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Why Good Contractors Cost More Than Their Competitors

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Why Good Contractors Cost More Than Their Competitors

Time.  It is a limited resource and ultimately a good contractor’s most valuable asset.  When you carve out and hold sacred the personal time needed for God, Family, Friends, Fellowship, Rest, Relaxation, and Recovery, the decisions you make on how you spend the time allocated to the “work-day” become even more imperative.  Successful contractors are purposeful with how they spend their time, always cognizant that wasted time is something that can never be recovered. 

Eliminating wasted time is one of the motivating factors that drive good contractors to improve themselves and their companies. Managing time becomes a differentiator that sets them apart from their competition.  Contractors invest in developing systems and processes that pay dividends as their companies begin to run like well-oiled machines. 

The best contractors devote themselves to improvement through industry education across all facets of the business — from design and construction to sales and business.  They allocate resources to building a company that values relationships built; both internal with employees and sub-contractors and external with their customers and the communities in which they thrive.  They desire to leave a mark — to weather the storms and to stand the test of time. 

In my role as a traveling design professional, I have had the opportunity to meet many of these visionary contractors at all stages of their journeys. Through our interactions, I have watched and learned from them as we have partnered on their designs.  We have discussed their successes and struggles alike, and I have been inspired by the insights learned from them.  I hope that sharing these will help others facing similar questions and challenges. 

A unique aspect of my travels is the unique regional differences, biases, and issues that our partnered contractors face in their businesses.  Whether it is a product that is considered a necessity in Richmond, VA, but would never be considered in Charlotte, NC (which is only 5 hours away), or how a contractor in Port Charlotte, FL deals with labor issues differently than another in Denver, CO – each with their own success.

Sometimes the issues are climate-related, and in other places biases appear more psychologically motivated.  Each region seems to have its own set of specific conundrums to work through.  But one truth that I have found to be universal when working with these quality-focused contractors from across the land is their frustration when their market competition actively works to label them to prospective clients as “too expensive” and uniformly undercuts their pricing – often to disastrous results.

Good contractors know that time invested into the client relationship is time well spent. - Luxury Pool Design: Jason Brownlee
Good contractors know that time invested into the client relationship is time well spent. – Luxury Pool Design: Jason Brownlee

Time Invested Into Your Clients

The client relationship process takes time — valuable work-day time that cannot be recaptured if something or someone takes it awry.  It takes time to properly vet the prospect, work through a design process, and establish a solid relationship base where you feel comfortable moving forward into construction.  It takes time to provide both rough framework estimates and detailed project bids, and then often to revise both the design and bid to best suit the needs of the client. 

This allocated time is an investment on your part and should be reciprocated in kind on your client’s part as the purchase they are about to make as they add to the value of their home is, for the most part, the second largest they will make in their lives — more so than luxury vehicles, lavish vacations, college tuitions, and children’s weddings.  As such, this investment should be treated with the respect it is due by all parties in the process (which is an entire another topic for a future article). 

What often takes this process off the rails is when a third-party “spoiler” enters the mix and actively works to sow the seeds of doubt in the mind of the client.  I have seen this spoiler come in multiple persons — from a client’s homebuilder who likes to use his pool guy (often cheaper and with a kick-back), to the infamous “neighbor at a party” who brags about the “deal” that he got on his pool. 

The most common spoiler is direct from a competitor pool company, who actively uses the fact that quality-focused contractors are not cheap against them with phrases like, “he sure is proud of what he does”, or “pools should never cost that much.”  Or the best one that I hear, “he is just trying to get rich off of one project, we just make a little off of each project that we build.” 

Where you have invested time, effort, and attention to detail to prepare and plan the seamless execution of a signature project, the competitor is looking to swoop in and derail the entire process you have built with either a smoke-and-mirrors sales number deception or a true blissful ignorance of actual project costs when completed to high-performance standards. 

It is human nature to be frustrated with your client when they question why you are so much higher than the other builders in their market.  So how do you educate them as to the valid reasons why good contractors cost more than their competitors? 

