Business Tip – February 2017

Top 5 tips to avoid ambiguity in construction contracts

By Yasir Billoo, partner at International Law Partners

Avoiding ambiguity should be a primary goal when drafting and negotiating construction contracts. This helps ensure that you get what you want, including the bargained-for benefits of the contract, smooth contract administration and fulfillment, and avoidance of lengthy and expensive legal disputes. Follow these five tips to minimize ambiguities:

1. Keep it simple.

Keep your writing simple, clear and concise. Construction contracts are read and interpreted by a wide variety of people, including judges with no knowledge of the construction industry. Using plain English and shorter sentences while avoiding legalese and redundancy will make your contracts easier to read and understand.

2. If it’s part of the agreement, include it in the contract.

If a contract appears complete and comprehensive on its face, courts will prohibit the use of other documents to give meaning to the parties’ intentions. Statements made during pre-bid meetings or negotiations will not be effective in contradicting express terms in the contract. Include all terms of the deal in the contract, or incorporate key documents by reference.

3. Define key terms.

Courts give ordinary terms their ordinary meanings and technical terms their technical meanings. But the meanings of words cannot be divorced from the context in which they are interpreted, and parties often disagree on what terms mean in certain contexts. To avoid disputes, capitalize and define terms to attribute specific meaning. Then use the capitalized term as needed throughout the contract.

4. Include an order-of-precedence clause.

Because numerous documents make up construction contracts, conflicts may arise between requirements contained within the documents, such as the drawings and specifications. One way to address these conflicts is to include a clause providing that in the event of a conflict, the specifications take precedence over the drawings, or that contract documents take precedence according to a prescribed order of hierarchy. You may also wish to include a provision stating that what is required of any contract document shall be binding as if required by all.

5. Make proper use of standard forms.

Standard-form agreements such as AIA and ConsensusDocs are commonly used throughout the construction industry. However…there are risks with using such forms because they are written broadly, they may contain terms that are inapplicable to the transaction at issue, and parties often use such forms without fully reviewing them. Even if both parties orally agree to terms that differ from what is written, oral understandings will yield to written agreements, so it is important to read all the terms before using standard-form agreements. Add terms you think should be included in the contract and delete terms that are inapplicable.

Yasir Billoo is an experienced attorney in the areas of business/commercial contracts and litigation, real estate transactions (and title services) and litigation, intellectual property litigation, employment and labor, and civil appeals. Yasir’s experience ranges from representing large Fortune 500 companies in complex litigation and appeals in state and federal court, to helping small business owners with simple agreements and legal consulting.

Yasir earned his law degree from Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and was admitted to both the Florida Bar and the California Bar in 2004. He is admitted to practice in all courts in each of these states.

Yasir earned dual Bachelors Degrees in International Relations and Communications from Florida International University. While earning his Juris Doctor, he was a member of the Jessup International Law Moot Court team and on the Board of the Journal of International and Comparative Law. A native of Karachi, Pakistan, Yasir, speaks English, Spanish, Urdu, Hindi and Memoni.

Prior to practicing law, Yasir managed the finances of a group of Central American companies, handling complex international financial transactions.

Yasir currently serves as a Hearing Officer for Miami-Dade County’s Commission on Human Rights, where he presides over appeals of initial determinations in cases where discrimination is alleged.

Yasir is a member of the prestigious invitation-only International Association of Defense Counsel (IADC). IADC has been serving a distinguished membership of corporate and insurance defense attorneys and insurance executives since 1920. The IADC membership is comprised of the world’s leading corporate and insurance lawyers and insurance executives. They are partners in large and small law firms, senior counsel in corporate law departments, and corporate and insurance executives. Members represent the largest corporations around the world, including the majority of companies listed in the FORTUNE 500. Reach him at intlawpartners.com

BUSINESS TIP – JANUARY 2017

IRS continues to enforce “reasonable” sharehold-employee salaries

 

 

In the ceramic tile industry there are many small businesses which may be Subchapter S Corporations, since there are many appealing tax benefits while still providing liability protection to the shareholders. If you’re a shareholder-employee of an S Corporation, you more than likely considered the tax advantages of this entity choice. But those very same tax advantages also tend to draw IRS scrutiny. And the agency has made clear that its interest in S Corporations – including possible audits – will continue. The IRS focuses on determining whether the salary of the shareholders is unreasonably low. The tactics listed below will help protect your company from this IRS examination.

 

 
What’s the problem?
The IRS pays particular attention to S Corporations because, as you well know, shareholder-employees of these organizations aren’t subject to self-employment taxes on their respective shares of the company’s income. This differs from, say, general partners in a partnership.

