Anyone out there in installation knows the hard work involved in completing a project. From demolition to prep work, grade issues, deliveries, organization and installation a crew has to be organized with speed and accuracy to make a profit. It always amazed me how quickly that profit got chewed up by mistakes and surprises along the way.
I only knew what my father taught me. Not only for installation but for estimating, typing contracts, buying materials and dealing with customers. If it worked or him, I foolishly believed that the same tactics would work for me later on in my career.
Under his leadership on site, I was taught the basics of how to organize a job, mix cement and mortar, take care of the mixer, move all materials by hand, set stone and at rare moments cut stone with our carbide chisels.
“Swing that hammer.” He’d say.
“I am swinging it.”
“Hit that stone, don’t tap it.” He’d say.
“I am hitting it.”
One day he took the hammer out of my hand, asked me to step aside, he raised that hammer high above his head, holding onto the set with his left hand and he swung that hammer down so fast and hard the stone did exactly what he wanted it to do. My father was 5’5” at best but when he was cutting stone he was 6’5”. Always a man of an even temperament and a natural ease by nature, but when he swung that hammer he was fierce. He never even looked at the hammer or the set he looked at where he was cutting. He handed me the hammer and set.
“Swing that hammer. If you’re afraid of hitting your hand you’re going to hit it.” He said.
He was right. Over the years of perfecting my cutting I hit my left hand many a time, especially the thumb. After enough times I got used to it and the fear went away. My technique improved.
Whenever we were installing patios (which we set in cement) we first had to compact the base material, then spread the crushed stone. After that we would form the patio with wood then roll out the wire and pour the concrete. Once that was set up we would set all our stone or brick in cement. Any compacting we did was with a 10” X 10” square hand tamper.
“Center the tamper, spread your legs, use your legs and arms, not your back and hit the same spot three times. Then move on to the next square.” He’d say.
“All done.” I’d say.
“Spread 2 more inches of base over the whole area and do it again.” He’d say.
“How thick does this base have to be?” I’d ask.
“6 Inches. Compacted.” He said with that grin of his.
I was not a fan of large patio jobs. I remember one job in a new development and there was a crew next door putting in a patio. They had this machine I had never seen before. It was a gas-powered compactor with long handles and you walked behind it like a lawnmower. I was blown away.
All excited I said “Hey Dad look at that new machine that’s out. I’ve never seen anything like it. We need to get one.”
“That’s not new. You can rent them .” He said.
“What do you mean?” I said, feeling like an idiot.
“You wanted a summer job? Right?” He said, yet again with that grin of his.
We worked straight through some of the toughest Northeastern winters. Dad would always line up a new fireplaces in a new construction project. He was the guy for cathedral fireplaces. My job was to set up the sand pile and water barrel outside. Sometimes the water wasn’t hooked up yet on site so we would fill trash barrels at home, put them on the back of our dump truck, cover them and drive the water to the job. Every day. The sand would get delivered and I had to dig a hole in the center of the pile as low as I could and set a steel drum barrel in it. Then fill the sand in around the barrel. The barrel was for a fire. I’d fill it every day and get a huge fire going to melt the sand that froze over night. We also had a steel drum water barrel set on concrete blocks. I’d light a fire under that barrel to melt the frozen water. Starting the cement mixer was interesting in the winter. We always had a can of starter fluid. It never started right up. The first run every morning was with fingers crossed. By the time everything was ready to go I would have that first batch of cement mixed by 9 am.
Between the freezing winters and the heat waves of summer work felt more like boot camp than anything.
We were purists when it came to our trade of masonry. We only worked with full stone or we would hand cut our stone. I remember cutting bluestone with a hooked chisel that dug a groove into the stone and then you hit that groove with the hammer and you got a natural cut not a saw cut. We had a worm drive saw with a diamond blade for cutting a straight tread or brick but never on a full veneer stone or flagging. My Dad would not stand for it.
All of this training paved the way for what was to come in my own company years later. Over the years I worked with my brother, cousins and friends. Our family company went through many changes and when it came time for me to run it without anyone telling me how to do it I realized something. I couldn’t make the profits that my Dad did. I needed to upgrade, update and learn new business techniques. My competitors were working faster than me and building in a different way. I took pride in being such a purist that I would not work with any concrete products, thin veneers, boulders and segmented walls. Basically I would not entertain the idea of Hardscape work. I was a stone mason (who dabbled with brick). But it was time to change.
