no” out loud, because I knew it felt funny. That’s the sickest I’ve been in a long time, sick enough to actually go to the doctor, and sick enough to keep me from going to work for a couple days. In the 12 years I’ve been in business I’ve never missed a day. Never. Now that was before they were testing for anything besides the regular run-of-the mill influenza, but for me to miss work, even for just those two days, has stuck in my mind since.

I can’t imagine what people are going through who’ve actually been out of work since the lockdowns started. I know what it’s like not to be able to afford the same luxuries as others. I know what it’s like to wonder what you’re going to do after you finish the job you’re on because nothing else has come through yet. I also know what it’s like to use a bad situation to my advantage and come out on top and that’s exactly what I did when I lost my biggest contract a few years back and I had all my eggs in one basket.

If the current situation has taught us nothing else as business owners it’s the need to diversify your customer base. If all I was doing at the time of the shut down was residential remodel then I would be sitting home with nothing to do, right back in the same situation I was in a few years back. I’ve been blessed, or lucky — or maybe a combination of the two — enough to be working entirely in unoccupied second and third homes. It’s been mostly new construction with a local builder I’ve developed a very good relationship with and for homeowners still staying at their primary residence.

Having the ability to not limit myself to one kind of installation has kept me working, without needing to take advantage of any of the loans currently being offered to business owners, albeit by myself without any help — but let’s be honest, with social media none of us are really alone. There’s always a voice out there happy to tell us that the first tile should have been 1/8″ to the left.

If you’re currently out of work, or even if you’re working but want to change up your game a bit, diversify your customer base. There are always high-paying jobs out there. You just have to figure out where to look. Be smart. Be safe. This too shall pass.

COVID Contractor Perspective: Greg Twarog, owner, Unique 2 LLC; NTCA Ambassador, CTI #1302

man in a mask and goggles

People who are not from a major city are asking what it’s like here right now, in the Chicago Southwest suburbs. I just left a project walk-through on W. Huron St.,  and in a word —  desolate. Even all of the buildings, stores, parks and streets  — they are all virtually empty. The streets, for the most part, are always busy here, so the fact that they are completely void of cars, bikes, people running, walking pets, delivering packages and the general hustle and bustle to and from work — it’s just plain odd. The irony is that on May 1, Friday morning, the residential high-rise garage is filled with cars. Later today, it was announced that Illinois would lift some of their mandates on some businesses soon, but the lasting effects will be felt for many years to come.

So what does all this mean when I’m physically going to measure a project and sell my company’s products and services?  I’ve decided to be empathetic to customers and to the reason our Great City remains like this since it was locked down just after St. Patrick’s day on March 21st. After all, I really don’t know the clients or their families, their lifestyles or political philosophies. I do my best to stay professional while keeping conversation to a minimum during this stressful time.

I ask how they and their family’s health are doing, but it’s not just casual conversation any more. If they say “all is good,” I move into the order of business, and the details as I always have. I explain our process, products used and professional background that I may not have covered in our first introductions on the phone or in an email.

If they are not well, I explain the installation start date will be dependent on everyone’s clear test results. If one of our crew calls off, a replacement will step in to finish the install or a return date will be made based on cleared results on our end. 

The rest of the process is pretty much intact as before, except I explain that we like to be the only trade scheduled for the day on their project. We ask to have minimal contact throughout the day now. For prevention we wear masks or respirators, face shields or goggles and hearing protection. We’ve already adopted PPE into daily use to combat exposure to silica dust. Now we also include a job site HEPA Air Scrubber. Hand sanitizer and general hygiene have always been  — and remain encouraged  — for our company. Clients and subcontractors working with us have been receptive to these logical changes, if not totally accepting of the explanations about the changes in both our process and daily company routines.

Daily prospecting for new business has been uniquely different since COVID-19. First and foremost, the phone has been quieter; also I visit fewer places daily so I don’t have the same level of contact with people currently. For almost three decades of business in this industry, I’ve generated a great deal of profitable contracts and leads through simple contact with people, and sharing information about myself and what services I provide. That personal contact is now all but eliminated. I can’t hand out a business card, offer a simple facial gesture like a reassuring smile or a firm handshake upon first meeting someone or closing a business deal. So, it’s challenging and awkward to work around.  These fundamentals for business success have been stripped away by the pandemic, government mandates and the need to preserve my health  — as well as everyone else’s health I come into contact with — along with their friends and family they live with.

