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Creating Heavenly Interiors with Plaster

Two different symphony halls – one wanted a heavenly look, and the other wanted a heavenly sound. Brad Baker, president of Triangle Plastering Systems, Inc., Mesquite (outside Dallas), Texas, did both. And, in both cases, the medium used to achieve the desired celestial effect was plaster.



The owners of the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth wanted a theme of angels of the concert, so plaster, with its design capabilities, was the ideal material to create the domes, cornices and other aesthetic details to fulfill this concept of visual beauty.



At the Myerson Symphony Hall in Dallas, however, the musicians had the final say; they wanted the acoustics fit for a heavenly choir, and so the walls were overlaid with 2 to 3 inches of plaster. If aesthetics and acoustics are two key reasons why plaster is chosen, a third, adds Baker, “is durability. Plaster finishes typically hold up better than painted drywall.”



At one time, plaster was the primary finish for interiors. Then drywall, which was much cheaper and easier to apply, came along, and plaster went into varying degrees of eclipse, almost totally in some parts of the country. In recent years, however, plaster has been making a comeback, again in varying degrees. This has been driven somewhat by renovation,
the desire to restore older or historical
buildings to their pre-drywall
grandeur, as well as plaster’s intrinsic
characteristics. An obstacle is that plastering
today, as well as lathing, is a dying
art, and the remaining practitioners are
generally members of an older generation.



Plenty of Plaster Work



Although plaster took a downturn with
the arrival of drywall in his market area,
Baker says it has never really gone out of
style, so has been able to sustain as a
business focus. He has also benefited by
plaster’s recent return to popularity In
fact, as says Baker, “Plaster is a niche for
us. We’ve done more conventional plaster
than any of our competition. We
have the lathers with the qualifications
to do the framing and the plasterers who
have continued to keep up with the
trade. It’s definitely hard to find skilled
labor, and if everybody was drawing
plaster jobs, there would not be enough
people to do them. But we’ve had the
same people working for us for years.”



As a result, continues Baker, “We’ve had
limited competition on larger commercial
projects for plaster, and the same for
residential. Our residential accounts are
estates, and are so big they are equivalent
to commercial jobs. Builders will come
to us for the experience they want for the
larger jobs.” He adds that many of the
residential projects he has done were
because the homeowners wanted a specific
look they could get only with a plaster
finish.



The Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie and
the Dallas Convention Center are a couple
of Baker’s other large projects. He’s
also done numerous hotels in the Dallas
area, including a DoubleTree and a Hilton
in the past couple of years. There are
many grand churches in the area, for
which his company has done much
work. The company is also involved in
a variety of other projects, including
shopping centers, retail stores and assisted
living centers.



Hand in hand with his interior plastering
is his exterior, or stucco, which offers
both practical and aesthetic benefits.
Baker sells plaster as a renovation finish,
and not simply for historical designs.



“We tell shopping center owners that they In the Beginning
can put on new façades with metal studs,
sheathing and stucco, which is more lightweight
than brick. Architects are drawn to
features like this,” Baker says.



But architects are also drawn to the aesthetics
of plaster. “We are just wrapping
up an assisted living center in Dallas,
called Edgemere, which has 300,000
square feet of stucco,” Baker says. “The
architect wanted the appearance of an
old Italian village, with the colors and
textures of an older period, and plaster
was the product of choice.”



For exteriors, Triangle does the metal
studs and sheathing, then finishes with
stucco.



In the Beginning



Baker came into his plaster heritage in a
somewhat unusual way. His father, Bob
Baker, formed the Triangle Plastering
Company in 1974. In 1975, his older
brother, Steve, went to work for his dad
(and went on to become president of the
Association of the Wall and Ceiling
Industries—International in 1996). In
1980, Steve took over the drywall aspect
and formed it into the Baker Drywall
Company. In that same year, Brad, went
to work for his father.



In 1992, Brad recalls, “there were some
hard economic times, and it seemed that
the financially feasible thing to do was
to liquidate the old company and start
anew. As it turns out, this was the right
thing to do.” Brad purchased the assets
from his father and began a new business
with the same employees and same
facility.



