Whether the economy is booming or times are tough, contractors have a business partner that’s always ready to help out: their material supplier. Today’s distributors offer more than prompt, accurate deliveries and quality products.

Photo courtesy of Bradco Supply Corp.

Whether the economy is booming or times are tough, contractors have a business partner that’s always ready to help out: their material supplier. Today’s distributors offer more than prompt, accurate deliveries and quality products. They also offer an array of services to help their customers run and build their business. These services include product application training, business management advice and help with marketing and sales. Roofing Contractor spoke with representatives from some major material distributors to spotlight a few of the ways they are helping their contractor partners.

Photo courtesy of ABC Supply Co. Inc.

Tools for the Contractor

Paul Barsa, Director of Marketing for Bradco Supply Corp., said the distributor views itself as “a trusted business partner dedicated to helping our customers manage more efficiently, compete more effectively and build a better business.”

“Bradco helps contractors with a variety of programs and services including a contractor education program called Partners in Your Success, an industry-leading tapered division, residential estimating service, a financing program through GE Money, and a full range of Web-based tools designed to keep them well informed and competitive,” he said.

Web-based tools include the “Contractor Toolbox,” which offers marketing aids such as customized jobsite signs, door hangers and magnetic truck signs, as well as referral cards, coupons and a customer satisfaction form. “We provide these opportunities as cost-effective ways to help contractors build their business,” Barsa said. “We also provide sales and marketing ideas and tips on upselling and cross-selling customers.”

There are a variety of ways Bradco helps contractors with marketing, depending on their situation. Smaller or mid-size contractors often benefit greatly from marketing help. “There are a variety of tips we provide,” said Barsa. “We focus on advertising opportunities and awareness of different ways to advertise.” He pointed to Web sites as an example, noting that companies without a Web presence might not realize how inexpensive it can be to create and maintain a site.

Lead generation is a big issue for contractors right now, and Bradco is working on new ways to develop sales leads. “We are working on a lead generation initiative right now,” said Barsa. “We’re driving consumers to our Web site through search engine optimization and we’ll provide those leads to our contractors.”

The downturn in the economy has affected contractors and distributors alike, but Tom Adams, Vice President of Sales for Bradco, notes the company has responded to the changing needs of its customers.

“The economy has changed our approach by default,” said Adams. “The last few years we were very busy servicing the customer - and serving them at the highest possible level. The business was coming to us, as it was coming to contractors and other distributors. Now customers appreciate us reaching out to them and helping them expand their business.”

“We try to keep them abreast of the latest trends, make sure they know what’s happening in the economy, and are aware of the latest products,” Barsa added. “We want to help contractors stay ahead of the curve for green building products and energy efficiency.”

As part of that effort, Bradco has a “Passport to Savings” section on its Web site, which details federal tax credits for energy efficiency available to homeowners as part of the government’s stimulus plan.

“We want to make sure contractors understand the program and understand how to present products to the customer, and how they can use it to build their business,” noted Barsa. “If a contractor is installing siding, for example, he might be able to recommend adding windows that qualify for a $1,500 tax credit.”

Photo courtesy of Allied Building Products.

Helping Contractors Branch Out

One time-honored way distributors help contractors is by providing product and application training. Tim Walker, the Branch Manager of ABC Supply’s Fort Worth, Texas, location, schedules training sessions. He emphasizes the importance of establishing great relationships with contractors. “We treat them as family,” Walker said. “Their success will in turn create our success. We want them to be successful.”

According to Walker, local branches have great flexibility in scheduling the sessions they feel will be the most helpful to their customers. “The selection depends on what contractors needs are,” he said.

Lately, Walker has been busy scheduling product application training sessions as contractors look to diversify their businesses. “Training has increased,” he said. “As the economy has slowed, contractors are looking to diversify themselves. Guys who have done just steep slope in the past are looking to get into low slope, or people are looking into adding insulation, so we’ll set up a training session to teach them how to install it.”

He pointed to a seminar his branch conducted the previous week in conjunction with ALCOA on installing vinyl siding as one example. “These guys were roofing contractors looking to install something different.”

A couple of months ago, after a half-dozen contractors asked about installing TPO, Walker set up a training session with Mule-Hide Products Co. Inc. through his local Mule-Hide rep, Ken Gilger. “We had about 25 contractors show up,” said Walker. “Two have already sold jobs.”

