Glass tile continues its stellar rise in popularity, but installation can be tricky. Now may be a great time to learn the intricacies of this fast growing segment. (Photo courtesy of Hakatai Glass)

While my focus usually is installation and technical issues, this time we are going to get personal. As you may know, for many years prior to my current position as Technical Director for CTEF I was a tile contractor. Through necessity in our area, this included a retail operation and a warehouse facility for both residential and commercial accounts. Our business started three years before gas rationing in 1974, followed by a recession in 1979-80, and experienced several additional downturns in the mid 80’s and early 90’s.

There were some rough patches, but through it all we never had to lay off any staff.  For many, the current market conditions are the worst ever, but rest assured those of us that have been around awhile have weathered this storm before. The new home construction market has yet to hit bottom. The days of easy money-in some cases as easy as being the first to show-up on a job in a subdivision-are gone for awhile.

Historically, the construction industry has always been feast or famine. Our latest run of construction feasting was one of the longest ever seen. As the downturn continues the fallout will reach all segments of the market. That is indeed unfortunate, but ultimately the cream will rise to the top. In the end, the survivors will have learned new tricks, skills, and techniques that will help lead them to a less bumpy road in the future.

A recent meeting of the National Tile Contractors Association provided me an opportunity to talk with tile contractors from across the country as well as a number of major manufacturers.  Volume may be down for many and profits may be falling, but only a few were complaining. Surprisingly, many I spoke with were upbeat.  What’s their secret? Diversity! Seasoned pros know this business is highly cyclic. Historically the residential market leads ceramic tile sales. In a fast paced market, as recently as a few years ago, new homes lead that sector. As the economy cools, remodeling starts to dominate the residential market. Even with this redistribution you typically see a slowdown in the overall residential sector. But there is also an increase in the commercial sector. Commercial and residential remodeling work always seems to increase in a depressed new home construction market. These segments require a different skill set than new home construction jobs. There is substantially more risk in both bidding and job execution when you do remodeling work, but the risk means  higher profit margins for the true pro. Knowledge and experience means profit in these sectors.

But remember, your competitors are not likely to help you in your quest to expand your horizons. Good qualified help has always been hard to find. So what’s the answer?   Education! There is no substitute for experience, but with the right training you can get way ahead of the curve by taking some courses.NFTlists numerous educational opportunities in every issue and our parent company, Business News Publishing, is a strong advocate of educational process. This is why training organizations are invited to publish their offerings free of charge. I have been at the education game for some time now and not once in the past decade have I heard someone say attending an educational session was a waste of time. Certainly it is not possible to be all things to all people, so for each individual experience the mileage will vary to some degree. It is also true the No. 1 reason for not attending is “I don’t have time.”  But if things are slow, don’t you have a little more time available than you used to? Now is the time to learn about new technologies, products, and methods. This way you can take full advantage of the work that is available. Everyday we hear from people looking for qualified help.

Beyond this, the second biggest contribution to a profitable future is networking. This is especially true for the smaller retailer, contractor, or installer. Become active in trade groups that can help you improve your knowledge and skills. Join a local organization likely to appeal to your customer base. I have found this type of networking to be immensely effective. You gain exposure and learn about profitable jobs.  This may not fit every business model, but when I had the tile business we spent our entire advertising budget supporting local organizations and their causes. We developed many very loyal customers. If you are not in a position to contribute, attend local events and volunteer to assist their efforts. We developed many great business relationships, some of whom my successors still enjoy today.

None of this will guarantee you work tomorrow. A check will not suddenly appear because you took these steps. But, trust me, nurturing your career with both knowledge and relationships will pay off in the end. Now is the time to grow both. Make the sacrifice, do it wisely and you will assure yourself a stable and profitable future. More importantly, you will be well equipped to weather the business dips that we will no doubt see again.