Expecting the unexpected

“Most of the things you worry about never happen. But when they do, you just have to sit down and regroup.” That’s the philosophy of long-time builder Gerry Richardson of Hanover Building Systems in Abbotstown, Pa., who says dealing with the unexpected is just part of the industry — and part of life.

sked-delmarva.jpg“A guy told me a long time ago that I have to be like an orchestra leader,” says Richardson. “An orchestra leader makes a lot of moves at one time.”

Flexibility, communication and a cool head are keys to dealing with the messes handed to you by weather, permit delays, sidetracked supplies and other unpleasant surprises, according to other rural builders.

It’s all about flexibility, according to Mike Fairchild of Astro Buildings in Ames, Iowa. In his part of the heartland, spring rains can leave fields too wet for site preparation and winter wind chills that plunge well below zero can mess with the schedule, says Fairchild, who’s been in business since 1991.

No one’s likely to be happy about the delays, of course, but everyone feels a bit better if the communication is ramped up to let everyone know what to expect, and for how long.

Communication is what it’s all about. That’s the view of Robert Kramer of Delmarva Pole Building Supply in Wyoming, Del.

“Scheduling is probably one of most important areas when it comes to communication between company and customer. We just talked about that in sales meetings,” Kramer says. “One of the first jobs is to educate customers about processes and things that affect the process.

sked-Fairchild-2.jpg“Our company makes phone calls at the end of each day to notify customers that will be affected tomorrow,” Kramer says. The calls update customers expecting next-day deliveries or crew arrivals, as well as warn them about potential delays or problems.

“It gets us good feedback from customers,” Kramer says, adding that, even if the message is about a delay, the customer would rather be informed today than surprised tomorrow.

“Customers have the notion companies will say one thing and do another,” Kramer says. “We have to constantly work on the level of trust.”

Ken Kistler of Kistler Pole Buildings in Foglesville, Pa., takes a long view of ways to expect the unexpected.

“When you’ve been in business a long time, there are very few surprises anymore. But I tell my people that the problems never go away,” he says. “You will always have difficult customers, bad weather, material delays and any number of things that adversely affect you. The only variable is how you react.”

Kistler was referring more to customer-driven problems or delays in shipments than to weather woes, but one of the things he’s learned from 26 years in business is “communication is vital to management … we believe in managing jobs.”

It’s not only that cell phones and laptops eliminate most excuses for not communicating, but also that preplanning is paramount to finding errors or problems before they find you.

“I tell my people, ‘Your value to us does not necessarily hinge on how flawless you are, but how quickly you recognize your mistakes and take corrective action,’” Kistler said.

Weather permitting
sked Fairchild-1.jpgIn the industry, bad weather is the great equalizer. It affects everyone and no one can do anything about it, but keeping heads up on the forecast helps, according to Richardson.

“On Monday, we talk about the weather because it’s important to our life,” he says. “We have to work with the elements, but there’s not much we can do about it.” His company’s salvation is they do a lot of interior finish work and can usually hold some in reserve for foul weather days.

Permit problems top the list of customer-driven delays, according to Kramer. When building delays are the fault of the customer, it’s usually because they’ve failed to get the proper permits.

“There’s a very fine line in reminding them where the delays came from,” he says. “You can’t say ‘This is your fault,’ but we try to remind them how the process works.”

“Permit issues crop up at the most inopportune time,” Kistler says. “You’ve got a customer with permit in hand and all of a sudden authorities show up with a stop work order.” The issue then is how to keep the crews busy while the job is on hold.

Larger businesses have an advantage there by keeping a job or two dug in ahead and ready to go when a crew gets freed up unexpectedly. Kistler runs eight or 10 crews, always with a couple of sites ready to go when a crew becomes available. “But that means that we use up one of our ready jobs, so we have to put it in high gear on the next one,” he said.

On one recent occasion, Kistler recalls a stop work order nixed a job for awhile. The crew went to help a nearby crew on a job that was big enough to absorb the extra manpower.

Another kind of headache popped up for Richardson about nine years ago. A customer for whom he’d built storage buildings worth millions of dollars called to say, “You’ve got to stop. My bank has pulled my funding for this project.”

“We said ‘fine,’” says Richardson. “We backed off. We didn’t file liens. We worked it out. He got squared away with the bank and we’ve built 16 buildings for him since then.”

Kramer locked horns with customers who’ve been considering backing off projects because of various issues. “At that point we feel the right thing to do is to let them know that’s an option,” he says. “We let them know they have the power to make the decision.”

Sometimes it still ends well. “I would say we still built some of those buildings where they were unhappy initially,” Kramer says. “It ended well.”
Sometimes, to smooth things over, Kramer sends the customer gift cards to local restaurants or freshly baked cookies from a bakery to help smooth things over. “It’s our way of saying ‘We understand how you feel,’” he said.

It helps ease the pain.

Vendor vexations
When supplies or special orders are delayed, Fairchild says the key is to stay in contact with the customer. Again, the value of communication is emphasized.

“We have to adjust,” Fairchild says, “but generally we don’t have that problem.

“Vendors have been gracious,” Kramer says, but when he encounters a problem with getting supplies, he lets vendors know he expects them to call the customer and “let them know who dropped the ball.” That works for him, he says, because “the vendors are so phenomenal that they do anything they can. It just creates a level of confidence all around.”

Kistler doesn’t believe in complaining or losing time indulging in self-pity. “You just handle it,” he says. “I tell my folks to be prepared for the ‘what ifs’ because getting excited is a waste of time and energy. Our only salvation is how we deal with it.”

In the end, of course, it’s a juggling act, a matter of keeping the dragon at bay, but once in awhile, the dragon still wins.

“Sometimes, in spite of planning, you just have to close your tool box and go home,” Kistler says.

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