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Job Description for the Lead Carpenter

The Way We Were

First of all, let's talk about how remodeling production was handled in the past, that is, almost a carbon copy of the home building industry.

Every remodeling company of any size was divided into three departments: sales, production and administration. Up to about $500,000 annual volume, the company owner handled both sales and production management, with the assistance of an office manager/ secretary/bookkeeper. As volume reached $500,000 sales and production were divided and either a salesperson or a production manager was hired.

There were carpenters on payroll or carpenter subcontractors. There were trim carpenters and framing carpenters. The usual carpentry crew was one or two lead carpenters and one or two helpers.

The production manager took a project from initial sale to final completion, and was responsible for 5 to 15 jobs depending on size, usually visiting every job site once every day or two. The production manager/field superintendent ordered all materials, coordinated subcontractors, and scheduled carpentry crews. Often the carpenters would come to the company office every morning for the day's assignment, or the production manager would call every carpenter every night or early in the morning to tell them where to go. Most field carpenters knew no more about a job than their own particular work for the time they were on that job.

On a typical room addition, the production manager supervised the layout, footings and foundation work. Then a framing crew would be scheduled to frame out the shell. Then subbing out the roofing and siding would be done about the same time the electrical, plumbing and HVAC subcontractors were completing their rough-in and getting necessary inspections. Then insulation and drywall subs came in, and finally the trim carpentry crew was brought back to finish the job ready for painting. Flooring and painting were coordinated during this process, then the setting of fixtures and final trim-out by the electrician, the plumber and the HVAC people was completed.

Scheduling was often a nightmare and there were many times when no work went on for days or weeks because of scheduling complications. Subcontractors often worked with minimal supervision except for the brief visit by the field superintendent/production manager. All this was normal for most remodeling contractors, and some actually achieved timely completion and customer satisfaction -- sometimes at great cost to the company.

A remodeling production manager could handle at most $750,000 in annual sales volume, and typically was paid 6% of the total gross. Each carpenter on payroll generated a maximum of $80,000-$100,000 total volume a year; when you include helpers, the total production per person was closer to $60,000-$80,000 a year. Each carpenter almost always had a helper on the job, so a two-man crew might produce $120,000-$140,000 volume per year.

Most remodeling companies over $400,000-$500,000 volume had a full time truck driver ("gofer") who picked up materials from the lumberyard and delivered them to the job to stay ahead of the crews for materials. Companies had accounts with 15-20 lumberyards or other suppliers.

Most remodeling companies used helpers to do clean-up, which usually meant cleaning up after all the subs as well as the lead carpenter.

In summary, production managers were running many jobs on which they were responsible for all the complexities, without being on the job enough to have any real control. For years we have said that the most difficult person to hire in the industry is a good production manager/field superintendent. Actually, the problem wasn't being unable to find good production managers, it was top-down management where supervision and control is almost impossible and is likely to result in poor job cost control, poor customers satisfaction, and poor production.

The New Concept

Studies of remodeling have shown that the one-person crew is the most efficient: that first person is 80%-100% efficient, the second is 25% efficient, and the third is minus 5%.

This leads naturally to using the lead carpenter concept. The lead carpenter takes over the job at the pre-construction conference and runs the job from that point on. The lead carpenter comes to the job every morning and stays all day long, getting carpentry help only as needed, keeping the material flow going, scheduling subcontractors, and dealing with the customer.

Here's how the typical room addition goes now. Once the layout, footing and foundation is put in -- supervised by the lead carpenter -- then there may be two or three people including the lead carpenter to do the rough framing. The lead carpenter stays on alone and tidies up the framing, then moves outside to run the roofing, siding, cornice and trim while the electrical, mechanical and HVAC contractors come in -- under the lead's supervision -- to rough in the job and get their inspections done. Then the lead carpenter moves back inside and stays there, coordinating subcontractors as necessary, and doing most of the work himself until the job is completed. That one person is on the job every day all day, managing the project and doing the bulk of the carpentry work.

Advantages of the Lead Carpenter System

1. Total job control. No chance of the electrician showing up and asking the homeowner, "Hey, lady, what do I do now?" The lead carpenter is the project manager, always there to show subs what to do, direct delivery of materials, meet with building and other inspectors, and be responsible for the job.

2. Total job security. In the old days when the woman of the house was there most of the time, there was not much demand for a remodeling contractor to provide security. Now, one of the prime concerns of American home owners is home security. The lead carpenter being on the job every day from start to completion is a real positive element for customers.

3. Efficient materials handling. When the job is first set up, a complete material list -- almost down to the last nail -- must be developed, contracts negotiated with subcontractors and a complete task and labor breakdown for the carpenters done as well. The lead carpenter goes over the rough framing load, the trim list, the special order items, which supplier they are ordered from and the delivery schedule. Then the lead carpenter is responsible for staying ahead on materials and confirming timely and sufficient deliveries.