I decided early on to go back to my roots and just call, text, and video call friends, clients, peers –everyone — to see how they have been doing healthwise, and in business. I also ask for their perspectives on how they have been adjusting to their daily local changes so we can compare notes on the subject. I’ve learned a lot in these conversations and extended them into my social media community. For instance, I learned in these conversations of the need for masks and face shields for several area hospitals. Through my contacts, I was able to supply some face shields. And a mosaic artist, Betsy Rocket of Vida VaVoom in Fort Wayne, Ind., answered my Facebook request for anyone who could help make masks with the fact that she is also a seamstress. She rose to the occasion and supplied about 100 much-needed masks (Ed. Note: Rocket is willing to make masks for anyone in need of cloth masks. Contact her at 260-579-8114).

This made me realize that some of these changes in our current culture are almost necessary. I feel early site visits are not really as essential now that we have such high-quality video and picture capabilities right on our phones. Based on this new kind of data sharing and discovery phase with the client, we can form preliminary budgets and soft terms. As a result, I feel these new efforts save me valuable company resources as well as time that can be spent in other more profitable ways. 

Paradigm shifts are not a bad thing but are not always easy for everyone to adjust to. Like it or not, the way we have done business until now has been forever changed by social distancing precautions we’ve needed to take in this pandemic. Meeting clients can happen through social media contact or contractor apps on our phones like Linkedin, Alignable or TraLaMa.

As I touched on earlier, I believe sharing pre-qualifying questions in context of the project scope, timelines and budgets along with preliminary measurements/prints are imperative before any on-site visits are made. I provide benchmark updates given by video recordings or virtual walkthroughs instead of in person to limit contact. Payments are mostly being processed by electronic transactions (instantly) by bank-to-bank transfers or money processing apps like PayPal, Cash App or Venmo instead of meeting in person for cash, checks or Square to change hands.

It’s 2020, so for the most part, I expected these futuristic technologies and safety precautions. I just wish we had the flying cars, personal jet packs and holographic television! I know — wishful thinking. Hey we do have Zoom though!

Be healthy and live well everyone!

COVID Contractor Perspective: Martin Brookes, Heritage Marble & Tile, Inc.

Martin Brookes, President of Heritage Marble & Tile, Inc., an NTCA Five-Star Contractor member

On March 16th, 2020 our tile world changed. In Mill Valley, Calif., we went from being overwhelmed with work in a vibrant economy with the labor shortage as our biggest challenge  — to a shelter-in-place order.

I thought I had a grasp on this. I didn’t know the extent of changes that COVID-19 would bring upon us. To prepare, I got jobs stocked with tile and materials,  sent emails to our client base letting them know how we would work responsibly, and had tailgate meetings with my crews daily on the importance of social distancing.

But it soon became quite clear that this situation was going to have far more impact than any of us could have imagined.

The public announcement of government relief available to small businesses added confusion and anxiety. Who would — and who wouldn’t — get financial help to see them through this unknown time period? Uncertainty was an understatement for both the employer and employees.

I thought we could weather the storm with the pre-planning and jobs we had ahead of us. How wrong I was! We worked through the jobs that got stocked ahead of time; then systematically our job sites were closed down. Restrictions got tighter as the local building inspectors teamed with the police to start closing down job sites with the threat of a fine if not in compliance.

I suffered sleepless nights wondering how I was going to be able to ride out the storm, keep my doors open and make sure my hardworking employees could take of their families and pay the bills. I decided that I would pay them to the best of my ability, for the foreseeable future or until all my resources had been exhausted.

I had applied for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) $10k grant and the Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan for payroll and some other expenses, but was not holding my breath on these programs. I bank with a large institution. The initial application program was not easy and changed frequently, so I thought my chances of getting funded would be minimal.

Since I do all my payroll, bookkeeping and timecards through QuickBooks, it was easy for me to pull reports and paperwork.  Forms 940 / 941 were just a click away, and easy to attach to the required paperwork for what seemed to be a remote chance of being funded.

I’m a small business — I mean a real small business; forget the 500 or fewer — we are 7 or fewer. So I thought, “Who really cares whether I survive or not?”

I was assigned a business advisor at my bank and he supplied me with his cell phone, because due to COVID-19 he also was working from home. We talked and he changed my mind on how I though the bank perceived me.  He was friendly, informative and seemed to care. He reassured me my application was in line for funding and I would be getting an email by the end of the week (yeah, right!). A few days later – nothing.  I sent him a polite but assertive email explaining my banking history and loyalty. I also mentioned that I just might have to reconsider my banking choice, after hearing that my peers had been funded from community banks and credit unions.

