Jack of All Trades Or Master of One

Ulf Wolf

March 2009

The old adage about jack and the master suggests that the specialist and the generalist do not see eye to eye. It’s either one or the other. Or is it?

The specialist—whether a firm specializing in a market niche such as exterior insulation and finish systems or an employee specializing within a firm—is focused on this one discipline, is thoroughly trained in it, and with growing experience under the belt can soon perform it better than any generalist would ever hope to do.

The generalist, on the other hand, as a firm, enjoys a broader market and as a rule will see more bid opportunities. As an employee, the generalist is well rounded, has a broader—some say three-dimensional—view of how the various disciplines in his trade fit together, and, besides, can be called upon to help out and perform in many areas, often a boon for the employer.

For many, in assessing the pros and cons of specializing, it boils down to efficiency: Which approach yields the best results and sports the more impressive bottom line?

The Economy
Proponents for both camps argue their case well, and base their views on hard-won experience. But they are then quick to point out that the same rules may or may not apply in today’s economy.

"Specializing as a company is great in a robust economy, but in a slow one I think it’s deadly,” says Richard Riley of Simpson Commercial Contracting in Alabama.

"We are a specialty firm, and we see fewer opportunities in this economy since our products are not called for in every building drawn—unlike an electrician or a plumber, who is part of every job. Consequently, today we can only bid a small percentage of the jobs out there.

"When times are good, this doesn’t matter. There are more bid opportunities out there, and many of them call for our specialty.”

Shane Dickerson of Del Rio Drywall in Arizona could not agree more: "We only do metal studs and drywall, and we specialize in hotels, motels and apartments. There is not much call for that right now.”

William McPherson III of Central Ceilings in Massachusetts encounters the same situation. "It’s very difficult for an organization like mine to support a specialty that no longer finds sufficient traction to be viable. We offer some interior specialties that there is less and less call for in this economy. In fact, we are now dropping these services.

"You have to ask yourself whether you’re making enough to support a specialty. Some think that $500,000 a year is enough to support the effort, but I believe that if you can’t create a little $4-million to $5-million business within the business, it is very hard to field specialized labor and keep them working full-time.

"A specialty contractor, in my view, is someone who is in the business of practicing the specialty day in and day out, not once a week or once a month. There has to be sufficient activity to support promotional staff, estimators and project managers, as well as the labor side, to justify the specialty approach.”

Gabriel Castillo of Pillar Construction in New Hampshire has a similar take on this: "In this market, I don’t think specialization is good. To survive, you have to diversify, at least until the market picks up again. You must accommodate the market conditions. If my drywall market is slowing down, I must be able to move to texture coating.

"I believe that a contractor who can easily move from one specialty to another will do well; it’s a case of the survival of the fittest. In a down economy, specialization can kill you.”

Robert Aird of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland agrees: "In a bull market, when things are good and there is plenty of work, you should do what you do best; there is less trial and error with that, fewer mistakes and fewer learning lessons. You’re doing what you do well and at pace, and hopefully making good money.

"In a bear market, when residential contractors arrive to compete with you for the commercial jobs—just to have something to do—the work you specialize in is typically harder to get. That is when you need to expand your scope to ensure you have enough work coming in the door to feed the hungry.”

The Specializing Firm
Now, these economic conditions will not prevail. That is a given. The cyclic nature of the markets, for one, will see to that; the efforts of the new administration, and the will of the populace to change things around, for two. So, what rules apply in a better economy?

Bruce Miller of Denver Drywall Company in Colorado comes down on the side of specializing: "We do specialize. I guess it comes down to the old saying of ‘jack of all trades but master of none.’

"The legal side of things alone necessitate that we specialize. Today, if you go out and hire what might be referred to as day labor, or if you supply too many apprenticeship-grade workers to a job, you are probably asking for trouble. They will get the drywall up, no doubt, but is it installed as per plans and specifications, and as per manufacturer’s recommendations? Is it to code?

"I feel very strongly about specializing, especially for legal considerations. If you don’t do it right, you’ll end up with a lawsuit.

