July 1, 2015

President’s Letter – June 2015

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 jim@tile-assn.com for more information.

Respectfully,
James

President’s Letter – May 2015

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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President’s Letter – April 2015

JWoelfel_headshotThe word “no” is sometimes the worst word you can hear. It can also be one of the hardest words to say.

As a tile contractor, we are used to saying “yes” and we hope, by saying “yes,” it will open the door to more work.

But more often than not, saying “yes” when we have an inner voice that screams “no” ends up costing us time and money without the reward of the next job.

Our company has just completed our most frustrating project in recent history. What bothers me the most is that I could have said “no,” but I didn’t.

I priced the job, discussed the details with the general contractor and then met with the GC and the owner on-site to review our scope of work. The owner is an architect. The GC is a fairly new partner. I wanted to please both of them and assure them that they were in good hands because we had the technical expertise to overcome their challenges and provide a beautiful and sustainable installation. After two hours of back and forth – discussing how the owner wanted the installation to proceed and my explaining that industry standards would not support his ideas and desires – I was becoming hesitant to sign the contract, but the “no” I was about to say came out “yes.” Despite my technical explanations and data driven justifications as to why the installation could not be done a particular way, something else overtook my better judgment.

1-pres-0415I told the owner that I would have to put my warnings in writing – and I did. I also explained that I could not offer a warranty given that the owner was making requirements that were outside industry standards.

What came over me? I suppose I wanted to take on a demanding high-profile job – knowing it was technically challenging. After many sleepless nights, and countless stressful days, we finished the project. The installation was beautiful. Our team’s craftsmanship was outstanding. Of course, we made no money on the project because we did so much, going out of our way, to please the clients.

My father told me years ago that education comes with a price. Believe me, we must have earned a master’s degree on this one. The GC lost control of the owner’s expectations and the owners took advantage of the situation. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t overcome the biggest challenge of the job – getting the architect to understand why our industry standards are so important to follow.

Six months later, the tile is cracking. I told the owner and GC that it would. I don’t feel any kind of vindication because no one wins when there are problems with a tile installation. I could easily say “I told you so,” but I won’t. I also won’t stop trying to educate those who resist following industry standards. But after this experience, it will be much easier to say the word “no” when I “know” better.

James Woelfel

President’s Letter – March 2015

JWoelfel_headshotLearning from each other is an important value of membership in the NTCA.

I really enjoy sharing information at seminars during various industry shows such as Coverings, Total Solutions Plus and Surfaces/TISE West.

At TISE West In January, NTCA past president Nyle Wadford and I discussed how to bid, run and perform profitable work. Our 90-minute presentation covered documentation, communication, submittals, ordering of products, specifications and associated items involved in performing ceramic tile installation work.

The next morning, while I was driving back to Phoenix, I started thinking about the session. I realized that in a lot of these seminars we talk about all of the great and profitable points but we do not discuss what happens when we, as contractors, make a mistake on our estimate, proposal or bid, sign the contract and then realize when reviewing all of the documents – “Wow, I screwed up!” Believe me, we have made plenty of mistakes: missing wall tile heights or the number of bathrooms in a school, even transposing material numbers on a take-off. We all know any of these mistakes can potentially be very costly.

self_levelingSo to learn from my “expertise” in mistakes, here are some things I have done to minimize losses or to break even on a project:

First, I will sit down with the contractor or owner and discuss the fact that I have made a mistake on this project. I have had a few occasions where the contractor helped close the gap on my costs. A good contractor will respect the honesty.

Next, I visit the material supplier and ask for a little help; a few pennies a square foot always helps mitigate the impact of the mistake. The supplier has worked hard to get the specification and will appreciate the loyalty versus switching to lower-priced products.

warped_tileAnd finally, the most important thing I do is to make sure my best teams of mechanics install the project. This strategic move will accelerate the job and cut down on errors. Yes, there will be cost on the front end, but your punch list will be smaller and you’ll save that money on the back end.

