President’s Letter – April 2016

JWoelfel_headshotMutually assured destruction: fight it with product testing, investing in training, and hiring quality installers

Mutually assured destruction. This is a pretty ominous statement, but a very provocative statement as well. Among manufacturers, distributors and installers, in my opinion, we are headed down this road.

It seems every day we are being introduced to new tiles, thin tiles, plank tiles, recycled-content tiles and so on, and it seems that a lot of these tiles have not been tested in real-world applications. Thin tile and its installation does not even have national installation or manufacturing standards yet. Plank tiles are getting longer and longer, and their warpage and lippage tolerances are still based on a manufacturing standard last updated a few years ago. Recycled-content tiles that contain glass, porcelain and other materials have hit the market, and we installers are the guinea pigs on what type of setting and grouting materials we need to use to set these tiles.

In short, new tiles introduced into the marketplace have inadequate testing and the tile setter is trying to learn on the fly how to set these products without problems.

Some distributors are pushing these products out into the marketplace and getting tiles specified even though they do not understand all of the installation issues that need to be solved in order to have a successful installation. These distributors are putting sales numbers in front of success numbers, and this damages the industry. Some of these same distributors are also failing to vet their recommended installers on their qualifications. More than once in discussions with various distributors, the first question to me is “Why are installations so expensive?”

My response is, “I train my people, I certify my installers, I take money out of my bottom line to go to various training courses, both for installation and business. It takes my hard-earned profits to do this.” My other response is a little less political, “Am I not allowed to make money? Is it unfair for me, the installer to make money on the installation as well?” Sometimes I think these distributors forget that we as tile contractors are taking the installation liability on, and we need to be monetarily rewarded for this liability.

As installers, our companies have to do a better job of training our employees. If you sub-contract your installers or if they are paid by the hour, training is the number one priority. In our industry, we have CTEF/Certified Tile Installer certification, Union apprenticeship training and ACT certification. These classes and certifications need to be fully attended and we have to educate our people to install tile properly. The manufacturers and distributors have every right to call installers out when there is a job failure due to poorly trained people – and we tile contractors have to spend money to train our people.

Our industry thinking and the way we do business has to change. Manufacturers need to test their new tiles more effectively and be more open about real-world testing in real-world applications. Distributors need to be more focused on long-term success and need to partner with qualified quality labor. Both manufacturers and distributors need to invest more in the training of installers because without proper installation our industry will NEVER achieve its potential and we will continue to lose dollars and market share to inferior products like VCT, carpet, LVT, polished concrete and so forth. Tile contractors have to invest in their people. Numerous studies have shown that training your employees builds better attitudes and retention. And installation failures need to be reduced drastically.

If we, as an industry, do not change our mindset we will condemn ourselves to a smaller piece of the economic pie.

Respectfully,
James Woelfel, NTCA president
[email protected]

President’s Letter – March 2016

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James Woelfel, NTCA president

TISE WEST/Surfaces is a great success for NTCA

I just returned to the office after attending the TISE West/Surfaces show in Las Vegas. It was a quick four-day trip, where the NTCA held Executive, Board and Technical Committee meetings. We also hosted our first State Directors Reception.

The State Director position was past NTCA president John Cox’s idea. His thought was, “How do we develop the next generation of NTCA leaders?” The reception was a great success, with 25 State Directors at the reception. Each director was asked to stand up and tell about themselves. A new NTCA video showing the rich history and tradition of our 69-year-old association was shown. If you have a chance, please watch this excellent video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw-RGyJYWxk&feature=youtu.be or http://tinyurl.com/hhsyrcf. Knowing our history can help guide us into the future.

Past NTCA president Nyle Wadford and I spoke at a seminar about how to avoid installation failures, attracting a crowd of about 60 people. Nyle discussed the importance of proper movement joints, and I discussed other types of failures like improper layout, and lack of coverage.

Nyle and I agreed that you can stop installation issues with the following four steps:

1. Use the proper leveling, setting and grouting products as recommended.

2. Know the ceramic tile industry standards.

3. Use properly trained and qualified labor to install ceramic and stone tile.

4. Employ proper oversight.

At the show, the NTCA booth was a hit. It seemed like every time I walked by the booth, there were contractors signing up to be members. In fact the NTCA set a record for new members at this show: 15! Increasingly, contractors are seeing the value of NTCA membership.

In the Board meeting, we reviewed the past year. 2015 was a very successful year for the NTCA. Our membership is now around 1100, and we are projecting membership to reach 1200 by the end of 2016….WOW! We also discussed the upcoming NTCA Five Star Contractor business meeting being hosted by TEC Installation Products in Chicago in June. This will consist of a day and a half of business seminars. I implore NTCA tile contractors that are not Five Star Contractors to call or email NTCA’s Jim Olson at 612.788.4726/[email protected] to get your application and join, since more specifications are being written around Five Star Contractors – and the manufacturers’ rebates don’t hurt either.

In the NTCA Technical Committee meeting, new white papers dealing with wall wash lighting, linear drain installations, thin panel tile and nano coatings on porcelain tile were voted on and accepted into the NTCA Reference Manual. Noah Chitty from Crossville updated the committee on the progress of ANSI 108.19, the installation standard for thin porcelain tile. This installation standard is coming together and will be updated at Coverings during the ANSI meeting in Chicago.

Those of you who could not attend, I understand how busy our personal and professional lives can get. Try to make time for Coverings in April. If you can’t, make sure you come to Total Solutions Plus in Palm Springs in October. In response to recent contractor surveys that reflected the desire for business training, the NTCA is putting together educational seminars at TSP that are more business related and that relate to each other. As I heard more than once this week, “the seminars were better” and “we got our money’s worth.”

Respectfully,
James

James Woelfel, President NTCA
480.829.9197, [email protected]

(Ed. note: read more about TISE West in TileLetter, April issue)

President’s Letter – February 2016

JWoelfel_headshotChange order blues

It’s important in our industry to learn from our various experiences on our jobs. We are just finishing a very difficult job where we were asked to step in and supplement another tile contractor’s work on a hotel because the original tile contractor did not have the manpower to do the work on schedule.

All of the work we did was on a time-and-material basis and was done through signed change orders generated by our company and signed by the general contractor. We are now winding down the job and it’s time to reconcile all of the change orders, bill and get paid. I have been in negotiations for the last three weeks with the general contractor to have the last few change orders settled so that we can bill for the final amount.

This negotiation is causing me headaches. Why? Even though we have signed change orders for all of the work done – and have completed all the work – the general contractor is still negotiating my prices.

During our various industry meetings and shows I have had the opportunity to sit down with other tile contractors around the country and share similar experiences. Martin Howard of David Allen Company, NTCA 1st Vice-President, shared with me that I have to make sure the change orders are professional in nature and are signed BEFORE we do the work. Pretty elementary I know, but also very important. How many times have we tile contractors completed change order work, THEN put a piece of paper in front of the general contractor, who suddenly forgets their directive and hangs us out to dry?

Experience and networking has underscored the importance of making sure our documentation is professional, clear and signed before the work is done. But experience and networking has not prepared me for negotiating payment for change orders that are signed before we have done the work – this is a first. I see a few options:

1. I can hold my ground and convince the contractor to pay me for what I have done.

2. I can make a business decision and negotiate away some of my hard-earned money.

3. I can take a hard line and start filing liens and sending letters that will hurt feelings and destroy relationships.

To me, 3 is the nuclear option. Option 2 is like giving me fake cherry-flavored medicine – it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Option 1 is my best choice. I must be professional, make lucid points and back them up with superior documentation. Plus, this meeting needs to take place in person and not on email or over the phone.

This article may be obvious to everyone reading it, but this situation arises almost every day during tile contracting. We as tile contractors need to handle this challenge in the most professional way possible, without damaging our relationships with our general contractors. However, sometimes, we may have to damage our relationships in order to get paid.

I do know one thing for sure, I will learn from this experience.

Respectfully, James

James Woelfel, NTCA president

480.829.9197

www.artcraftgmt.com

President’s Letter – January 2016

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Taking stock of 2015; moving forward into 2016

JWoelfel_headshotI hope all of you had a happy New Year celebration. It was great to take some time and decompress from the world of tile contracting. We are fortunate here at Artcraft that we are extremely busy with new and challenging work.

I spent a lot of time last year writing about how tile contractors need to do a better job of following industry standards, keeping up with the latest technologies, taking advantage of NTCA educational opportunities and installing tile better. This month I want to write about how you and your distributors need to work as a team.

