To buy or not to buy

R unning a successful business depends largely on the quality of materials used. While some rural builders have chosen to take on the responsibility of using their own roll formers to manufacture metal panels on site, others find convenience and value in outsourcing materials.

Whether to buy or not to buy depends on several factors unique to each builder.

“With the smaller size of residential projects we do, it doesn’t make sense for us to invest in a roll former,” says Paul Forrester, daily operations manager and sales representative at Square Post Buildings in Walnut Ridge, Ark. Instead the company purchases most of the metal panels it needs from Central States Manufacturing, a supplier based in Lowell, Ark.

“Forming our own panels on site,” Forrester contends, “would put us into a whole new business.”

Bob Greene, owner of Pioneer Pole Buildings in Schuylkill Haven, Pa., performs post-frame projects across five states.

“Not having the extra responsibility of producing our own quality panels allows us to focus on what we do best — which is building. Also, I don’t have to worry about servicing a machine,” he affirms. For the panels he needs, Greene relies on Everlast Roofing, a manufacturer headquartered in Lebanon, Pa.

Trusses, yes; panels, no

With a variety of custom-built projects that can range from residential garages to large churches, Meyer Building LLC in Craigville, Ind., makes its own trusses and columns but has chosen to outsource its metal panels. The company is supplied by Fabral Metal Wall and Roof Systems, a manufacturer based in Lancaster, Pa., that operates 10 plants nationwide.

“Start-up costs such as buying a roll-former, as well as maintenance of the equipment, play a part in our decision to outsource,” explains sales manager Aaron Taylor, “and since we already do trusses and columns, adding metal panels as another component to the business would be tough for us at this point.”

Valued-added advantages

If outsourcing means no capital tied up in a machine and no employees tied up in maintenance, president Jim Vander Beek of Pro-Line Building Company in Sharon, Iowa, says that working with a metal panel supplier also brings him a positive benefit.

“The service and experience that our supplier provides is easily worth what it would take to set up our own roll former,” he notes.

Then, too, Vander Beek says that tapping the product offerings and expertise of a reputable manufacturer “gives us more versatility — and a warranty.”

Versatility is important because Pro-Line is active in a variety of markets: agricultural, religious, commercial, residential, municipal, equine, mini-storage and others. The company purchases metal panels from American Building Components of Nicholasville, Ky., a manufacturer with a dozen plants nationwide and a subsidiary of NCI Buildings Systems.

For his part, general manager Craig Jackson of RAM Buildings in Winsted, Minn., buys from Metal Sales Manufacturing Corporation of Sellersburg, Ind. If RAM roll formed its own panels, then Jackson would be on his own against steel shortages and price swings.

Instead the company’s supplier “bears the risk of the volatility in the steel marketplace,” he points out. “If there’s a product shortage or a price increase, they can insulate us a little bit. And because of their size, they provide us a cost-effective level of service.”

By outsourcing its metal panels, Jackson says that RAM Buildings can sometimes take jobs that would be difficult to handle if the company relied solely on a roll-former of its own. “Sometimes we need a thicker or more unique profile of steel,” Jackson adds, “and by using a supplier we’re not locked in to providing only one set of colors or profiles.”

Square Post’s Forrester agrees, “There is a large amount of inventory that, by working with a supplier, we can access in a few days. On our own, there’s no way we could stock everything.”

Manufacturers can do other things that might not be possible with a roll former on a job site. Taylor of Meyer Building notes that manufacturers produce panels indoors under controlled conditions and have facilities to “do some processes, such as heat forming and edge coating, that ensure quality control. That saves us some headaches, so that we can focus on construction.”

Likewise, Greene of Pioneer Pole Buildings adds, “Knowing we offer products that have been tested for performance allows me to concentrate on selling buildings.” Moreover, since good salesmanship requires good product knowledge, Greene is glad he can depend on his supplier “to share their knowledge with and keep me up-to-date on what’s new on the market. They stop by once a month so that I’m informed on the latest news.”

Other rural builders also cite the advantage of tapping into manufacturers’ product knowledge and installation expertise. “There have been situations, such as when we had to use a specialty roofing product, where we’ve gotten helpful advice from the manufacturer,” reports Pro-Line’s Vander Beek.

Forrester recalls how his metal panel manufacturer “will send us a sales rep to explain things like how to work with trims.”

Taylor cites an example of his own. “In the last few years, we haven’t had as many jobs that required a standing seam roof,” he relates. But his supplier “is more than willing to come out and show us how to install and provide us other resources to ensure the job gets done right.”

Further, Taylor points out that using products from a well-known manufacturer offers his company some marketing advantages. “They’re actively building their brand through advertising, shows and fairs,” he states, “which can only help us sell more buildings.”

