The global pandemic has changed the way that you do business. Although there have been a lot of changes, there have also been encouraging developments including a growing population, low inventories for new and existing homes, rock-bottom mortgage rates, and surging older buyers. These are all things builders should be excited about.
For example, homebuyer demand easily outpaces the number of homes for sale, which explains stable home prices. Perhaps most encouraging for homebuilders, the marketplace for existing homes plummeted 24 percent for the 12-month period ending in April, as prospective sellers elected to stay put.
Even with positive fundamentals, the fog of pandemic uncertainty leaves many builders with understandable concerns.
How are your peers keeping projects rolling? What can you learn from others about business practices that are quietly reshaping how business is done? This report put those questions and others to three respected industry voices:
- Shawn Van Dyke. A Knoxville, Tenn.– based construction business coach. Van Dyke is a former general contractor and construction company executive.
- Rob Wollemann. A senior business leader focused on contractor support for building product manufacturer JELD-WEN.
- Jonathan Smith. Smith owns and operates Brush Arbor Homes, a Northern Virginia–based builder specializing in higher-end custom homes.
Discover how their experience compares or contrasts with your own. You may be surprised by what they have to say and what it could mean for you in the days ahead.
Meet Shawn Van Dyke
Shawn Van Dyke has a very clear message for every homebuilder who resists fully integrating online communication into their operation.
If the pandemic has taught the construction industry anything, it’s the power of virtual connections. Van Dyke should know. The respected construction business coach, mentor, author, and speaker has made it his life’s calling to help homebuilders, remodelers, and contractors run their business as effectively as they’ve mastered their trade. His company, Built to Build, works closely with hundreds of construction industry professionals on doing just that, even in a pandemic.
Take Loom, a video software tool that he’s a big fan of. “It’s a Google Chrome extension. It’s free. I use it a lot to communicate with my customers and clients,” Van Dyke explains. “They send me an email. I just turn on Loom and shoot them back a video message because it’s faster and the communication is clearer. If I’m trying to be funny, they can see that. There’s no confusion about meaning.”
That’s one communication application. Van Dyke sees many more. “Video is everything for a business right now. A lot of business owners say, ‘I know, I know. I should be doing more videos for my website or marketing.’ You should also be doing videos for your employees, communicating with them and training them. There’s no reason why you can’t have training videos for every process and system.”
Van Dyke says that’s just the beginning. Video-everywhere and other online tools will soon transform the entire builder-customer relationship, especially in the early stages.
“Customers have changed. They don’t want you in their homes,” Van Dyke observes. “You better have a smooth, step-by-step process to work with them without meeting.”
So how do you get smart quickly with technologies you may know nothing about? Which smartphone apps are best for you? Van Dyke has a can’t-miss suggestion: Ask a young person.
“Find someone under 25 and ask them. I’m serious. If it’s a younger employee, I know you may think, ‘They don’t have that much experience. We’re training them.’ Trust me on this technology stuff,” Van Dyke says. “They may be young, but they’re very, very valuable. They’re using the apps you need.
“Take them out to lunch. Ask, ‘How would you improve company communication?’ Listen for about an hour. Then do exactly what they say.”
One of those ideas you’ll likely hear from a young advisor is podcasting—recorded audio chats you can download and listen to at any time, such as on the way to a jobsite or supplier. “Podcasting is huge. A lot of companies now use podcasting to train their people on leadership skills, business processes, and continuous improvement topics,” Van Dyke says.
Because Van Dyke works with clients across the country, he finds it tough to generalize about pandemic safety regulations. The U.S. is a quilt pattern of jobsite safety mandatories, varying by state, county, or other jurisdictions. How can a builder, general contractor, or other responsible official limit liability if, God forbid, someone got sick on their watch?
“I recommend clients observe what their trade association, like the National Association of Home Builders, says or the CDC and OSHA. What they say should be your policy. That way you can say, ‘We’re doing the best we can with the information available. This is our policy. It may be inconvenient but it’s the right thing to do,’” he advises.
It may be tough to find a silver lining in a global event that has shattered business as usual. If there is one, Van Dyke believes it will be communication and a financial cushion for the next downturn.
“The construction industry will be better from this. It already is. We’re getting more efficient and better at communication. It may mean telling a prospect ‘I’m not driving across town to meet you’ because there are now virtual ways to meet. You don’t have to be the bad guy. Put the blame on company policy,” he smiles.
Meet Rob Wollemann
Have you or a family member experienced telemedicine yet?
It’s standard operating procedure for most physicians these days. The contactless, smartphone-powered idea hasn’t gone unnoticed by building product manufacturers. Pandemic-proof field support is the big idea behind JELD-WEN’s new OnSite app (available for iOS and Andriod devices). Think of it as telemedicine for windows and doors. The app can help shave days, even weeks off thorny window and door installation issues, helping accelerate closings even during a pandemic.
The app works like this: When a service contractor, like a door or window installer, faces an issue that may result in a warranty claim, a link is texted to the contractor’s smartphone. The link opens the OnSite app. The app allows an expert JELD-WEN service technician to use the contractor’s smartphone camera to virtually inspect the product issue in real time, such as zooming in or out for a better view. The app does not allow the tech to access any stored data on the smartphone.
