Everyone knows when you buy that shiny new saw — or the CNC with all the bells and whistles — in order for those machines to function properly with a long lifespan, they need regular on-going maintenance. But what about the machine that matters most, the human machine? Stone fabrication is a tough business. It’s as hard on your body, as it is on your sanity. Given enough time and neglect, that all important piece of “equipment” will not perform as well as it once did, or break down all together.
The easiest way to alleviate potential bodily damage is to invest in material handling systems, which are just as important to the fabrication process as those saws and CNCs. If you are considering a new machinery purchase, it pays to do your due diligence on identifying your production issues. In many cases, the bottlenecks are better solved by improving workflow conditions than simply just adding another machine, usually at a fraction of the cost. Without proper handling systems, like cranes, vacuum lifters and installation carts, “manhandling” stone all day long not only slows production, but will have eventual detrimental effects to you and your employees, resulting in time loss, chronic pain and workers comp claims.
But even with proper material handling solutions, this business is still unrelenting and demanding. I have spoken with many fabricators that admit they’re tired and burning out. The lyric “It’s better to burn out, than fade away” is fine for a rock song, but the reality for a successful “rock” career is just the opposite. Our bodies do not come with an owner’s manual, but here are a few tips that have helped my own human machine stay well-oiled and maintained — continuing to run after decades in this business.
Create little finish lines
There is nothing worse than starting work on a Monday morning with nothing but endless months of the grind staring you in the face. It can seem hopeless at times — feeling like all you do is work, and never get anywhere. Learn to set realistic short-term goals that can be achieved as a ladder to larger ones — simple achievable goals to look forward to, like a night out with your spouse or an afternoon fishing with your children. The idea is to always be working towards something, no matter how small the reward. These little “victories” will help break up the monotony, and those Monday mornings won’t seem as dreadful anymore.
Tame the technology
Cell phone calls, texts and e-mail exist to make life easier, but many become a slave to the irresistible power of the information age. While these devices and services certainly have their uses, they can also be an incredible enemy of time management. I prefer to make and receive calls on my schedule, not the caller’s schedule. That interrupted time has to be made up somewhere, usually accounting for longer days and more stress. When I’m at work, I totally focus on the task at hand. My customers deserve this. My staff knows when it’s important enough to pull me away. I check in when it’s convenient, and return my calls in a reasonable time. Then, the call gets my full attention, and not just a half-brained conversation while occupied on something else at the moment. At the very least, learn to turn it off at the end of the day. It will all be there tomorrow. My friend Tony Neylon of Delta Stone in Mobile, AL, has a saying: “There are no granite emergencies.” I couldn’t agree more.
Learn to say “no”
Saying “yes” all the time will burn you out faster than anything. Know your limitations. It’s okay if you don’t get every job, and you are under no obligation to take on customers that are being unrealistic in terms of price or expectations. Being constantly under pressure from self-induced deadlines and tight margins is not fun, healthy or financially sound.
Get professional sports massages
For fabricators and installers, this is a physical trade. With heavy, repetitive and extended use, muscles can develop scar tissue and lose ability to function at full capacity and range of motion. If your car wasn’t firing on all cylinders, you would fix it, right? Not only will a massage get your muscles tuned up properly, the massage itself is a nice relaxing escape from the tensions of business. Intrepid managers could even provide mobile masseuse services for simple, inexpensive chair massages, right at the shop. The morale of your crew will skyrocket, as will their physical capacity. Over the course of a long career in the stone industry, without healthy rejuvenation like massage and general healthy exercise, your golden years will undoubtbly suffer from the years of neglect.
Do more with your life than just stone
I know what it’s like to eat, drink and breathe stone 24/7. As a young businessman I did just that. In order to be successful, you must put in the hours and work hard. But as time goes by, find a hobby or activity to give yourself a regular break from the trade. Or better yet, take regular vacations, and get far away. What are you working for anyway? Certainly you’ve earned the right to enjoy the fruits of your labor every now and then. Time away from the trade gives your body and mind a chance to heal. You will return healthier, re-energized and full of new ideas.
This business can be very rewarding and fulfilling, at the same time be incredibly stressful and punishing on the body. Learn to find balance in your daily routine, and you will be better at what you do, and you will be happier and healthier as well. By properly maintaining the “machine,” you will get the best performance and many years of productive service from it.
I overheard Dan Riccolo of Chicago’s Morris Granite, whose family has been in the memorial business for decades, say that they’ve never engraved “I wish I would have worked more” on any headstone. At the finish line, most would agree that a well-rounded balanced life would have been a life well lived.