He again reached out and told me to hang in there because he was hopeful I would be funded by the end of the week. Shortly after, my bank sent a midnight email informing me that we had been funded. I felt a wave of relief knowing I could take care of my employees for at least the next 2.5 months.

Lessons learned

A few things I have learned from this experience to date is that having access to like-minded business owners through NTCA gave me perspective. I learned that the bank does value me and the business I bring them.  And operating my business with professional recordkeeping allowed me to produce the paperwork I needed to justify what I needed to maintain my business.

I’m hopeful we can all learn and grow from this unfortunate situation – though I’m sure we are not even close to realizing how this situation will change the way we do business, not to mention how it will affect our personal lives.  I’m hopeful that others will have the same experience as I did, and can keep their doors open to take care of their hardworking employees.

Yesterday, as part of the Learning Opportunities offered by Coverings Connected, Wally Adamchick, president of Firestarter Speaking and Consulting offered a session on “Acting on the NTCA Culture Survey – Leadership in the Face of COVID-19.” He quoted an article from Fortune magazine that stated that the three key factors in keeping employees engaged is 1) trust in their supervisor 2) pride in the organization and 3) camaraderie with those they work with. I’m hopeful our hardworking employees will remember how loyalty, respect, and genuine caring is helping build a culture that separates our company from run-of-the-mill companies, and that’s why they choose to work for us. It can be an opportunity for all of us to show leadership – and respect  — for workers bring to the party. And in the long run, it can make us an even stronger team.  

COVID Contractor Perspective: James Woelfel, Artcraft Granite Marble & Tile Company

Contractor James Woelfel, Artcraft
James Woelfel of Artcraft Granite, Marble and Tile Company, an NTCA Five-Star Contractor member

The last six weeks has changed all of our lives. It has changed all of our business practices and our business models.  Some of us tile contractors are fortunate that the construction we are working on is considered an essential service. Commercial construction projects in areas around the country are still moving forward in these strange and unprecedented times. We should consider ourselves fortunate for this work as millions of other people are losing their jobs. At the same time residential tile work has fallen off significantly. How on earth can you prepare for this event? You can’t.

As a commercial tile contractor we developed COVID protocol for our employees a couple of weeks before our general contractors did:  pretty scary that a finish trade can maneuver faster than general contractors but all of us know that the tile trade is far more nimble and forward-thinking than general contractors. We have implemented 100% gloves, masks and eye protection on every one of our jobs. We are practicing social distancing and are making aware to the general contractor if any trades are unaware or ignoring the CDC’s protocol to ensure that our employees are as safe as possible on a job site.

The question that keeps me up at night is even though we are essential, are we really necessary? Are we putting our people in harm’s way? My people are telling me that they feel safer on the job site than they do when going to a grocery store. It is calming but my underlying concern for my employee’s health still weighs heavily on my mind.

How are we as a ceramic tile installation industry going to move forward as the first wave of this virus moves forward? Good business and business practices will see some of us through the next few months. Have you applied for the SBA PPP loan program? Are you thinking on your feet?  What about the residential tile contractor? With work literally stopping, what is your next move? Are you positioned for this massive slow down? What are your contingencies?

These are difficult questions to answer, especially when no one person knows what is going to happen in the next few months. Staying in contact with your customers is key in my opinion. Can you develop safety protocols that you can convey to the homeowner that you are safe and the homeowner will be safe?

Another possibility is trying to find a job with a commercial contractor for a limited time. Going out to see if you can get hired by a commercial contractor may be a bridge to cover costs and bring money home. I know these ideas are simple but it is more important than ever that tile contractors think proactively.

It is comforting in these times that we are considered essential. I have always felt that way. We are helping our country’s economy by continuing our work, but we need to be smart in protecting ourselves, our coworkers, our employees and most important our families. Don’t make poor decisions that put any of these people at risk. Make the necessary decisions and the well-thought-out decisions. Lean on other tile contractors and lean on the NTCA.  I know they are putting out very useful information (visit the NTCA Coronavirus Resource Page on www.tile-assn.com). None of knows everything, but working together, even with a competitor, will help all of us make it through these unusual times.  Please stay safe and healthy.