The "Un-socialized" Marketing Approach
The "Un-socialized" Marketing Approach
Easy multiple-choice question for you: Which do you think is a better way to construct a roof?
B. Conventionally framed rafters
Most of you reading this article would unequivocally answer A. It’s your business, after all. But what do you think the majority opinion would have been if a group of building inspectors was asked that question 60 years ago? It’s safe to say you would have expected them to answer B.
Beyond the advancements in component design software and the engineering that supports the use of truss plates and lumber, along with increased efficiencies through improved component production machinery and sheer experience, there is a fundamental reason why roof trusses, for example, command approximately 67 percent market share: daily market development accomplished through constant interactions in local markets.
To understand the how and why behind the brilliance of local market development, and appreciate why it is best done by you and not your suppliers, trade association or competition, we need to start with a history lesson and end with a modern-day tale.
A History Lesson
The structural components industry became what it is today not just by devising a better product, but also by reaching out and convincing architects, engineers, builders and contractors that there was a better way to do things than what they had always been doing.
Recent SBC Magazine articles about early pioneers such as Stan Suddarth, Don Hershey, Bill McAlpine and Jack Littfin, chronicle how the early days of the structural components industry were full of entrepreneurs whose biggest challenge was crafting effective arguments for how components could provide framing solutions that had economic and other advantages over conventional stick framing methods.
While heated arguments with architects or building officials may have been one form of “market development” back then, the more common and successful approach took the form of empirical truss testing, showing that trusses worked to save overall job costs. In addition, excellent customer service ensured that relying on components was a positive experience even when hiccups occurred. However, one thing all market development efforts had in common back then was that they were carried out exclusively by the individual companies themselves, one marketplace and one customer at a time.
A good example of how companies successfully marketed themselves and their products is Trus Joist Corporation. Back in the early 1960s, Trus Joist (TJ) had success selling open-web floor trusses, primarily to light-commercial construction projects. In 1966, the company branched out and introduced an I-joist system to optimize lumber and plywood use through engineering. At the same time, this product addressed a key consistency issue that was a concern in the market, resulting in the “Silent Floor” system. Marketplace knowledge combined with testing and engineering yielded a successful new product line for TJ.
“However, by the mid-70s, it was clear that, if they were going to have further success growing as a company, they had to penetrate the residential construction market,” said Bob Berch, who was hired by TJ to do exactly that. The first rule in successful market development: know your market. “It was evident to me that products like MicroLam® and TJI® were a perfect complement for component manufacturers,” said Berch. “That’s why I approached them first, even though everyone thought I sounded like a heretic.” Berch knew that the strength of the components industry was its sound engineering foundation. “I’d always seek out the engineers first, because I knew they would understand what I was actually trying to sell them. It wasn’t the actual product, it was the design properties,” explained Berch.
This leads to the second rule in successful market development: know the strengths of your product. “I would sit down with a manufacturer’s engineer for just ten minutes and ask them to focus on the strength values of LVL and point out to them that you couldn’t approach those values with an ordinary piece of wood,” said Berch. “Then, I’d leave and let them think about that for a couple of weeks.” More often than not, when Berch returned, he found a willing buyer.
“Once they were buying LVL headers, the next step was introducing them to TJI®,” said Berch. “It was a logical progression.” That’s rule number three: once you have buy in, find ways to increase their appreciation and use of your product. “After a while, the most challenging part was convincing my own company to buy into my approach,” remembered Berch. “But as the sales continued to grow, they weren’t left with much other choice.”
Finally, rule number four: leave no stone unturned. “At the same time that I was going to component manufacturers, I was also approaching builders and building officials,” said Berch. “By the 1980s it was evident that 2x12s were not what they used to be. They couldn’t hold up over the same spans.” In fact, in some cases, builders were opting to sandwich steel in between boards to provide greater rigidity. Of course, that practice increased labor and material costs as well as construction times. “I would go in and just talk to them about their workers’ compensation insurance premiums,” explained Berch. “By eliminating the steel on the jobsite by using LVL for those headers, their premiums would go down. When they found out that was true, they came to trust me.”
In the mid-80s, TJ created a wide variety of marketplace educational programs, each of which was focused on a separate market segment: lumber dealers/component manufacturers, builders/framers, specifiers and building officials. It wasn’t long before the entire market was aware of new TJ product features and benefits, which engaged the entire supply chain. Eventually, this type of fact-based, technically sound marketplace education became a sales engine and ultimately a game changer.
