Rewarding Relationships
Rewarding Relationships

Incredible, simply incredible. That’s what I kept saying to myself as I sat in the theater room of the National Aquarium in Baltimore watching the video slideshow of the remarkable project photos entered into NADRA’s 2018 contest. Every single owner, salesperson, designer, carpenter and helper who was involved with each entry should be applauded for their wonderful projects. In my book they were all winners, top-notch work, and absolutely everyone there is to be commended for their effort. I for one picked up at least half a dozen or more new design and material ideas. I highly recommend anyone interested in levating their repertoire to take a few minutes to go on NADRA’s site and watch the video.

As I sat there in awe, typing notes into my phone as fast as I could, one thing I noticed was the number of decking brands being utilized by craftsmen from all over North America. There were colors and combinations many of us would never dream of using. I also noted an amazing number of new decking brands, styles, patterns, textures, materials and colors displayed at this year’s Expo. I could have spent a third day walking the floor and chatting with reps and still wouldn’t have finished meeting everyone. This was quite possibly the best best DeckExpo I have ever attended.

With all these decking options, my brain was on overload. Truth be told, many builders pick one or two specific brands to work with, gain a certain amount of familiarity, develop a comfort level, and stick with them throughout the year. Sometimes this is a result of what our local dealer stocks or is pushing; suppliers can dictate what becomes popular in a town, development or market area. Many guys I speak with pick products and brands that are “stock” items so there is relatively no lead time, returns are accepted, and we don’t hear those dreaded terms like “restocking fee,” “back order,” or—even worse—“special order,” which is code for “this is going to cost you a lot more.”

Another reason to stick with a specific brand or product is that for you, it has a great track record. Profitability is good, call backs are at a minimum (or, better yet, nonexistent), and the manufacturer has a great warranty policy. Personally, to me a warranty isn’t the deciding factor. I don’t want to know how good the warranty is; I want to know I’ll never need to take them up on it, because the product is a great performer (but it is nice to know that many of the manufacturers today have a labor warranty to back their product to help offset lost time).

A lot of deck specialists abhor the idea of being dictated to by others; we are alphas and want to create the options from which we make our own decisions. Therefore, one way we try to stay in control of our destiny is to meet with our local supplier every fall and discuss some of the options before they jump into their  winter buys.” Our supplier likes to know what’s trending for us, what we’re interested in, what colors our clients are leaning towards, and the brands that are getting hot. Obviously, they know what they are currently moving, but it gives all of us a chance to set the stage for the following spring. They may tell me what they won’t be stocking or we might ask them to stock something we have been hesitant to push or sell because it wasn’t in stock.

We have cultivated a phenomenal relationship with Paul, the president of the yard we use; we have breakfast or lunch once a month and discuss the latest trends. Getting in step with the lumberyard during the winter can save you a barrel of money come spring time when you are putting in those 90-plus hour work weeks, ordering materials a couple days before the project starts and expecting them to have everything in stock. Avoid that migraine-inducing call informing you that your decking is on back order and they can’t meet your deadline.

Some products we use will never be items that our supplier will carry in bulk and we wouldn’t dream of asking them to sit on a huge inventory. Therefore, we have worked it out that they will keep a minimal amount on hand, and we guarantee to purchase the material. Right now we have about half a dozen products like that. This way it doesn’t become special order and we don’t have to constantly order supplies ahead of time. If suppliers can make our lives easier we are more likely to stay loyal. Not all lumberyards feel this way, but ours does, so we have a steadfast relationship with each other.

While we are in the winter months, we discuss winter buys with our suppliers so we’re ready to hit the spring season running.

Another aspect of of our decking that’s worth looking into is strengthening our relationships with our decking manufacturers’ sales reps. Most of the manufacturers offer a great deal more than just decking, railing and trim. These reps are usually more than happy to do whatever they can to develop your business, keep you well informed on new products, specials, trends, plant tour opportunities, and of course manufacturer rewards. Just about every major manufacturer has a contractor rewards program aimed at generating a certain level of brand loyalty. Most of these are really good, incentive- and tierbased opportunities, and they genuinely want you to take advantage of all you can. Some are lead generating, but more so they are financial rebates that reimburse the contractors for their allegiance to that particular brand. We are on first name basis with most of the major brand reps in our area—Lauren, Matt, Jimmy, Bryan and the one we deal with most, John Scarborough. He goes out of his way to meet with us at least once a month, coffee and a danish or a good bowl of jambalaya go a long way to putting a face, name and product together. John makes sure we have every sample and all the literature we need to properly represent his product. He and Hilary Bliss make sure all of our invoices are correctly entered and we receive the proper rewards for our efforts.