 
To better manage payroll taxes, many S Corporations minimize shareholder-employee salaries (which are subject to payroll taxes) and compensate them mostly via “dividend” distributions. If this holds true for you, the IRS may take a close look at your salary to determine whether it’s “unreasonably” low. The agency views overly-minimized salaries as an improper means of avoiding payroll taxes.
If its case is strong enough, the IRS could recharacterize a portion of distributions paid to you and other shareholder-employees as wages and bill the employer and/or employee for unpaid taxes, interest and possibly even penalties.

How do you define it?
By following certain guidelines, your business can ensure salaries paid to you and other shareholder-employees have a higher likelihood of meeting the agency’s typical standards of reasonableness.
For starters, do some benchmarking to learn how S Corporations of similar size (as indicated by capital value, net income or sales) in your industry and geographic region are paying their shareholder-employees. In addition, pay close attention to certain traits held by your shareholder-employees. These include:
Background and experience
Specific responsibilities
Work hours
Professional reputation
Customer relationships

 

The stronger these traits are, the higher the salary should be in the eyes of the IRS. Shareholder-employee salaries should be fairly consistent from year to year, too, without dramatic raises or cuts.
For more in-depth information about the particulars of S Corporations, visit https://www.thebalance.com/the-s-corporation-your-questions-answered-397844 or http://tinyurl.com/hp2qwna.

 
CTDA helps you succeed in your business through a variety of programs and services that include educational opportunities, webinars, and discounts on shipping, client collection services, telephone charges, auto rentals, and more. CTDA offers networking and relationship-building opportunities through participation in Total Solutions Plus all-industry conference and Coverings annual trade show. Membership in CTDA also increases your national exposure and gives you access to the annual membership survey, a valuable resource to evaluate your company in terms of profit improvement, employee compensation, distribution and company performance. The CTDA website, CTDA Educational Opportunities, Weekly Newsletters and TileDealer Blog are all free resources that will “keep you in the loop” as well. CTDA is always looking for ways to improve the benefits of membership. To learn more about membership, please contact [email protected] or 630-545-9415 visit the website at www.ctdahome.org. Like CTDA on Facebook and Twitter @Ceramic Tile Distributors Association (CTDA).

Business Tip – December 2016

mapei_sponsorObamacare: the road to repeal

By Pat O’Connor,
Kent and O’Connor, Washington, D.C.

pat-oconnor

For the past six years, “Repeal Obamacare” has been a potent mantra, a rallying cry that energized Republicans and turned out voters. The Republican-controlled House churned out repeal legislation on a regular basis, passing over 50 repeal bills! Yet, with President Obama’s veto pen always looming, repeal was never going to happen and everyone knew it.

Only now, with the stunning upset victory of Donald Trump for president, is repeal of the massive and controversial health care bill suddenly real. Republicans control the White House and both chambers in Congress. The expectation for bold action from the Republican base is very high. Does this mean repeal of Obamacare will be a done deal in the first 100 days?

Not necessarily. In fact, the road ahead for Obamacare repeal is complicated.

Practical realities

First are the practical realities of the legislative process. Republicans are in control, but they don’t have the 60 votes needed in the Senate to overcome a filibuster, a tactic Democrats would emphatically employ to block any repeal legislation.

Of course, Republican leaders can get around this by repealing key parts of the health care law through the “budget reconciliation” process, a special procedure that only requires a simple majority vote. (That is the same process used by Democrats to pass The Affordable Care Act [ACA] in the first place.) Still, budget reconciliation takes time, requiring passage of budget resolutions and other procedural niceties, and it does not allow for total repeal. While it is a likely vehicle for ACA repeal, it will be neither quick nor clear cut.

Executive and administrative options

Legislative avenues aside, the new president will have any number of administrative options to block, change or suspend key elements of the law. For example, he can cut off funding for cost-sharing subsidies to insurers (which did not have explicit appropriations and is being challenged in courts by House Republicans). Experts agree this action alone would shut down the health exchanges. Or, he could simply stop enforcing penalties for the individual mandate or for employers who fail to provide affordable coverage.

Then what?

Yet, any of these paths to repeal or cripple the ACA ignore a fundamental question: Then what?

For good or ill, the ACA has taken root. It touches the lives of every American. The entire health care industry – from hospitals to doctors to insurance companies and other providers – has adapted and reshaped dramatically in response to the health care law. Twenty-two million people depend on Obamacare for their health insurance. Will a new President Trump really want to begin his presidency stripping health insurance from millions of Americans and upending one-fifth of the economy?

That’s why the “repeal” chants shifted to “repeal and replace” over a year ago – a subtle acknowledgement that something has to take the place of Obamacare. But up until now, “repeal and replace” has been little more than a slogan, with only the broadest outlines of what the replacement might be and little analysis of the impact. As a result, Republicans are split over what direction to take. Some want immediate repeal, others see a more deliberate approach as necessary to avoid major upheaval for both insured individuals and insurance markets.

The model for “repeal and replace” can be seen in the plan passed last December by both the House and Senate through budget reconciliation (and vetoed by President Obama). It eliminated the expansion of Medicaid coverage for Americans near or below the poverty line, eliminated the subsidies for Americans to buy their own insurance on the ACA exchanges, eliminated the penalties on individuals for not being insured and on employers for not providing affordable coverage. The measure delayed the effective date for two years to allow Congress to figure out the “replace” part of the equation.

This template reveals a simple truth: dismantling Obamacare is easy – whether through Executive action, budget reconciliation or a combination of the two. The daunting political and policy challenge is finding an alternative that works.

President-elect Trump says he wants to preserve the two most popular features of Obamacare: guaranteed coverage to people with pre-existing conditions (without being overcharged) and allowing young people up to age 26 to be covered on a parent’s plan. Yet, the guaranteed coverage provision is costly to insurers and without the other interconnected carrots and sticks (such as the individual mandate and the premium subsidies that brings healthy patients into the marketplace), premiums will spike, potentially leaving insurance markets in even greater disarray. This is the conundrum that Trumpcare, like its predecessor, must contend with.

Companies should remain cautious as they look ahead, allowing events to unfold before deciding on a change in benefits strategy. No doubt, Obamacare is on its way out. But don’t be surprised if it lingers a bit longer than expected.

Pat O’Connor is a principal in Kent & O’Connor, Incorporated, a Washington, D.C.-based government affairs firm. A veteran of Capitol Hill with particular expertise in health, transportation and the environment, O’Connor works with trade associations and companies to find workable solutions to the most pressing regulatory and legislative issues. For more information, visit www.kentoconnor.com or call 202-223-6222.

Business Tip – November 2016

mapei_sponsorFalling forward – winning success from failure

By Marilyn Tam

“I have self-doubt. I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I’m like, ‘My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don’t have it. I just want to chill.’ We all have self-doubt. You don’t deny it, but you also don’t capitulate to it. You embrace it.” – Kobe Bryant

marilyn-tamPatty doesn’t just walk into a room, she takes it over. She stands tall, speaks with confidence and is always well dressed. She is friendly with everyone and remembers each person’s areas of interests and birthday. Is she actually good at her job? No one questioned it; all her colleagues assumed that she must be. Until one day she failed. Her division came in under plan for the year while all the other divisions surpassed plan in both profit and gross sales. Yet in the annual review and promotions process, Patty was one of the two people promoted. Falling forward, that’s Patty.

Do you know of someone like Patty? I worked with Patty early in my career and the lessons she taught me by example have been valuable ever since. Instead of fearing failure, she behaved as if success is hers to claim. She dove into new possibilities, took risks and came out of failure with innovative ideas on how to improve. Here are the key points that I gained from observing her on how to fall forward instead of down:

Be prepared – Patty came to work each day fully mentally and physically ready to shine. Confident, well groomed and happy to engage.

Be interested in others – you can learn from others, help them, have fun and gain a supportive network in the process.

Stretch – Say yes to the new assignment/project and then learn how to do to it. You can only improve if you take on new projects. Seek help and ask questions.

Don’t be afraid to fail – the fear of failure can hold you back from taking the risks that can advance your goals. Not trying is a recipe for guaranteed mediocrity in the long run because you can only advance if you move from where you are now. However, be aware that there is always potential for missing the mark, so prepare contingency plans in case they are needed.

Admit your mistakes – learn from them and use the insights to help you improve. The sooner you deal with what didn’t go as planned, the faster you can analyze what happened and use the new understanding to leverage the current situation to make things better.

Many people live life based on avoiding making mistakes. They are afraid of falling down, but actually you can fall forward! Patty is a great example of how you can turn seeming flops into winners. Greet each day as another opportunity to grow, improve and have fun. With a mind open to looking for possibilities for the good, you are already ahead in the game. In this autumn season, also known commonly as the fall season, dare to reach for more. You won’t fall down, you can fall forward!
Personal disclosure: I included some of the highlights of what I learned from Patty into my first book, How to Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want. May you too gain from her shining example.

