Volume 38, Issue 2, February 2003

Under Development
    Glass Shops Talk About the Advantages 
and Challenges of Selling to Homebuilders
by Ellen Giard Chilcoat

Fact: By the year 2013, approximately 1.26 million new residential, single-family construction projects are expected to have been started nationwide. And as the average income increases, houses are expected to get bigger and material usage, including glass, is expected to grow. 

“Master bathroom suites are seeing lots more mirror used because some bathrooms are as large as master bedrooms used to be,” said Stanley Duobinis, director of forecasting, for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). “There is a lot more wall space and when there’s lots of wall space the demand [to fill it] grows.”

SHOWER2 For run-of-the mill, standard glass products homebuilders can probably find what they require from the local building supply outlet. But when it comes to high-end, custom work, homebuilders often seek out the services of glass shops. For areas flourishing in new-residential construction, this can mean a steady surge of business.

Glass in the House
Leading the way for glass products in homes are shower enclosures. According to Duobinis, home trends start in the high-end residential market.

“It’s in the $400,000-plus homes that trends are set,” Duobinis said. “New things work their way down to an average level. An example of this is the kitchen island; it started out in the high-end homes and now it’s in almost all homes.”

David Drexler, vice president of Drexler Shower Door Co. in Atlanta, sees the same thing happening with frameless shower enclosures. “They started off in the most expensive homes and now everyone wants one,” he said. “They are definitely the wave of the future.”

With more custom glass going into homes, homebuilders are turning to the services of area glass shops to meet those needs. But not every glass shop caters to the needs of builders, and those glass shops that do must find a way to be recognized by builders.

“It’s tough,” said Drexler. “There’s some cold calling; sometimes we’ll stop by a [development] site and ask the builder if he’s happy with who he’s currently working with [for his glass/enclosures]. He might say, ‘yes we are, thank you very much.’ Other times he might say, ‘well, the last job didn’t go so well.’ And then we’ll do a walkthrough and I’ll price out the job.”

Other companies, such as Builder Products Inc. in Raleigh, N.C., rely on advertising and association membership to get their name known. “We’re members of the NAHB and we advertise very aggressively (including in publications such as Southern Living),” said Mark Valletta. 
Word of mouth has helped Manassas, Va.-based Full Service Glass Co. become recognized by builders. “Someone may go up to a builder at a trade show and ask ‘who does your custom [glass] work?” said Tom Kramer of Full Service Glass. “If a builder uses you and you do a good job they don’t want to look around for another glass shop.”

Mike Willis of Mike’s Glass and Mirror in Orange, Va., agreed with Kramer. “When you start with builders and you do good by them they’ll continue with you,” he said. “Service is the name of the game—you take care of them and they won’t want to look for others.”

“It’s also a matter of keeping your ear to the road and finding out who’s building what,” added Drexler. “We have to discipline ourselves to make those calls—even when business is good.”

More Than Just Selling
The majority of glass shops providing custom enclosures, mirror and other glass products to builders do more than just sell the items. Most glass shops handle the installation as well and prefer it this way. 

“We are a custom builder of frameless enclosures that need to be specially installed,” said Drexler. “Most builders don’t want to install the enclosure. But there have been instances in which [for example] the builder was out of town and we have had success walking them through the installation process.”

“For custom work, we’ll usually do all of the field measurements,” added Kramer. “If it’s a large wall mirror there may be outlets, switches, etc., for which we’d have to drill. Builders don’t want the responsibility of having to do this, and we’d prefer to do it anyway.”

According to Willis, builders do their own installations in instances where cost is more of a consideration. “Ninety-nine percent of what we sell, we install. If a builder installs it, he’ll probably go to someplace like Lowe’s [where he can buy inexpensively]. The builders who want top quality go to a glass shop,” he said.

Perks of the Job 
Managers of glass shops that work with homebuilders will agree: there are major differences in working with builders compared to homeowners. In many cases, this can be a bonus for glass shops.

According to Valletta, most builders are aware of the difficulties that may be involved [for the glass shop]. “Homeowners think it’s a perfect world, and builders are savvier about what’s involved,” he said. 

“Builders are probably easier to work with,” said Willis. “They are more professional and understand [problems], such as delays, that can occur. Builders understand our needs and we understand theirs.” He continued, “It takes more volume and is less expensive to create that work. In other words, with one sales call you can get the builder with ongoing work. With homeowners you have to advertise in the Yellow Pages, on TV, radio, etc. You have to spend money to get the homeowner; its costs more to get the retail customer.”

For Drexler, working with a builder gives him the opportunity to make sure certain procedures are done properly. “With builders, for example, I can specify wood block behind the wall, which is required for the shower,” he said. “With homeowners these [areas] are sometimes already done and specified.”

Another perk to the job lies in the fact that working with builders can lead to solid relationships.
“Over time they become an established account,” said Valletta. “They know you and you know them, which can also lead to referrals.”

Tomorrow’s Home Today
As with the kitchen island that is now in almost every home built today, homebuilding trends will continue to evolve. According to David Drexler of Drexler Shower Door Co. Inc., it’s not the homebuilder that sets the trends. 

“Trends are followed by homebuilders, but started by architects and designers,” he said. “I will go in and meet with an architect and talk about what he wants to do and what is possible. He’ll draw it up and spec us in. Then the builder will use us.”

