Recently, a leading publication asked me to write an article regarding women and their role in contracting and I felt such a topic would also be of value to Roofing Contractor readers. First, I want to make it clear that I am no expert in this area, though there are women in my life — a wife and two lovely daughters who both are married, young adults with careers. And I do think that we all often take the gender issue too seriously. However, I enjoyed my daughter’s joke about how men are like parking spaces: All the goods ones are taken and rest are handicapped.
At any rate, I am going to talk about something more important than the battle of the sexes: helping contractors make money. And I am going to start by saying that the unsung hero in many a contractor shop is the office administrator or manager. While I realize that you may have been expecting an article about women entrepreneurs or managers, the administrative position is one of the most important components to a contractor’s success. Now I know there are people out there who will say this is a sexist approach and this could be a man’s job. This is absolutely true; but in 90 percent of the contracting businesses I encounter, a competent woman holds this position. So I would like to dedicate this article to those unsung heroes.
History of the Contracting OfficeThirty years ago, computers were expensive and not very efficient. Larger contractors used them for accounting. For most rank and file contractors, number crunching, payroll, billing, etc., was done by hand. Even such things as tabulating W-2s and payroll were a nightmare.
Today’s contracting office is quite different. Now every contractor can afford a computer. Throw in cell phones, fax machines, e-mail, etc., and the office moves at a much faster pace. Today’s office manager and administrative person must have strong computer, communication and organizational skills. Yes, they are still responsible for the details, but in many cases they are more like a field commander in the middle of a high-tech battle coordinating deliveries, job costs, payroll and customer demands. This person coordinates the details that many contractors are poor at managing.
Wives as Office ManagersMany contracting businesses are family businesses and start small by having the wife (I am using “wife” instead of “spouse” because most are wives and this article is about women, so to heck with being politically correct) do the books and help out in addition to other household activities. Sometimes, the husband is poor at details and is either a sales- or craft-oriented kind of guy. In some of these families, the wife managed household expenses, so helping run the contracting business was just an extension of that situation. Many are a godsend and in reality are running the business.
However, the office manager position must grow as the business grows. If a wife is the office manager, she must be willing to learn new skills and have adequate time to dedicate to the company. I know contractor customers who have their wives work for them because of the convenience of being able to work at home and watch the children. This might work at $150,000 in sales, but is not going to work at $600,000.
The ideal administrator manages the owner and helps control the owner’s disorganization. When married, such control and interaction can interfere with the couple’s relationship. Our wives might be right, but listening to them may not sit well with our male ego. Of course, wives also may not take direction well from an owner husband. What is important is to have a job description of what the administrative person does. Focus on the time and skills required and what is best for the business.
In our networking groups, I have had the unfortunate responsibility of writing a letter that helps terminate the wife as office manager. I laughed a while back when a wife called and thanked me for doing what I did. She realized that someone with four children under the age of 10 cannot dedicate the time required. And my stock went up four years later when she and her husband owned a $400,000 house and earned more than $250,000 a year.
I think it can be very difficult for a wife who wants to partner with a workaholic husband to let go. If time constraints get in the way of the wife making the kind of time commitment required, consider having the wife focus on non-operational issues such as paying bills and balancing the checkbook. Let the administrator do the things required as part of a daily routine. Also remember that if the husband and wife are the only office employees, it can be very hard to take a family vacation and get away.
There are numerous husband and wife teams that have awesome businesses, so please do not take my comments negatively. When it works, it is a wonderful situation. Like any good partnership, make sure you continue to communicate and manage each other’s job descriptions.
Time and Position RequiredThe ideal administrative person is the machine behind your profits. So let’s kick it up a notch and talk about what this position entails. As your business grows, you need to add strong administrative support before adding more sales people, divisions, buying equipment, etc. Some rules of thumb are: A $200,000 to $400,000 business needs at least a part-time administrative person to track costs, call customers, etc. It is better to have a really good person at $15 an hour for 20 hours a week, than a weak person at 40 hours. As the business approaches $500,000 and beyond, this will grow into a full time position.
PayA good rule of thumb is that this person should be paid about the same as a good
foreman. A full-time office person will probably make between $30,000 to $50,000 a year. Remember: My income goal for you as a contractor is for you to make at least $100,000 a year. To make that kind of money, you must focus on the things that drive profit, which are sales and job management. Many contractors try to grow by adding sales people, construction managers and other people to help them with their job, when in reality they have not added an appropriate office administrator. With a powerful office manager, you can move forward and do the things that make the company money.
Job Description and DutiesSo what should this person do? Well this depends on the size of your organization and type of work, so being specific can be tough. Let’s list some of the skills and areas where a good office manager can help:
- In addition to answering the phone, the administrator should coordinate phone activities such as qualifying customers over the phone, setting sales appointments, helping with scheduling, etc.
- An administrative person should enter job costing and do bookkeeping, but more importantly, act as a proponent to help control costs — from collecting time cards to monitoring job costs. This person’s role is not to run the company, but rather to gather information so management can make appropriate management decisions and make sure the owner sees and pays attention to such details.
- The administrator should perform all day-to-day accounting and report functions.*
- An important part of the job is to set appointments and manage the owner’s and other sales people’s calendars.
- An administrative person should help with ordering material and coordinating job details. She should work with foremen and crew leaders in regard to miscellaneous job needs.
- The person must focus on customer service, including scheduling, coordinating problems and running interference for management.
- Overall, an administrator should assist with projects and details. This individual works as a personal assistant to help the owner get more done and improve the quality of the owner’s life
*My experience is that as high as one out of 15 contractors experiences some type of embezzlement. Prior to hiring and within appropriate legal parameters, always perform a background and credit check on office manager applicants. Make sure you are insured for embezzlement. You are much more likely to have someone steal from you than to have your office burn down. Have the checks mailed to your home and always open the envelope yourself. When possible, try to have a third party balance the checkbook each month. Please don’t let this factor cause you to be distrustful and not hire someone, just be smart about monitoring financial control.
There is an old adage that behind every great man there is a woman. Well, behind every great contractor organization there is a good office manager and they are usually women. Don’t be cheap or accept mediocrity in this position. Hire the best person you can. If you have a good person, make sure you treat them well and use them to their fullest potential.