Putting Professionalism Back Into The Trades With Dennis Gehman
Ep. 48: Putting Professionalism Back Into The Trades
On today’s podcast, Ryan Englin and Jeremy Macliver talk to Dennis Gehman about the importance of industry associations and increasing the remodeling industry’s professionalism. Dennis comes from the design and remodeling industry, and he’s the President-elect at NARI, a well-known industry association. Don’t miss this episode as Dennis shares how NARI is helping to increase the professionalism of the remodeling industry. He also reveals the biggest myths about industry associations from a business owner’s perspective and talks about the advantages of joining NARI or any national association.
Putting Professionalism Back Into The Trades With Dennis Gehman
I’m excited about our guest. He’s been involved in his industry for a lot of years and I’m going to let him talk a little bit more about that. He comes from the design and remodeling industry. He’s the president-elect of a well-known industry association. He’s got a lot of certifications behind him. There are a lot of things that his company is known for, and he’s very involved in the community and in the industry. I want to welcome Dennis Gehman of Gehman Design Remodeling. Thank you, Dennis, for being here.
You’re welcome. Thank you. I’m looking forward to this conversation.
Help me out with this. We’re going to talk a lot about NARI and industry associations. What is one of the biggest myths about industry associations from a business owner’s perspective?
The biggest myth is that people think they’re going to join and they’re going to have all their questions and problems solved right away. It’s not the case. Our industry at least is ever-changing from new products, new laws, new OSHA regulations. The reality is most of us have come up through the trades. We were a carpenter, a plumber, an electrician, and then decided to venture out on our own. Generally speaking, we know the trades well, but we don’t know the business side. Many people weren’t the best students in school, which may be why they got into the trades. Therefore, they’re not real avid readers and taking the time to get on podcasts, webinars and that kind of stuff. It takes time.
Because I’m looking at the association and you told me I’m not going to get all my problems solved right when I joined, what are the advantages of joining NARI or any national association?
I’ll speak from the remodelers’ side. Our association is NARI, an acronym for National Association of the Remodeling Industry. What you’re going to get is we’re fortunate that we have a staff headquartered outside of Chicago. We had people there that are staying on top of current education, top of new products, new laws and new OSHA regulations. That information is put out in a number of different ways. Some are through local chapters. We have 43 chapters across the country. They’re not everywhere. Also, there’s a weekly email newsletter that comes out every Wednesday and that is packed full. I have to admit, I don’t always get time to read it all because there’s too much information, but I can see the headings. If there was something new and something I haven’t learned about before, I can jump onto that.
I used to run a structural steel company and I was a part of a national steel association, Steel Erectors Association of America. Being with other people and learning that they had the same problems that I had, and they were in the same challenges that I was in. They were overcoming them in different ways. One guy would have a good strong ability to manage a safety program, while another one was stronger at the bid package. Being able to collaborate with people that were intentional about their businesses, it’s a huge value of the association. All of the stuff that’s going on and them helping us through the steel excise changes, all of those kinds of things. It sounds like that’s what they’re getting from being a part of NARI.
As much as I value the education, the good speakers, the webinars and podcasts, to me, the best value is the opportunity to get to know some other remodelers. Many times, at local chapter, they might be your competitors. One of the things that I’ve learned through NARI is that I’m okay with a good solid competitor. It’s Chuck in the truck with his dog that I don’t always see eye to eye on, and who doesn’t know his own value so he’s not charging enough for what it is. That opportunity to network and since I’ve been involved so long, I have friends all across the country. Unfortunately, we’re not doing a whole lot of meeting in person. I still know that I can pick up the phone and give people a call and shoot out an email. We have mastermind groups where people join. That’s a group of 8 to 12 contractors who are not direct competitors. They meet on a regular basis, typically once a month. The group that I’m a part of that has been going for several years now. We have a lot more interaction than just once a month. There are texts going back and forth or emails several times a week.Being a part of a mastermind shows you that other people are going through the same business challenges. Click To Tweet
Tell us a little bit about the masterminds because that’s an exciting and unusual thing to see in associations. It’s impressive. I’d like to know a little bit more about some of the takeaways that you’ve had from being a part of that mastermind.