“I’ve come to believe that all my past failures and frustrations were actually laying the foundation for the understandings that have created the new level of living I now enjoy.” – Tony Robbins

––––––––––

Marilyn Tam is an international selling author, speaker, entrepreneur, humanitarian and former CEO of Aveda, president of Reebok Apparel Products & Retail Group and vp of Nike and the founder and executive director of Us Foundation. She is a regular blogger on Huffington Post. Get free gifts and insights and find out about Marilyn Tam on her website, www.marilyntam.com/books.html or connect with her on Facebook. Her latest book, The Happiness Choice shows how you can live a life of happiness, health and success. It’s her way of giving back to the world for all the blessings she’s received. The Happiness Choice tells the stories and insights from Marilyn and many experts, including Jack Canfield, Joan Borysenko, Harville Hendrix, Arielle Ford and others, on how to live the life of your dreams. The book was ranked #3 top business book, and won the Silver Medal in the Global eBook Awards.

Business Tip – October 2016

mapei_sponsorProduct and services remix could get your sales moving

If your company’s sales results were a dance floor, how would it look? Are the numbers jumping off the page, dazzling you with their lively performances? Or are they slow, sluggish – perhaps even disappearing entirely? To keep the party moving, every business needs to regularly remix its line of products or services.

ctda-logo-loresThere are many potential causes of a sales slowdown. But these troubles aren’t all bad — they can help you shape your revised offerings. Start with the obvious: Are your customers drifting away? Conduct market research to find out whether they still like what you’re selling or if their needs have changed. Evolution is normal, so be ready to adjust your menu to keep pace.

bt-ctda

CTDA membership increases your opportunities to network – and travel. This group of CTDA members enjoyed a trade mission to Turkey in 2014.

There are a few telling market research questions that are key to successful market research. Ask the consumer for his or her biggest challenges/ frustrations regarding your product, i.e. ceramic tile, and what those challenges are costing them. Next ask what goals in the near future they have regarding your product. Present your product (which would solve their challenges) and ask if they would be interested in the product and how much would it be worth to them. Finally confirm the best method of marketing by asking for the consumer’s preferred method to receive information regarding your product.

Also look into how long you’ve been offering the same products or services, and whether you’ve saturated the market. Some things have enduring value, but demand for others can wane as new products take the spotlight. Regular evaluations can help you decide whether you should:

Test a product or service in a different market or geographic area,

“Reinvent” a product or service (for instance, by repackaging or renaming it), or

Discontinue it.

Finally, don’t ignore the economy – both national and local. Market conditions can influence the sales of even the strongest products or services. Try to bolster the strongest ones, but also consider discontinuing weak ones or adding new ones that reflect the strength of the local economy. In an economic downturn, you may also find that reinventing your weak products will increase their sales; package them differently or price them competitively and you may see an increase in sales.

An effective remix of your products or services can turn a sad song into a happy tune.

CTDA helps you succeed in your business through a variety of programs and services that include educational opportunities, webinars, and discounts on shipping, client collection services, telephone charges, auto rentals, and more. CTDA offers networking and relationship-building opportunities through participation in Total Solutions Plus all-industry conference and Coverings annual trade show. Membership in CTDA also increases your national exposure and gives you access to the annual membership survey, a valuable resource to evaluate your company in terms of profit improvement, employee compensation, distribution and company performance. The CTDA website, CTDA Educational Opportunities, Weekly Newsletters and TileDealer Blog are all free resources that will “keep you in the loop” as well. CTDA is always looking for ways to improve the benefits of membership. To learn more about membership, please contact [email protected] or 630-545-9415 visit the website at www.ctdahome.org. Like CTDA on Facebook and Twitter @Ceramic Tile Distributors Association (CTDA). 

Business Tip – September 2016

bus-rauschWhat’s on your bucket list versus what’s in your bucket

By Steve Rausch, industry consultant

Many folks spend time thinking about, and developing a fantastic “bucket list” about where they want to go on vacations and what they want to see and do. Yet those same folks rarely put this much effort into their business or work life. It doesn’t matter if you are the owner of a company or just an hourly employee, you should be spending some time working on your “business bucket list.” I have several starting suggestions below for you to consider.

There’s nothing wrong with having a “to-do list,” but consider adding a more important list, a “to think about” list. On this ongoing list you record the thoughts, ideas, and concepts you want to think about to help improve what you do in business to earn your living.

What about spending time improving your business skills? If you are the owner of the company, maybe you want to take a course at a local college on modern business management practices. If you’re the office manager, maybe consider a class on improving your business accounting skills. Many of you are installers, obviously, and there are a range of opportunities to improve your knowledge of the products you use daily and the skills you use to install those products. (Editor’s note: Consider attending a NTCA Tile & Stone Workshop or CTEF Educational Program when they roll through your area, an industry conference, take part in a NTCA Webinar or visit NTCA University to brush up on some skills and knowledge. Visit www.tile-assn.com for more information on these opportunities, many of them free.) Knowledge does cost in terms of both your time and sometimes your money, however, the lack of knowledge costs far exceed the costs of staying current in your skills. One of my favorite statements is “IF you believe you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, where will you find the time to go back and fix the problem?”

