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Challenges that keep contractors up at night

This month’s Hot Topics examines challenges and struggles tile contractors attending Total Solutions Plus (TSP) last month shared with me. 

The complement to this story will show up in April in our Workplace Wellness story. One of the keynotes at TSP was Adam Markel, whose message was, “We’ve got to develop resilience before we need it.” In April, we’ll check in again with these same contractors to learn what practices they implement – in the words of Iditarod champion Blair Braverman – to prevent fatigue in their businesses and lives, rather than recover from it. We’ll explore what gives them the ability to bounce back from stress and challenges rather than be crushed by them. 

Scheduling: top challenges

Jeff Occhipinti

First we discuss what triggers insomnia for our contractors. For Jeff Occhipinti, Columbia River Tile & Stone, Inc., in Portland – and NTCA’s first Accredited Five-Star Contractor – uncertainty is a concern, and unforeseen delays that wreak havoc with the schedule. “You look like you have a clear water area for at least a couple of weeks, but you wake up that Monday and check your emails and everything is flipped on end.”  

Dirk Sullivan

Dirk Sullivan of NTCA Five-Star Contractor Hawthorne Tile – also in Portland – seconded Occhipinti’s concerns over schedules. Sometimes Sullivan discovers that a job that was scheduled in 3-4 weeks has been moved or delayed by supply chain issues or a change order or permitting. So, it’s “delays, delays, delays – and now you have to fill those holes,” he said. 

What adds an extra level of challenge is “tire kicker” calls that take time – so much so that Hawthorne Tile has shut down its phone lines to new calls like this, prioritizing established customers or those with whom the company already has a relationship. This can create difficulty of its own, but Sullivan said due to his longstanding 25-year relationship with customers, jobs just SHOW UP. “Someone I did a job for three years ago calls and says, ‘I was going to do this by myself but can you guys do it? Can you fit it in?’ And it just happens. It’s like this magic of the universe and a testament to creating good relationships. What I think about all the time and what keeps me up at night is continuing to make new relationships.”

He actively cultivates them by reaching out to all his favorite subcontractors, demolition contractors, plumber and electricians each fall to get a list of potential new clients and cold calls them with an invitation to coffee and to explore how Hawthorne Tile may become a trusted partner. 

Gus Tolleson

Gus Tolleson, project manager for NTCA Five-Star Contractor J&R Tile in San Antonio, named scheduling as a frustration too, but more so when he first got into tile work almost two years ago. What kept him up at night this year was the heat wave sweeping the nation this summer. 

“We have all these thinsets and grouts we are not able to install but we had to get the projects done.” Tolleson said the company shifted to night work, paying installers time-and-a-quarter as an incentive to work overnight when it was cooler and setting materials would cure properly. 

Jan Hohn

Jan Hohn, of NTCA Five-Star Contractor Hohn & Hohn, Inc., in St. Paul, Minn., is facing a process of shedding two long-time employees as she redefines her business. THAT transition keeps her up at night as she bids jobs for them as her subs and tries to balance what she will need for the new incarnation of her business with the ending of the old way of operating. And like Occhipinti, Sullivan, and Tolleson, schedules can plague her peace, as she scrambles to make sure she got to everything she needed on a job and ponders what might have gone wrong on a job site. 

Personal challenges

Chris Osterritter

Chris Osterritter, owner of NTCA Member company Art by Tile in Wilmerding, Pa., said grappling with his imperfections keeps him up at night, such as a cut he wasn’t happy with – even if no one sees it. Another challenge is educating his fellow contractors and general contractors about the correct and standards-based way of practicing his craft. He may be questioned by general contractors (GC) about balking at installation practices the GC dictates, but his attitude is, “Did your other tile guy follow standards and best practices? Was he listening to the manufacturer? Obviously not, that’s why you brought me in.” His focus is on evolving the industry – and his own skills.

He is also passionate about educating GCs about the role that mosaic art can play in a job. He attended the Artisans Revolution in Tile Training in Milwaukee over the summer and he is keen on showing his mosaic art to contractors. “That’s when you see the light bulb go off about what is really possible.” 

Lee Callewaert

Lee Callewaert, craftsman extraordinaire, one of the lead trainers for the Milwaukee event, and co-owner of NTCA Member Dragonfly Tile and Stone Works in Milwaukee, said learning what his limits are and what pushes him over the edge keeps him awake at night. He tries to avoid running in the same ruts with the same problems and decisions over and over again. He also struggles with allowing himself the time to reach a well-considered decision or solution. “If it’s complicated, I don’t want to force an answer – it won’t be right.”

Elizabeth Lambert

Elizabeth Lambert, of NTCA Five-Star Contractor Lambert Tile and Stone in Eagle, Colo., Region 10 Director for the NTCA Board, and chairperson of NTCA’s Women In Tile group, said details from the field disturb her sleep. “Did I communicate properly?” is one of those middle-of-the-night questions. Another one is wondering when her company will get paid. 

Gianna Vallefuoco

Gianna Vallefuoco of NTCA Five-Star Contractor Vallefuoco Contractors in Rockville, Md., has a number of concerns for her 24-year old business that she runs with her husband, Bernardo. The first is growing the business and having enough skilled labor to install the jobs on the books, but also striking a balance of keeping it small enough to be able to stay in control of it. 

Another challenge is navigating the tension that sometimes arises between the office side of the business and issues that may crop up in the field. Add to that the fact that every new step – into outsourcing estimating for example, or hiring new installers – has its own risks that makes it a little scary. Vallefuoco has an aging labor force, many of whom have been loyal to the company for nearly its entire time in business. Being sensitive to honoring worker challenges like worn knees or burnout, while appreciating their desire to continue to work can create stress.

Over all that, Vallefuoco is intent on modeling authenticity, mindfulness and conscious leadership, while “amplifying an environment that is really sustainable in terms of wellbeing for us and our installers and our office and us as a couple…as a small business.” she said. “We really have to be aligned in how we will move forward, because the world is changing, products are changing.” Her desire is to check in with everyone involved on the team, develop solutions that recognize each person’s importance in the process and brainstorm resolutions together.  

Editorial Director and Senior Writer for TileLetter and TileLetter ARTISAN

Lesley Goddin has been writing and journaling since her first diary at age 11. Her journey has taken her through a career in publishing and publicity, landing her the editor position of TileLetter and its special publications in 2006. Her goal is to educate, inspire, recognize and encourage those in the tile industry -- especially the tile and stone contractor.

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