This totally eliminates the cost of a "gofer" at about $40,000 a year counting the cost of the truck. A well-organized lead carpenter always has something to do to keep busy and if materials are delivered a couple of hours late, the carpenter can still make the time productive.

4. No buck to pass. No trim carpenter calls the office and says, "I can't trim this out because it's framed wrong." One subcontractor can't just take advantage of being first on the job and do something that makes it easier for them but tougher for the other subs because the lead carpenter is there to direct the work. Most important, lead carpenters have a certain pride of ownership in the job -- they bring the family out and say, "Look, I'm building this addition or remodeling this kitchen."

5. Labor costs controlled. The lead carpenter must be given a labor budget and an incentive. For example, if the labor budget cost on a job is $4,000, go over it with the lead carpenter item by item, agree on whether it is reasonable and complete, and from that point on, the lead carpenter is responsible to stay within that budget. If the lead "beats" the labor budget, the savings are split (if that $4,000 labor budget comes in at $3,600 the company gets $200 and the lead carpenter gets $200).

The lead carpenter can get help on any task where they think it is more efficient to use two people on the job. Real experience is likely to be like the company in the Midwest that has nine lead carpenters and one helper -- and they can't keep the helper busy because the lead carpenters don't want to pay for it.

6. Responsibility for service work. Lead carpenters are paid on a rolling bonus system, usually paid quarterly, so there is always a balance in the labor budget. If there is a service call after a few months, and the company pays the carpenter or someone else to take care of it, that cost comes out of the carpenter's rolling bonus -- which was already paid on that job. Of course, most lead carpenters say, "Oh, I'll handle it on my way home." I know a company in Iowa that implemented the lead carpenter concept and in one year their service calls went down from 50 a year to five. And what really happens is that the carpenters do it right the first time.

A number of years ago I gave was at a seminar session on the lead carpenter concept with contractors for a sunroom company. One of the contractors said, "Oh, Walt, I couldn't possibly use the lead carpenter concept; these are heavy glass panels and I need two or three men to do it." Another contractor replied, "I don't know why not. I did over $400,000 total volume last year with only one carpenter". Then another contractor got up and said, "Oh, I couldn't use the lead carpenter, I do a fair amount of commercial jobs and they want me to put four or five people in there so I can get in and out of those jobs and not waste their time". A contractor got up on the front row and said, "Hey, please tell me, when you have four or five people there how many leaks and callbacks do you have about the sunrooms?" The light dawned -- when there is no single accountability, then service calls increase.

For years, remodeling contractors fought against the lead carpenter concept. People used to get up in HomeTech seminars and say we were nuts, it wouldn't work and what did we know about the remodeling business anyway? At that point, I always used to say, "I must admit, if I were a lead carpenter I'd want to have a helper. I'd want somebody to drive me to the job while I read the paper, go out and pick up my coffee, bring the tools in while I had my second cup of coffee before we started work in the morning and I'd talk to the customer, handle all the dirty work while I stood around and watched, and so on."

But about 4 or 5 years ago, the industry started to change and the lead carpenter approach started to become accepted. Fortunately, a number of the people who made the change were able to implement it properly and experienced tremendous gains in productivity. For example, one company in the northeast that did $900,000 one year with 13 carpenter and helpers, turned to the lead carpenter concept and the next year did $1.2 million with 5 carpenters. Another company did $1.5 million with 15 field employees, and the next year did $1.5 million with 10.

Obstacles to the Lead Carpenter Concept

Three arguments come up most commonly to prevent remodeling contractors from taking the first step toward employing lead carpenters, but these obstacles are more perceived than actual.

1. The first question is, "What is the customer going to say when I only put one man on the job?" The answer to this is of course, that on the very first sales call when you pull out the presentation book, it features pictures and biographical sketches of the lead carpenters. Then you describe in detail the responsibility, presence and service customers can expect from a lead carpenter. Presented in this way, customers are delighted.

2. The second argument is always, "If you only put one man on the job, it's going to take too long." Let me tell you one of my favorite stories. Some years ago, a home builder put three men in to trim out a house and it took them 2 weeks. He took one man off, put two men in to trim out the next house, and it took them two weeks. Then he took the second person off and put one man to trim out a third house -- it took him 2 weeks. When I told that story at a HomeTech seminar, a contractor from Cleveland raised his hand and said, "You know, Walt, that's interesting -- in 1973 my partner and I used to trim out houses in Cleveland and it usually took us two weeks. One month, my partner got sick and I had to do it by myself and when I did, it took a week".

Also, understand that because the lead man is on the job all the time, something is done on that job every day and customers can see progress.

3. The third complaint is, "How are we ever going to find lead carpenters to do this? They are supermen!" There are literally thousands of small contractors working for themselves 40 hours a week on the job, going out at night to sell at a 20% mark-up, doing paperwork on the weekends, and starving. Approached properly, they would be delighted to work as lead carpenters for companies that know how to market and sell their product and handle administration.

