2021 Top 500: Proactive Approaches

by Kyle Clapham

To say that the past year has been difficult would be an understatement; and even as post-vaccinated Americans open their homes to improvement projects and remodeling jobs pick up, new and different obstacles keep getting in the way.

“This year has been absolutely crazy,” says Chris Powers, co-owner and member of Dream Kitchens and Baths LLC, with a bit of a laugh. “Product price increases, installer availability, all of it is just land sliding; it’s hard for a remodeling company like ourselves to keep the schedule moving when product hasn’t arrived that was ordered six months ago.”

Chris Powers

In spite of this, with 10 years of experience under his belt with the Murrysville, Pennsylvania, company, Powers says it’s also one of the hottest markets he’s ever experienced. “I’ve seen slow times, and I’ve seen busy times, and this is extreme for the amount of volume.”

Under normal circumstances, he says his company would be booking jobs eight to 10 weeks out. Now, they’re booking a year out. “As far as sales go, it was one of our best years,” he says. “But as far as the product goes, one of the hardest.”

Powers says a combination of supply delays and labor shortages contribute to the issue of not getting jobs done sooner. “It’s almost impossible to find people. We’ve had the same four crews for about eight years, but we can’t add a fifth. You can’t find anyone new. And that’s been an obstacle because we have the business and we have the work, but you can only work as fast and as efficient as your guys are; you can’t do any more than that. You get maxed out with the volume.”

Labor shortages are a perennial problem in the industry, and Powers is definitely not alone in facing them. Dale Kaercher, president of K&W Interiors, a full-service, design-build company based in Anchorage, Alaska, has been in the industry since 1985, and he says not a lot of young people want to be in the remodeling industry, choosing university over a trade. “Most of our installers right now, they’re getting older, they’re in their 50s and thinking about retirement.”

Kaercher and K&W have taken a proactive approach when it comes to recruiting. “We actually started a training program where we find an apprentice to put with an installer and we pay half the wages on them,” he explains.

“So he works for them for a year, and at that point, we evaluate if he’s ready to be on his own or if he needs to do a bit more. We split the wages with the installer, starting at $18 an hour, so it’s not as much of an expense for the installer to have a trainee. So by the end of the year, [the trainee] is pretty well-trained and can get his own license and bond and be an actual installer.”

Dale Kaercher

Kaercher says he’d like to expand the program, but he only wants to offer it to his top installers. If he knows he’ll get one or two installers a year out of it, he’s comfortable with that. “We’ve tried other methods of hiring people, but you just can’t find them. There’s just nobody out there,” Kaercher says. “So we’re training them ourselves.”

In comparison, Alex Marck, owner of Home Forever Baths in Chicago, Illinois, has only been in the business since winter of 2019, just before the pandemic. His experience in the remodeling industry might be limited, but he’s taken what he’s learned from other industries and brought it over to his current work.

“Up until three months ago, we really struggled with [finding laborers], to the point where we were consistently short-staffed on installers,” Marck says. “We were consistently overbooking our schedule and overworking everyone, and we could not find a way to reliably bring more people in.”

Marck says even though they pay a starting salary of $78,000 for full installers, along with providing a new 2021 company truck and a full set of Milwaukee tools, no one was applying despite paying more than their competitors.

“What we found was that a lot of these people we want are busy as it is, and they’re not necessarily on social media themselves. They’re not looking on Facebook, [and] they’re not looking on LinkedIn because if you’re a quality installer, you already have a job that probably pays well.”

Alex Marck

Instead, they marketed ads towards family members, spouses and people who are related to or know someone in the field and included in those ads were referral incentives: $500 for a referral. Since then, Marck says they’ve had a 10 percent surplus of installers. “We now have applications waiting, and we’re consistently recruiting and hiring.”

Labor shortages aren’t the only thing holding remodelers back from completing jobs quickly. Products have been delayed weeks, even months in some cases, with prices hiking up between the time it takes to estimate a job and the completion of a project.

“The market is great, people are ready to buy,” Kaercher says. “The problem is getting the product. We’ve gone from four weeks to 22 weeks on getting cabinets.” He adds that even with labor and product setbacks, his company is already up 30 percent from last year. “This is one of the best times I’ve seen.”

Product delays and timing setbacks mean remodelers have to communicate now more than ever with customers anxious to get their projects started.

“Stay patient,” Powers advises. “Even with the volume of business that you do, you can’t rush through any project. No matter how long it takes, it needs to take that long to get done. Especially in the referral business, you have to take your time through projects and do them as well as you can.” QR

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