To me, the two worst things that any tile contractor can do when he or she has made a mistake is to hide from the situation or try to cut corners in an effort to save money. This will only make things worse and expose you to liability. We all make mistakes when bidding work. It is part of the business.

wear_glovesWe try to minimize errors but when they are discovered we must be proactive, not reactive. Hit it straight on. Out-perform all of the other subcontractors on that job. By being up front, we have been able to turn a negative into positive, and actually earn new customers by being the best subcontractor on that job.

It sounds elementary, but we have to learn and make the best out of our mistakes.

James Woelfel
tile@artcraftgmt.com

 

President’s Letter – February 2015

jw headshotAs most tile contractors do, our company gears up for the new year by reviewing the status of our tools; our trucks, tile saws, grinders, trowels, and installation standards. Yes, I did say installation standards.

Why do we review installation standards? Because we need to know what standards have changed and make sure we are installing our tile in compliance with the updated standards. This is especially important in today’s litigious society.

We examine the following standards:

ansi_coverThe American National Standards for the Installation of Ceramic Tile (ANSI A108, A118, and A136) [Printing Reference: 20013.1] are the “specifications” of our industry. The ANSI standards define what setting and grouting materials we should use for tile installations. They also prescribe the workmanship standards that need to be attained in ceramic tile installations.

tcna_cover-15The TCNA Handbook of Ceramic, Glass and Stone Tile Installation shows us how the tile should be installed. These are the “plans” of the ceramic tile industry. The TCNA Handbook cites the tested methods for many types of tile installation and shows illustrations of those methods.

These standards are written for architects, designers, general contractors and tile contractors in an effort to help all players in the ceramic tile industry communicate clearly and ensure successful installations. Yet, I have found that a lot of tile contractors view the standards as a set of rules that are designed to penalize them.

Why is this? I believe it’s predominantly because most tile contractors have not opened one of the manuals to see what’s really in there. Essentially, it’s the fear of the unknown.

Since I have been working on TCNA and ANSI committees for 15 years, I am a proponent of the standards. Standards keep me out of trouble and keep money in my pocket. They also help me get quality work. If I can explain to the owner, general contractor or architect the method I can use to ensure a successful tile installation, and the reasoning behind it, they have confidence in me, and in my company.

I’ve seen the damage in not knowing the standards. In the past two years, I have served as an expert consultant in three separate lawsuits over failing tile installations that could have been avoided. In each of these court proceedings, both the TCNA Handbook and the ANSI A108 manual have been referenced as the standards that were not met. Because of this, the tile contractor lost each of these cases.

ntca_rm-cvr-15Another great tool is the NTCA Reference Manual. It helps us, as tile contractors, be proactive professionals by helping us solve issues in the field before they get out of hand. The NTCA Reference Manual’s cause/cure/prevention format spells out warning signs to tile contractors to stop problems before they start. The white papers and letters to contractors, owners and architects contained in the NTCA Reference Manual bring potential problems to everyone’s attention, which helps us all communicate better and provide the groundwork for a successful tile installation.

So take some time to review the ANSI A108 standards, the TCNA Handbook, and the NTCA Reference Manual. The time investment you make will bring positive returns in the field and in your bottom line.

James Woelfel

P.S. Renewing your NTCA membership ensures you get both the newly-edited 2015 NTCA Reference Manual and the 2015 TCNA Handbook when they become available. Log on to NTCA’s secure site to renew: www.tile-assn.com.

President’s Letter – January 2015

JWoelfel_headshotGreetings from the great state of Arizona! I am honored to be the new president of the National Tile Contractors Association and I am committed to working on your behalf.

I am proud to be a professional tile contractor. My passion centers on installation standards in our industry. For the past eight years, I have been chairman of the NTCA Technical Committee. I am also a voting member of both the Tile Council of North America (TCNA) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Committees. Working with the most knowledgeable contractors and manufacturers’ representatives in the world has been a rewarding experience both professionally and personally. I will continue that work as I serve as your president for I believe that higher standards make us better contractors and a stronger association.