In November of this last year, my company had the worst experience we have ever had with a distributor who was out of New York City. We were installing product on an out-of-town project and when the material arrived from the distributor to the jobsite, we decided that the product was unacceptable. We brought this product issue to the attention of the general contractor, who then informed the owner. They both agreed, and the material was rejected. This is when the fun began.

After contacting the distributor immediately, the distributor, instead of reacting quickly, used the next 24 hours to make numerous excuses. When the owner finally said to replace the material, the distributor sent a new shipment to the jobsite. The 24-hour delay forced me to keep my people out of town over the weekend, costing me money for salary, food and lodging. I approached the distributor to help offset some of my costs and was refused.

I was disappointed to say the least. My good distributor partners here in Phoenix would have come to the table to help offset some of my costs; I know this from past experience. Our action on this project prevented a huge issue that would have resulted if we had installed the unacceptable product.

What did I learn from this experience? I learned to read the fine print on invoices, since my invoice from this supplier included language holding them harmless from charges due to their tile problems. I learned that if we decide to buy tile from an unfamiliar source, I will make sure that I read the invoice very closely. And I will most likely only do business with distributors I know, and distributors that support our industry and our association.

In short, tile contractors need to develop and cultivate good solid relationships with suppliers/distributors, in return these suppliers/distributors must do their job to put out the best material possible to us tile contractors. Distributors must realize that doing business with good, qualified tile contractors actually saves them money and headaches.

Good distributors do step up to the plate when there are problems; bad distributors don’t. I have learned another valuable lesson, and my company will be better for it, so I hope all of you can learn from my experience.

Respectfully,

James Woelfel

 

P.S. If you want to know the distributor that I had issues with, please call or email. I will gladly share the name.

President’s Letter – October 2015

JWoelfel_headshotI have always had the strong belief that every professional tile contractor should join the NTCA.

Recently, as I was reading a Facebook post on Tile Geeks (although I am a social media neophyte, I enjoy this forum immensely), one comment regarding joining our association struck me, in particular. This person posted that they joined the NTCA “for the coupons.” True, the coupons are a value, but I do not believe this is the best reason – nor is it one of the top three reasons to join.

What this post tells me is that we, as NTCA contractor members, must do a better job of conveying the most important reasons to join. In fact, in comments to that post, NTCA members Dirk Sullivan, Bradford Denny and Martin Brookes, cited the value of the NTCA Reference Manual, networking and education. And those are my top three reasons for joining and participating in the NTCA, too.

Since I am a third generation tile contractor, my father (Butch Woelfel) and I have had this conversation as well. I asked him why his dad (John Otto Woelfel) joined the Southern Tile Contractors Association (the precursor to the NTCA) some 60 years ago. Dad told me my grandfather joined the association to keep up with the evolution of the tile industry. He then told me that he became active in the NTCA (Dad is a former president and chairman) to learn more about the tile industry because even as an installer, he could see how products, methods and standards were changing. Dad chuckled and said he figured that if he hung around with smart people, some of that knowledge would rub off on him. He explained that forming friendships with people like Bob Young, Bob Wright, Doyle Dickerson and Bob Roberson were not only personally rewarding, but it made him smarter and made his company better. I believe it did.

My dad then said something interesting. He said, “All tile contractors have tile-related problems, but keeping up with the latest technologies and methods helps you have fewer problems.” When I ask today’s NTCA leaders – like chairman Dan Welch – why he joined, he tells me that, “Joining the NTCA is the best thing I did for my company.” Again, it’s because of the education, networking and NTCA Reference Manual.

Joining the NTCA provides tile installers access to the changes in technology and standards that affect their livelihood. Membership provides networking opportunities to discuss challenges and solutions face-to-face with other contractors, manufacturers and distributors. A commitment to involvement through participation in educational events and/or committees, means you are at the table when decisions are made. As our new Ring of Honor recipient JohnCox says, “you will get out of this association what you put in to it.”

When you attend events like Total Solutions Plus, Coverings, Surfaces (TISE West) and NTCA workshops, meet installers who view their work as a profession – and perhaps join a committee – I think you’ll find the coupons will become a value-added proposition or the “add-on” to the fundamental value NTCA membership offers.

