President’s Letter – September 2016

JWoelfel_headshotI have just had the worst experience in my career when it comes to dealing with distributors on a single project. Three different distributors each quoted the architect my contractor pricing. One of the architectural reps even gave the architect their estimate on the installation price. I understand this is now becoming commonplace in a lot of areas and it is seemingly getting worse.

My question to distributors is, “Are the pressures of sales so important that you are willing to cut the tile contractor out of their needed profit? If so, do you think that the tile contractor has any loyalty to keep your specification?”

I believe many distributors have no idea what my costs are on my installations. I am responsible for Medicaid/Medicare taxes, Social Security taxes, local, state and federal taxes as well as job-specific liability insurance (which includes things that could happen on the job, or damage that could happen because of a poor installation). In addition, I am responsible for workman’s comp, site-specific safety costs like personal protection equipment, job-specific safety plans for each new project, safety orientations on each new job. My job costs have to include new equipment like saws, grinders, new cutting equipment, diamond blades and core bits. My overhead includes electricity, computers, building payments truck maintenance, gas, forklifts and insurance on my building and equipment. My costs also include my financing of the tile we pay for when starting a new job. I also pay for my people to sit and wait at the distributor while they figure out where they have put my order.

Do I sound bitter? I am getting there. I understand fully that I take all of these costs on to be involved in my profession, knowing I better be making a profit to overcome these costs. Distributors sharing my prices with the architect, general contractor and end user create another obstacle for me to make a fair profit. In fact, one of the distributors said, “Just mark your labor up more.” What a moronic statement; obviously this person has no idea how a business is run.

If we are in the age of transparency in our industry, then I think that the distributors need to share their cost of material from the factory, and then have to justify their profit. I fully understand the costs of distributors; they have to mark up their materials to cover their costs, including salespeople and architectural reps. I also understand that they spend money to obtain these specifications.

Until now our company has been known for keeping distributor specifications and being loyal to them for their hard work. I am now questioning that process; a lot of distributors here in Phoenix have now lost my loyalty. It is my opinion that when distributors lose a good quality contractor’s loyalty, they will have a lot more job problems. As I have said many times over the years in seminars, good tile contractors need to find and associate with good distributors. I believe this is very true, but two of the three companies that gave the architect my pricing were “good” distributors, or so I thought. It is now my belief that tile contractors need to look out for themselves, and if distributors are going to go down this road, then tile contractors should feel no remorse breaking a specification or changing out products to their own trusted supplier. All we are doing is learning our lessons in loyalty from distributors.

P.S. A lot of distributors may balk at what I am saying, but at least I did not call out the names of these “reputable” distributors!

James Woelfel
President, NTCA

(Editor’s note: Interested in sharing your perspective? Please send email comments to [email protected])

President’s Letter – August 2016


JWoelfel_headshotThose of you who know me know I am not a tree-hugger, but I also believe that we should be responsible stewards of our environment. At our house we put the recycle bin out at the curb full of plastic and paper and we also collect aluminum cans.

As a tile contractor, how can we create a sustainable jobsite? We can use our water more wisely, we can recycle the cardboard and paper we use, we can tile with recycled materials and mortars and grouts that have some recycled contents as well. These are all good ways to be sustainable, but as a tile contractor, there is one thing we can do that I consider the ultimate in sustainability. And that is to install tile correctly the first time. When we install tile correctly the first time we have created a finish that can last 30, 40, 50, up to and over 100 years. The lifecycle cost of tile is the lowest in the flooring industry when installed correctly. By not having to replace poor or failing tile installations we save valuable resources like new tile, new mortar and new grout. It also means we are not trucking in additional materials, which saves fuel.

Tile is also the most environmentally friendly flooring finish. Tile itself contains no VOCs, and tile mortars usually do not contain VOCs either. This means that the interior air that our customers breathe is cleaner and better for you than most of our flooring competitors’ air.

Tile is also more hygienic than carpet, as fluids do not absorb into porcelain tiles like they do with carpet. I have seen tile finishes that are being developed that actually kill bacteria and make our air cleaner. These technologies can be used to make a great product even healthier.

