If you’re a contractor, how do you handle tough economic times and a downturn in business? Over the past few years, many contractors have circled their wagons — even taking the occasional break-even or money-losing job as a way to keep their crews busy and their doors open. Stories about good, quality contractors going out of business have not been uncommon during our current economic doldrums.
In 2008, L.J. Ickes and Joe Quick, brothers and co-owners of Artistic Concrete Coatings Inc. in Wapakoneta, Ohio, took a look at the economy and decided it was time to diversify their business. They already had a unique arrangement. Ickes was the hands-on guy, installing decorative concrete, and Quick ran the distribution side of the business, marketing and selling concrete sealers and stains. Even though the business was holding its own, Quick wanted to develop his own line of products. In late 2009, they unveiled a line of specialty concrete products under the brand The Concrete Protector.
Change is what they do. Quick and Ickes started in business together in 1998 as a commercial pressure washing company. After attending a decorative concrete training event in 2000, they decided to go in that direction.
“It wasn’t long after we started doing decorative concrete that we realized there was a market for distribution of quality concrete products,” says Quick. “I guess we both have a bit of the perfectionist in us, and the varying quality of specialty concrete products, like sealers, dyes and stains, was pretty annoying. Manufacturing companies seemed to all claim that they had the best product on the market, but in practice, we never knew if a product was going to perform as advertised until we actually used it. Quite often, the products simply didn’t perform.”
The brothers decided that when they found a product that worked, they wanted to share it with other contractors. They became distributors of products that they believed in. In addition to distributing products, they developed training programs and a troubleshooting hotline.
“It has worked out really well,” says Quick. “L.J. prefers the installation side of the business, and I like the distribution and training aspects. We started out distributing penetrating sealers and equipment. We started the training programs shortly after that.”
The beauty of the arrangement between the brothers is that they won’t sell a product until Ickes tries it out and gives it his seal of approval. And Ickes is no run-of-the-mill installer. His work with simulated hardwood flooring was featured in the Artistry in Decorative Concrete demos at the 2011 World of Concrete trade show in Las Vegas.
Though both admit they occasionally butt heads, they appreciate each other’s skills.
“There have been times when I’ve really liked a product and wanted to arrange a distribution agreement, but L.J. advised against it, sometimes adamantly. We’ve had a few moments of brotherly disagreement,” says Quick. “In the end though, I’m always confident that if he likes a product other contractors will too.”
One thing they have always agreed on is constantly experimenting and expanding.
“We might not always agree on how to go about trying new things, but it seems like it always works out in the end,” says Ickes.
The leap into manufacturing
“We absolutely had to be in agreement when we decided to make the leap into manufacturing our own products,” says Quick. “We knew it was going to be a long process with a lot of trial and error. We didn’t know it would take two years and about $100,000.”
The brothers reduced their own salaries to the bare minimum. They asked the installation side of the business to pick up the slack during the product development process. The installation crew bought in wholeheartedly.
“We couldn’t have done this without the support of our employees,” says Quick. “They carried us during a pretty tense two years.”
Quick knew what he wanted: a product line of sealers and sealer/stain combinations that wouldn’t wear away in a few short years, creating a need for constant reapplication. He wanted something that would make concrete easier to clean and be salt-resistant, UV-resistant, stain-resistant and environmentally responsible.
“In the end, our team of chemists and other experts came through, and now we offer a line of products that we believe can stand up against any in the industry,” says Quick.
After two years of trials, samples and field tests, Quick unveiled The Concrete Protector line of sealers in 2009.
If the simulated hardwood floors are a signature of the installation side of the business, customer service and training is the signature of the manufacturing and distribution side. Quick and Ickes understand that no matter how good a sealer or stain is, there are always going to be competing companies offering high-quality products. Consequently, they decided to offer 24-hour, 7-days-a-week customer support.
They are also dedicated to delivering as quickly as possible.
“We know we have a good product,” says Ickes. “But I think what sets us apart is the service that goes with it. If someone calls with an installation issue, either I or one of my more experienced crew members gets back to them within an hour.”
Paul Bowser, owner of Artistic Concrete Coatings, an unaffiliated company in Kansas City, Mo., collaborates with Quick to test new products. “Whenever Joe develops something new, I know L.J. uses it first, and if he likes it then I and a guy on the East Coast try it to see how it stands up in different climates. It seems like Joe is always testing and researching something. What I really appreciate is how quick he is to jump on any issues that come up.”
And Ickes continues to innovate on the artistic side, often using the products that he and Quick developed. “Some of my favorite techniques are The Concrete Protector’s Metallic Stain and Epoxy Tile,” he says. “We’ve also recently developed a Stained Venetian and Tuscan Slate Tile, as well as Protector Image Logos.”
More than the techniques, Ickes simply seems to enjoy creating unique finished work. “Joe and I definitely approach business differently. That, however, is the secret to our successful business model,” he says. “I approach each floor like an artist approaches a canvas, giving each customer a one-of-a-kind floor that they can enjoy for a long time.”