By Diane M. Calabrese / Published April 2019
Contractors and surgeons have much in common. As hands-on practitioners, they put the best tools and knowledge to work on behalf of those they serve.
When we pause to enumerate hands-on doers, we realize what a large and important cohort of community they are. From contract cleaners and surgeons to carpenters and sawyers, practitioners tie invention to application.
And they do so by balancing a customer’s needs with viable solutions. Above all, they have a deep commitment to serving their customers.
“Contractors have a very strong work ethic,” says Michael Hinderliter, president of Steamaway Inc. in Fort Worth, TX. That’s one thing he wishes everyone in the industry understood about the role of contractors.
“We have a vast wealth of first-hand knowledge on how to get things cleaned,” explains Hinderliter. “It is knowledge that the manufacturer or supplier may simply not understand.”
Yet when manufacturers and suppliers do talk with contractors, the results often lead to innovative products. “The innovation of the soft-wash industry was through contractors,” says Hinderliter. “The X-jet was developed and promoted by a contractor.”
Hinderliter entered the industry before he graduated from high school. “I started out working for my father’s business on weekends and summers when I was in high school,” he says. “That lasted about four years, and in 1985 I started my business as a contract cleaner with the strong focus on fleet washing. I still do a lot of fleet washing today.”
Being a contractor is rewarding. “There is almost instant gratification from seeing the results of your work,” says Hinderliter, “not to mention how happy a customer can be when he sees the cleaning results.”
“There are many fascinating reasons it’s interesting to be a contractor,” says Jud West, owner of WashRite Services in Valdosta, GA. “Your office view changes from day to day, you get immediate gratification, you meet new people via networking, and you have a sense of accomplishment. With that said, I believe owning yourself and your time is why I do it.”
Indeed, West began working as a contractor only after a significant tenure in the manufacturing sector. “The first 24 years of my professional work life were in manufacturing,” he explains, “first as an hourly employee on an assembly line, then as a leader responsible for the quality and productivity of that line. I moved into management after a few years of being responsible for not only quality and production but also safety, housekeeping, costs, and employee relations.”
By the time West left manufacturing, he had experience at many levels, including management. And that experience proved a good foundation for being a business owner.
“I finished out my manufacturing career as a general manager responsible for the entire plant,” explains West. “I believe the education, guidance, and attention to detail in those manufacturing environments shaped how I operate my business today. Unfortunately, when something does go wrong, I can look back and see that I didn’t plan properly or didn’t put a system in place to eliminate that problem.”
West’s reference to planning is something contractors understand well. Sequencing, staging, and completing jobs on a schedule that sustains and grows a business demands the best from owners.
Determining what constitutes success as a contractor is very much a matter for each individual to sort out. “There is no one-size-fits-all success definition,” says West.
“One contractor may be part-time and very successful for his needs, while another contractor may believe he needs five to 50 employees to be successful,” explains West. “Some may believe $30,000 per year is perfect while others need a six-figure income or more.”
Financial goals and scope aside, there is one thing that unites contractors with a commitment to the industry. “No matter how small or big a company—contractor—is, if he is doing it the right way and meeting his needs, he is successful,” says West. “There is plenty of room in our industry for successful contractors of all sizes.”
West sees a role for contractors in the improvement of tools and processes. He also sees their contribution as part of a large web of information being exchanged and refined.
“Most innovation comes out of need and shared ideas,” says West. “When this need is communicated with other contractors and/or vendors through different social outlets, private messages, or industry events, the ball gets rolling.”
The same good idea often comes from many different sources almost at the same time. It’s driven by everyone sharing the same context and seeing a similar possibility. (No one really contends there was just one inventor of a wheel.) That’s a positive outcome.
“Most of the time a need is already met, but the contractor wasn’t aware,” says West. “However, there are times when an actual need or process improvement can be created or amended. While social media has many drawbacks, I believe it has opened up many innovative ideas and concepts over the last few years and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.”
While looking for ways to improve processes, a contractor must always adhere to the basics. And West reminds us of the four fundamental elements to a successful contracting business: punctuality, workplace safety, meeting expectations, and following best practice guidelines.
Each of the basics has many components. We tap West’s advice to cite a few of them.
If there is going to be a delay, call the customer immediately. Communicate project details and any safety hazards to the team and the client so that the focus is consistently on safety. Assess the customer’s expectations—for the completed job and the process—at the first meeting. (Can they be met?) Use best practices.
“Each job is different,” says West, who heartily recommends making use of the increasingly robust best practice guidelines and certifications for our industry. He points to the value of national, regional, and local events, as well as internet forums, as sources of the latest guidance on best practices.
Hinderliter and West exemplify the forward-looking attitude of contractors in our industry. Things change. Expectations from regulators become more numerous and detailed. Successful contractors are prepared to keep pace with all.
The “as goes California” refrain is wholly familiar to our readers. Proposition 65, perhaps the best-known California regulation, is not the only Golden State initiative that affects our industry. Contractors in California work under strict licensing rules. (Similar rules are in effect in or being considered in other states.)
Contractors must be sure to understand the way their states deal with complaints from customers. In California, the Contractors State License Board, which can be found at www.cslb.ca.gov/contractors/Contractors.aspx, has jurisdiction. In short, if a complaint is lodged, the onus falls largely on the contractor to prove all good practices. The complaint can take years to resolve and can result in fines or criminal charges.
Understanding—of services, of rules, of best practices—is a must now and in the future. When contractors emphasize the need for best practices in meeting every job goal, they speak for the continued vitality of the industry.
When all contractors meet consistently high standards, everyone benefits. Less-than-accurate complaints from customers can be identified quickly. The focus remains on providing excellent service and results—what contractors enjoy doing.