The app also supports visual aids, like drawing arrows and circles on the screen to better pinpoint critical locations for the contractor. The OnSite session can also be recorded and played back as a handy training aid.
There’s no extra cost to the contractor for this practical, high-touch service. The nation’s two leading building material retailers are now testing it out along with several homebuilders.
Rob Wollemann, director of customer care for JELD-WEN, is optimistic OnSite will check all the boxes and gain wide acceptance across the contractor community. “Our techs basically do two types of work,” Wollemann says. “They inspect and make actual repairs. Before OnSite, it might take two weeks for a tech to show up, determine what needs to happen, order the replacement part, and come back to make the repair. Our goal is to streamline the process and eliminate the inspection step entirely.”
This logistical shortcut has obvious value during a pandemic when lockdown orders may prohibit JELD-WEN techs from visiting a jobsite. It also represents an obvious benefit to an industry struggling with a skilled worker shortage. OnSite could serve as a speedy, trusted backstop for installation contractors new to window or door installation. Many dealers also like the idea of product manufacturers doing more to support their pro customers.
“Three years ago, I was in the process of moving from Oregon to Chicago. The moving company suggested I get out my smartphone and walk the camera through my home—‘We can do this remotely,’ they told me. I had my quote in a couple hours. I never forgot that efficiency and speed,” Wollemann says.
In a bit of magical timing, Wollemann teamed with the developer behind OnSite in the fall of 2019. “We imagined we’d use 2020 to methodically test and tweak the app with a release planned for later in the year,” Wollemann says. Enter the pandemic. Wollemann says the new normal has accelerated adoption, in much the same way telemedicine is now accepted in American households.
Early results suggest this may be an inflection point for virtual field support. “One builder had to replace some window sash and couldn’t close the home until the parts were replaced. We weren’t authorized to do the work because of COVID-19. We used OnSite to virtually assist installation,” he says.
For homebuilders, the promise of OnSite signals a logical progression in existing technology, freeing contractors from the frustrations of lengthy waits or risky contact. It’s telemedicine for your windows and doors.
Meet Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith knows all about tough times. After all, he started his custom homebuilding business in 2007—not a great time for a start-up. “I was able to work through it with decks and small additions,” says the Brush Arbor Homes owner.
He emerged intact and now stands as a top high-end homebuilder in the fast-growing Northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C. How does he cope with today’s challenges?
He tries to take each pivot in stride. He knows it’s a shakedown period for everyone. “The timeline for projects has lengthened, especially on the finish end where the walls are in and there’s not much open air. We do one trade at a time. Even then, we tell the subs to spread out within the house. We spent a good bit of money on masks. Each of my project managers hands out masks to the guys on-site with instructions to wear them. They do, for the most part,” he reports.
He’s seen improvisation throughout all links of the building chain, including inspections and permits.
“Local counties have been forced to transition to all-electronic permitting and plan submission, which was overdue anyway,” he explains. “Inspections are now generally by FaceTime. They’ll say, ‘Let’s inspect the trusses’ and you’ll show them a couple of truss numbers. Our guys show them insulation and stuff like that. Other times the finals is based on trust, like ‘Is the hot water hot when you test it?’ They know us from back to ’09 and ’10, longer than a lot of the companies around here.”
Smith has doubled down on Brush Arbor Homes’ future by hiring. The new employee addresses a worrisome gap in his company’s development strategy—marketing.
“I’m not a social media guy,” Smith confesses. “Up to now, the marketing was basically me. Our new marketing hire does a lot of Instagram stuff and takes videos of me talking about the business. I’m not used to it, but I know it has to be done. These days you can’t depend on just your reputation. You need to mix social media style with substance.
“We view social media marketing as a chance to compete for jobs we may not be aware of. We normally don’t take on remodeling additions. We will in the right situation, and now is the right situation,” Smith says.
No builder can advance without trusted suppliers. Smith cuts his partners plenty of slack, knowing they face the same uncertainty as his company does, at least for the near-term.
“Most of our suppliers say double the lead time on materials. Our cabinet supplier is a small company out of Minnesota, and they shut down 50 percent of their workforce. That was already at five to six weeks. You just have to plan better,” he says.
He does single out one supplier by name for special mention: “At the end of the day, I want a company that stands behind their product just like we do. I want backup service and support when needed. I don’t want to be nickel and dimed. That’s why we use JELD-WEN.
“We use JELD-WEN windows on every house unless an architect specifies another manufacturer. Even then, they often ask us who we prefer and they switch to JELD-WEN. We use JELD-WEN W-2500™ and Siteline® Series windows mostly and their large quad sliding doors on pretty much every house,” he explains.
The road ahead isn’t always clear. It’s good to know he has new and old friends cheering him on. “There’s a local custom builder council,” Smith recounts. “We have a good relationship with all the big players. I’ll talk to three or four of them at different times. We talk about the small business loans and what they’re seeing and doing.
“When times are tough, we band together and help each other.”
Partners You Can Trust
No one knows what lies ahead in the next 90 days, much less next year and beyond. Construction jobsite safety practices and business strategies will continue to evolve and help reshape the homebuilding industry. For now, it’s wise to identify trusted partners that have your back in the days ahead.
Everyone at JELD-WEN stands ready to assist you in this difficult time. Trust us to support you with the quality products, local dealers, service, and performance that you can count on today and tomorrow. Stay well, be safe.