"We charge well for our work, and therefore the customer should receive well-qualified people. Are 100 percent of them going to be journeymen or master mechanics? No. But I think you need to work to get most of your people to really understand what it is we’re supposed to be specializing in—our main discipline—whether it be drywall, steel studs, acoustical ceilings, plaster or stucco. I believe those who ply those trades should be certified in them.”

Brian Mead of Commercial Builders in Florida specializes for another reason: "I am in the framing, drywall, stucco and EIFS business, but within that trade-family I like to specialize on the structural framing—the heavy gauge framing—as well as the EIF system. I find the profits to be greater there because when you’re dealing with the structural envelope of a building, there is less coordination needed amongst trades than when you’re doing interiors—there are simply fewer trades around.

"Once the structural steel is erected, they turn the building over to you and you can go to town. When you work the inside, you have to deal with plumbers, electricians, heating and air, a whole array of subs underfoot, lots of coordination.

"Typically, the heavy gauge metal used for curtainwall framing and roof trusses is a specialty area within the wall and ceiling industry that some tend to shy away from. I see a better bottom line on a structural stud than on a light-gauge stud.”

Rob Little of Little Construction in Greenfield, Ind., is taking specializing to some dizzying heights. "We are primarily an EIFS panelizer” he says. "So, since we do not chase the metal studs or drywall end, we do miss out on a lot of jobs that other AWCI contractors bid and work.

"But by being specialized we have, in my opinion, fewer headaches to deal with. We are in a niche where GCs—due to our reputation—will give us a better look than a more diversified company, even though our number might be higher. They assume that since we are more specialized and have more specialized workers—and experience—than our competition, we are going to do a better job. And they assume correctly.

"It’s true that things are getting more price-driven in this economy, so nowadays we have to work harder at convincing the owners and the GCs that they can not always go with the lowest bid. We’ve had to do some of that in the past, but even more so now that the banks have tightened up, and the owners have tightened up as well. It has hit us a little bit, but there are still enough fancy jobs out there to keep us busy.

"And you do see a lot of EIFS contractors out there who do not want to chase things like custom-brick, the metallic finishes, the granite-looking finishes. They don’t know how to price it right, or how to install it efficiently, and turn a profit doing so. We do.”

Russell Kenney of R.J. Kenney Associates in Massachusetts, a consultant, also sees specializing as the way to go: "We have found that firms that specialize more—say in the exteriors of buildings, or EIFS and all the waterproofing applications that go along with it—do better than firms that also do drywall and plaster. I’m not saying that the general firm cannot do it, but I’m saying that as a rule they are not as knowledgeable or efficient in a particular specialty.”

The Diversifying Firm Not all contractors, however, believe specializing is the way to go. Gail H. Johnson of Acousti Engineering in Florida has this to share: "When I joined this company in 1982, all it delivered was acoustical ceilings and flooring—period. At that time, I urged the board to diversify into metal framing, structural framing, drywall, stucco and EIFS.

"They agreed, and due to this diversification, the company grew very fast between 1982 and 1987, almost exponentially.

"Today, although the market and the industry are down, we do keep busy in the markets we are in. I believe this is because we are so diversified, and can and do many different things. We have grown into an interior/exterior finishes one-stop shop for owners, architects and contractors.

"If we were still only doing acoustical ceilings and floors we would be nowhere near as large as we are.”

Though Brian Whipple of Diversified Specialists in Idaho notes that his firm is, as the name implies, fairly diversified, he does see value in specializing as well. "For one, you become very good at what you do,” he says. "You probably do the work more efficiently because that is what you do full-time, and so you work very cost-effectively. However, the challenge then becomes keeping your crews consistently busy.

"We do not specialize much. Most of our people are cross-trained and well-rounded journeymen—and they are much easier to keep busy.”

The Specialist Employee

Another angle on specialization is whether employees of a firm—whether the firm as a whole is focused on one trade or is diversified—should wear more than one hat, or should instead concentrate on a single aspect of the trade.