As a professional serving in an owner’s representative role in reviewing contractor bids for high-end clients, I have three criteria that I look for in the reviewed proposals.  I believe these are the differentiators that separate quality-focused contractors from their market competition.  Quality-focused contractors will:

  1. Consider and Include Everything
  2. Build it Right
  3. Offer More
A good contractor considers and includes everything the client needs into their plan and contract.
Credit – Luxury Outdoor Living Designer: Jason Brownlee

Consider and Include Everything

When a quality-focused contractor Considers and includes everything, it eliminates the “I didn’t include that” or “We don’t do that” comments from the bid comparison that are either intentionally or artificially deflated to make the number look better. 

Every contractor has to pull permits, handle excess dirt or spoils, build an access road to the backyard, provide dumpsters and a portable bathroom, bring in a gravel sub-base, handle drainage, and provide utility extensions to the spaces (gas, electric, low voltage, etc.), include fencing (both during construction and final security enclosure), consider landscaping, lighting, irrigation, and on and on. 

Many bids I see leave these and other necessary line items off in order to make a number look better. But at the end of the project, the costs are similar between the low and higher bids.  This is a smoke-and-mirrors deception designed to get the client on the hook, then deal with the “misunderstanding” aftermath later.  Almost every contractor has the same built-in profit margin –assuming they know it.  The difference in the proposal price does not come in how much money the owner is bringing home.  Instead, it comes in the process, how they operate, and what they choose to include and exclude.  

Build It Right

When a quality-focused contractor commits to building it right, this means he holds their construction processes to a higher standard and will not deviate from that.  It is not enough to meet the “minimum code” and expect to build a structural vessel that will not have issues down the road.  There are standards that need to be adhered to in order to build a quality vessel because there are so many ways to cut corners and literally bury them underground. 

When reviewing bid proposals with owners, I sit down with them and get very technical, discussing and reviewing bullet-point style construction standards in a proposal before they make their selection.  This shows the owner that a contractor has a working knowledge and understanding of what it takes to build correctly and indicates if they have pursued the advanced industry education available and understand the importance of a quality build.  

Offer More

Finally, when a quality-focused contractor offers more, it means that they are abreast of the full scope and range of features and options available and either addresses or include them in their proposal to allow the client an option to select yes or no.  This includes equipment options such as alternative sanitizers, heating option availability, automation control, lighting systems, water and fire visual features, finish and veneer selection upgrades throughout, outdoor kitchen components, etc. etc.  The scope and scale of the final project with its ease-of-use options should ultimately be up to the client to decide and not pre-conceived by a contractor who may not know their personal preferences, needs, or desires for the space.  

A favorite saying that we use in our classes is, “Don’t let your Middle-Class get in the way of that man’s money!”  I have seen a contractor or pool designer / sales person end up talking a wealthy client out of an all-tile pool finish or automated chemistry control system, simply because it is out of the contractor or designer’s personal budget mindset.  But to the client, it might be nothing more than what they would have spent on another toy in their garage.  It is not your money to spend!  Instead it is your job to know and offer all of the options available and then allow the client to decide what they like and don’t like, or need and don’t need for their own personal outdoor living experience. 

Final Thoughts

In the end, when the client signs a construction contract, he or she is buying into you.  Show the client that you have considered and included all aspects of the job and they will not have hidden charges that could have been known.  Demonstrate that you are committed to building to a higher standard with industry integrity that is backed by educational certification.  Show all of the options that they may wish to consider, not just the few that are easiest or readily available and let them decide the scope and scale of the project they want for their family. 

If you can prove these points, you will have transitioned that client away from a price-point buyer over to an investment-focused mindset. Now the time you have invested into the client relationship as well as in the systems and advancement of your company – will pay its dividend. 

Photo Credit: J Brownlee Design

4.8/5 - (19 votes)

In the field of watershape, pool, and outdoor living design, Jason Brownlee has become one of the few industry leaders to receive the prestigious "Masters" level recognition. He is the founder, president, and lead designer at j.Brownlee design, and co-founder of elevate events -- where he teaches design, construction, engineering, sales, and business development to aspiring industry leaders across the country.

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Op Editorials

For Those Seeking Inspiration, Not Just Education

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There are moments in your life that alter your course or define who you are or what you will become — for the better or for the worse.  Some of the seminal moments are planned and anticipated.  The day you get down on one knee and propose to the person you want by your side for the rest of your life.  The moment your child takes her first breath and screams out that beautiful cry.  Others happen to you, often suddenly or without prior warning.  A car accident results in an injury with rehab and reinvention of how you operate your daily life.  How you respond to these wonderful and difficult moments becomes a window into your soul and test the character and fortitude of the person that you are inside. 