It’s very much like you said. It’s knowing that there are other people going through the same challenges in business that I am. Sometimes it can feel lonely. You don’t feel like you can always talk with your employees about it. My wife works in our business. She’s a good person to bounce things off of but it’s nice to have that outside perspective as well. We have a facilitator for the mastermind groups. Each of us commits and puts our signature to a confidentiality agreement at the beginning that we’re not going to go telling everybody else about the woes, the good or bad of the people that we’re talking with. We were planning to get-together in person, but because of COVID that didn’t happen.
Some of us have met at various trade shows or that kind of stuff. The camaraderie is very good. Somebody who is looking to hire another salesperson said, “Before I do this, that I’d like to probably revise the job description. Does anybody have one?” Within a few hours, 3 or 4 of us shot our job descriptions off to him. We copied everybody. Now, we all have these things and I haven’t yet had time to read through in detail the others. I think there’s some good information there that I can tweak ours and make it better too.
When I was 25, I joined a mastermind group for the first time. It’s a trade-based one where it was a whole bunch of collision center owners all across the country which is noncompeting. The guard goes down and all the numbers flow. You’re exactly right. You got people inside your own business and stuff that you can chat about to a certain level, but there’s something about having an outside influence. It’s more than just an outside influence. It’s a consistent outside influence from the same people that love, know you and care about you. They don’t sell you nothing. They don’t pitch you nothing. They’re your friend in business. That completely transformed several of my views of the way business works and learning what other real entrepreneurs were doing. That’s amazing that you guys have those throughout your association there.
It’s a cool benefit. I think one of the biggest values for me is that at the end of every session and we do a Zoom call, it’s an hour and a half. We’re always asked, “What are your takeaways and what are you going to do as a result of it?” Those are all written down. We know that when we come back the next month, we’re going to get asked what we did about it.
We spend all day long holding everybody else accountable. Even though as entrepreneurs, we do our best to be accountable. We say to our employees that they can call us out if we didn’t do that. The reality is sometimes they’re not as forthcoming as we are to them, even when we tried to create that open honest culture. I love the masterminds. That’s amazing that NARI has that. You’ve gotten to experience all this through the association. You’re seeing different businesses interact, how they function and stuff. What is something that you see that holds all the businesses back? What’s a major thing that you’re like, “I see a pattern in this?”
It is a skilled labor shortage. I know that’s not unique to the remodeling industry, but it’s a pretty big deal. Most people that I talk to, we could be doing more business and more volume if we could find the tradespeople to produce it. That’s not something that’s going to get fixed overnight. Those conversations need to happen with our local schools, probably starting at the middle school, junior high school level, and realizing that college is not for everyone. I don’t have anything bad to say about college. I did one year before I dropped out. It was a good year. I don’t regret doing that at all. Life took me in a different direction.
I have spoken for the last few years at Arizona State’s career technical education conference. Due to COVID, it got canceled. I was on the docket for being one of the main speakers there. It’s challenging the school system to look at college a little bit different. Let me get on a soapbox for just a second because I’m not against college at all. In fact, I think it’s done a lot of great things, but the numbers are the numbers. I can’t speak for the whole nation because I live here in Arizona and I studied Arizona to prepare for these speeches. When you look at high school graduates that don’t go to college and high school graduates that don’t finish their first year of college. Those two categories make up about 70% of the population. What I’ve pushed for years is to transform our messaging that just because you’ve chosen a different route other than college, it doesn’t mean you’re destined to dig ditches for the rest of your life.
