Specialty Contractors Carve a Niche in Excellence

David Hunt

December 2007

Specialty contractors in the wall and ceiling industry are building an excellent reputation with larger firms by carving out a niche of their own.

John Wade, CEO of Performance Exteriors Systems, Louisville, Ky., said his firm specializes in exterior stucco and exterior insulation and finish systems. Wade started working in the field with drywall, but eventually moved to plaster and outdoor wall systems. He worked with tools for 10 years before forming the company 14 years ago.

Today, Performance Exteriors employs six crews and 55 to 60 people. Wade said the company is one of only three or four in the region that specializes in EIFS and exterior stucco work.

"Other companies aren’t working with these materials very much, and can’t perform this kind of work,” Wade said. "We do it fast, clean and right. You can lose a lot of time if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Wade said higher profit margins and less competition are two prime advantages of specializing in EIFS. He also cited the need for a small office staff as another advantage of specializing. In addition, Wade said the $40,000 to $50,000 needed for insurance creates a barrier to any company that is less than serious about entering the EIFS business. Rather than purchase the insurance, many larger contractors would rather subcontract with his firm.

Wade said Performance Exteriors gets quite a bit of repeat business from hotel and restaurant chains, as well as from general contractors, and larger wall and ceiling operations. As far as marketing, Wade’s customers are serviced through a Web site, located on the Internet at www.performanceexterior.com. He also occasionally sends letters to potential commercial clients when work starts to get slow.

"I’m getting referrals from all over the place,” Wade said. "At some point I would like to track where all of our business is coming from.”

Wade said the company’s work on EIFS and exterior stucco demands the highest level of quality. He said each of the firm’s employees is certified to perform the work they’re involved in, and that training on new and existing wall systems has been critical since the business began. "I often tell potential customers, it is better to pay a little more up front and get it done right,” Wade said. "Repairing a project costs a lot more down the road.”

Wade said $25,000 of work done improperly could easily turn into $100,000 in repairs.

Typically this would involve pulling away rotten wood, wall material and damaged windows. Wade should know. His firm is frequently referred to customers by window and material manufacturers when there’s a problem. In fact, he said 25 to 30 percent of the firm’s work revolves around some type of repair.

"Our work really comes down to details,” Wade said. "Many times a larger contractor won’t perform this kind of work very often. But it is so critical to get the details installed properly—especially window flashing and ground-level work. This kind of work would take a firm unfamiliar it many hours and close supervision to get it done. Since we work with this material all the time, most contractors would rather have us do the work.”

From a technical standpoint, Wade said he first installs a waterproof coating around the exterior of a house, adding a complete layer of protection.

Tips from an Expert
Jason Lamprey, president of J.L. Plastering, Webster, Mass., said his firm specializes in high-end, residential interior plastering. Like Performance Exteriors, his company also works on a smaller number of EIFS and exterior stucco projects.

Lamprey does not spend a lot of time looking over plan drawings in his business. Much of the company’s work is bid on-site, just prior to completing their interior plastering work.

"Connecticut construction features a lot of drywall, but here in Massachusetts, almost all interior residential work is constructed using plaster walls,” Lamprey said. "We focus all our effort on learning about plaster and how it works.”

Accounting for his firm’s level of experience, Lamprey said a key supervisor has worked with plaster for more than 20 years, while two crew members have gained nine and 10 years of experience with the material.

Lamprey has learned a lot of practical knowledge on the job over the past 16 years. His tips include adding sugar to a plaster mix in order to get rid of the "alligator skin” that forms in colder temperatures.

Lamprey said his firm’s expertise has earned it a high level of repeat business with builders. He also said most of the companies that employ J.L. Plastering have done so for at least the past five or six years.

"If we say we’ll be there on Tuesday, and we’ll be done on Thursday, we follow through,” Lamprey said. "Our level of expertise helps the contractor to be sure of that.”

Plaster Lends Itself to Specialization
Gregg Pollock, president of Pollack Plastering, Temperance, Mich., said specializing has allowed the firm to perfect their work in EIFS and plaster work.

Pollock said the firm’s 12 to 15 union employees have gained about 10 to 12 years of experience in plastering. "Working with plaster is different from working with drywall,” Pollock said. "Specializing has allowed our company to become more knowledgeable and efficient.”

Bob Mattson, owner of ADM Construction, Jonesville, Mich., said he has worked in the construction industry for the past 28 years. Mattson said specializing in EIFS and exterior stucco has allowed the company to gain a high level of supervision on the job.

"I feel we are able to keep a good eye on all of our work,” Mattson said. He also said the company’s three crews take a great deal of pride in their work.

"As a specialty firm, all of us recognize how important it is to perform nice, detailed work,” Mattson said. He added that the firm’s level of performance has earned it repeat business from Kohl’s Department Stores, California Pizza Kitchen, and a number of retail outlets.

Mattson also said the firm’s sharp focus has led to a higher level of productivity. "Our single focus has allowed the firm to get a lot of work done in one day,” he said.

Mattson also believes it is critical to treat employees well. "We treat our employees like they’re family,” Mattson said.

Gary Watson, an estimator with Frey Plastering, Novato, Calif., said his company specializes in high-end, interior plaster work. The interior work is completed in the high-end homes and commercial offices of the San Francisco Bay area.

Watson said many larger firms don’t employ the craftsmen needed to handle this kind of work. He said building owners demand a high level of quality and that the local firms compete more on the basis of quality, than price.

To enter the trade, Watson said a larger contractor would have to ask whether it could create a separate division, and effectively compete.

"We’ve been around since 1976,” Watson said, "and enjoy a good reputation. As a result, many contractors have said, ‘Let’s use Frey.’”

Watson added that the firm has built a reputation by employing some of the area’s best union plasterers. "We have been able to hang on to some top notch plasterers,” Watson said. "They are very good at what they do.”

And so are the specialists in the wall and ceiling industry.

About the Author
David Hunt writes for the business community from Hershey, Pa.