Other moments are not as obvious or jarring in nature but can be equally as impactful to the course of your life or the direction of your professional career.  These moments are often some of life’s bigger decisions and will almost certainly involve a significant amount of uncertainty and risk.  Am I reading this right?  Are things lining up the way that I think they are, or am I missing something here?  You can make all the pros vs. cons lists you need (which is always a good step), but decisions are often a ‘gut feeling’ and can be a scary venture when you step out of a comfort zone and into a new unknown.  Which college or University should I attend, or what should I choose to study?  Should we move to another city or take a different job position?  What if I feel absolutely “stuck” in the role that I am presently in and cannot see a way out?  These less-than-obvious decision moments happen all throughout your life as well and can lead to sleepless nights and anxious deliberations over decisions that may affect the course of your career.  During these vexed considerations, we often look to others who have taken these similar steps before us.  Those who have potentially forged a path that we may follow, where we may find an example of the vision we see for our future — and guides who are ready and willing to take us there.  We seek those that will inspire us with confidence that… yes, you can take that step that feels daunting or impossible to you right now… and here is how! 

If you cannot tell by now, the words above are the script of my professional story.  As a designer at heart, I earned my degree in Landscape Architecture, then spent five years in the professional practice firm world, and soon became disillusioned with the corporate structure, office politics, and “soul-sucking” cubicle environment of what I was “supposed” to do with my career.  In the early 2000’s, I found a creative outlet by taking on several residential backyard design projects, several of which involved swimming pools (something I knew absolutely nothing about at the time).  After a few successes and immense satisfaction and enjoyment, I quit my day job and began my own residential design practice with grand visions of creative freedom and artistic expression! However, financial reality quickly settled in, and it became obvious and necessary that I take on the construction of the backyard designs I created.  I became a landscape contractor, then added hardscapes, and within two years, we were a full-scale pool and outdoor living design-build construction company.  We did well overall and won awards for our projects which was great!, except for the fact that I became a contractor not out of desire for it, but out of necessity.  I wanted to design amazing spaces and build them RIGHT, but it felt like swimming upstream against a raging current every day to figure out how to do accomplish that task in a construction market that didn’t care.  I was stuck as a designer that had become a contractor that consumed every minute of my day and left me only the exhausted remaining minutes to do the part of the job that I truly enjoyed — the design.  I didn’t have a mentor — a leader — a guide to show me a way.  I needed to be inspired and shown that, yes, even though it feels impossible to you now, there is a way… and here’s how!

The irony is that the answer was right in front of my face, literally every month, and for eight years.  I would get the monthly industry magazines — PSN, Aqua, Watershapes, etc. — and would see and read about this group who called themselves Genesis.  They were designers and contractors and leaders from across the country and, WOW! — I couldn’t believe the work and level of detail and scale of what they produced.  They would travel the country and design and build these incredible watershape masterpieces and win National Awards, all while wining and dining with millionaire clients like they were living an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”.  Then they would go and hold two or three educational ‘events’ each year where they would share their knowledge with whoever signed up to attend — and they would have FUN doing it!  I read the accounts of the intense classes, then followed by great dinners with food, and wine, and parties where they called themselves pigs, dressed in togas, and cut loose to all have fun together. 

For eight years I kept watching this group grow and evolve, wishing I was a part, but for eight years I did not join.  Why?  (Honest moment here).  I was intimidated.  My wife and I would go to the International Pool & Spa Expo and circle the booth, not feeling worthy of joining in.  We would pick our moment, jump in to introduce and say how much I admired their work, talk for about two minutes, then jump back out and catch my breath.  Who was I, this designer from Tennessee who was struggling to make it as a contractor, that they should give me the time of day?  The mystique was a barrier keeping me from the potential that could be unlocked.  

