Well Worth the Effort
Well Worth the Effort
“I was afraid at first,” admitted Dallas Austin, design manager at Big C Lumber’s structural building components facility in Dowagiac, Michigan. He was afraid the inaugural open house wouldn’t be a success. Afraid that turnout would be low and that the investment—of time, productivity and staff commitment as well as financial resources—wouldn’t yield returns in terms of improved visibility in the marketplace or actual sales.
Friday, May 13 set Austin’s fears to rest. “The day was just a whirlwind—it went by so fast!” The doors opened at 10 am and cars rolled in immediately. “We were really surprised at how many building inspectors came,” Austin said. Some drove more than two hours for the event, coming from well outside of Big C’s selling area. There were also builders, framers, architects, engineers and even students. “So many hands to shake!” Austin recalled.
Setting the Stage
Big C’s eight open house tour guides—two shop employees and six designers—had been preparing for months. They’d done eight full walk-throughs of the plant, so each had had a chance to rehearse the presentation, guiding an audience around the facility and up to the easels that explained each workstation, saw, or machine, providing details on the efficiency and productivity of the process or equipment.
“They all prepped pretty hard,” Austin remembered, with some good-natured encouragement from their peers. “We would try to ask ridiculous or far-reaching questions,” Austin admitted, “because we know people will always push the envelope.” More seriously, the tour guides simply needed to be ready for a wide variety of questions: technical installation queries from framers and building inspectors, efficiency inquiries from builders and architects, and general questions from students that would need to be answered in layman’s terms.
Of course, there was skepticism. “A lot of our production people were not looking forward to this,” Austin said. They weren’t thrilled about having people looking over their shoulders as they worked. They were also worried about how a visitor’s curiosity might affect their efficiency. “They all strive for good production numbers,” Austin explained. He kept repeating his reassurances—“That day is not about production numbers. It’s about salesmanship!”—but not everyone was convinced.
“I think the biggest thing that led us to wanting to do [the open house] was call-backs in the field and jobsite visits that we were investing time in,” Austin explained. While increasing market visibility and building sales momentum were potential benefits, the primary goal was to “get some details right out in the field” so that correctly manufactured trusses weren’t perceived as imperfect due to installation missteps.
Attendees learned about the production process and installation best practices including truss bracing, piggyback truss installation, proper nailing, field repairs and improper cord cuts that result in cambered floor trusses.
Austin said his team has already started brainstorming workshops for the next event. One topic that’s definitely on the list: partition separation, which Austin noted is something he’ll be able to cover using SBCA’s existing materials.
Running the Show
“We went from 10 am to 2 pm,” Austin said. “We did tours all day long so it was more flexible for the people coming.” Tours began every 10 to 15 minutes, with groups ranging from as few as three to as many as 15 people. “We didn’t want a group of 100 going through,” Austin explained. The rolling start meant visitors could arrive at any time and, as they went through the plant, they could see what was happening and had plenty of access to ask questions. Small groups gave Big C the best chance of ensuring everyone had a good experience.
“We actually had the entire production facility running,” Austin explained. The usual three shifts were rescheduled as one for the day so that all the employees could be working and every piece of equipment could continue functioning, even when the inevitable slowdowns occurred. “There were times when sawyers had to pause and wait to cut,” Austin said, to accommodate a passing tour group.
In addition to seeing the shop employees work, the tours stopped at stations set up throughout the shop for five- to ten-minute workshops. “We had a few stations that we did ourselves,” Austin said, “and then we also had some support from our vendors.” For example, framers could hear directly from a specialist at a fastener company about the proper use of fasteners with construction hardware, and building inspectors could learn from the engineers behind truss design software exactly what kind of bracing is expected.
Big C’s workshops focused on installation best practices and specifically targeted the problems the company was accustomed to fixing. “One of our stations,” said Austin, as an example, “was our cut cord condition for our cambered floor trusses.” That’s an installation issue he’s seen all too often. Another station covered what builders and framers should expect when trusses are delivered to a jobsite. “The tag side of the truss is labeled on our layouts. So we explained that,” Austin said. “We really just went through a whole lot of things and tried to problem-solve things that we see on jobs, trying to reach as many people as we could.”