Once you generate these business contacts, the reps are also more than willing to work with you on co-marketing assistance, some cross-branding, and other opportunities that put both you and that product in front of the consumer. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your rep and ask for assistance. Occasionally, the manufacturers will even post photos of your work on their websites.

Take the time now to get set up with all of the decking manufacturers, make sure you are registered, follow up on all of last year’s rewards, and get educated on next year’s programs. Look into those early season co-marketing funds and get ready to greet 2019 like the spectacular year it’s shaping up to become.

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Helping hands
Helping hands

Generally speaking, we set the standard and the foundation for excellence every day when we go to work. Then when the opportunity presents itself, we will have laid the ground work to elevate ourselves to the next level. For small- or medium-sized family businesses, the slightest bit of a helping hand can make all the difference in the world. We must therefore be prepared to acknowledge and accept the little snippets of wisdom when they come our way. Here are a few examples:

One night a few years back, sitting at the computer returning emails, I saw an email from a fastener manufacturer. Like many, I’d usually hit delete, but for some reason I read this one. Inside was a short online product survey. Since we used their products, I took a few minutes to complete and submit it. At the end, a free T-shirt was offered as a thank you. A couple weeks later, the manufacturer logo’ed shirt arrived in the mail. In the box was a note asking that if I had any nice projects being completed using their product, to please take a photo of myself at the job wearing the shirt, and send it on in. The shirt was thrown under the back seat of the truck and forgotten.

A month or so later, upon tightening up a jobsite, soaked and filthy, I was in need of a clean shirt. Out came the box, the T-shirt, and the note. What the heck, the job wasn’t bad, so I put the shirt on and snapped off a couple pics displaying FastenerMaster’s “Pride in Craftsmanship” slogan. This was a Friday night While loading the other job photos onto the computer, this photo popped up. Hey, why not send it in? By 8 a.m. Saturday morning, an email came back from Janet Blake asking about the project and if I had any interest in participating in a new video series. Sure, what do we have to lose? Janet guided us through the process and made it an extremely comfortable experience. It was an absolute succeess.

So the long and the short of it: the video was shot, and sales skyrocketed. Clients were calling, commenting on the video. People were loving it. The photo showed up on the banner in their booth at the very next DeckExpo. Unbelievable. What more could you ask for? All of this positive growth started by a single innocuous survey response, an email, and a shirt. An opportunity nine out of 10 people most likely ignored. To be honest, one we may have ignored a dozen or more times ourselves.

Fast forward a couple years. Sitting in an airport, there’s a guy wearing a Diamond Decks shirt. Being a NADRA member and former Contracor Spotlight of the Month, the company name was immediately recognizable. My fi rst thought was, “Hey, I need to meet this guy.” After introductions, a fast friendship was born. Even though work territories overlap, this gentleman, Bill Zinnert, had absolutely no reservations about passing on knowledge, ideas and advice on things that have helped make him successful. That type of idea sharing is what NADRA is all about. But it’s also mutual respect with your industry peers. Bill’s sharing of his insight gave the push that was needed to raise my business to another level. Not only did Bill freely share advice, but he pulled out his phone to show photographic examples. Examples like the use of drone photography, wrapping vehicles, how to cultivate the funds for it, better organizing your day to accomplish more in less time, and creating a better quality of life. Wow, talk about paying it forward. We should all be so fortunate to fi nd a mentor like this.

Again, most deck specialists are incredible visionaries, designers and craftsmen, but at times we tend to get caught in our own bubble. We love what we do and tend to work so darn hard that we don’t always take the proper steps to create better lives for ourselves and our families. When that helping hand is extended to us, we don’t always recognize it for what it is and we move past it. You should never be afraid or too proud to accept it.

So as we head into the fall months, with Thanksgiving right around the corner, I want to take a second to thank all of the folks out there who have graciously and selfl essly taken that moment to mentor, coach and extend the gift of knowledge to the next generation of deck specialists. After all, every builder has had to come up through the ranks, take their lumps, and learn from their mistakes. Each of us met that person or crew leader who taught us the ropes and tricks of the trade. We also needed that person to help with the business side of the industry. It’s our turn to be that person.