Over the next two years, my goal is to make the NTCA the most important association in the ceramic tile industry. We will do this through international partnerships and domestic alliances. We will look to the future, celebrate the present and honor our past.

I am extremely proud of the work NTCA has accomplished that benefits our profession and our industry. Over the past few years, we have changed industry standards regarding deflection language, created national stone tile standards and barrier-free shower standards, and created the NTCA Business Manual. In partnership with the Tile Contractors Association of America (TCAA), which represents union labor, we wrote and promoted qualified labor language in national specifications and have created the Advanced Certifications for Tile installation, or ACT, program. This program provides hands-on certification for several tile installation methods. The NTCA must stay committed to installation excellence, continued education, and most importantly, training the next generation of tile installers.

In my paying job, I am vice president of Artcraft Granite, Marble and Tile Company in Mesa, Arizona. I represent the third generation in our family business.

I would like to thank my wife, Chris, and my son Preston. Chris puts up with me – and is an integral part of Artcraft. She is the strong hand that also guides our family. Preston shares me with the industry and I am so very proud of him. I would like to also thank my mom, Mary, and my dad, Butch, for holding down the fort while I am president.

Thank you to the NTCA Executive Committee, staff, Board of Directors, and all members of the NTCA for your trust in me. Dan Welch, the new chairman of the Board, has provided unwavering and determined leadership for the last two years.

As we move forward on what I know will be an exciting and challenging adventure, I invite you to renew your commitment to our association. Attend a meeting, join a committee…become involved!

Respectfully,
James Woelfel

President’s Letter – December 2014

dan welch imageThe 2014 Total Solutions Plus conference was filled with excitement and hope as we concluded another great event. This conference – held in San Antonio, Texas – was an overwhelming success and I was happy to see you all there.

The NTCA Annual Meeting and election of officers was also held during the show. This was bittersweet for me as I end my term as your president and continue as chairman of the board in 2015. The National Tile Contractors Association is in good hands, and I can’t be prouder of James Woelfel of Artcraft Granite, Marble & Tile Co., in Mesa, Arizona, as your next president! James and his family are highly respected and have been involved in the tile industry for three generations. I look forward to James leading our association over the next two years.

One of the duties I enjoyed most as your president was the ability to organize my thoughts on tile-related issues in the President’s Letter each month. As you may have concluded, the tile setter is near and dear to my heart; you are the backbone of the tile industry and deserve recognition for your hard work and knowledge.

Another passion is training and education, and I plan to stay involved with the Training and Education Committee providing any experience I can to offer a value to our membership. Our first challenge is to attract and retain new installers to the tile trade and build a process for educating them correctly, then eventually certifying their skills and providing our customers with a quality project.

Providing internships and updating our apprenticeship manuals are the long-range plan for our Training and Education Committee, providing educational modules that enable young people to excel, then eventually certifying these new installers through the current CTI and or ACT programs. Using today’s technology to give direct access to the “boots on the ground” through videos and specialized short training programs will build the talent of tomorrow.

I want to thank you all for the opportunity to serve as your president over the past two years. I feel like I was given a gift working and learning together with so many great people. Being a part of the NTCA has been the single biggest return on investment I have made for our company. Please get involved because the more you put into an organization the more you get in return. I hope that you enjoyed these TileLetter articles as much as I enjoyed writing them.

Thank you,
Dan Welch
President NTCA
danw@welchtile.com

President’s Letter – November 2014

dan welch imageHere in Michigan, the fall weather is changing, and winter is closing in. We Northerners use this time to prepare for the sub-zero weather that we know is around the corner by moving the patio furniture, winterizing the boats, and stocking up on salt.