ABC Supply branches also set up one-on-one sessions with contractors. “If we find out a contractor is looking to diversify - to add siding or windows, for example - our salesman will contact the vendor,” Walker said. “Yesterday a window vendor came through, and we set up some individual training sessions. Training happens more than you think it does. Salesmen are always training contractors. When a new product comes out, our salesmen, with the help of our manufacturers, will make sure they know how to install it.”

Communication is the key to a successful contractor-distributor relationship, said Walker. “If you communicate with each other, you’re more likely to be successful. If we make a mistake, we’ll fix it. But I can’t fix a problem I know nothing about.”

“It’s all about customer service,” he concluded. “Treat contractors with respect and give them the service they deserve. Whether they are big or small is irrelevant to us.”

Distributors are an important source of information about new products and applications. (Photo courtesy of Bradco Supply Corp.)

Increasing Sales and Generating Leads

Ken Smith is the National Training Manager of Allied Building Products. He developed a training curriculum for the company’s inside and outside sales consultants designed to help the contractor succeed. “We touch customers through our sales consultants,” he said. “We teach our sales force to add value at every step of the sales process.”

He works closely with Tim Williams, Allied’s Director of Marketing, and the company’s marketing department to help sales consultants discover their customers’ specific needs and offer solutions.

“It’s not just sales,” said Smith. “It’s asking questions, discovering needs, and determining which products, services and tools can help. The biggest thing we ask our sales consultants to do is to use a systematic sales process to develop their relationships. Strategize before you go out. Understand your customer, your markets and do the research - don’t just wing it - be different and stand out in front of your customer.”

Recently, finding more business has become the top priority for many contractors. “Often the contractor’s key problem is ‘How do I grow my business?’ The ways to do it are to diversify the product line and/or expand your customer base. We help people expand their businesses and get into things they haven’t done before - gutters, windows, siding. We have the programs to help them diversify themselves.”

When it comes to expanding the customer base, increasing job leads and more effective marketing are often the places to start. The key, according to Smith, is to differentiate yourself from the competition by answering some basic questions. “What’s your story? Who are you? What do you do? How do you help customers? What makes you different from your competitors? Why should customers do business with you? We teach our sales consultants to do this, and ask them to teach our contractor customers to do this, too.”

This type of assistance is even more important in an economic downturn, noted Smith. “Business was coming to everyone, and it was easy. Now they have to get back to what they did when they first got into the business: prospect, get job leads, get back to basics and tell their story to as many people as possible to grow their business.”

The type of help offered depends on the contractor’s needs. “Maybe they’re not comfortable canvassing, but now they have to learn how to prospect,” said Smith. “We teach our sales consultants to teach their customers how to go back and grow their business.”

Allied offers a host of marketing aids, including direct mail pieces, referral letters, job signs and door hangers, and they also offer advice on how to use them.

“If someone says, “I want to grow my business,’ we’ll explain what we have and how to use it. It’s not just supplying yard signs and door hangers - it’s teaching them how to leverage those tools to get the most business.”

Safety training is an ongoing process. (Photo courtesy of Allied Building Products.)

Making Sure Safety is the Top Priority

Bob Garrone, Director of Safety for Allied Building Products, joined Allied five years ago. He came over from Liberty Mutual Insurance, where he spent 25 years in its loss control department. “For the last three years, Allied was one of my clients,” he said.

He was put in charge of formalizing the company’s comprehensive safety programs and educating everyone on them.

“The most important thing at Allied is our people,” said Garrone. “Safety is a core value. Our CEO, Bob Feury, says nothing is more important than the safety of our people. We don’t put people at risk.”

Part of his job involves keeping meticulous records. “There are certain stats we keep, including the recordable incident rate and the number of lost time accidents and injuries.”

Garrone’s department keeps track of statistics on 206 locations in 27 states, 3,500 employees, 1,285 vehicles and 966 fork lifts. The information is used to help prevent avoidable accidents through such means as defensive driving courses, which teach drivers how to anticipate problems and avoid them. “This has nothing to do with who’s legally at fault,” he said. “The whole goal isn’t about who’s right or wrong - it’s about preventing accidents.”

The company has a rigorous safety training program for its employees, and the net result is safe, efficient, reliable help for the contractor at the jobsite, right down to site inspections and caution tape. “We have our own method of loading a roof, and we follow it at all times,” Garrone said.