When I speak to architects, I explain to them that if they want truly sustainable projects, then the tile needs to be installed properly. As I explain to our members, we make the most money and have the least amount of headaches when we install tile properly. You don’t have to be a tree-hugger to help the environment. By using quality, qualified labor and a little common sense, you can go a long way in protecting both the environment and your bottom line.

Regards, James

President’s Letter – July 2016

JWoelfel_headshotWhat is wrong with our thinking?

A few months ago, I wrote a letter about saying no. I received a lot of positive feedback. Since then I have been getting a lot of communications that deal with tile installers accepting a job and then when their scope review is being done, realizing they have a problem or that the job is a lot more complicated than they previously thought. Or they visited the job site and the existing conditions prevent them from installing the tile either by industry standards or by manufacturer proprietary systems.

This becomes the moment of truth. We all have egos and the belief that our abilities can solve problems, but I am telling you right now: our abilities can only go so far. Our egos must be kept in check by reality. I have fallen into this trap more than once, and usually I have lost money on that particular job. After the job was completed I stepped back and thought to myself, “What was I thinking?” Obviously, I was NOT thinking.

In the past six months we have turned down work, some even when the owner said “Money is no object.” Wow, does that hurt – or does it? We, as installers, seem to have a mindset that if we turn a job down we just passed up a huge payday, or we will be labeled as hard to get along with or to stubborn to work with.

Buck Collins, a Five Star Contractor out of Northern Virginia, said it the best. He asked me, “Do you know how long it took me to get my reputation as the tile guy that does great work? A long time. Do you know how fast I can lose that reputation? One bad job.”

That reality smacks you in the face. We have to learn a new mindset, one that says it’s OK to turn down work, especially if the thought of a failure enters our heads. Sure, it’s easy for me to say it’s a business decision. I say this all the time, even though I understand that no work doesn’t pay the bills or put food on the table. But I also have been around long enough to know that there will always be a new job to bid that does not put my livelihood at risk.

Tile installers/contractors need to think with a little less ego and a lot more common sense. Our intuition is usually right. If you get in that room or on that job site before you sign that contract, empower yourself to be able to say, “I don’t think we can do this job the way it sits right now.” You need the proper substrate and materials to do the job correctly and you need to be able to express this in an intelligent way. If you can’t, then you need to have the ability to say this isn’t the job you want, or that you’ll take.

I know I am rehashing the point I made a few months ago, but based on the calls and emails I am receiving, it needs to be addressed again.

James Woelfel,
President NTCA,

President’s Letter – June 2016

JWoelfel_headshotGiving credit when credit is due

One of the great things about our industry is the finished product when we are done installing. Some of these projects are literally a work of art. This is a true feeling of accomplishment, not only to installers but to tile contracting company owners, employees, staffs, and even spouses and children.

I think this deserves a pat on the back, a “great job,” or even a cold, frosty beverage. As tile manufacturers, distributors, mortar manufacturers, etc., great work is a special way of showing off your product as well. General contractors, home builders and home owners can also share in the fact they helped to facilitate these fantastic installations. At the end of the day, great installations show off the professionalism of our industry.

For the truly special, technically-perfect or unique installations, national industry awards are the prize.

However, the flip side to these recognitions or awards is the fact a lot of great installations are not credited to the installer or installer’s team. This happens when people are not doing their due diligence, being lazy or just flat-out taking credit for other people’s hard work.

This problem is not an isolated incident. I have read a lot of trade magazines where the stories or the advertisements acknowledge manufacturers, designers, construction companies, etc., without recognizing the installer or installation companies that put it all together and made it look gorgeous – and who did it correctly, so it will perform for years!

My own company felt a little of this sting at Coverings this year, when the tile and setting material manufacturers were recognized in one of the booklets for the Installation Design Showcase, but all of the installation companies (Welch Tile & Marble, Trostrud Mosaic & Tile Co., Grazzini Brothers & Company, and our company, Artcraft Granite, Marble & Tile Co.,) were left off the page. It kicked me in the stomach.