What about spending time improving your communications skills?  The first key to good communication is to have a consistent way to gather information, knowledge, experiences and then a system that works for you to remember it, store it and have it available so that you can use it. And preparation is the key. I tried using 3” x 5” cards, however, that didn’t give me the ability to efficiently store and recall data. I now use a softcover-bound notebook so I have a permanent record. If you are using a smart phone or laptop, consider trying a program called Evernote (evernote.com), which not only takes your notes and stores them, but allows you access from multiple locations.

Everything you do somehow is affected by and depends upon proper communications, so plan to spend time weekly improving these skills. People quickly judge you by your spoken or written words; make sure you communicate that you are a person worth spending time with.

Now finally, I want to share four words with you that I learned years ago in a course I took that has returned value to me every single month since I took that class:

Interest. Sharpen your curiosity and your interest in life, work, and people. Those are the big subjects: life, work, and people. What about life? The questions you might have about life and the mysteries of life. What about work? Develop questions about how to improve where you spend so much of your life, earning your living. And finally, what about people and human behavior? This skill will make everything else clear.

Fascination. NOW, go from being interested to being fascinated. Interested people want to know, Does it work? Fascinated people want to know, How does it work? What goes on below the surface? I can see that it works, but what makes it work?  Develop your ability to ask great questions.

Sensitivity. Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (www.success.com/article/how-to-be-more-empathetic-in-conversations). Try to feel what they feel. Try to hurt like they hurt. Have sympathy and compassion. Sensitivity is trying to understand where someone might be at the moment. The reason that they’re angry may not be obvious. Many times when folks lash out at someone, they are really angry at themselves or another situation and it just flows out in the wrong direction. The biggest lesson I’ve learned here is how to prevent this from happening FROM ME towards others.

Knowledge. So we’ve got interest, we’ve got fascination, and we’ve got sensitivity. Here’s one more word: knowledge. You just have to know. Collect knowledge in your journal, from your ongoing education. Fill up your mental and spiritual and emotional bank (www.success.com/article/15-daily-routines-that-heighten-emotional-intelligence) so that it becomes like an unending reservoir to draw from. Then take the time and effort to SHARE your knowledge with others. Consider becoming the trainer who teaches others those same skills you’ve worked so hard to learn.  Maybe even spend a few minutes writing a magazine article about what you’ve learned!

Steve Rausch has been involved in the tile and flooring business for over 30 years and is currently an industry consultant specializing in sales, marketing, and interpreting technical issues in understandable terms. You can contact Steve at [email protected] or 404-281-2218.

Business Tip – July 2016

al_batesHarpooning the Whale, Part II: Changing the Profit Relationship by Working Customers Systematically

by Dr. Albert D. Bates, Profit Planning Group


 

Each year, Dr. Albert D. Bates, the president of the Profit Planning Group, prepares a Profit Improvement Report for CTDA.

What follows is part two of this report, which Bates has entitled “Harpooning the Whale.” In this section, Bates examines Changing the Profit Relationship – a discussion of how profitability can be enhanced by working with customers. Part one, which focused on Economics of Customers – an analysis of how customers break out into widely-varying profitability groupings – appeared in the January 2016 TileLetter Business Tip section. This installment picks up with the first chart, which illustrates the profit profile of tile distributors. The two-part series is provided by CTDA.

The typical CTDA member generates $500,000 in profit. For that firm, the customers fall into four categories based upon the profit they generate for the distributor. The A customers are the most profitable and the D customers are the least profitable – the money losers.

The relationship for customers and profit tends to be a little more dramatic when put into tabular form:

bus-01The fact that the typical firm loses $225,000 on slightly more than one-third of their customers is not an inconsequential issue. Potentially, dollar profit could be increased by 45% through concerted effort.

The immediate, knee-jerk, reaction is to just fire the D customers. In point of fact, this is an approach that some analysts support. It is an approach that should be avoided. Instead, it is essential to break the customer base into three target groups and work with them systematically.

Group One – A Customers: In the rush to focus on the money losers, there is a tendency to overlook the most profitable customers in the mix. It is actually more important to support the A accounts than it is to worry about the D ones.

No customer set buys all of their needs from one supplier. Anything that can be done to encourage A customers to purchase more has a direct and immediate impact on profitability. It is also a positive set of actions that everybody supports.

