In the One-to-One column, NTCA Executive Director Bart Bettiga interviews industry leaders about pertinent topics. Watch the interview on the NTCA YouTube channel.
I have known Dan Welch for almost the entire 20+ years I have worked for the NTCA. Dan is one of the most dedicated industry professionals I have had the pleasure of working with. He is not one to shy away from a challenge or risk if he sees an opportunity. At Coverings this past April in Las Vegas, he shared with attendees his company’s new venture into prefabricated panels and shower bases. Since we saw him in April, Dan’s company (Welch Tile and Marble Company, Kent City, Mich.) has been awarded several large-volume contracts. Dan has a clear vision of the impact this investment can make in the tile industry and was willing to share this with our readers.
Before we talk about technology, how is Welch Tile and Marble performing in today’s business conditions?
We are holding our own right now. We are a commercial and high-end residential company. We have about 50 installers currently employed by us with 10-12 focusing on the high-end residential market. We do some subcontract work in carpet, but the rest of our workers are W2 employees. And we now have five employees focusing on our new manufacturing division.
What has your experience with hiring new workers and retaining your key employees been like recently?
We have had some success rehiring previous employees. Our Apprenticeship Program has been a huge driver to help employees understand the career path we offer here at Welch Tile. It also demonstrates our commitment to our employees, and it has played an integral role in both recruitment and retention. We are also committed to the Certified Tile Installer (CTI) and Advanced Certifications for Tile Installers (ACT) certification tests offered by the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF).
You have now ventured into prefabrication and manufacturing. Tell us about this new venture Welch Tile is undertaking.
In 2017 during good times, I started visualizing what we needed to do to prepare for the next obstacle we would encounter in contracting. I wanted to make sure that when the economy receded – which it always does – that we had a plan in place. The last time, around 2010-2012, we had to put workers and crews on the road and travel wherever we could find work. This was not a situation we wanted to repeat. I started looking at our resources (land, building, people, etc.) that might give us an opportunity to differentiate our company from competitors who did not have these assets. I also was interested in improving the quality of life for our tile setters and employees. We came up with the idea of pre-assembly in our building rather than in the field. We started looking at what we could pre-assemble, and the logistics associated with delivering product to the jobsite.
The first opportunity came to us with a large hotel in Grand Rapids. We took a risk with the general contractor we were working with and submitted pre-assembled showers to them. They accepted the submittal with the understanding that if it didn’t work, we were still responsible to fulfill the contract.
Walk us through the process you implemented on this project.
We started with building a shower base that was transportable. A linear drain was specified and we templated the location and oversized the hole going out of the assembly. Noble Company built the bases and we tiled and grouted them here at our warehouse. On this job, our crews installed the walls in the field after the bases were put in place. This was a large project and the schedule was compressed and the job had been pushed back. We tiled 150 bases ahead of time so that when were able to get on the job we could focus on the wall installations and stay on schedule!
What took place after that success story?
We have modified and designed our own drain to control costs and we created a large hole with a small pipe for flexibility in the field to make adjustments. We can move the base up to 3’8″ in any direction to align it where you need it. We then added walls, niches, seats and corner shelves as pre-assembled options for our customers.
One nice story is that a previous employee had lost a limb in an unfortunate accident. We were able to hire him to work in the warehouse and begin doing pre-assembly work here at our facility. We are now taking on much larger projects and have added additional staff to perform the work.
We have improved our process by offering these showers to residential customers in our area. This was a market segment that Welch Tile was not active in due to the contracts we were fulfilling in commercial construction. Now we were able to bid these projects. We have successfully installed over 200 showers in homes in the last two years. This is new business for us.
We start a large project in November with 240 showers. We have the process down now with templating. Any tile can be assembled onto our panels and installed and grouted at our warehouse. We have done floor installations (3,000 sq. ft., in the TCNA Booth at Coverings in 2021 in Orlando), sunken tubs, wine rooms and more. We are now confident we can handle the large projects. The process sells itself because of the time savings and lack of disruption on the construction project. We have been able to get some work that we would never have been able to get. On one job, we switched fiberglass showers to tiled showers with this process. We were approved for a standard operating process we submitted with a competitively-priced tile. This price was comparable to the fiberglass system. We think this can have a big impact on our industry.
We recently secured a contract for our tiled bases and shower panel walls that would have gone otherwise to a poured base. We were able to do a herringbone finish on the base. They were thrilled to approve our submission, and we will install 242 showers starting in November with this pre-assembled process.
Other advantages for us are that this system allows us to use our trained workforce in other more detailed projects we specialize in and continue to do that work while our install crew focuses on the pre-assembly division. We have applied for a patent and we have started to share this concept with other contractors and industry leaders. We will explore opportunities to expand this business model as we go, and we welcome feedback and input into our process. We have spent considerable time, money and resources on this initiative, but we are excited about its potential and what this will mean for our workers and our company.
Bart Bettiga is the Executive Director of the National Tile Contractors Association and Publisher of TileLetter. Bettiga is a member of the Board of Governors of Coverings, one the largest tradeshows in North America. He has over 30 years of experience in the tile and stone industry and has served as the NTCA Executive Director since 2002. He is a well known speaker and author on ceramic tile and natural stone distribution and installation. He oversees the financial operations of the NTCA, TileLetter and the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation.