For contractors who specialize in short-cycle jobs—of a few days’ duration—long-standing relationships with installing subcontractor crews keep the work turning. There’s no mystery as far as their skill level or the quality of their work goes, and no surprises as far as what they’re like on the job and interacting with homeowners.

But finding new crews—good ones—takes work. Scott Barr, owner of  Southwest Exteriors, in San Antonio, which uses six three-man siding crews, says that it takes a new crew 90 days to install to his company’s quality level, and “a year before they can do anything above the average degree of difficulty”—which is why he goes to some lengths to keep those crews once he has them.

Kicking Butt = Money and Work

As the economy once more gathers steam—a new index published last month by the Federation of Independent Businesses shows small-business optimism at a level equal to what it was just before the 2008 recession—many contractors are already seeing intensified competition for installation crews. In my experience,” Barr says, “these guys get recruited all the time.”

Crews keep coming back if the work is there and the pay’s right. “If I have a guy who’s kicking butt for me, he’s going to have money and work,” says Steven Jones, owner of  Tulsa Renew, in Tulsa, Okla. Money is the biggie. Barr says that he sweetens the deal by paying crews twice a week.

“Subcontractors are most loyal to the paycheck and their income,” says Bob Quillen, owner of  Quillen Bros. Windows, in Bryan, Ohio. As he looks to recruit new installers for a recently opened branch in Fort Wayne, Ind., Quillen says that he’s mindful of the fact that some companies “treat employees one way, and subcontractors another.” That is, they act as if subs are expendable, even while they fear losing them.

Keeping Them Close 

But keeping subs close is about managing them like employees—that is, acknowledging them as individuals, setting clear expectations, providing feedback—even while clearly and continually defining their status as independent contractors. Here’s what some companies do:

  • Invest in their success. Keeping good crews, Jones says, requires “a lot of give on the contractor’s part.” That means matching the job and scope of work to skill levels, and training when needed. “The old-school way was that if they’re not doing it, get rid of them,” he says. The new thinking is that “there aren’t a lot of guys out there, so set them up for success.”
  • Get the right sub to the right job. That benefits both client and installer. And it’s not just about aligning construction skills with scope of work. “We take a lot of time to make sure we’re pairing the right customer with the right subcontractor,” says Jason Kersch, sales manager at Major Homes, in Queens, N.Y. Demanding customer? Meticulous installer.
  • Celebrate that success. Reborn Cabinets, an Anaheim, Calif., kitchen and bath operation that typically uses 50 electrical, plumbing, tile, countertop, and drywall subcontractors, holds quarterly subcontractor meetings that last two to three hours, where installers can go over situations and issues in the field. The company also awards a plaque each quarter based on customer surveying and performance reporting company GuildQuality’s scores and the evaluation of Reborn’s subcontractor coordinator.
  • Acknowledge excellent work, and reward it when appropriate. Since Tulsa Renew promises homeowners a top-quality siding job, and since that quality depends on the installer, Jones is happy to pay a bonus to crews on nicely profitable jobs. “I’m going to make sure [the sub’s] taken care of,” Jones says. “And the best way to do that is financially.”
  • Manage the paperwork. Keeping independent installers loyal and fulfilled is smart business, but what if you have to prove to state or even federal auditors that the installers are independent? Have on file: their contractor licensing, or some other proof that the sub is a separate business entity; appropriate insurances; and subcontractor agreements. “Every year we review every personnel file to make sure that all the documentation is correct,” says John Schmotzer, owner of Metropolitan Windows, in Pittsburgh. That includes valid driver’s license and current Environmental Protection Agency lead paint certification.

REMODELING contributing editor Jim Cory is the former editor of REPLACEMENT CONTRACTOR.