Today, his father is 74 and has been in
the business for more than 50 years—
and he still comes to work on a parttime
basis.



Why haven’t the two brothers joined
forces? Baker explains that when his
brother formed his own business, it was
nonunion; his father’s company was still
a union shop. “Unions were declining in
the late 1980s, and my father never was
a fan of the unions, so he decided to break
away. By that time, however, the businesses
had grown in different directions.”



Baker defends his nonunion status, saying,
“We provide benefits, 401K, profit
sharing, insurance, paid vacations and Business Is Good
training. We try to duplicate what a
union would offer. It’s sometimes
thought nonunion businesses are cheap.



This is not true. We invest in our
employees. We want to attract and keep
good people.” He adds that the only
thing a union provides that he misses is
a pool of people to draw from.



Two brothers in the same area, one
focused on drywall and the other on
plaster, has its advantages, Baker says.
“We’re in different buildings, but we’re
both here in the same location,” Baker
says. “We coordinate scaffolding and
delivery. There are two of us to find different
jobs, and on numerous projects
we’ve worked in concert.”


Business Is Good




Although Baker focuses on his own
market area, customers who like his
work frequently ask him to move
around a bit. He’s done work throughout
Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana,
and has had projects as far away as Kentucky
and Virginia. “We stay plenty
busy,” he says. He has 100 to 150 employees,
usually averaging about 125.


“In terms of annual volume, our best
year was 2000 when we hit $10 million,”
Baker says. This represents a
steady growth from the $2 million
earned in 1992. Since 2000, revenues
have dipped back a bit. “We couldn’t
have kept up that pace, and don’t know
if we’d want to do it again, even if we
could,” he says. “We want to continue
to shoot for growth, but what we’ve
learned is that you have to control that
growth or lose profitability by working
too much overtime, and not working
effectively because of too many long
hours. We want growth, but not all at
once. We want it with production and
profitability.”



Baker has advertised his company via
newsletters and other direct mail, and
three years ago was the first in his area to
get a Web site. “We wanted to set ourselves
apart from our competition and Important Memberships
find another way to get out in front of
our customers,” Baker says.



The company goal, Baker says, “is to
have the best equipped and best trained
employees.” To further this goal, he has
recently added a training room to the
building, complete with all of the latest
audio/video equipment, CD-ROM,
PowerPoint and other presentation technology.
This is the place for safety training.
“We have a strong commitment to
safety,” Baker says.



The new teaching facility is also where
his employees are being trained with
AWCI’s EIFS—Doing It Right program,
a video/workbook program that
provides generic instruction for the
application of Class PB exterior insulation
and finish systems. Sessions are held
on Saturdays. “This program gives
employees a chance to better themselves.
With their added training, along with
certifications, employees will be paid
more,” Baker says.



Important Memberships



Baker has long been active in AWCI.
He’s on the committee that has prepared
the EIFS program’s curriculum and
examination. As a lifetime member of
the association, Baker says, “By belonging
to AWCI, you help invest in the
future of your industry. Another thing I
enjoy about the organization is the
opportunity to interact with your peers,
to sit down with them and talk over
common problems.”



In looking at the industry and how it’s
change from his father’s early days to his,
Baker says, “There were probably more
skilled qualified craftsman years ago, and
there was not the emphasis on safety.
That was not his fault. That was just the
way the industry was then.



When asked whether he fit the model of
the laid-back second generation compared
to the hard-driving first Baker
responds, “I’m definitely the laid-back
generation. We watched our dad go to
work from sunup to sunset. Not that we
missed out on anything, but I have a different
philosophy.” Baker delegates
authority to qualified people, and takes
time out to be with his family, his wife,
Holly, and children, Gregory, 17 and
twin daughter Amanda and Jessica, 14.
He plays a lot of golf and attends his
kids’ sporting activities.



But he’s still been focused enough on
work to win several merit awards,
including two national excellence in
construction awards from Associated
Builders and Contractors, one for a retail
development, Southlake Town Square,
and the second for the Bass Performance
Hall, built for the “angels.”

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