Group Two – The Down and Dirty Two Percent: Anecdotal evidence suggests that somewhere around 2% of all customers are not just unprofitable for the distributor, they are highly unprofitable. Even worse, they probably enjoy being unprofitable. These customers really should be fired.

Care must be exercised in the firing. Today’s fired customer may become tomorrow’s acquirer of one of the best A customers. The simplest approach is to simply let them fire themselves. This involves systematically moving them to a different, higher, category on the pricing schedule.

Group Three – The Mass of D Accounts: After the members of Group Two have been eliminated, there remains a massive number of accounts that still produce a gross margin that does not cover the cost to serve them. It is a lot of customers and requires a lot of work to correct the situation.

There may be some opportunity on the pricing side with these accounts. However, most of the effort must be devoted to the issue of the cost to serve. This inevitably gets back to the reality of too many small orders, too many emergency orders and too many returns.
The key is to get customers to plan ahead and ultimately place fewer orders. Alas, customers place the number of orders they want to place. Time and effort must be spent to educate customers about the cost savings on their side of the profitability equation if they were to order less frequently. It requires both an analytical effort and a sales effort. The profit impact, though, justifies the effort.

Moving Forward

A lot of firms are aware that some customers are unprofitable to them. What is needed is a more precise analysis of the nature of the challenge. Once the analysis is conducted that analysis must lead to action.

Dr. Albert D. Bates is founder and president of Profit Planning Group. His recent book, Breaking Down the Profit Barriers in Distribution is the basis for this report. It is a book every manager and key operating employee should read. It is available in trade-paper format from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

© 2015 Profit Planning Group. CTDA has unlimited duplication rights for this manuscript. Further, members may duplicate this report for their internal use in any way desired. Duplication by any other organization in any manner is strictly prohibited.

Business Tip – June 2016

mapei_sponsorThe Affordable Care Act: is this the calm before the storm?

By Pat O’Connor, Kent & O’Connor, Washington, D.C.

There is a lull of sorts in Obamacare angst these days. No momentous Supreme Court decisions in the offing. No serious repeal efforts in Congress. It even seems to have faded on the campaign trail.

And, so far, businesses have weathered the initial stages of The Affordable Care Act (ACA) fairly well. Six years after passage, the predicted exodus from employer-provided coverage has not materialized. In fact, according to the RAND Corporation, of the 16.9 million newly-insured people between September 2013 and February 2015, the largest source of new coverage was employer-sponsored plans! (1) And, among companies with 50 to 499 employees, some surveys show 99% offer health insurance to employees. (2) Even the smallest employers (those with fewer than 50 employees) reported an increase in the number of companies offering health insurance (from 51% in 2013 to 61% in 2015). (3)

Does this mean the fear and loathing of the ACA/Obamacare were overblown?

No, probably not. These numbers may simply reflect the fact that health insurance continues to be a valued benefit to attract and retain talented employees. Companies still want to maintain coverage despite the costs and complexities added by the ACA.

These numbers also do not look at the extent to which the ACA has skewed business decision-making. Some companies have refrained from hiring additional people to stay below the 50-employee threshold or cut worker hours to lower the number of full-time employees. Keeping the headcount low through outsourcing is a prevalent and often necessary small business strategy that can be expected to continue. The impact on individual companies or the economy as a whole is difficult to measure, but unquestionably this has added to the anxiety over Obamacare among small businesses.

Yet, on the whole, has the business community simply adapted? Are we now on a smooth path after a bumpy start?

Not likely. For one thing, the government has not actually assessed employer penalties, but they will begin doing so very soon. Even though the vast majority of subject companies do provide health coverage, we have yet to see how the penalty process will play out for companies with insufficient or unaffordable coverage. For implementation of the penalties, we are relying on the IRS to reconcile the millions of reporting forms that were only recently submitted by employers, insurers and exchanges. No doubt, more rough patches can be expected when penalty notices hit the streets.

Nor are the ACA marketplaces anywhere close to being stable. Conversations about sizeable increases in 2017 insurance premiums are already starting. Many small businesses rely on the individual exchanges as a means for ensuring their employees have access to affordable coverage. Other small businesses would like to see the SHOP (Small Business Health Options Program) exchanges live up to their intended promise as a source for affordable employee coverage for small companies. This is unlikely, however, without greater stability in the individual ACA exchanges.

Last year, we saw half of the non-profit health co-ops on the individual health exchanges fail. This spring, the nation’s largest health insurer, United Healthcare, announced they will leave all but a handful of the nation’s exchanges in 2017 due to expected losses of more than $650 million on its 2016 ACA plans.