I don’t believe that every student that performed at C level or below is not intelligent. I believe that the school system wasn’t designed for their intelligence. What I mean by that is some people are very hands-on and tactical. I’ve been out there working with guys in the field. They look at it and draw something with a chalk on the ground fast. They say, “If you did this little thing, this connection will hold that. It will slip and it will fall into place.” They got Geometry, Physics and all these complex things. They could never in a million years articulate that in a textbook. They just look at you like, “This easy.”
They pull out a piece of chalk out of their pocket and scribble it right on the concrete out on this job site. It took Trigonometry and I don’t know what all those other big things to figure it out. I love that you’re passionate about that. I believe that we’ve undersold many people and we could increase our potential in the market. When I run the steel company, we started working with the high schools and attracting a lot of kids out of it. There were a lot of kids that didn’t have the ambition. They didn’t see college as the way to go. You can make a real good living in the trades.
A lot of the work I do is working with employers to help them attract good people. Sometimes it is kids right out of college. I know that there are a lot of arguments on both sides about why kids are not getting into the trades. There’s a lot of promotion from organizations like Build Your Future and these local co-ops to get kids attracted to the trades. One of the things that I want to suggest is a lot of what’s going on and the difficulty, I feel that business owners have done it to themselves. They haven’t kept up with the times. The unfortunate truth is, Dennis, I don’t know about your area but out here in Arizona, whether you want to believe it or not, Amazon is a direct competitor of the trades when it comes to hiring good people. I can make $15 an hour and I can sit in an air-conditioned living room and answer calls. One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen with a lot of businesses in the trades is that they haven’t stepped up and said, “We are now competing against Amazon for talent.”
One of the easiest things we can do is realize that almost 90% of job seekers are online looking for jobs. If they can’t find our jobs, we’re going to have a tough time recruiting them, whether it’s an apprenticeship program or it’s just general labor or even the skilled craft worker. I’d like to ask, what are some of the things that you’ve seen around that? It sounds like you’re very passionate about the skilled labor shortage and helping businesses overcome that. What are some of the things that you’ve seen work and some of the things that you have seen not work that we need to stop doing as an industry?
Some of them are what you guys have already talked about. For the most part, it’s going to start with local. It’s grassroots. Each of us as business owners of a small blue-collar industry should get involved in our local schools and the trade schools as well to get the word out there. I hadn’t thought about Amazon as a competitor, but you’re exactly right. What I think about in our area. We are in the biggest meat-packing area for that kind of industry East of the Mississippi River. Both pork and beef are local here. They got big banners out front that are telling you that you start at anywhere from $17.75 an hour to $24.50. They’re herding for employees too, but they’re doing their part to put it out there.
One of the challenges at least in the home improvement industry, few people are interested in growing their business all that large. Some of that is because by and large, we don’t have the leadership skills and management skills. Many of us want to continue working with the tools and that somewhat limits us, unless you want to hire a general manager or somebody to take that on for you. That’s one aspect. How do you learn those skills? First, you have to have interests. You’re exactly right, Ryan, that if they don’t find us online or by some other method, how do they even know that it’s a possibility or that it’s an option? Just the thing of talking to the young people at my church, we got three young men who are working with us now.
They go to our church, but that’s the way it is. Most of us connect with people who are in your circles in some way and going outside of them. The local chamber of commerce, letting people there know that you’re looking for people. Getting involved like Jeremy talked about there in Arizona. I imagine Pennsylvania has something similar, but I’m not aware of it because I haven’t been involved. Career days at the local high schools and the tech schools. It’s getting the word out in that way.