Miller makes sure that his employees focus on one main discipline: "We ask our people as we take them on: ‘What are you good at, and what do you want to be in the future?’ And if he says he wants to be a rocker, then we note that and expect him to take further training or education in that field during the coming year to make himself a better rocker. That’s good for the customer, for the general contractor, and even makes the architects and designers look good.

"That said, we do have a certain amount of people who have learned different trades, and so can help out. Many of our rockers, for example, can also do some framing,” he says. "However, if you have some really complex framing to do, you probably would not want to call on the rockers, but would stick with your specialized framers.

"Same goes for our framers, a lot of them can do rudimentary acoustical grids. But when you start to frame clouds and such, you had better call on the acoustical ceiling specialist.

"So we do have people who are cross-trained in two or three of the trades, but that’s about it. They can work rudimentary jobs outside their specialty, but for the more difficult application you want the certified guy.”

Aird runs a specialized crew as well. "We have separate estimating and project management. But our estimators do have field experience. As an estimator you have to be able to see around corners and through walls and visualize the building three-dimensionally, because it is so easy to miss a return or a soffit, if you are, for instance, only looking at elevations. So, having experience in the field gives the estimator a much better perspective on the job.”

Although the diversified Whipple also runs separate estimators and project managers, he makes the excellent point that what it boils down to is the personality and skills of the people you work with. "To me it comes down to your personnel. If you have very good estimators, who are not necessarily excellent project managers as well, then why not have them estimate full-time? That is the case with us.

"Also, our project managers are exceptionally good project managers, but perhaps not as good at estimating, so they project-manage.

"Now, I have been with companies where it has made sense to combine those functions because they were good at both—or good enough at both—and so it worked.

"The point is, you should gear this to the people you have.”

The Generalist Employee
Johnson is a firm believer of more well-rounded staff: "I would rather have someone who has some knowledge about how the parts and pieces come together—be it a wall system or a ceiling system—or who has more of a three-dimensional view of things, than a specialist who might only know about, say, a ceiling system and is therefore thinking more in a flat plane and not about how things interact.

"As an example,” Johnson continues, "in our firm every estimator is also a project manager, and a salesman and a trouble-shooter; they each wear three to five hats. Each of our project managers—and we have more than 100 across the country—will literally find the sale, pick up the plans, take it off and estimate the job. They will then put together the pricing and the proposals, close the deal, shake the hand, get the contract, and then go project-manage the job.

"It’s almost like having 100 or so businesses within our business, each of them knowing they will do or die based on what they bring to a project.

"Also, when someone sits down in a post-bid scope review and talks to our guys, we cannot only address acoustical ceilings, but can also address the drywall, and the metal studs, and the floors; it’s the breadth and depth of our guys that make this company.

"That said, there probably is a time and a place for a specialist, if that is what the person wants to become. You would accommodate that.”

Castillo agrees with the generalist approach: "When I estimate, I’d like to see the project as a whole. In order to arrive at the correct price, I have to know what’s involved on the site, how to set up the scaffolding, and so on; I must have some field experience to be a good estimator.

"Some drawn things cannot be built, but unless you have field experience, you will not spot that.”

Mead feels that his operation is too small to deploy specialized staff. "I have one estimator and one project manager in the office, and they both multi-task,” he says. "I do both of those jobs, too, as well as sales. Also, the best guy to project manage the job is obviously the guy who estimated it.” Seeing Eye to Eye In difficult times, few can afford to stick to a single specialty—though there are exceptions. As a rule, however, you take the work you can get to tide you over. Once the housing market revives, you are again free to focus on one discipline, if you so choose, and do it better than anyone else does. And when it comes to our trade, it does seem like jack and the master may see eye to eye after all, on this one thing: If you do specialize as an employee, it would not be a bad idea to also cross-train in neighboring disciplines, at least up to a rudimentary skill, and so become a specialist who is not only a master, but is also well aware of, and working with, the bigger picture.

And if you do specialize as a company, you may still want to diversify, at least to some extent, so that you can land any type of wall and ceiling job—when you’re in a pinch.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho–based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images.