When you’re on a roll

Although there are many benefits to outsourcing, is outsourcing always the best solution? “If a builder was typically handling big jobs then investing in a roll former might make sense,” suggests Forrester, “but it’s better to buy panels from a manufacturer for the smaller jobs.”

On those larger projects, Greene continues, “You might have longer lengths of panel that would be tough to ship to the site. And even though 50-foot metal panels have been shipped, they’re tough to maneuver. Also, we have a gutter machine that we haul to the job, so that we can crank out a 100-foot piece of gutter if we need to.”

At times, Green admits, “The grass can always seem greener on the other side, so that sometimes we think it would be nice to have a machine onsite. But since we already know the lengths we need, then it’s better that the panels are produced in a controlled environment rather than on a job site.

“There’s always a chance crews might be out in the elements like snow and rain. So I’d much rather have my product come from a stationary mill.”

Jackson lists a few situations where having a roll former on site could be an advantage.

“If a builder was in a time crunch and his supplier couldn’t meet the schedule, a roll former could help,” he points out. “Also, some builders might be able to save money by making their panels. And if some sheets are damaged on a building, or you find that you’re short a sheet, then a machine onsite could expedite resolution of the problem.”

While most rural builders purchase metal panels from a primary supplier, they also cite cases when secondary suppliers might come in handy.

Although the majority of his business goes to Metal Sales, Jackson says, “Once in awhile we’ll get a specialty job where there is a specific color that the customer wants from another manufacturer. And there are also a few cases where we have to match a color on an existing building.”

Although Jackson believes in loyalty to his supplier, he notes, “Even when you’ve got a great supplier, you have to be smart. If you’re locked into only one manufacturer, what if they get in trouble? Then you might not have any good alternatives. So you need to find a balance. You want to support your manufacturer, but you also don’t want to be put in a position someday of having nowhere to go if something should happen to them.”

All things being equal, though, loyalty to a primary supplier makes sense. “Remember, different manufacturers have different colors and paint systems,” cautions Jackson. “You never want to burn your bridges because, the minute you decide to jump to another supplier, that’s exactly when last year’s customer will call you up and want to do another building this year.”

Rather than immediately jump ship when a supplier disappoints, Jackson counsels rural builders to try and work things out.

“Before your relationship with a supplier goes sour, you should get face-to-face with their management and try to get to the heart of the problem,” he advises. “If they can’t solve the problem, then you can start doing your homework and checking out other suppliers. But first, you should try to solve problems rather than run from them.”

Building relationships

As with any relationship, each party must do its part and hold its end of the bargain. For rural builders who purchase metal panels, that may mean some give-and-take between expecting quality service and knowing when to cut some slack.

Even with the best of relationships, Forrester acknowledges that problems are inevitable at some point.

“But what I appreciate about my supplier,” he reports “is they constantly monitor quality. They make follow-up calls to make sure everything is right and problems are resolved.” For his part, Taylor appreciates availability. “Whenever I pick up the phone to call,” he says, “someone is always there to answer.”

Timely response is also vital. “Our supplier trusts our report and immediately fixes the problem,” relates Vander Beek. “Whether it’s something they did — or we did — we can usually get what we need within the timeframe necessary to get the job done.” Knowing the supplier will devise a workable solution, he adds, “means that we don’t have to stop everything we’re doing and come up with a solution ourselves.”

Sometimes problems are neither the fault of the builder nor the supplier. As Taylor explains, “Metal producers are in rough waters these days with pricing and availability. We trust they’re doing the best they can. And it’s helpful that they give us 30-day notice when price increases are coming.”

Communication between both parties is vital. “We’re big on communication and loyalty to our vendors,” Taylor continues. “I can go out and find a cheaper panel, but price is not always the most important thing. Whenever there’s an issue, what’s important is having a supplier you can trust and knowing they’re going to take care of it. We’re in the business to build long-term relationship with customers and vendors. You should understand the value of loyalty in all aspects of your business.”

Building loyalty and trust takes effort on both sides but it is worth the time. “It’s not just about the lowest price,” counsels Jackson.

“Our panel supplier knows us on a one-on-one basis. They know we won’t take advantage of them by making unreasonable requests, and they reciprocate by being proactive in helping us when something comes up. For example, if they know delivery is going to be tight, then the shipping manager lets us know so that we can work together and find a solution.”

Greene advises rural builders to maintain their half of the relationship by keeping in touch with suppliers. Over time a builder’s business changes as it enters or leaves different markets, as finances grow or tighten, and as payrolls expand or contract. By letting key suppliers know of these changes, the suppliers can offer expertise and advice for evolving needs.

“A good relationship with a vendor goes both ways, and you have to communicate,” Green says. “If an issue arises I ask, ‘Can we do something better?’ The vendor appreciates when you take the initiative to partner with them, because it’s better for both parties.”

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