One other thing that I’ve seen that held a lot of the trade businesses back in this recruiting effort and the war on talent is they’ve struggled to communicate the why behind going into the trades. Some of that almost sounds white-collar-ish. Other organizations have clearly communicated, “We’re going to do this.” I’ve worked with a lot of different companies to establish, “Why on Earth are you even working here? What are you doing?” One particularly I think of is another steel story. I was driving with a superintendent and we’re riding along here in Phoenix. It’s a large spread-out town. He started telling me, “I helped build that.”One of the challenges, at least in the home improvement industry, is that few people are interested in growing their business. Click To Tweet
Finally, he’s sharing all these stories. I was like, “I helped built Phoenix.” There’s some pride in that. Forget this stupid job. When we can connect that person to something, they can become passionate about it because people are looking to belong to something. I find it in the trades all the time like, “We are transforming the way that plumbing supply chains work.” I have a client that’s working on that. That’s what they’re doing there. They’re not just selling plumbing supplies. They’re transforming the way plumbing supply chains work. That’s their goal. They can rally a team around it. They can pull people in and they’re like, “No, I get $15 at Amazon. I get $15 here, but here we’re going to make a difference.” My boss is helping me and they’re transforming it. It’s so much more fun. I know that work is not about being fun, but we do need to be clear about why are we doing this? That’s one area that I see that the trades has struggled to articulate.
I’m thinking outside of the box. I have one guy that works with us for years. He went to college for three years. He didn’t finish, but he was an art major. He didn’t know which field. Is that going to be painting, drawing or ceramics? It turns out the medium that he does that gives him an opportunity for his artistic creative is doing remodeling work. He does beautiful finished carpentry work and cabinets. Letting people know that they have that opportunity. On the design side, on the interior design schools and so forth, that’s another way of showing your artistic ability. For some people, they want to be able to work with the tools. Once they’re introduced to them, it takes off from there.
Summing up this because we had some good conversation here. There are several points for our readers out there that you can take a look at your recruiting efforts and say, “Are we doing everything we can?” As Dennis said, “Are we involved in our local communities, schools and our circle of influence? Are we active in an association where we’re learning best practices, job descriptions, or right things around that? Are we communicating the why behind what we’re doing? Are we making sure that it’s visible online and areas that they would spend time in? Are we comparing our ads to those of equal salary compensation and not just our trade?”
Look at your whole entire recruiting effort from that perspective. Maybe you’ll find some areas that you can go and take it off to the next level. What I’d like to do now, Dennis, is we’ve challenged you in a lot of different ways. We asked you a lot of different questions. I would love for you from the association perspective to say what’s something you would love to challenge our audience to go do, to take action and to review?
The core purpose of NARI is to increase professionalism within the remodeling industry. Unfortunately, in most states, the ease of becoming a remodeling or home improvement contractor is pretty easy. I do sincerely believe most people know the trade that they’re going to be working with, but they don’t understand the business side of things. That’s what gets them in trouble. That’s why some contractor from our industry ends up pulling 20/20 or 60 minutes every year as the contractor who took people’s money and didn’t finish the job.
Unfortunately, we can’t change what everyone does. NARI teaches people how to be good business people, how to treat your clients and employees fairly, and put systems and processes in place to be able to do that so that you don’t have to work night and day. Being a small business owner shouldn’t be a 24/7 thing. There is life outside of work. You’re a better person when you realize that. You have hobbies and have time for family and to give back to your community in doing that kinds of things. When you get to the point where hopefully you’ll be able to retire financially, you don’t have to think about what you’re going to do because you have some other things rather than saying, “I don’t know. I’ve just worked all my life. I guess I’ll just sit here.” In my mind, that’s a recipe for somebody who soon passes away.
I hear that challenge is saying, “Go out there and figure out what your passions are.” Particularly for those that are in the remodeling industry to restore professionalism back to it. Normally, we let the challenge just sit there and let the audience do it. I’m going to flip it back on you just a little bit here if that’s okay. How is NARI helping increase the professionalism of the remodeling industry?