Until I finally hit a breaking point in 2010 where I just freaking did it.  I flew out to San Diego and took my first class, and it was a career-defining epiphany moment that ended up altering my professional course and defining who and what I was to become.  And here is the real point of this article — it wasn’t about the educational class or the information that I learned during that three-day event.  I took the base design class (thew one that I teach now) and already had a firm foundation on the material.  It was about the people.  Once I met the people behind the image and got to know them, the aura and mystique fell away and I was comfortable to join in the experience. 

J. Brownlee Design – Photo Credit: Jimi Smith Photography

Over the next years, I became inspired. I was inspired by the people that were and are the true leaders in our industry.  Brian Van Bower (the Rodney Dangerfield of the pool industry) and Skip Phillips, who together were the visionaries that started the entire advanced industry education revolution.  I was inspired by Paolo Benedetti (the walking Bible of pool construction detail knowledge) and Bill Drakeley (who emphatically set the bar for shotcrete construction standards 20x higher than industry standard and implores you to think way above the minimum required).  I learned everything I know about pool system hydraulics from Dave Peterson through mind-numbing engineering classes, which are not the easiest for a right-brained designer, but hands-down the best overall class experiences I have had.   I was blown away that Rick Chafey and Dave Penton, two of the master builders behind the most amazing projects that keep being produced year-in and year-out, could also be so personable, easy-going, and open to new people who want to improve.  I was inspired by Feras Irikat and his ability to make hardened, seasoned contractors talk enthusiastically about colors, and client psychology, and design!  And by Kirk Bianchi, whose mild-mannered style and cerebral design-brain is one that I will always strive to understand and emulate.   I was inspired by Grant Smith and his detailed, methodical approach to construction that followed his regimented Marine Corp background — and his close friendship before his passing as we rose through the ranks of the industry together.  And, of course, I have been inspired by the three ladies — Lisa Ryckeley, Katie Junkers, and Lauren Stack — that, across multiple organizations and decades, have managed to be the hearts of their organizations and keep all the people and personalities in line (well, for the most part), and events moving forward as the baton gets passed to the next group of leaders who will rise ahead. 

The truth is, while WHAT you know is very important, ultimately it is the WHO you know that plays the biggest impact on  your career success.  You will always run up against new “what’s” that you don’t know, but if you know who to call/text/message about what you don’t know, then you will soon know that “what” that you needed to know!  And this is the reason why I am such a believer in the advanced education opportunities in our industry.  The people behind the education — the teachers and leaders — are the invaluable asset that are living examples of a vision you may have for your future, and they are ready and willing to guide you on your journey and inspire you with confidence that… YES, you can take that step that feels daunting or impossible… and here is how! 

And … we all tend to have a lot of FUN doing it!  This is not a boring industry, either in what we design and produce, or how we enjoy our finished products with our clients, or the time spent with the people involved in creating them.  And while the old pigs and toga parties may be a relic of past days, the fact that these shows and educational event gatherings are a blast to be a part of remains.   We become a fraternity — a brotherhood spread across the country and beyond that comes together several times a year to learn more, hone our skills, enjoy friendships, and to cut loose and have some fun together!  The organization names, event locations, and educational formats may change.  That is the nature of business and ultimately of no consequence to students fighting their own battles and seeking a vision for their future. 

Look at where you are in your company and in your career path.  If you feel stuck or trapped, or if you are fighting a battle alone or swimming upstream against a raging river of market circumstances against you, then do not sit back for eight years (again, me) to watch and wait for external industry circumstances to work themselves out.  Look for who is out there that inspires you.  Who is producing the work out there that makes you stop scrolling on your phone and say, “WOW!” No matter what side of the industry you call home, there are leaders in that sector ready to guide and direct and inspire.  Don’t let intimidation or cost or inconvenience or fear keep you from taking a step that could lead to unlocking the potential you have for your career and your future.  All of the investment costs — both in time and money — may seem large now but will be your best investment decision when you consider not just the information you will learn, but more importantly, the leaders you will meet and the potential for the “lightbulb” moment of inspiration that may just alter your path and set you on a new course for your career — it certainly did for me! 

Photo Credits: Jimi Smith Photography

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Op Editorials

An Open Letter To Home Depot

Home Depot commercial may portray pool builders in a negative light and give misleading information to consumers.

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New home depot commercial portrays pool builders in a negative light, gives misleading information to consumers.