Today, many component manufacturers across the country fully embrace Berch’s early sales approach, and have added LVL, PSL, LSL, Glulam, I-joists and trimmable end trusses to their product lines from a number of EWP manufacturers. His “heretical” market development approach established a mainstream practice in the industry. You never know when or where the next opportunity to make such an impact will present itself, but one thing is for certain: if you don’t advocate for yourself, you won’t be able to seize these opportunities.
A Modern-Day Tale
Just so you don’t think all good market development is a thing of the past, let’s turn our sights to a current example. Construction and installation of structural framing members in today’s homes requires a good understanding of the load paths through the building and the strengths of materials and fasteners.
Unfortunately, the skill sets needed to meet the many and various structural challenges these homes present may sometimes be lacking in the field. That is certainly what Steven Spradlin, President of Capital Structures, has observed in some of the markets he delivers to in Arkansas and Kentucky. “There are some fundamental framing problems that just aren’t being addressed by conventional framers,” said Spradlin. “What makes it hard is that the building officials don’t necessarily recognize the problem even when they see it.”
Instead of complaining about it, Spradlin decided to take matters into his own hands and sought to get better information into his marketplace about building code requirements. “The cool part is that building officials are hungry for educational opportunities. They’re always seeking continuing education credits,” said Spradlin. “So I started with a presentation to some local code officials.”
Once he got into it, he noticed that architects and engineers tend to focus on particular building methods and materials (i.e., wood, steel, concrete, etc.) because they’re familiar with it. “I found that having an opportunity to talk with an engineer about a solution, a truss shear block for example, ended up being very valuable,” explained Spradlin. “I’d find myself talking with architects about how to deal with shear in the floor cavity and how putting LSL into the floor system for restraint, and then coming back and putting OSB sheathing over the top of that, was redundant and unnecessary.”
After a while, Spradlin found himself sought after by many different groups of engineers, architects and building officials. “Last year, I was presenting at a structural engineering association meeting and found myself talking to a room full of guys who design wood structures,” remembered Spradlin. “Young and old, they all heard something they weren’t aware of. We assume engineers are well educated in all materials and methods, but that isn’t necessarily the case.”
After several presentations on his own, and witnessing other presentations given by industry suppliers in his market, Spradlin worked with SBCA to create a more detailed presentation to address problematic conventional framing practices he continued to see in his market. The presentation promotes structurally sound framing practices in residential construction by examining field examples of common problems with conventional framing (i.e., traditional joist and rafter construction and site-built walls), and how many of these issues can be resolved by using structural building components. While SBCA lent its expertise, it was still up to Spradlin to effectively deliver the presentation at the local level.
“We have always said that education is the key in our industry, particularly in times of growth,” said Spradlin. “Presentations like these give me a golden opportunity to go in and put my products front and center with the individuals who are most influential in helping me convert builders from conventional framing to components in my market.”
Remember rule number four? Leave no stone unturned. In addition to the many presentations Spradlin has given (and has planned), he also works through various suppliers to the residential construction market he serves. “If the guy the builder relies on to build his roofs advocates roof trusses because they’re easier and safer to install, the builder is more likely to use trusses,” said Spradlin. “That’s why we got into the framing business.” He also works with the heating and cooling subcontractors. “They prefer to work with open web floors because it makes installation so much easier for them,” he added. “Those HVAC guys sell more trusses for me than my own sales staff sometimes.”
As the housing market continues to improve, and all indicators appear to be pointing in the oh-so-positive, upward direction, the structural components industry finds itself at another crossroads. Labor is in short supply and less skilled than in the past. This is a golden opportunity to use the educational tools that SBCA members have created and solidify the structural building component position in the market as the logical way to frame a house. Market development efforts today have the potential to become another game changer.
The key is the initiative taken by each individual company to focus on your unique strengths and differentiate yourself in the way that you use your capabilities to advance your value-added construction methods. Then go out and convince engineers, architects, building officials and builders in your local market that your company’s approach provides the best framing solutions and value.
While it will require a commitment and effort on your part, just as it did for Berch and Spradlin, it doesn’t have to be a struggle. SBCA members have created several programs and tools to assist with building your own market development, which will help you create your own unique brand. With SBCA’s tools, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Just take the first step by calling SBCA, or check out SBCA Consulting services at sbcindustry.com/custom/services.php.