Many of these new trends involve bathrooms and kitchens.

“Homeowners are spending a lot on kitchens and baths, on products that are not standard,” said Tom Kramer of Full Service Glass Co. Product examples include clear glass, seamless tub and shower enclosures and lots of large mirror.

“The two big things are glass in showers and nice, big kitchens,” added Mark Valletta of Builder Products Inc. “It’s not unusual to see a $3,000, $4,000 or $5,000 enclosure with sandblasted designs; intricate mirror work … even glass countertops with ¾-inch colored glass.”

Tackling the Issues
While glass shops agree there are perks to working with builders, they also agree there are disadvantages and challenges. Prompt payment is an issue that many face.

“With some [builders], yes, but with others it may never be a problem,” said Valletta. “With the economy [having been] tight, there has been some trouble with payment.” He continued, “If builders don’t pay, you lien them; take them to court. But before we do that, we always ask if there was a problem, and we make sure it wasn’t an issue with the quality of work. If builders stay in contact with us, it’s easier for us to work with them [on payment] than it is with those who just disappear.”

Drexler says that in dealing primarily with high-end builders, getting paid isn’t that major of an issue for his company. “We do net 30 on everything … our collections are pretty well-established, so we have no real problems in terms of getting paid,” he said.

Credit checks are also an important issue.

“I’ve worked with some builders for years, and I don’t bother checking them out. But if it’s a company with a large order, I require a deposit up front. That’s the key if they are buying a lot—check them out,” said Kramer. “A lot of builders will bounce from one glass shop to another to avoid paying. I’ve learned a lot from builders over the years: stay on top of your receivables and don’t let them go past 30 days without hounding them.”

Along those lines, pricing is another area in which conflict often arises. Builders, according to Drexler, are very price-conscious.

“And I’m a high-end, custom manufacturer, and those two don’t always go together,” he said. “Sometimes we have to sell them on why we are more expensive; we have to justify our prices.” Drexler said he can validate his prices in the fact that he works directly with the homeowner and does on-site visits. “The bottom line is service,” he added. “Glass products are all very similar, so what it boils down to is that we have the service and we are willing to meet with contractors and educate them on our products. And if there’s a problem, we’ll go back and fix it.”

Valletta agreed that he also faces pricing issues with builders. “Builders are unit pricing; they want a one-size-fits-all price, but it’s not always apples for apples.”

“They want it yesterday and they want it at the cheapest price,” Kramer added.

Drexler added that it’s also important to keep builders happy. “Builders are price-conscious, but they want the quality. We’ve been in business for 50 years … constantly trying to make the builder happy. Sometimes I will go out of my way, getting involved in areas I wouldn’t otherwise.” An example of such an instance would be a builder asking the company to install glass in stair rails. “We have to sub [those jobs] out, but we’ve gotten involved in projects such as that before,” said Drexler. 

Another challenging issue that must be faced revolves around scheduling.

“We might be scheduled to do an installation on a Wednesday, so we go [to the site] and the builders are not ready for us and didn’t bother to call and tell us. And, they don’t want to pay us for the time it took us to get there,” said Valletta. 

Battling the Big Boxes
With new residential construction projects on the rise, many glass shops say the market is not a tough one in which to survive, even amongst competition.

“Raleigh is a boom town (for new residential),” said Valletta. “For this area it’s expected we’ll get 10,000 new homes in the next seven years. We have 25 or 30 competitors within a 50-mile radius. We try to go by our relationships and develop ones for good, quality work and prices,” he said.

Willis agreed, that in his area (middle Virginia) the market is not a difficult one. “So long as there’s construction going on it’s not tough to get work, and it’s always fairly steady around here.”

“For some the market is tough, but we are very established and we don’t look for aggressive growth,” said Drexler. “We look for one customer at a time, steady business, and we’re established because of that.”

For Kramer, it all goes back to service. “It’s not a tough market to compete in,” he said. “Just give good customer service and be polite.”

The fact that more businesses are branching out and diversifying may also mean more competition. 

“We’re seeing more and more out there getting into the mirror and shower door business,” said Willis. “This means it’s becoming more competitive.” 

And perhaps what were once feared as serious competitors—big-box stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot—are not competitors at all.

“Initially, we were afraid of Lowe’s and Home Depot, but it turned out to be really OK,” said Drexler. “They provide the standard, stocked item. And when it comes to custom work that is out of their realm, they are sending their customers to us. Customers understand they can’t get everything there.”

Likewise, Kramer sees the big boxes as an advantage to his business. “They say they install, but they actually subcontract everything,” he said. “A Home Depot is actually opening up right next to me and I can’t wait. It will increase my business and give me an advantage to pick up the stuff [they carry] that I need to do my job.”

According to Willis, whether the big boxes are a glass shop’s competitor depends on the market the shop is in. “For low- to middle-end homes, those builders are looking to save a nickel, so they go to Lowe’s,” he said. “The high-end is more custom, so they use [a company like ours] more than a big box like Lowe’s.”

Most glass shops will agree, regardless of whether the competition comes from a big box like Home Depot or the neighborhood glass shop, service is key when working with builders. Bottom line.


 Ellen Giard Chilcoat is managing editor of USGlass magazine.


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