At Allied, safety is not only viewed as the top priority but as a value contractors can pass along to their customers. “Why would a contractor want to deal with a safe supplier?” he asked. “Number one, problems can delay work at the site and can cause problems with the customer and perhaps even his insurance carrier. Plus, it inspires confidence in the homeowner.”

“We don’t want the contractor to get hurt. We don’t want the homeowner to get hurt. We don’t want our competitors to get hurt. That’s why we’re members of the Specialty Building Product Distributors Safety Coalition. It’s a group of safety directors from suppliers. We agree that there are no trade secrets when it comes to safety.”

Allied is a member along with ABC Supply, Bradco, Beacon and others. Recently the group testified at an OSHA hearing on the use of cranes and derricks in construction.

Also serving on the coalition is Kevin Tremmel, Fleet & Safety Director, Bradco Supply. “We share information because even though we’re competitors, we all value safety,” he said. “The coalition will help contractors because we want to ensure that everyone goes home safely at the end of the day.”

“When we get to the jobsite, we have to make sure we’re protecting the area, we’re protecting the people, and we’re doing everything properly and safely,” Tremmel continued. “It’s the top priority.”

Garrone asserts that safety is a mindset, and contractors and suppliers have to convince every employee that safety is paramount. “You have to show them that this is the way it should be done,” he said. “There is only one method. Safety and doing the job are not two different things. There is one method to best do the job - and it’s the safe method.”

“The second part is, you have to allow people to participate. Employees have to have a say. You’ll find that the people doing the job know the most about doing the job. Oftentimes the guy driving the fork lift knows the problem and he knows the solution, but no one ever asks him. Allowing them to have a say is a very important thing. They have some darn good ideas, I can tell you that.”

ABC Supply makes it easy for contractors to show customers a full range of products in the showroom of their local branch.

Sidebar: The Showroom Solution

Contractors who are strapped for time and showroom space should always have an ally in their local distributor, said Kevin Hendricks, Vice President of Branch Operations for ABC Supply. Hendricks and Mike Schwarz, the company’s Director of Marketing and Business Intelligence, updated Roofing Contractor on ABC’s Solution Centers, which are designed to allow contractors to use their local branch as their own professional showroom.

“What the Solution Center was designed to do is to offer our contractor customers a more professional image with their customers than their competitors have,” said Hendricks. “Using the Solution Center allows them to upsell more easily and gives them access to a greater breadth of products than they could ever take to a customer’s home.”

The Solution Centers have been rolled out nationwide. Branches are different sizes and shapes, said Schwarz, but the elements are similar. “We have a welcome area, the service counter, the Solution Center area with product information, and a conference area. We’ve taken the space and created more defined areas with specific uses.”

Information on all of the various product offerings is displayed using a wing panel system, making it easier for homeowners to make comparisons. Each product line gets its own panel, which includes a large glamour shot of the installed product, all of the available colors, and an actual sample of the product to allow customers to touch and feel it.

“A contractor can make several trips back to the customer’s home to finalize details, or offer one-stop shopping with the Solution Center,” said Hendricks. “You can conclude the deal then and there and use the conference room to sign the contract.”

Contractors can set up an appointment for homeowners and spell out which products they recommend. Contractors can talk to customers themselves, or an ABC consultant can take care of homeowners. “When they come in for that appointment, with or without the contractor, we’re there to support our contractors,” Schwarz said.

Initially, contractors might have some worries when sending in a customer for an appointment, noted Hendricks, so the company offers a “Solution Center pledge.”

“Our Solution Centers pledge is: We will never quote pricing to your customer. We will never refer your customer to another contractor. And we will always treat your customer with respect and courtesy.”

One contractor who appreciates the service is Michael J. Davison of M.J. Davison Construction in Erie, Pa. He appreciates the ease of scheduling and the number of products on display. “Different customers have different personalities,” he said. “Some just take what you recommend and some are more picky, but instead of handling three or four meetings, I can send them to ABC and handle it in one visit. I have them set up an appointment with [ABC’s] Joe Benacci, and he’s there waiting for them, showing them their time is important.”

Davison trusts Benacci to handle his customers with care. “I like to specify certain types of shingles, and Joe will direct them to the products I recommend. Plus, Joe can take a full-size shingle out and let them take a sample home to hold next to their siding.”

Hendricks and Schwarz acknowledge the Solution Center concept isn’t for everyone, but for some it’s an integral part of their sales strategy. “Those that have their own showrooms do their own thing,” said Schwarz. “But those that don’t want to make that investment like the distributor to have a showroom.”