Respectfully,
James Woelfel
President

President’s Letter – September 2015

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JWoelfel_headshotIllegal procedures

The association can’t defend the indefensible

I know all about bad football – I’m a long-time Tampa Bay Buccaneer fan. They do some stupid things. I can’t logically defend them – but I do have an emotional attachment, so I’m loyal.

We have a similar situation with some NTCA members who step into the installation arena and play “bad tile.” They penalize themselves because they don’t know industry standards; our “rule books.”

In the last few weeks NTCA staff has been busy answering questions and trying to help solve issues from contractor members about job site and installation disputes. Problem is, it’s the third quarter and these NTCA teammates are still trying to figure out what to do out on the field. They’ve fumbled and they want NTCA leadership to blow the whistle, pick up the ball and make a call in their favor.

0915-presidentsletterThis is where I need to drop the flag.

Tile contractors and installers must know our industry’s standards. These ARE the “rules of the game.” Ignorance of them is not a viable excuse when a problem is discovered. In the eyes of a court (if a problem gets that far) tile contractors are deemed experts. You must know tile sizing variances and warpage, substrate tolerances, above-grade installation standards, waterproofing details and much, much more. Knowing these is what separates professional tile contractors from people who “lay tile.”

That’s exactly what proved to be true on a recent inspection I performed. It was an elevator lobby that consisted of 12”x24” porcelain in a 50% offset with wash, or grazed, lighting. The lippage was noticeable when you walked through the lobby doors. The tile contractor that hired me was blaming the tile and the lighting. I asked him if he had done a mock-up, as is mandatory in this situation per ANSI; he said no, he had never heard of ANSI. I then did my best to explain to him that since he did not perform a mock-up he was outside of industry standards. He was not happy. Nothing I said at that point made the situation better in his eyes, and he threw out the famous phrase, “I have been doing this for 25 years and have never had a problem.” Well, today he did have a problem and the contractor eventually made him tear out the entire wall and replace it.

Don’t get me wrong – the NTCA is not a neutral zone. The association is there to guide you in preventing problems and helping you do things right. Industry standards are evolving with modern technologies and changes in the way tile and setting products are made – it’s your responsibility to gear up and that includes knowledge.

Members of the NTCA Technical Committee – Nyle Wadford and Mike Gillette – are currently developing a white paper on how to construct a mock-up to show wash/graze lighting. It’s useful information, along with the TCNA Handbook, ANSI Guidelines, and the NTCA Reference Manual, that would have helped on that lobby install.

None of these resources can be helpful if you are halfway through the job or nearly completed, and you have not been following industry standards when you realize you have a problem. Don’t perform like my beloved Bucs. We’re handing you the ball – run with it!

Respectfully,
James Woelfel
NTCA President

President’s Letter – August 2015 “Green Issue”

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JWoelfel_headshotA commitment I made to you six months ago, as part of my vision and goals for the NTCA, was to grow our association both domestically and internationally. Although the NTCA is the largest labor organization in the industry, we have plenty of room for growth in geographic footprint, in membership numbers, in depth of knowledge and in service to members and our communities. This type of growth will strengthen our industry as a whole because it will ensure that labor continues to have a meaningful voice in the important conversations that affect us all.

One of our first efforts in realizing growth is building partnerships with other tile labor organizations in regions where the NTCA is underrepresented. It is vital that we reach out to new areas to ensure we represent the varied interests of labor and that we have a strong pool of future leaders.

0815-pres-ltrThis month, the executive committee is meeting with the Tile and Stone Council of Northern California. Our agenda includes discussions on installation standards, membership and ways we can work together in the future. These meetings will help introduce the NTCA to a region that we have not previously invested in developing membership. The NTCA has been invited to participate in a charity golf event that helps families facing terminal cancer. We will host a reception where we will provide additional information on our programs and initiatives. We anticipate that many of the attendees will be union tile contractors, although the NTCA does not ask any member if he or she is a member of a union, nor do we restrict membership based on union affiliation. Our Membership Director, Martin Brookes, who is also the Regional Director out of San Francisco, explained that if union members work with the NTCA, other tile contractors in the area will likely follow.

