Adventures in the Trade
The War of the Stairs
Photo by Mark Olsen from Unsplash
Adventures in the Trade
War of the Stairs
Photo by Mark Olsen from Unsplash
By Jason Nottestad
When you take over a role in a company, you assume responsibility for the world your predecessor has created. Whether it’s operating systems, customer relationships, staff makeup, or product offering, you must learn quickly how to understand your new environment. If the business is successful, what actions should you continue so it remains successful? If the business is headed downhill, what needs to change? One company I joined was having lead-time issues and wanted to know how to shorten them. It turned out they had eight people in sales and four people in production. Our template person would show up for a measure and the customer (who’d been without countertops for weeks) assumed the install, not the template, was taking place that day. We only avoided a one-star YELP rating by being in the age before social media. By adding staff, installing temporary tops, and setting realistic customer expectations, we were able to get the problem under control. Sometimes the transition issues go beyond basic business and enter the land of the absurd. One time I returned from a template to find a normally busy shop completely empty and my assistant manager sitting at his desk, stunned. It turned out that a mouse turd had been found near the mound of sugar the crew kept on the breakroom table to put in their coffee. The fab-shop leader had told the crew that his uncle died when a rat peed on his food … so they all headed down to the small-town ER in a panic, convinced their lives were at risk. I raced down to do damage control and was lucky the doctor on duty had a good sense of humor. After a quick check up, he assured us all the crew was perfectly healthy. The next day the crew received a canister for their sugar.
Photo by Joshua J. Cotten from Unsplash
Possibly a relative of the mouse that started the Great Shop ER Stampede.
I thought the surprises were behind me. I was wrong. Sometimes a transition involves cleaning up a mess.
Taking over the management of another company, I learned quickly that the sales price for the product was less than half the cost of production. This was surprising, as the company was busy and looked prosperous. The bidding process, supply methods, and product mix needed to be adjusted for the company to turn in the right direction. Once these things were underway, I thought the surprises were behind me. I was wrong. Sometimes a transition involves cleaning up a mess. I’d been with the company for over a year when the controller forwarded me an email from a general contractor addressed to the former manager. The message was letting him know the project we’d been awarded was progressing well and he’d like us to visit the site in the next couple of weeks to take measurements. No one in our office knew anything about this job, but after a little digging we discovered the documentation for it in a series of old email exchanges. As it turned out, the project was a new elementary school at a military base and consisted of countertops, stair treads, and tile for the stairway landings. The contract the former manager had signed was underbid to the point where we wouldn’t even cover the cost of the material, let alone our travel expenses and installation labor. It was ridiculous, but the contract was signed. Not performing would allow the GC to find a comparable product and supplier and charge us for their work. Because we had a unique product, and our biggest competitor was clear across the country, doing the work and taking the loss would probably be cheaper. The fact that it was on a military base became a complicating factor. There were many members of the staff I now managed who would not be allowed on a military base (a situation that’s pretty common in the stone industry.) In fact, there were just two of us that could go: myself and one of the managers, Jorge. Jorge had come to the country with his family as a child and overstayed his tourist visa. Working since he was fourteen, he was able to get his citizenship during an amnesty program. He and I would have to complete this project. I flew out the next week to inspect the site and measure the countertops and stair treads. It was early summer, and the vacation season was in swing. The rental-car company was out of cars and wouldn’t have any until the following morning, which turned out to be a sign from the gods if there ever was one. I got a hotel room and slept a few hours, returning early to get a car and make my morning meeting with the general contractor’s project manager. We met at another school project the contractor had going near the base. I didn’t think anything of it until he showed me the areas for this school we’d contracted to install later on in the year. The fact we had two jobs was another surprise, but I tried not to let on, knowing full well when we found the contract this one would also be a loss.
Photo by Jason Nottestad
The first part of the installation included We installed a recycling center top and a front desk countertop with only a few trims. No problem.
I assured him it was not going to be an issue, but I must have been less than convincing. He was still nervous as we departed.
Photo by Jason Nottestad
Then we started working on the floor, which led to ....
I feigned familiarity with the project and bluffed my way through as well as I could, happy when he decided we should head to the project I actually knew about. I began to wonder how many more of these surprises there were in store for me. I’d never been on a military base before, so he helped me through the process. The document and ID check went quickly, and we were through to the jobsite in no time. The atmosphere was relaxed and, thankfully, all the millwork was in place and ready to be measured for countertops. For a moment I thought the installation might not go so badly. But looking at the central staircase, where we had to do the treads and tile on the landings, I noticed how busy it was. All the contractors used the central staircase. It was a steady stream of up-and-down tradespeople. There were two additional staircases at each end of the building, but those were far away from where most of the work was going on and inefficient to use. I could see right away that blocking off the staircase was going to be an issue. Measurements in hand, I ended my visit and traveled back to our shop. Production took a couple of weeks. When the truck and trailer was loaded and ready to go, Jorge seemed a little nervous. Most of his work had been in the area surrounding our shop. This installation was a hike. He’d never been on a military base either. I assured him it was not going to be an issue, but I must have been less than convincing. He was still nervous as we departed. It was a 16-hour trip and we were driving over the weekend to be there early on Monday morning. We were hoping to complete the install in three days and be back home the following weekend. The first leg of the drive went well and we were nearing our hotel for the night when we ran into a sobriety checkpoint. They were small-town cops and the ‘flashlights in the eyes’ routine was in full performance. They asked us a bunch of questions and Jorge was a bit freaked out. Their thick country accent made them tough to understand. I was trying to be a team player in the hope it would help us on our way, but they just wanted to be intimidating. They took our IDs and were gone for a while. They returned and after a few more flashlights in the cab, let us go on our way.