Quite a few installers have told me this issue happens all of the time on the internet, especially with social media. This is WRONG: the installers and their companies need and must be recognized. Installers are called out when the installation is bad, but when an installation is special enough to be shown off, the recognition and credit needs to be given. If you are a manufacturer, architect or designer looking at an installer’s website, I implore you, if you see an installation that involves your materials, just ask permission before you use it elsewhere. Most of the time you will get a yes. Please don’t just list it to show an example of design, architecture or product without giving credit to the installer.

At the beginning of a job, you have boxes of tile, bags of mortar and grout, buckets or rolls of membranes, but the installer puts all of that together to create beauty. Without good professional qualified labor those boxes, bags and rolls will look better in their pre-installed state than on the walls or floors. All I am asking is that as reputable manufacturers, distributors, architects, designers, construction companies and home builders, do right by your installers and their teams, and give credit when credit is due. It will buy you good will and may help you earn a good installation partner and a customer as well.

James Woelfel, President NTCA

President’s Letter – May 2016

JWoelfel_headshotMy wife’s strength and courage

As many of you know, I am blessed to be married to such a great person; my wife, Chris. She is outgoing, beautiful, a great mom and she is very intelligent. Chris is truly my better half. She is also the major driving force in my creating and reaching my goals.

Last year after Total Solutions Plus, Chris went to get her yearly mammogram. A few weeks later, the radiologist called and said he wanted additional images. When she went in, the images revealed patterns in the film that the doctor said must be biopsied. It wasn’t an easy procedure and it created a massive and painful hematoma that she didn’t need to be dealing with during the holiday season. Between Christmas and New Years the doctor called and told us that Chris had breast cancer. We were stunned. It was denial combined with shock. We met with the surgeon and told a handful of family and friends. My wife, always the steadfast and focused one, told the doctor that we were going to Spain because her husband was going to speak at a world tile conference and she was going to support him and make sure he was successful. The doctor scheduled surgery for the week after we returned.

After four surgeries in four weeks and a week of cutting-edge, highly concentrated radiation therapy delivered through a bio-mechanical device that made a big guy like me cringe at the thought of it being implanted, the medical oncologist now has Chris on a five-year course of medications. We were also told that she may have the same issue in her other breast. All of this has my head spinning. It has been a challenging time, but Chris is proving her resilience, staying positive and focused on the things she needs to do to stay on course and get all of this behind her.

I know that many of you have been touched in one way or another by cancer. It is a horrible and scary disease that attacks people unfairly. We are fortunate that Chris’s was discovered early as other people are not as fortunate. It seems so cliché, but I never thought it would happen to us.

I reached out to people I knew had experience with cancer: Nyle Wadford, whose father died of cancer, Dan Welch whose father just recently passed away, and Bart Bettiga – his wife Sandy was in a similar situation as Chris. They have been so supportive and were there when I needed to talk or vent. I also found out how giving and loving our friends are. Chris received flowers, cards, gifts of comfort and well wishes of support, a true outpouring of love and understanding. People in our industry have given their time and hope so that Chris would feel just a little better.

My wife, always the one offering empathy and concern, did not want a lot of people to know. I have respected her wishes until now. You see, my wife is my hero. She is battling this disease with all of her strength and determination. I have always thought that there is strength in numbers; all of the prayers, positive thoughts and kind words will help her in this battle. As I write this we are preparing for our trip to Coverings. Chris is coming with me and our son, Preston. She looks forward to seeing, talking and being with the best of the best in our industry.

After experiencing this in the last six months I urge each of you reading this to go get your exams. Schedule them now and get the prostate exam, the mammogram, the CT scan – whatever test that can help catch this disease early. We caught it early and it is still a heavyweight fight.

Finally, I want my wife Chris to know that I love you, that Preston loves you and that you are the strongest, bravest and most wonderful person I know.

James Woelfel, President NTCA

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.

James Woelfel, NTCA president
[email protected]

President’s Letter – March 2016


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 or 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.”


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


President’s Letter – January 2016


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.


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.

James Woelfel

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