Friday, March 5, 2010

Still Dead, But With Some Qualifications

The column I wrote last month was published in Remodeling magazine online under the title The World As You Know It, and appears on this blog as Dead on Arrival. It generated some pushback from contractors who thought it focused on the negative; that it seemed to endorse the bankrupt idea of competing on price; that the opinions weren’t valid because they didn’t cite empirical research.

So I asked Les Cunningham to expand on his thoughts:

“Having been an airline pilot, I know humans can’t fly–I’m a realist. Positive affirmations are good, but they need to be salted liberally with realism,” Cunningham says. Thirty-nine years in the industry, and working with thousands of remodelers over those years has given Cunningham a deep reservoir of realism. He suggests that remodelers ask themselves “What’s my company worth today? Is it worth more than it was a year ago?”

“Yes, there’s work out there, but at reduced volume. One good operator I’m working with told me recently that he’s working ten times as hard; it takes two to three proposals to get a contract.” And price? It’s hardball negotiations. The client analyzes whether or not there’s sufficient value in doing the project, and then how much he can afford. Even though he likes you as a professional, can he get the same quality done at a lower price? Cunningham continues, “When someone’s checking your price, they can check the cost of materials and labor and calculate what percent over the cheapest alternative price you are. They make a value judgment for the money spent and quality received. There are more competitors than ever out there that are giving customers a cheaper price.”

Was Cunningham advocating that remodelers drop their prices at the first customer objection? No, he stresses. “Let me tell you a story. Two clients of mine were going after the same job. The [25%] higher-priced contractor was convinced that he was doing the right thing. The one with the lower bid actually had changed the specs and was able to charge a higher margin than he would’ve had he priced the project based on the original specs.” The difference was in understanding the customer’s wishes and his costs well enough to engineer a win-win solution for him and his customer.

But not all remodelers have command of their numbers, especially with complex design/build work. In a more competitive environment, they might find it increasingly difficult to differentiate themselves based on workmanship and service alone. Therefore, those contractors should avoid design-based variables that erode margins, and might benefit from selling products that minimize slippage–what Cunningham refers to as “bolt-on” products.

Cunningham’s company, Business Networks, collects financial statements and marketing and advertising data from its members around the country, who represent a good cross-section of the remodeling industry. The data they track is placed on a common comparison form with standardized definitions. This enables Business Networks to rank its members and generate averages based on real sales and margin targets. The peer format allows members to review and analyze the data eyeball-to-eyeball. Empirically, volumes and margins are down as much as 90%. Seventy percent of projects are now being financed from savings. Customers are increasingly concentrated among those who have the most stable employment–doctors and other health professionals, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and government employees.

There are successes, but not nearly on the scale as before. Certainly, there are pockets of stability–think Washington, DC and Austin, Texas–but in general, Cunningham says “if there’s a lot less success there must be a lot more failure. To continue in the same direction is the wrong answer. This is the first downturn where everyone’s been affected–nobody’s been untouched. But the market will return sometime…when it has disposable money available.”

Cunningham goes on to say that “until then, what a [struggling] remodeler needs to do is become a general contractor – not a specialist. You take whatever you can to break even or make money. Right now, what people seem to be buying are exterior products: windows, doors, siding, decks, and green-related items. In the boom years, the mantra was ‘if you do quality work, you’ll make a profit.’ Now, that’s a lie.”

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