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Tricks of the Trade

Here are some tricks of the trade as practiced by contractors who have implemented the lead carpenter concept throughout the country.

1. The Buddy System: Several contractors have used the buddy system between their lead carpenters. Many remodeling contractors have started out with three lead carpenters and one helper, while others have decreased that to one helper for every five. One company even had one helper for every nine carpenters. Interestingly enough in the latter case, they were not able to keep the helper busy. This was because the lead carpenter, who could have had a helper at any time, was required to pay for it out of his labor budget. In order to keep the labor budget for themselves, they all found ways to get around using the helper.

Several other companies have come up with a buddy system that teams up two lead carpenters together as quasi-partners. This means that if one lead carpenter needs someone to help him for two or three hours, he calls his buddy and schedules a time for the buddy to come to the job and assist him. Each one keeps track of the time they spent on the other's jobs and keeps a running tab of how many hours they owe each other. This virtually eliminates the need for helpers.

2. Cooperation between Lead Carpenters: Many expanding companies find that it is nearly impossible to find a production manager with management, recruiting, training and computer skills while also being competent in all, or even some, aspects of construction. In order for a production manager to handle $2 or $3 million dollars worth of business or more, there is very little time to spend on also being a field superintendent expert for their lead carpenters. Many lead carpenters, particularly in the early stages of the implementation of this concept, are going to run into problems in the field that they do not know how to handle. Logically, they have in the past called the production manager for help.

The new trick of the trade is for a company with five lead carpenters to sit down with each lead carpenter and find out what they are really best at. They then become the company expert in that particular field. For instance, in a company with five lead carpenters, there might be one lead carpenter who is an expert on framing, another in trim work, one that is particularly gifted in layout foundation work and masonry, one in exterior roofing and siding, and one in interior finishing. If one of the lead carpenters runs into trouble in that particular trade, they get on their cellular phone and call the company expert. In many cases the problem can be handled over the phone. If not, they make arrangements for the lead carpenter to drop by the job or meet them in the office later to show them what needs to be done. In short, you are developing multiplicity of talents and a cooperative system in order to do the best possible job.

3. Standardization: Get all the lead carpenters involved in figuring out how to standardize every aspect of the job from a product, systems, subcontractor and supplier basis. As a new product is introduced, there must be discussions between the lead carpenters on the best way to handle the product and how to install, thus standardizing the operation on a step-by-step basis.

4. Photographs: For years, in the sales part of the remodeling business, salespeople have carried cameras to take before and after pictures. In many cases, these photographs also help them when they are estimating the project. For example, if a novice salesman was not able to determine whether the box was 60, 100 or 150 amps, they took a picture of it opened and shut and sent it to the electrician to let him make the determination. This also eliminated the need to have the electrician make an extra trip to the job.

Many companies have realized the benefits of having a camera on the job, and are starting to provide their lead carpenters with a Polaroid or other relatively inexpensive camera. The camera could be used in a number of ways. If there are existing job conditions that could possibly be blamed on the contractor at a later time, it is well to take pictures of these types of conditions prior to the start of job to make sure that the customer understands that these conditions were not caused by construction. Photographs are also an excellent training tool.

5. Truck policy: It used to be in the remodeling business that it was said that most remodeling contractors gauged their success more by how many trucks they had on the road rather than how much money they made. For many years, the company supplied trucks. In the new era where the cost of transportation has skyrocketed, most companies are moving away from that policy. Very few supply trucks to their lead carpenters. The cost of a truck, when you include the lease or depreciation, insurance, gas, and maintenance, can run anywhere from $500 to $700 a month. This works out to at least $5 to $6 per hour. Instead, most companies with lead carpenters will offer to paint the lead carpenter's personal truck with the company colors and lease space on the truck for removable company signs. The lead carpenter is given a truck allowance of $50 to $75 a week for the use of his truck. This works out well for both parties. It means that the lead carpenter is able to make the payments on his truck as a result, and he generally will take better care of his own truck rather than a company truck.

6. Site signs: Many companies have the lead carpenter install the site sign and pick it up when the job is done. This is true even on small jobs that only last two or three days. Many times the sign is left at the site and picked up in a week or two, giving the company more exposure. If the customers balk and say, "we don't need a site sign in front of our house", the lead carpenter must be trained to say, "well, one of the reasons we use the site sign is that it allows the subcontractors and the suppliers to readily find the address on the house if they are unfamiliar with the area". This is usually an acceptable explanation for the customer.

7. Just-in-time delivery: In the future, more and more lumberyards will start developing a closer relationship with contractors and will be willing to provide just-in-time delivery of materials. They will also get involved in staging for the contractor. It is our belief that when a job is sold, once this new concept has been accepted, the company will send the lumberyard a list of materials divided into framing load, the trim list, special order items or other specialty items. If the lumberyard does not have all of the items in stock, they will immediately order them, get them in stock, set aside a staging area in the lumberyard on which it puts the company name and the job name -- for instance "The XYZ Remodeler with the Jones Job" -- and when the materials are received they will be put into that staging area. The company can be billed for the materials and then they are ordered out as the job progresses. This is in keeping with the policy in the remodeling industry adopted by many successful remodeling contractors -- they will not start a job until every decision on the job is made and all materials for the job are in local stock.

8. Excess materials: Hopefully, as lead carpenters become better and better at managing materials on the job, there will be fewer excess materials. It is important, though, that companies understand that there is no place in a remodeling operation for a warehouse. Our definition of a warehouse is a place where you put things and never take them out. What many remodelers do when there are excess items is to ask that the lumberyard pick them up and take them back with, at most, a 10% surcharge for restocking that item. If the lumberyard will not provide pickup, the lead carpenters put the surplus materials on their truck and take them back to the lumberyard for credit, whenever possible. It must be emphasized that one of the tricks of the trade is to use your supplier's warehouse, not yours. If you figure out the real cost of the warehouse and assign someone to keep it organized and clean, you will find it to be cost prohibitive. Materials also routinely get damaged when they are put in a warehouse, often negating any value in storing the materials.

Along these lines, many contractors think that they can buy in quantity and save themselves money. One home center chain has developed a concept where they bundle products for a reduced price. They will, for example, put 80 corner beads in a bundle and give 20% off on that bundle. The thing to remember is that if all those 80 corner bead are not used on the first job, by the time they get to the second or third job, five or ten of them will be damaged and all of the savings will be lost. This is not a good approach in our opinion.

9. Cellular phone: Everybody in business today is starting to use cellular phones, particularly if they are out of the office for extended periods of time during the day. This is certainly true for the lead carpenter. A cellular phone can help the lead carpenter keep in contact with subcontractors and suppliers, and, if the phone is kept on his belt, can be used in an emergency to summon help. This is particularly important since the lead carpenter is often at the job site alone, although there are no known cases where a lead carpenter has needed to call for emergency assistance.