If you have any questions, ideas or photos you wish to share, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Bright ideas on low voltage
Bright ideas on low voltage

Setting the Standard in Excellence is not just a catch phrase—it’s a belief. It’s not meant to evoke a sense of competition, rather a philosophy on how we conduct ourselves on a daily basis. Every day we’re given opportunities to Set the Standard. Whether it’s with prospects, other businesses, while on the jobsite, or driving our company vehicles, we are leaving an impression. It also encompasses how we treat our team members and the trickle-down effect our attitude has on those around us.

Professionalism, courtesy, respect, pride in craftsmanship, being responsive, standing behind our work, proudly displaying our membership with NADRA or your local building association are all statements about how we want to be perceived by our peers. Using better materials, taking a few extra steps to increase structural integrity, or keeping a tidy jobsite are examples of how we can be Setting the Standard. Ultimately, it’s about being better than we were yesterday and spreading that belief throughout our organizations.

When we market our companies, we are seeking to set ourselves apart from a prospect’s other options. As we present our projects, we all have special key points we believe make us the “best” choice. We continuously seek out ways to stay ahead of the competition with design features, board patterns, inlays, transitions, picture frame borders, and lighting, to name just a few.

As I sat fascinated by the award-winning decks from the NADRA deck contest that were on display in the last issue of Deck Specialist magazine, one feature consistently caught my eye. It was so recurring I actually started keeping track of it. LIGHTING. Yes, lighting. The majority of the winning decks showcased some sort of lighting. Whether it was underrail, post cap, post sleeve, stair riser, or landscape lighting, it made each one of those projects stand out. Lighting is a relatively inexpensive way to have your deck literally shine above the others in a neighborhood, making your projects a focal point for all to see.

I'm a huge fan of deck lighting. In this day and age of plug-and-play wiring systems that take all of five minutes to figure out, it’s a no brainer. We all remember a time when deck lighting was nothing short of a migraine waiting to happen. Electricians were required to do the wiring. Fixtures cost a king’s ransom, and if you or one of your crew weren’t electrical savvy, the project’s completion could be held up waiting for other tradesman to perform that portion of the deck. Then we moved to the early days of low voltage, with transformers the size of a bread box. Bulky wires, massive fixtures, and a tremendous amount of cutting. What takes a couple hours now would require an entire day for completion. Times have changed.

Today we have low-voltage LED fixtures, easy-connect wiring, and fixtures so easy to install that the project can be delegated to a laborer. Wires are thin and inconspicuous, connectors are basic and simple.

There are a vast number of lighting systems available in today’s marketplace. Developing a relationship with one or two manufacturers can become an essential tool going forward. For example, last summer while in the middle of a project, we had a client that really wanted a different shade of bulb. I called the manufacturer; they custom-made the product we needed and got it to us on short notice. We didn’t lose a days work. Everyone liked it so much that it has become a standard item for the manufacturer, and our local supplier is now keeping it in stock. That was service you can’t get from just an anonymous voice on the phone.

You are no longer stuck with that harsh white bulb that puts off an almost purplish blue hue at 6,000 Kelvin. The 3,000 Kelvin bulbs are a softer yellow, easier on the eyes. On another note, LEDs don’t emit heat and therefore don’t attract nearly as many bugs as an incandescent bulb—another great selling point.

Our fixture options vary more than ever before. Today, white, tan and black post cap lights are just the tip of the iceberg. With codes requiring stairs to be illuminated, it’s a great opportunity to offer clients a plethora of colors, styles, sizes and shapes—starting with the new micro- and mini-fixture riser lights or the more standard riser lights or side lights with interchanging diffusers to recessed round lights.

From there we can step up to all sorts of post sleeve lights, round, half round, dome, flat or square. We have several under-rail lighting choices. You can get under-rail lighting in strips that appear to have continuous or intermittent bulbs. They can be attached under either the top rail lighting up the railing system or under the bottom rail creating a beautiful glow along the decking surface.

Another great, inexpensive lighting strategy is incorporating the round recess lights into the surface of the deck along the railing. You can set them between the posts, which is really nice when you have post cap or post sleeve lights. They take almost no time to install and with the super easy splitters wiring is a snap.