The United Healthcare announcement is revealing. Unlike the failed nonprofit co-ops last year, many of whom charged unrealistically low premiums and failed to apply prudent business practices, United Healthcare approached the exchanges with great caution. The for-profit insurer mostly sat out the first year to gain a better understanding of the risk profile of exchange enrollees so they could more accurately price their policies. With shareholders to answer to, United took careful measure to avoid any losses.

What they discovered, however, was lower-than-hoped-for-enrollees and sicker-than-expected customers. Plus, loopholes in the exchanges allowed people to enter and leave the system only when they needed healthcare. United attributed their massive losses to the smaller overall market size and the “shorter-term, higher-risk profile” of enrollees. In a conference call last November, United’s CEO told shareholders: “We cannot sustain these losses. We can’t really subsidize a marketplace that doesn’t appear at the moment to be sustaining itself.”

Some see the United Healthcare departure as the canary in the coal mine, a harbinger of more troubles ahead for Obamacare. Others downplay the significance. At the very least, we know competition will be severely limited in about 10 states, mostly in the South and the Midwest. Most notably, unless a new entrant appears, Oklahoma and Kansas will have only one insurer selling plans on their exchanges.

Other factors will impact premium costs on the ACA exchanges in 2017. The ACA established temporary risk-sharing and risk corridors to assist insurers offering ACA-compliant plans so the insurance companies could charge lower premiums and attract more enrollees. These subsidies to the insurance companies will end January 1, 2017, placing even more upward pressure on premiums.

All of this has some pundits warning that 2017 may be the year of reckoning for the Obamacare exchanges – the year when high premiums push the healthiest participants out, leaving insurers with the costliest enrollees, causing still higher premiums in the following year, the so-called “death spiral.” While that may be an overly dire prediction, Larry Levitt of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation says there will likely be “a significant market correction over the next year.”

Fortunately, employer-provided insurance markets experience much greater stability than the ACA marketplace. Nevertheless, upheaval in the ACA markets can spill over to the broader marketplace, causing uncertainty and higher costs.

We will know soon enough whether 2017 is indeed the cliff that sends Obamacare tumbling or just another painful step in the evolving drama of health care reform.

(1) Trends in Health Insurance Enrollment, 2013-2015, published in Health Affairs, v. 34, no. 6, June 2015, p. 1044-1048.
(2) Transamerica Center for Health Studies, Survey: Companies Navigate the Health Coverage Mandate, December 2015, www.transamerica centerforhealthstudies.org.
(3) Ibid.

Pat O’Connor is a principal in Kent & O’Connor, Incorporated, a Washington, D.C.-based government affairs firm. A veteran of Capitol Hill with particular expertise in health, transportation and the environment, O’Connor works with trade associations and companies to find workable solutions to the most pressing regulatory and legislative issues. For more information, visit www.kentoconnor.com or call 202-223-6222.

Business Tip – May 2016

SponsoredbyMAPEINTCA forms new bond with Spanish labor group Proalso

With the goal of sharing installation challenges as well as successful methods and standards, the NTCA has opened a dialogue with Proalso, the Association of Professional Tile Installers in Spain. NTCA president and Technical Committee chairman James Woelfel met with Proalso’s secretary general, Matias Martinez Trilles, recently during Qualicer, the world congress on tile quality, and Cevisama, Spain’s international tile show.

“With new technologies in tile and setting materials production, it’s more important than ever for labor groups to work together to ensure successful installations,” explained Woelfel. “We can learn from each other because of, and in spite of, differences in the way our countries handle construction projects because different perspectives and experiences will ultimately strengthen our work and our industry.”

Proalso is working with ASCER, Spain’s association of tile manufacturers, in developing their country’s tile installation standards.

ASCER’s Industrial Affairs director, Alejandra Miralles, said while most manufacturers provide brief guidelines for the installation of specific products, there’s an understanding among members of the Spanish Standardization Committee for ceramic tile and adhesives (AEN CTN 138), that cohesive installation standards are needed.

“We have tried to involve all parties, including installers, in the development of this work, since their input is vital to harmonize best practices and guarantee the quality of the tiling,” said Miralles. “ASCER also supports and highly respects the activity been carried out by Proalso in relation to certification and qualified tile installers.”

Proalso certifies installers through a program using two comprehensive training manuals. Yet Martinez Trilles believes much learning can be done regarding the development of installation standards. “Product standards are especially important, and the professional tile installer needs to know them in depth,” he said. “Nonetheless, we consider product standards are not sufficient to improve installation processes and to prevent defects or pathologies. It is most important that we are able to work together in the development of specific standards on installation that allow unifying global criteria on tile installation systems. In this sense, we find most interesting the work being carried out in ISO/TC 189 in relation to Thin Ceramic Tiles and Panels and on tile installation recommendations.”