We have several international efforts underway as well. In February 2016, I will speak at Qualicer, the XIVth World Congress on Tile Quality in Castellón, Spain. Congress organizers graciously invited me to explain how and why tile contractors have become such a major force in helping to develop standards for the installation of ceramic tile and stone in the United States. I will, of course, be sharing the benefits of NTCA membership and extending membership invitations.

As Australia moves into its fourth year of using the NTCA Reference Manual, we are exploring ways of providing greater opportunities for their NTCA involvement. Educational workshops are already taking place in locations such as Trinidad and Tobago to serve members there. As membership grows in places like Canada and England, we will look to expand our outreach.

Working to grow our association also means that established members are important to our success by attending workshops and events to keep learning – and by sharing ideas and concerns with your regional and national leadership. We share common goals and only together can we continue to strengthen and grow the voice of the contractor.

Respectfully,
James Woelfel,
NTCA president

President’s Letter – July 2015

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JWoelfel_headshotOwning up on safety

We are in the midst of what I call “silly season” here in Phoenix. It’s the 75-day window for us as tile installers to complete all of the school projects before classes begin again the first week of August. The maxed-out schedule on a condensed time frame is an opportunity to outperform my clients’ expectations. Hopefully, our performance will lead to more work.

It is also more important than ever to make sure everyone on our team at Artcraft stays safe on jobsites.

I was having a conversation with one of my GC clients a couple of months ago on a jobsite for a project we were finishing up on a Sunday. The GC is stringent on safety and I was bragging about how good our experience modification rate was to him. He turned and asked me, “Are your people safe because of your practices or are they on the edge of a cliff because they have not embraced safety as a personal responsibility?”

This question stopped me in my tracks.

0715-safety-presI always thought our teams were listening to me and taking our jobsite talks seriously, but as the GC nonchalantly pointed out, not all of our team members were following company safety practices and policies. We turned our heads to see one of our tile installers cutting a piece of tile without safety glasses. The GC said, “Here’s an opportunity to talk about safety as a personal responsibility. Don’t yell at him; just explain to him why he needs to care about safety.”

As I approached this team member and asked why he was working overtime on a Sunday, he explained that he was earning extra money for his daughter’s birthday party. I complimented him for being such a good father and explained that I wanted him to go home to his family safely that night. He looked a bit puzzled. I then asked him what would happen if I had to call his wife to tell her that he lost his sight in a workplace accident. I didn’t scold him, for as the GC said, he would have just tuned me out. What I tried to do was help him understand that he is an integral part of our team, his efforts to help his family are commendable, and his welfare is vital to both his family and to Artcraft.

Shortly after our conversation, I called a company meeting. Instead of lecturing about safety practices, I asked our team members to tell me what would make them feel safer on the job. Some of the answers surprised me, such as: making sure the other trades were treating safety seriously; making ear plugs mandatory when cutting tile; wearing dust masks when mixing dry products like mortar or grout; and providing mini first-aid kits in addition to the comprehensive ones on the jobsite. The ideas were great and we instituted changes immediately. Team members are happy that they affected change and, in turn, feel safer on the jobsite.

What I learned was that installers and finishers wanted to be part of the plan. They were happy to take on safety as a personal responsibility when we discussed why it’s important to work safely – and the people counting on them to do so are one of the main reasons why they are there in the first place. I also realized that even when we have solid plans in place, safety will require diligence no matter what the season.

James Woelfel
NTCA President

President’s Letter – June 2015

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JWoelfel_headshotWhen I am at Coverings, Total Solutions Plus or Surfaces, one of the questions I regularly get from tile contractors is “What’s the big deal about NTCA Five Star Contractor recognition?” If you are not part of the Five Star Contractor program, you may be asking the same.

Time constraints often force me to give a quick answer: “It’s a lot like pre-qualifying to work with a general contractor, but this program allows quality tile contractors to verify through peer review, their skills, business practices and commitment to the tile industry.”

What I don’t often get the chance to explain in depth is the great opportunity the Five Star Contractor program provides for continued growth in these key areas and the doors the program opens for qualified labor.