I started to bid jobs that were mainly hardscaping with elements of masonry, but I struggled with how to bid them. I learned quickly that I needed equipment to help prep, set larger stones and clean up. I started to bring in operators and their equipment, right after I bought my first gas compactor. That was one piece of equipment I couldn’t wait to buy. The equipment operators carried higher numbers for my estimates but they could do the work of a crew if used correctly. Having someone excavating and prepping a project while I was just finishing up another one was making money right away. Time equals money, as they say.
They are right.
With this new way of thinking I now started to micro manage myself in how I led the job. Who did what? And when? When we were working with my Dad we all had specific jobs. He would cut stone on his table, my brother would set the stone and I would mix the cement and stock. Of course the every changing cousins would help in any of these roles. It was the pecking order of my family. If you want to lose money just have one laborer on your project who does not know what is expected of them and all your profit will be gone.
Rarely are laborers lazy they need someone to lead them, to be their boss. This area was my weakest and where I lost a lot of money. Once I delegated employees to certain tasks then things started rolling in the right direction. One more thing about laborers – it was rare to find people who were talented but there were plenty of people with the right temperament.
I found that the person with the right attitude or temperament could be trained. That training, accountability and taking pride in the work led to a strong team making more profit for the company. That profit needed to flow back to the team as well. It always amazed me how the simplest acts of gratitude (like a bonus or gift card) meant a lot to an employee. It came back in tenfold.
After several incarnations of our family company, I ended up becoming partners with one of my cousins. Even though he didn’t have the field experience he did have education in business and between the two of us we kept recreating our company. We would have blunt conversations about how to get the work we wanted, how to make the most profit without breaking our backs all day long and how to create beautiful projects. We were talented in customer service. We went above and beyond for our customers right from the first meeting. I have to tell you that first meeting has all the clues you need to know how the rest of the job is going to go. I would mainly listen and take notes. Those notes always ended up in the contract. Many times a new client would say
“You really listened to me. You didn’t miss anything.”
And they were right. That first meeting instills trust or it doesn’t. On a funny note my cousin and I had a checklist for red flags in those first meetings. If a potential client hit three of them then we would follow up with an email like this “Timing is everything in this business. We have just committed to a larger project and won’t be available to be considered for yours. We appreciated the time you took to meet with us.”
After so many years in the business we did not want to waste our time with clients who were the wrong fit. Because that wrong fit affected everything especially the profit. Whenever I was ending a first meeting heading to the truck and the potential client would say “One more thing, remember to sharpen your pencil.” I knew the email I would be sending.
Once we landed a job we were fully committed to that job. We had a smaller crew and we would not start another job until we finished the one we were on. Sure we would have an excavator prepping the next job but us and the crew would make sure we did not juggle too much. We wanted custom projects with great customers. Those clients wanted the best of what you had to offer.
I think communication is the key to a top notch client. The project could be an $80,000 outdoor living space or a $2500 front step rebuild, it doesn’t matter the size of the project, what matters is the quality of the work to be done. Communication is crucial for not only getting the work done properly but to how much money you will eventually make. The goal is not just to work for your client this time but to create a repeat business with them, their families and friends. Good work begets good work.
Looking back I finally appreciate the way my father and family worked together. I learned how to have a work ethic. That training helped me to do what was best for our clients and our business. All of it leading to great projects, better profits and continuing a strong reputation that spanned several decades. Just as my father raised his family I got to raise mine while going to work in a trade that is constantly combining old techniques with new thinking.
Derek is a 2nd generation stone cutter and designer. Growing up in the stone industry he was under the tutelage of his father Arthur Stearns. He also co hosted DIY Networks “Rock Solid” and “Indoors Out” two national T.V. shows focusing on stone work and outdoor design filming over 200 episodes. Today Derek takes part of the management team at Plymouth Quarries in Hingham, MA., where his father started as a stonecutter in the 1950’s.
Words & Photos: Derek Stearns