I see the change in weather as similar to business operations. And in both instances, you don’t know to what extent the “winter” will impact you or how long it will last. 2008 hit us with a financial storm that some could not withstand – and the ones that did were left with a weakened business, struggling to prepare for future growth.

We are currently in the heat of battle again but the “storm” has changed us considerably. Documentation and letter writing have been the main change. Prior to 2008, many projects were installed in the heat of battle with everyone working together to solve jobsite issues. The main goal was to get the project turned over on time and on budget. The documentation necessary to protect us was overlooked. While I believe the problem solving was fast and efficient, the outcome, over time, left us with “unfunded liabilities.”

I have been in the middle of several of these “unfunded liabilities” for a year or more now and find the legal process disheartening, to say the least. The biggest lesson I am learning is that it doesn’t matter who is at fault, what the best fix is, or even if the job we did was the best option available. When we get pulled into a job claim, documentation is the only information that matters.

Documentation is not free – letters and emails come at a high cost. The cost starts with the time spent on the letter and then the jobsite visit drags everyone in to look at the issue. It continues when someone involved offers up a fix that goes outside the manufacturer’s recommendation. The whole team looks to the construction manager (CM) and design professional for the solution. What they may not realize is the CM and design professionals are held harmless in the contract signed on bid day.

So what is the fix? The “weather” is changing. My first suggestion is to review contracts extremely well and try to change the language to favor the subcontractor. If you don’t understand legal wording or what you are signing, ask for help from your local bonding agent.

Second, send out request-for-information questions early and often. This allows the team the time to get the problem solved by the proper individual and not the tile contractor. Third, smart phones allow your team to send photos, emails, and text in real time. It takes just a few seconds to shoot off a photo in an email to save you a long, drawn-out process.

When do you feel the added documentation outweighs the benefit of liability transfer? We just had this discussion – and I can’t give you a good answer. If only I had a crystal ball and could see what liability issues for our company will turn up but it really depends on the situation. Is the project owner’s expectation well documented? Is the product or project high risk? Is there water involved? Will the cost of repair outweigh the reward? Are you suggesting or designing anything on the site? Is it a delayed or compressed schedule and are there penalties? Is the contractor or client a large company in a highly regulated industry? Is the project a phased project?

Just today I had the privilege to meet with an owner, architect, CM, and distributor to review a subfloor that has multiple levels. The floor has some hollow sounds and some loose material. The decision was made to move forward on a visual basis, not fixing the reason behind the hollow sound. We will all sign off with a single document. The owner in this situation was willing to make this decision because the cost of repair (full removal and reinstallation of a mortar bed) outweighs the risk. In fact, the owner made the comment that he would accept the cost to fix the possible repairs in the future if they occurred. Documentation and placing the risk back on the owner will pay dividends!

Dan Welch
Welch Tile & Marble
danw@welchtile.com

President’s Letter – October 2014

dan welch imageWhen will it end? The past month I have been installing tile on an 8,000 sq. ft. compressed-schedule job that started after it was intended to be completed.

I would earnestly like to hear how some of you are dealing with situations like this. How do you schedule manpower for this type of problem? Do you absorb other people’s problems or can you ask for compensation and risk upsetting the contractor for whom you’re working?

We are experiencing an extreme work load that was caused by many factors. These are just a few of the major contributors:

  • Overselling with no formal process for manpower allocation
  • Contracts not performed during the documented time frame
  • Compressed schedule due to other contractor mistakes and / or lack of planning
  • Schedule on bid day was not well thought out or planned prior to bid day
  • General contractor’s schedule is not complete
  • General contractor’s schedule is too aggressive
  • Extra work added
  • Lack of experience
  • Poor drawing details
  • Employee’s unexpected personal time and changes in life

This week I have been meeting with general contractors to forecast the next quarter’s work load and provide them some sort of assurance that we can meet their schedule. This forecasting is not a perfect science but a gut feeling. Today I received an email from a valued general contractor – for whom I have bent over backwards in the past – letting me know I am responsible for his general trades division’s premium time due to our company falling behind on their project.