The first thing that people be aware of when they submit an application for membership, part of what you need to put your signature to and commit to is a code of ethics that says you’re going to do the right things. I don’t have these memorized but if people want to see any of this information, they could go to NARI.org. It’s all there. There’s a consumer side as well as a contractor side to that. We’re doing it by putting the information out there. We can’t force people to read it, to take the webinars and those kinds of things. There are lots of great information. We have our fall educational conference. It’s going to be virtual. This is the first time we’ve done that. Typically, that’s an in-person meeting somewhere in the country. There’s still time. People can register to that even up to the last minute if they want to.
As I said, head knowledge is good, but you have to put it into action. When you go to a conference, there’s no way you can ever put everything into action that you learn. Pick 1 or 2 items and then focus on those. The next time you come back, you hear maybe some new things or you hear something again. It’s a work in process. You have many years in business. We have a lot of good things going for us here. There are still areas for improvement. Some of that is because I have a thick head and I need to hear things a whole bunch of times. Too often, it’s learning because we lost a lot of money because we did it that way. If we change how we’re doing things, hopefully that won’t happen again.
The best mistakes to learn from are other people’s. Unfortunately, that’s not the ones we typically choose to learn from. What I hear is NARI’s goal and mission is to increase the professionalism of the remodeling industry. They do that through conferences where you’re going to get tons of great information too much to even absorb and execute all of it, but you’re going to get tons of that. You have weekly newsletters. You have industry involvement and industry best practices. You even have a mastermind to pull a lot of that accountability into the real world to change them. It’s all compiled around the code of ethics and making a difference in the remodeling industry. Is that how you see it?
You summed it up very well. Thank you.
For everybody that’s out there reading and is in the remodeling industry, I’m going to put it passionately. I know Dennis probably wouldn’t say it as strong as I’m getting ready to say it, go to NARI.org and join up because we do need to change the way we look at the trades. If we change the way our professionalism, if we change the way we act, if we changed the way we communicate, it is going to help us to solve that biggest problem that’s holding us back and that’s hiring. Dennis, it’s been good having you. I’ve enjoyed this. I look forward to anything in the future.
Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it as well. I appreciate your time.
Mentioned in this episode:
About Dennis Gehman
Founder of Gehman Design Remodeling, Dennis Gehman brings over 30 years of experience in the construction industry. When you meet him, you’ll instantly feel welcomed, respected, and understood. You’ll connect with him immediately. Humble and mild-mannered, Dennis focuses on the big picture as well as the small details on how to best serve you. As GDR’s President, Dennis’s role requires him to wear many hats. As a Remodeling Consultant, he listens closely to your needs, wants, and ideas to translate, through his design and construction experience, into a project that will meet or exceed your expectations. While ultimately the buck stops with Dennis, he’s grateful for the team members who do an excellent job in handling things so that projects can continue without needing to wait for him. Working at GDR is an absolute joy for Dennis as he enjoys interacting with clients working with the experience of our team to achieve the goals for each project. As GDR continues to embrace its “green” journey, so is Dennis. While some are going green for the cost-saving and environment-preserving benefits, Dennis believes this way of life is simply a way to show his gratitude toward being on this earth. “To me, being green reminds me of how God has blessed us with beautiful earth to live on and take care of. The least I can do as part of my worship to Him is to be a good steward of what I have control over.” Dennis is the husband of wife Glenda, proud father of grown sons Elijah and Aaron and daughters Kaela and Teesha. He is a charter member of Bucks-Mont NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) and a member of the National Kitchen and Bath Association. Dennis devotes a significant portion of his life to giving back to the community, as he served as a past board chair and is currently a building committee member for Spruce Lake Retreat and a board member for Greater Philadelphia Joni and friends. In 1986, Dennis and his wife Glenda became founding members of the Covenant Community Fellowship. He is a graduate of Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, attended Eastern Mennonite University in Camping, Recreation & Youth Ministry. Outside the construction industry, Dennis worked as a Christian camp counselor and a Program Director at a Christian camp. When he’s not at the office or volunteering his time for an important cause (multiple ones in his case), Dennis can be found reading, camping, and motorcycle riding.