When a group of fabricators and other stone industry members come together at a fabricator forum, it immediately becomes an arena for an exchange of ideas, experiences, advice and solutions. With evolving technology, a shortage of qualified workers and the introduction of alternative stone surfaces such as sintered stone products and porcelain slabs, owners and managers of fabrication shops face many new challenges daily. For these reasons, forums provide an opportunity for industry members to hear and learn from each other. The latest event of this kind was held during Coverings 2019, which took place at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL, from April 9th to 12th.
Moderated by Tony Malisani of Malisani Inc. in Great Falls, MT, the fabricator forum also included a panel of leading industry veterans:
- Daquin Naquin, Stone Interiors, Gaston, SC
- Buddy Ontra, Ontra Stone Concepts, Bridgeport, CT
- Karen Roe, NSMotif, Sanford, FL
The session set out with each panelists giving a quick bio, but then separated participants into breakout groups, which were led by one of the three leaders. The smaller group format allowed attendees to converse easily with each other.
The way a company markets itself is crucial for its success. “When we are out in the field, we are selling our team,” said Roe. “You need core people behind you and a culture that has customer service at number one.”
Roe also went on to say that it is important to be upfront with customers. “When you are out selling, you want to know your product is going to do what you are telling people it will do,” she explained. “Half the battle is setting that expectation, which is so critical. You have to market in a way that you are setting true expectations.”
One participant said that paperwork is key to a successful job. She suggested that if a customer isn’t happy with something suggest to read over the paperwork together. “A customer isn’t always right, but it’s about making them feel that they are right,” said Roe. “Keep the lines of communication open in a very friendly way. I find that some people are afraid to approach [a problem], because they are worried that they will lose the customer when it is only a discussion.”
Roe also talked about how selling other products and services is another contributing factor to success. She said that if fabricators only sell the basic granite countertop, it is difficult to make much of a profit. “We have what we call a ‘Hot Sauce’ list,” she said. “They are things we can upgrade — all additional things you can add to the job.” Some suggestions she offered were a 15-year replacement sealer or a faucet. “Take a profit margin that is 10% to 30 to 50%,” said Roe. “As a fabricator, if we don’t add these items, we aren’t profitable. Elevate a level one granite to an exotic. There’s a lot more profit in the exotics. “Work on your salesperson so that you can be more successful as a company. If a customer asks for a discount, make them feel like you are giving them something. Give them that 3% discount, but build it in somewhere else. Mark up your slab.”
Challenges in the shop
“What’s your biggest challenge?” Ontra asked his group. One participant spoke up and told the group it was quality control. “We are a little understaffed right now,” he said. “There’s a shop disconnect. We are trying to go more paperless. We’re using Moraware and Speed Label.” “It sounds like you are embracing technology to improve your workflow,” said Ontra.
Another audience member said that his workers seem to always forget something before heading to a job. To alleviate this problem, he started enforcing a check list before everyone heads out for the day.
The topic of where to find good and loyal employees also came up in the conversation, as it often does. One participant said he asks his current workers if they know someone who would be interested. Another fabricator explained that he offers an incentive program for his installers. “If they stay six months, we’ll do anything from $100 to $250. Finding installers with a good level of experience is difficult. It’s hard work.”
Along the lines of installers, the group agreed that the personality of the people walking into a customer’s home is the most important thing. “You want the homeowner to have faith,” said Ontra. “You can teach how to do something, but you can’t teach personality. [Also], installers are the eyes on the ground. They have to be able to tell what’s going on.”
Inside the office
One of the reasons forums such as these are so successful is because of the openness among participants and that there is not a pre-agenda. One of the first issues that Naquin addressed was cyber security – a subject that all business owners might not consider. “Two-and-a-half years ago, we got hit hard,” he told his group. “Our entire payroll and accounts were wiped out, and we were employing a reputable IT company. They were a big company. They set us up originally, but never came and sat down with us and looked into our files. They were backing up the wrong folder.”
Naquin encouraged participants to look at email filters. “They say only about 15% of companies survive an attack like [we did].”
Another issue Naquin discussed was communication between the sales staff and customers. “It drives me nuts when sales people won’t pick up the phone,” he said. “Email conversations are great to document things, but terrible for communication. Half of my sales people don’t want to pick up the phone and talk to people. They hide from voice interaction. We push to pick up the phone and have a conversation first. Then send a follow-up email and confirm everything. To actually reach out and have that interaction is so much easier to explain things rather than going back and forth with 15 emails. We talk about wanting to move a job through in five days, but if you spend three days on email, that’s not going to happen”
One of the fabricators in the group agreed with Naquin. “Our biggest problem is lack of communication,” he explained. “I have that same issue and it drives me crazy. I love email, but it doesn’t answer every question.”