Another unique feature is to install some lighting on the outside of the deck. When building a deck with a picture frame border the lights tuck nicely up under the overhanging board. It’s especially nice on low level decks. It allows the clients to highlight some landscaping features. They can also add a distinctive elegance to an upper level deck. It’s a subtle, low-cost way to really make your deck shine.

Please note that there are many great brand options on the market. It’s not my intention to push one over the other. My only advice is to start simple so you can get acclimated to installing lights on your projects and expand from there, dabbling in more complex projects. In my experience, the engineers, designers and field reps of many lighting manufacturers are more than willing to walk you through any issues that arise from an installation. We have even experienced examples of when they were willing to visit a site to ensure proper installation and operation or to help diagnose an issue.

A lot of people hate installing post cap or post sleeve lights on a deck with basic white vinyl post sleeves because of the additional work involved (ripping a corner or dadoing a groove in the post and then fishing the wires through the groove and blocking). This can be time consuming and aggrivating. A great solution is to use steel surface-mount rail posts. Not only do they have on average three times the strength of a 4x4 wood post, they are hollow. Prior to bolting them down, just drill a 1-inch hole through the deck and the solid blocking below—now wiring is a snap. In 30 seconds, you’re finished and life is good.

Every year the lighting industry evolves. This year transformers are making huge leaps into the tech world. We already have internal programmable timers, key fob-mounted dimmer switches, photo eyes that can be moved to different locations, and the ability to integrate different brands of LED lights into one system. Now manufacturers are coming out with transformers that will indicate if there’s a short somewhere in the system and at least one that is Bluetooth enabled, so you can sync it to your smartphone to program and control the lights.

With a little imagination and willingness to step outside of our comfort zones, low-voltage LED lighting is an easy way to stand out above the rest and really make a bold statement about being a custom builder.

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Draw on artistic details
Draw on artistic details

In today’s revitalized economy and marketplace, most contractors have experienced a surge in business, and with this ever-changing landscape in outdoor living products, our only limitations are our imaginations. By nature, many deck specialists are artists and craftsman searching for ways to hone their skills and take their reptutations to the next level.

Five years ago, when a client was asked what was more important, price or design, the common response was, “I’m on a limited budget and just need a place to put my grill, a table, and some chairs.” Conversely, today’s clients are seeking a little more flair and pizzazz out of their outdoor living space. Size, lower maintenance, multiple colors, picture frame borders, and other amenities have become hot ticket items.

As business has picked up, so has the volume of competition, and deck specialists everywhere are fi nding new and better ways to separate themselves from the unimaginative masses. Today’s composite and PVC manufacturers have made this a rather simple process, requiring only a little research and creativity. They are producing boards that have the option of solid or multichromatic coloring, providing contractors and their clientele a vast array of design and price options. One of the simplest and most visually appealing of these options will be the picture frame border, whether it’s a single, double or triple, allowing designers to incorporate contrasting accent colors at very little expense.

With straight decking, the average crew can add this feature to a project in 30 minutes or less; in almost no time at all you’ve created a wow factor that will set you well above your competition. On larger decks, that border can be incorporated into transition boards or inlays between decking patterns, allowing the craftsman to eliminate unsightly butt joints. As one example, creative contractors are going from an octagonal corner on a deck to completing the visual outline into the deck pattern with the border board giving the appearance of a full octagon without having to change levels and losing useful deck space.

Going a step further, that same accent color can be incorporated into a deck board rail cap feature. Clients will thank you for being forward thinking and providing them with a place to set plates, drinks and other implements on their railings. Our experience has even shown examples of the border colors being used as the stair treads, really tying the deck and colors together.

A good approach is to offer it as an option when presenting your initial base design. When clients see how much nicer your deck will be for only a few dollars more, you already have a leg up on the competition. You have displayed a uniqueness that others are either unwilling or incapable of providing. 

After all, you are Deck Specialists and should continue to "Set the Standard in Excellence."

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Brendan Casey Deck Contractor and Builder serving Frederick Maryland and surrounding areas Brendan Casey of Casey Fence and Deck has over 35 years of experience in construction and helps fulfill the growing need for creative, custom and long lasting outdoor living spaces. Casey Fence and Deck has received multiple awards for their decks and Brendan has had several articles published.