When the NTCA Executive Committee created the Five Star Contractor program, the goal was to raise the level of all NTCA tile contractor members – especially those who choose to go through all of the qualifications, certifications, recommendations and peer review from both competitors and NTCA leadership. It’s a process designed to delineate the best of the best. The tile contractors who become Five Star-recognized believe in excellence and they illustrate it through continuing education, in being active members of the NTCA, and most importantly, by being ethical in their business practices.

pres-0615The benefits of belonging to this select group help further strengthen and grow a tile contractor’s business and professional network, and the benefits keep getting better. Each year, NTCA Five Star Contractors across the nation gather for an invitation-only business forum. The three days of programming include expert presentations in areas such as marketing, finance, business operations, new product technologies and even using social media better. There are production plant tours, hands-on sessions and even some fun thrown in – which gives us time to share ideas and concerns with other Five Star Contractors. The business forums are designed to help us, as tile contractors of all sizes, be responsive to the changing needs of our customers, the marketplace and our industry as a whole. Crossville believes in the Five Star Contractor program so strongly that it has hosted the event for two years. This year, MAPEI is welcoming Five Star Contractors to Vancouver.

The benefits of being part of the Five Star Contractor program also include rebates from various tile, mortar and allied manufacturers. I know I was pleased when I got my first Crossville check! Future benefits being discussed include regional workshops that provide specialized hands-on training in new methods and products along with business sessions on any number of timely topics.

Another idea under consideration is to have specialized training, free of charge, that would include working with new products and new methods – perhaps also a field-test type of program allowing Five Star Contractors to give valuable feedback to manufacturers on how they can improve product lines.

More manufacturers are recommending Five Star Contractors – especially for their challenging projects, because they know quality labor makes their product look better and costs them less in job complaints. The TCNA Handbook for Ceramic, Glass and Stone Tile Installation also recommends qualified labor – particularly Five Star Contractors – for tile and stone specification and installation.

The NTCA currently has about 50 Five Star Contractors. This is not a lot for a membership over 1,000. We can and should do better. I know for a fact that there are tile contractors who could meet the criteria for this program today. So if you think you can meet these rigorous standards, I challenge you to do it. Come be part of the “big deal” – prove you are the best of the best. You and your company will benefit. Contact Jim Olson at [email protected] for more information.

Respectfully,
James

President’s Letter – May 2015

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JWoelfel_headshotSince the second day of Coverings I have been planning what I wanted to share in this month’s President’s Letter – the questions from the contractor forum, the discussions on large thin tile, the innovations I witnessed at manufacturers’ booths and the installation challenges being shared among installers. But those many thoughts and ideas became insignificant as I began outlining my message on April 24, 2015.

It was then that a phone call informed me that my sister-in-law, Debby Woelfel, had suddenly passed. Justin’s wife was only 44 years-old. She left behind three beautiful children; Lyndsay 9, Trevor 7, and Jake, who just turned 4, as well as my brother who must face the realities of losing the most important person in his life. My heart just sank as I began to offer prayers for all of them, as well as Debby’s parents and family.

Justin and Debby met through the tile business when he worked for the NTCA and she worked for Custom Building Products. As they grew their family, their plans included continued work in the industry and a full life together. The abrupt and tragic loss of Debby was not what anyone had planned.

No one is really prepared for this kind of loss. For most of us, we’re caught up in the day-to-day ups and downs of business and our tile world. As president of the NTCA, I’m always looking to the future – making decisions while considering what’s best for our association, and our industry, “down the road.” Each day we work hard to support our families, which allows us to plan for future life events at home. Yet now, I’m more aware than ever of the uncertainty of tomorrow and the fact that there are no guarantees to any of our plans. This is why I find myself holding those dear to me closer than ever. Each day I am stopping to prioritize what is truly important to me – not just for the future – but for the day I’ve been given before me.

It’s now Mother’s Day and as I write this letter, I acknowledge I’m fortunate to have my wife, Chris, and my mother, Mary, nearby. Chris is my best friend. She is strong and caring and has always been there for me and Preston. My mom raised our family and instilled the principles that made us kids who we are today.

I pray that Justin and his children will find strength in Debby’s memory and each other as they work to heal. The rest of us are here for them to provide love and support. Our extended family – the people of this industry who support each other in good times and challenging times – have also been there, and I thank each and every one of you for that.

Throughout our lives we are continually making plans – and we must – for our business, for our families and for “the future.” We do it not knowing what the future really holds. Yet I hope you too, will take inventory of what’s important and take the time every single day to let them know. For me, that’s the one plan that is for certain.

Respectfully,

James Woelfel
NTCA President

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