Finally, after walking the manufacturing process of roof trusses, floor trusses and wall panels, visitors reached the lumber building, where 20-foot stacks of lumber had been arranged to create a room for the catered lunch. “It was really cool,” Austin said. Also pretty neat: an SBCA-created presentation of the most recent Framing the American Dream project, emphasizing the time and cost savings of building with components, that ran on a loop in the lunchroom throughout the day. “We had a lot of people asking questions about it,” Austin said.
One tour group gets a close look at the wall panel operation in action. “We wanted to have everything running,” Austin said. Visitors who toured the facility in the slow winter months didn’t leave with the same appreciation of the hard work and complex logistics that are inherent to truss production.
Reset & Repeat
Throughout the day—and afterward—the reaction was positive on all sides. “We had several building inspectors say that their colleagues who didn’t come were missing out,” Austin recalled. The building inspectors who did come promised that everyone they knew would receive very strong encouragement to attend, should Big C hold the event again. Austin said they certainly would, most likely with extended hours and a date in fall to eliminate conflict with spring home show preparations.
The educational aspect of the event was clearly effective.
“I had people come in and say, ‘Wow! I had no idea there was so much technology in building trusses!’ And I had other people say, ‘Wow! I had no idea there was so much labor still in building trusses!’” Austin recalled that these comments came not from students or architects unfamiliar with Big C’s product line, but from builders and framers who simply had no idea of the effort that went into creating the products that appear on their jobsites.
Best of all, from a business standpoint, Big C’s leadership team was stunned by what a convincing and cost-effective sales tool the event turned out to be. “We had several builders say, ‘I want that product on my houses from now on!’” Austin says. He heard the same thing in response to giving visitors a preliminary look at some proprietary products Big C plans to roll out.
And the group most looking forward to the next open house? Big C employees. The event was invaluable to sales, design and management staff who, Austin admitted, often “forget that there are a lot of things that designers don’t know (or just don’t remember) about what goes on in the shop.” The initially-skeptical production team is also now fully on board. “After the fact,” Austin said, “their response was totally different. They were saying, ‘That was great!’” Austin thought the experience gave them “a totally different perspective,” both on hosting visitors and on what they do day-in and day-out on the shop floor. “I think they felt they had really earned respect from the framers and builders.”
In fall of 2017, Big C will throw open its doors again, in hopes of building on this year’s success and developing new relationships in their market. The event is undoubtedly worth the effort, Austin said. “We are absolutely going to accommodate it,” no matter how busy everyone is or how many orders need to be filled. The increase in visibility, the improved professional relationships, and the boost to staff morale more than balance a few hours of below-peak productivity. “If it puts us a day or so behind,” Austin said, that’s still just fine. “We’ll just have to schedule our projects that way.”
Big C's Top Tips for Planning Your Own Event
Tip #1: Get the word out.
Austin says that better social media exposure, through platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, is one of Big C’s goals for next time.
Tip #2: Think about check in.
“We asked people to sign in themselves,” Austin says, and with more than 300 people coming and going, that system was unreliable. Consider offering a door prize to encourage an accurate tally of visitors, and don’t overlook nametags. “With that many people here, there was a lot of us going, ‘I know who you are…but I don’t remember your name,’” Austin recalls.
Tip #3: Good help isn’t hard to find!
Big C’s tour included six stations where guests learned about the processes and products critical to proper truss production and use—but Big C employees only staffed half of the workshops. “We relied on our vendors,” Austin says. “That was a good call on our part.”
Despite some initial hesitation—Big C didn’t want to turn the shop into a sales floor—Austin says it was an incredibly positive experience. “They all seemed very pleased to help out, and of course they’re all very knowledgeable about their products.”
Tip #4: Consider the noise.
“Audio was difficult,” Austin says, especially “with a shop that’s working.” Think about whether a sound system or a tour format where guides give presentations in a quiet spot before going through the production area might help.
Tip #5: Remember that you won’t reach your whole audience in a day.
“A framer might come out and say, ‘yeah, that makes a lot of sense,’” Austin explains, but that framer who’s on board might still have to convince a builder, homeowner or general contractor that components are the way to go. Give your guests something to take with them and send follow-up emails so they can easily share what they learn.