The base shot off a cannon for reveille. We both jumped, and Jorge went pale with the surprise.
The balance of the trip was uneventful, and we got up early on Monday and headed to the base. I knew the routine for the base check-in, but after the whole cop routine at the checkpoint, Jorge was nervous again. We completed the paperwork and ID check and waited for our passes to enter the base. It took longer than the first time I’d entered, and every minute seemed a trial. We sat in an awkward silence, as if we’d done something wrong and were waiting for the punishment. Much to our relief, they eventually called us up and issued our passes. We had just stepped out of the check-in building when, a block away, the base shot off a cannon for reveille. The boom echoed off every hard surface around us. We both jumped, and Jorge went pale with the surprise. The trumpets blaring through the PA system was a second surprise. I thought his knees were going to give out, and it took him our five-minute drive to the school site to recover himself. When we arrived, we found the relaxed atmosphere of my previous visit was gone. The school had to open in a few weeks, and suddenly the deadline was looming over everyone. Military and school officials inspecting the work seemed to be everywhere. The project manager greeted us and asked right away when we planned on completing everything. My answer of ‘this week’ wasn’t good enough. He wanted us out of there on Wednesday. And we needed to get the countertops done ASAP so the millwork and tile guys could finish. When I asked where we could trim pieces, he directed me to the back of the property, beyond the playground equipment and soccer field and next to a newly created tree line. We couldn’t get dust anywhere near the school at this point apparently. “You want us done by Wednesday but put us out here in East Jesus to work?” I asked him. He didn’t think that was funny. Our two long extension cords together barely reached to the hot, shadeless patch of southern dust. But there was no arguing. “East Jesus?” asked Jorge. The countertops went relatively quickly at first. We installed a recycling center top and a front desk countertop with only a few trims. The office area had curved countertops and several seams. We battled some hastily installed millwork and set the tops as quickly as possible to end the first day. When we moved on to the stairs the next morning, the difficulties began.
Photo by Jason Nottestad
... the stairway of infamy.
Contractors who tried to use the stairs and said ‘No English’ to me were soon getting cursed at by Jorge.
Photos by Jason Nottestad
To try and protect the floor and the treads (above) we tried to stop traffic (below).
Photos by Jason Nottestad
After we left, the workers took no time turning the job into a sea of lippage.
As soon as we set the first tread and put up a yellow caution tape at the top and bottom of the stairs, we were ‘in the way’ of the other contractors. They ignored the yellow tape like it didn’t exist, jumping over and around us on their way up and down the staircase. This was a minor annoyance for the first couple of treads, but as we began to set more, they couldn’t jump over them and began to walk on the freshly set treads. The epoxy mortar we were using to set them was a little slippery until it cured. A person walking up a tread wouldn’t move it, but a person walking down the stairs caused the treads to slide a little. This was going to be a problem. I called over the GC and told him we had to block the staircase for everyone, especially once we began setting tile. He begrudgingly agreed. We set up a crossed pattern of caution tape at the top and bottom of the stairs, only taking it down when we needed to haul a tread up to its final resting place. When the first flight of treads was set, we began with the tile on the first landing. We were constantly being interrupted by contractors asking if they could use the stairs. They didn’t like no for an answer, but that’s what they got. After the first couple of times people tried to worm their way through the caution tape or take it down. I began to get nasty. Curse words began to fly, and every trip out to the hot wasteland of East Jesus made me more cross. The contractors who tried to use the stairs and said ‘No English’ to my tirade were soon getting cursed at by Jorge. To add to the misery, I had to shim open the rear doors of the school to get back in after a trip to East Jesus- as they locked automatically. The pissed-off contractors began to pull out my shim, forcing me to pound on the door until Jorge heard the noise and came over to let me in, leaving the stairs unattended and vulnerable to enemy infiltration. Near the end of the second day, we’d had enough. I went to the nearest Home Depot and bought some hardboard to block the way. There wasn’t anything we were allowed to attach it to, so we taped it in place and left, as working hours at the base being limited. Arriving the next morning, we found our landing tile had been stepped on- they were slid and depressed into the mortar. I fumed. Luckily there was still enough give left in the mortar for us to pry up and clean the tiles and reset them. I found the project manager and told him what had happened, so it could be brought up at the morning site meeting. There was a deafening silence when the question arose as to who had been on the stairs and messed up our tile. Jorge and I steeled ourselves for the upcoming battle. Our barricade became more elaborate. The hardboard panel on the bottom was backed up by caution tape across each stair tread and a panel across the first landing. We created a No-Man’s-Land where no contractor could venture without being loudly and bilingually cursed at by two stone guys. Heads turned our way on several occasions. Jorge’s nervous apprehensions were gone, replaced by determination to not let anyone ruin our work. We finished the second set of treads and began on the final stretch of the tile on the upper landing. The mood at the school was shifting into a rush to finish, and we had become the enemy impeding progress. Every trip I took to East Jesus was now met with a locked back door and sometimes a maniacally grinning contractor giving me the finger. Our anger carried us through. The other contractors may win a few battles, but we were going to triumph in this war. We finished up the tile on Thursday and brought over the project manager, military rep, and school principal to see the completed work. Everyone was satisfied. We also took pictures. Lots of pictures. We left our No-Man’s-Land intact and headed for home. A week later I got a call from the project manager telling me that some of the tiles were uneven and presented a trip hazard for the kids. He emailed me a photo of the damaged section where the contractors had walked on our tile before the mortar was set. I emailed him back photos of the work as we left it, along with an estimate for Jorge to travel out and repair the damage. The next day we received an approval of the estimate. Jorge was on his way back out. His trip would be the only profitable part of the job.