I guess today’s email just answered my second question in this article concerning asking for compensation. I was taught young in life to never gouge someone during their misfortune. I think I just realized why. We are paying premium time and pushing our staff to the brink, and after operating ethically and going the extra mile for this contractor in the past, this contractor is taking our company to task.

It’s been a long time since we have been oversold. What are your best practices to eliminate these problems? How are you successful during these trying times? I feel I have learned through the “school of hard knocks” over a long history of ups and downs. I welcome some ideas and experiences from your collective wisdom that might help us – and others experiencing similar situations – to weather high-pressure situations such as these.

Dan Welch
President NTCA
danw@welchtile.com

President’s Letter – September 2014

dan welch imageDad (Richard Welch) passed away on June 28, 2014 after an extended battle with cancer. He was just 69 years old. Dad was a man of honesty and integrity. Anyone who knew him respected his knowledge and humble personality.

Dad and I worked together beginning in 1989 when I started in the tile trade as a helper for the newly formed Welch Tile & Marble Company. The company was formed on a “good day’s work for a good day’s pay” theory where craftsman could hone their skills and build a career of which they could be proud. Welch Tile quickly grew from a small five-man company offering quality labor to one that currently employs over 50 full-time people and provides full service flooring, specializing in tile and marble.

No one could have guessed that the small company he formed in his kitchen would have grown to this level in such a short time. Reflecting back on the legacy he formed, I see that the guiding principles he instilled in his company are still our core values today.

People are the lifeblood of the company. Investing in knowledge and work ethic over time is the only way to build a successful organization. Retention of those people is imperative. Slow, steady growth is the only way to open new doors for staff to grow to their potential. Providing opportunity must include a balance between hourly pay and long-term benefits. Early on, he focused on providing a career to our people, not just a pay check.

Providing people with the art of tile and the sense of accomplishment is much of the payoff to tile professionals. Looking back on a good day and seeing what you helped create is, and always will be, what draws people to this trade. Pushing this trade into a commodity, as many try to do, will not build the pride and satisfaction needed.

Change happens. Anticipating, adapting, and constant improvement over time is the only way to provide a lasting legacy that can be perpetuated into the next generation. Change is tough. Human nature bucks change, and many do not value this quality in a person or a company.

The tile industry of my dad’s generation was mostly mosaics, quarry, and 4”x4” glazed wall tile. If change stopped, we would be obsolete. Looking into the future, I see tough times ahead. Leading through these times of rapid change, I can only imagine what Dad saw during what seemed to be simpler times. He couldn’t see this far ahead but he did plan for the future. He provided a road map to follow as the Welch team plans for what will inevitably be a much different tile trade tomorrow.

Dan_Welch_FamilyDad had time to implement and ensure that his plan was executed properly during the last 18 months of his life. His last wish was completed just two hours before the funeral visitation, when Mom signed on a new home closer to their kids. In the days following the funeral, the family joined together to help Mom move into her new home and offer a loving support system. During these times you find inner strength and a support that can only be explained as faith.

The March 2014 TileLetter President’s letter provided a glimpse of what it was like to grow up under a great mentor, describing our trip to the Mayo Clinic as a team fighting the unknown. During this trip we were informed that the cancer would eventually win this battle and the question was asked what was on his bucket list of activities. His answer was immediate, take care of Mom!

My last days with my Dad will always be special to me. We cried, we smiled, we loved, we laughed, and we shared great memories and times. I talked to my dad almost every day for the past 25 years as we built this company. I still talk to him every morning on my way to work and sometimes on my way home. The conversations are still the same; the answers are less immediate but still just as meaningful as I weigh out the options and hear him respond with the tough questions.

I am so proud. I love you Dad.

Dan Welch
Welch Tile & Marble president
danw@welchtile.com