Compensation Plan

First of all, it is necessary to set a labor budget and insist that the lead carpenter buy into the figure. This means that if you have sold a job and on breaking out the job you have $4,000 in labor and you are paying the lead carpenter $20 an hour including fringe benefits, then you sit down with him and go over the plans and the specifications and tell him that there is $4,000 or 200 hours -- 5 weeks at 40 hours a week -- figured for this job. If necessary, look at individual items and if there are items that the sales person or estimator missed it may be negotiable. Usually as the relationship between the production manager and the lead carpenter develops there will be more trust in the actual numbers and they will be more likely to accept the budget.

Once the labor budget is set, then it is their task to bring the project in on or under the labor budget. They are going to be a one person crew during most of the job but if they want help then it's only a matter of asking for a helper for that particular part of the project. Obviously the cost of that individual is included in the labor figure and they must pay for it out of the labor budget. What this has meant in many companies is that the lead carpenters, more often than not figure out a way to handle the job by themselves. The number of helpers per lead carpenters is going down rapidly with companies that are implementing this concept.

Trust must be developed between the lead carpenter and the production manager. As you are implementing the program, you may want to take it slowly. One company at the beginning brought one of their best lead carpenters in, presented a labor budget figure and then just said, "Well, let's try this job and see what you can do". If the carpenter came in under budget they gave him a bonus, and after doing a couple of jobs the carpenter had the confidence to take the company's word for it and the budget figure incentive was implemented.

The most usual incentive program is that if the lead carpenter beat the labor budget, the savings is split evenly between the company and the carpenter. It is necessary to split the savings because sometimes the labor budget is higher than necessary or has been overfigured. What you cannot do is set a price on a job (such as $80 to install a replacement window) and when the carpenter comes in at $60 per window for say 10 windows the cut the labor budget on the next job to $60 -- which means you are taking out the bonus on that particular type of project. Then the lead has no incentive to complete a job quicker. Keeping the labor budget at the original figure, the company loses as most half the savings.

Qualifications of a Lead Carpenter

1. First of all a lead carpenter must be a good tradesman. This does not mean knowing everything from framing to trim to electric, plumbing, HVAC and so on -- but at least a good mid range of competence.

2. The lead carpenter must be somewhat entrepreneurial -- a self starter able to work independently. Most remodeling contractors find that the best lead carpenters are those who have been in business for themselves at some point.

Old timers in remodeling never told carpenters anything about the business because if you did, they would find out how much money you were making and go out and start in business for themselves. That's not anywhere as true today as it may have been in the past, and though some years ago it was considered dangerous to hire people who had been in their own business, that is not the case in the 90's.

3. The lead carpenter must be literate -- able to read and write and know simple math. I know a contractor in the Midwest who started to implement the concept and found one of their trusted, long time lead carpenters did not know how to read and write. This industry may have to train some carpenters in literacy in order for them to function properly as lead carpenters.

4. Lead carpenters must be well-organized about their work, to schedule subcontractors in an orderly manner and keep the job going according to the flow plan or schedule as well as keeping themselves busy.

5. The lead carpenter must be able to work alone. The old two-man crew was a great crutch for many carpenters because they always had somebody to talk to. If a carpenter cannot work by himself and like it, he will probably not succeed as a lead carpenter.

6. The lead carpenter must be able to work with people: other workmen, subcontractors, delivery people, and customers. This doesn't mean that a lead carpenter has to be the life of the party, but they must be able to communicate, to like most people, and relate to most every type of customer or subcontractor they are working with.

7. The lead carpenter must be trainable -- for the present and for the future. Framing crews are going to have to learn how to trim, and vice versa. The more multi-talented lead carpenters -- drywall, plaster patch, paint, wallpaper, tile, floor tile and so on -- are going to be more valuable.

8. Lead carpenters must be neat and clean. If they are neat from the first, then there is less need to spend time on clean-up. Carpenters must be willing to do their own clean-up, including washing windows, cleaning and waxing floors and so on.

9. Lead carpenters must be honest. They are responsible for the security of the home, and they have the run of the house. It may be that remodeling contractors are going to bond lead carpenters. But honesty means dealing honestly with the customer, with subcontractors and with the company. This also means not working side jobs or doing anything for customers or neighbors which would be in competition with the company.

10. A lead carpenter must know and believe in mark-up. They are going to learn everything about the company, what price they are charging for jobs, what the job costs are, what the mark-up and gross margins are, understand that remodeling has an overhead of 25%-35% and that marking up 50%-67% is no more than reasonable. The last thing you want is the lead carpenter saying to customers, "Here's what the change order is going to cost. I don't know why it's so damn high, but that's the way the company works."

11. Finally, the best lead carpenters are problem solvers. The carpenter who constantly calls the production manager to come out and resolve any and all problems is probably not going to be worth keeping on as an employee. This doesn't mean you let a customer get out of hand or a job skyrocket out of control, but a production manager must be willing to let a lead carpenter make a mistake or two in order to learn what they can and can't do.