As the economy slowly rolls towards recovery,stone fabricatorsare not merely trying to survive, but rather they are looking to improve the way they are conducting their business. This was evident at a recent Fabricator Forum at Coverings in Atlanta, GA, where virtually all of the topics raised dealt with scheduling and labor issues.
Panelists for the event included:

What kind of performance bonuses are you paying your employees?

Ontra: Being that I’m a small shop, I may slip $100 to one of our guys from time to time. It is random. When they don’t know it is coming, it seems to work well.

Luster: We have a problem finding good employees in our area. We do what we can to keep them happy. We tried square footage [compensation] plans, but it didn’t work for us. We just couldn’t find a balance.

Malisani: Piecemeal plans worked in a better economy. Increased automation is also a factor that can make it tougher.

How do you motivate employees?

Duran: I’m there in my shop as a presence. When I interview people, they know that I am going to be around.

Ontra: I spend time making sure that my guys know what is expected of them.

Malisani: You need to give your employees a stake in the game. Make them responsible for something, and empower them. People want to do a good job when they’re empowered.

Guy Robertson, Robertson Manufacturing, Inc., Davenport, IA (audience member): You need to set realistic deadlines, but also keep them informed on what’s next. If they think there’s only one job to work on, they might spend the whole day doing that one job. But if they know that there’s something behind it, they will work at a good pace.

Duran: We have a wax board set up in the shop, and we list everything that is due that day as well as the next day. You need to outline what you want your guys to do. Write a script and a procedure for them.

Is the Department of Labor cracking down on paying people for piecework?

Ontra: I had an experience with that in Connecticut. The Department of Labor came in and said, “Where are your invoices? Your workers have to invoice you.” Ever since then, everyone is paid by the hour.

We have 90 employees at my company, including 50 workers in the shop and another 20 in the field. How do you schedule your production and installs?

Twiss: We use Outlook for our scheduling, and we have an operations manager who schedules all templating appointments and installs. That person can constantly update the schedule as needed.

Luster: We use software that we developed in house using Access.

Duran: I’ve tried to be more automated with that, and it works for fabricating and templating with Outlook.

Robertson: We average a kitchen per day, and we use Google Calendar. It works on all devices, and we all share the calendar.

What about when there are setbacks — on your end or on the client’s end? How are you able to reschedule them?

Twiss: The one rule we have is not to move anyone else. If it is our fault, we fix the mistake and we find a way to squeeze it into our schedule. If it is their fault, then we reschedule it for a time that works for us.

Luster: We do the same. We don’t move someone else; we reschedule the job for later down the road.

Ontra: The important thing is to be honest and explain to the homeowner that their countertop will be there for 20 or 30 years, and you want everything to be right before the installation. In a small shop like ours, if one person calls out sick, that can set you back, so just be honest. The homeowner may relate it to something going on in their day-to-day life.

Malisani: Often, your pricing determines your options when it comes to scheduling. If you’re working on thin margins, that might not allow you to pay for an overtime shift.

Audience Member: We do 20 to 30 kitchens per day, and we are very proactive. We always call the customers in advance to make sure everything is ready for us, and we don’t ever miss dates.

How do you expand into commercial work?

Twiss: One way would be to seek out millwork companies and cabinet makers. Trying to go directly to the general contractors can be a struggle because they likely have someone in mind that they like to use.

Luster: We’ve worked with millwork companies and also tile contractors.

Robertson: You have to understand, though, that when you’re doing work with millwork companies and doing commercial work, there is a 180-degree difference. There are no deposits, and you’re lucky if you get paid in 90 days. The schedules are unpredictable, so start small

Dan Rea, Coldspring (audience member): You absolutely need to understand what you’re getting into. You’re going to need to get into shop drawings. It can be tough to get paid, and you can get short-changed. There are rewards, though.

Has anyone had trouble with employees faking injuries that they say happened on the job?

Duran: You need to make a note on reported injuries and follow up. Ask them for a doctor’s note.

Invest in cameras in your facility. Even if an injury really happened, you can note whether there was negligence on their part.

Ontra: We’ve been fortunate to only have a few small incidents in my own shop. In other places, though, I’ve seen people milk it, and they got a pink slip.

I’ve had my own injuries over the years, and Workman’s Compensation doesn’t want to hear “wear and tear.” They want to know specifically when and where the injury occurred.

Malisani: You need to have a thorough safety program. The best defense is to be proactive and make sure you have safety systems in place. Test your employees’ hearing, breathing, etc. We do that, and it actually gets us a discount on our insurance.

Audience Member: We have our employees come into the office even when they claim they’re injured, as long as it isn’t serious. They can shred paper, color folders, whatever.

Malisani: That’s actually what the government wants. They know that employees who go back to work stay at work. Employees who stay at home for eight weeks don’t always go back to work.

Audience Member: Wewill send injured employees over to a soup kitchen to help out, or maybe do some other charity work. We work with a claim management company, and they have some great ideas.

Malisani:You need to be clear with your employees what you’re doing, because this is a big litigation area.

How are you setting customer expectations?

Audience Member: We want to “scare” the customer. We explain all about lippage and fissures, and we include it in the contract.

Duran: Be transparent and educate your customers on stone.

Malisani: There areresources from the MIA that can help you with that — forms for the customer. You get one opportunity to set the environment of what you want to do. Communicate clearly and be specific. If they’re asking for a stone that you may have issues with, then tell them that.

Twiss: We have a seven-page contract that we use no matter what size the job is.

Malisani: Contracts are for you, not the customer. When they go to court, the contract is what protects you.

Dan Riccolo, Morris Granite, Morris, IL (audience member): We actually have a sample with a fissure in it in our showroom, and we show it to the customers.

Audience Member: We lay out every job with the customer. It is an education opportunity where we can show all of the defects in the stone.

Ontra: We need to remember that we are the ones that are the experts, and we are sharing our expertise. The customer needs to know what to expect, and that comes from you.

Duran: You want to educate your customers, but do it in a pleasant way. You don’t want the client to feel like they’re falling into some kind of trap. Put yourself in their shoes.

For shops that sell retail, what marketing or advertising programs have worked?

Ontra:We advertised in a local magazine, and it didn’t draw much. One person came in, and they didn’t buy. Word of mouth and good service seems to be what works for us.

Twiss: We’ve done some magazine advertising. Our contractor has won several awards, so we promoted that. But our best business comes from referrals.

Audience Member: We try and go to one good home show per year. You get so many touches just from that.

Riccolo: We had high-quality signs made, and we place them on the customer’s lawn when we template. They stay there through the install, and the neighbors see them. They get curious about what is being done.

Duran: We are doing a variety of things. Start by thinking of what you can do for free at first, and then develop a budget. The lawn signs also worked well for me.

Work in concentric circles, and open up. You want to market your company, and it’s not necessarily sales. You want people to know who you are and then work from there. Become a celebrity in what you do.