To help Proalso understand the work the NTCA does, Woelfel gave Martinez Trilles a copy of the NTCA Reference Manual, which the labor leader found extremely practical and useful.

The meetings were facilitated by Javier Rodriguez Ejerique, Qualicer’s technical secretary, who invited Woelfel to speak about the development of industry standards in the United States at the world congress on tile quality in Castellon, Spain.

“It is important for manufacturers and distributors to understand that there are highly skilled installers available and willing to take on the challenges involved in the installation of new products,” said Rodriguez Ejerique. “For example, the difficulties of thin panel tile installation should prompt them to seek out qualified installers to recommend to architects to ensure job success, rather than allowing the project to forego technologically advanced products out of fear of job failure.”

Looking forward, Woelfel said he hopes Martinez Trilles will be able to accept his invitation to Total Solutions Plus this October in Palm Springs. “We need to continually find ways of getting manufacturers, architects, designers, distributors and qualified installers to the table for discussion on quality installation. This is in the industry’s best interest now and in the future.”

Business Tip – April 2016

mapei_sponsorSocial media: the new networking

(Editor’s note: Clearly, social media is a powerful tool to put you in touch with key people and audiences in your industry. In our Coverings issue, we had a story dedicated to social media, and this CTDA contribution continues the theme. The message is clear: get online, and get sharing, posting, liking, pinning and tweeting!)

Networking is crucial to the success of any organization. An especially important benefit of associations is the networking opportunities members enjoy. Networking used to occur mainly through social events, meetings, and small groups. However with advances in technology and the advent of social media, there are many more opportunities for networking and a multitude of possibilities for expanding your business’s network.

To ensure your business is taking full advantage of social media, your business should have a social media strategy, measurable goals and specific tactics.

Your company’s social media strategy ought to have the same organization as any other corporate strategy your company follows. Make your strategy #Specific. Set a clear image of what success looks like. Set #Measurable objectives to evaluate your progress such as “Increase our followers on Facebook by 50 this year.” Ensure your strategy is #Attainable and realistic to achieve within the time specified. Of course anything you do must be #Relevant meaning it should align with your company’s mission. Finally, your strategies must be #Timely – that is, you should assign a timeline for each .

One of the first tasks you will want to undertake is to understand the variety of social media platforms available to you and, of course, those that your desired audience is using.  Some of the current platforms to consider include: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Houzz, YouTube, Yelp, and Google+.

Important social media measurements could include: follower (or participation) numbers and growth over time; increasing total impressions (views of your company’s profile by day); increasing engagements (messages, comments or check-ins from your audience); and increasing link clicks from your company’s posts. A great way to track your company’s success is through a content manager such as Sprout Social, Shareist, or Hootsuite. Also, Facebook offers its own free insights section on your company’s page.

When starting off small, you may want to consider setting a portion of time every day to spend managing your company’s social media. Start with responding to your engagements (good or bad) within 24 hours. Then focus on promoting something new every day, whether it be #MarbleMonday #TileTuesday, #WebinarWednesday, etc.

On those days when you are short on content and to refrain from being repetitive, have some days focus on others. Retweet on Twitter, comment, like or share on Facebook or repin on Pinterest.

The value of #hashtags

ALWAYS #hashtag. #hashtag – ing is an effective way to ensure your company’s post is viewed by the most people. The more views, the more followers and the more followers, the more FREE marketing your company receives. Strategically select a trending or common #hashtag to accompany your post. Also, pick one #hashtag that your company will use in all of its posts on all social media platforms; the more posts with that #hashtag, the better off your company is. Within the social media platform #hashtags are searchable, so if you use a hashtag like #CTDAmember with your Facebook post, anytime anyone searches for #CTDAmember, your posts will come up.

You’re not taking full advantage of #networking, if @yourcompany isn’t active on #socialmedia. Social media has evolved into so much more than reconnecting with your long-lost high school friends. It has become a way professionals connect with each other. Your business must not miss out on this unique #marketingtool which is mostly FREE.

To learn more about social media, join CTDA for our #CTDAWebinar on Social Media on May 19th with Shannon Vogel, director of social media, Creating your Space. Learn how to leverage your business and expand your networking opportunities. If you’re online, follow this link to learn more about CTDA Webinars; otherwise, enter https://www.ctdahome.org/content/education/webinars-list.asp into your browser. Webinars are free for members or a small fee per non-member company.

To learn more about membership, please contact [email protected] or to join CTDA, please visit our website at www.ctdahome.org. And don’t forget to like us on Facebook and Twitter @Ceramic Tile Distributors Association (CTDA).

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