For decades, my associates and I have tirelessly worked to enhance the knowledge and image of pool builders as highly skilled professionals through educational seminars, technical publications, hands-on demonstrations, certifications, and licensing in many states.

Yet, in your recent commercial, those efforts were thwarted by your organization’s portrayal of a pool builder. 

The commercial, “Meet the kind of people who are in our parking lot at 5:45 a.m.” portrays pool builders with an old stereotype – a guy with an old beat-up truck and notepad drawing.  

The imagery in a home depot commercial depicts pool builders in a poor light.
The imagery in the Home Depot commercial may depict pool builders in a poor light and provide misleading information.

The video pans in on each of the “people” in their vehicles as the voiceover describes their profiles and why they are coming to The Home Depot. The last profile is Ed…  “Ed’s putting in a pool for a friend… we all need an Ed!”  The visual is of Ed making notes on a pad. As the commercial continues, the store opens and each of the “People” climb out of the vehicles to go inside. “Ed” with a window sticker “my other truck is a boat”, walks away from his vehicle, an old beat-up truck.  

The original 1-minute commercial produced by BBDO Atlanta/BBDO New York was released in March 2022. A shortened 30-sec version was also released.  

As a licensed pool contractor in Las Vegas, Nevada, a Certified Building Professional, and former director on the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance national board, I take offense to how your commercial depicts my industry.  Not only is this commercial insulting to the many highly educated pool professionals across the US and internationally, but it also encourages the viewpoint that pool builders are simply a guy with old trucks and notepads. Furthermore, “friends” don’t know everything there is to know about building a safe and efficient pool. 

There are many states that require licensing for pool construction. Most have specific guidelines such as building standards and regulations, ANSI and ISPSC codes and in some states- water use restrictions just to name a few.

Nevada homeowners do have the option to build their own pool. However, the Nevada State Contractors Board has outlined in strict detail the guidelines for such activity including registering the project, permitting, insurance responsibilities and mandatory use of licensed sub-contractors to do the work. 

It is a crime for an unlicensed person to perform construction work even on an owner-builder pool project and that includes one’s “friend”.  

While it seems that your creative team at BBDO wanted to capture a variety of individuals, needs and projects, they did not take time to consider the negative and dangerous implications of the “Ed” character.” 

The Home Depot commercial could sway an unlikely consumer to seek a “friend”, an unlicensed and untrained individual to install their pool, jeopardizing the wellbeing of the family both physically and financially. 

Ed might be better off “Putting in a garden for his wife!”

5/5 - (4 votes)

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Contractors and Builders

Pool Tile Installation Starts With Using Proper Materials

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Pool Tile Installation Starts With Using Proper Materials

Proper pool tile installation on vanishing edge walls will prevent clients from thinking that the pool wall is leaking.

It all starts with using the proper pool tile material. Once water begins to infiltrate behind the tiles of the swimming pool, a whole bunch of problems can arise.

Efflorescence in Pool Tile

Efflorescence is carried to the surface from the shotcrete, thin-set or grouts. Even epoxy setting materials can promote efflorescence.

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When It Comes to Pool Tile Installation, Setting Materials Make a Difference

Epoxy setting materials are not 100% epoxy. Many still contain cement-based components. The technical sheets for most epoxy thin sets and grouts contain a disclaimer about efflorescence.

Efflorescence in pool tile can occur even when using epoxy setting materials.
Efflorescence in pool tile can occur even when using epoxy setting materials.

Water Getting Behind The Tile

After the vanishing edge is turned off, areas on the wall may continue to be wet for hours – simply from water trapped behind the tiles. This is where many pool tile failures occur.

Water streaming out of cracks in the grout when the vanishing edge system is on, is another indication of voids behind the tiles.

But when a customer sees any sign of water on the “dry side” of the wall, they immediately think the wall is leaking. While this may sometimes be the case sometimes, in most instances, it is merely an improper tile installation.

Pool tiles can chip, crack and pop off over time when using the wrong setting materials.
Pool tiles can chip, crack and pop off over time when using the wrong setting materials.

Prevent Tile Failures – Know The Codes

The TCNA specifies that 95% of the tile must be in contact with thin-set. This can be achieved by back buttering and knocking down the comb/gauge marks. Failing to provide movement joints causes the corners to split and crack as well.

Swimming Pool Expert Witness

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