Creating an installation division

Setting up a special division to install the product your company builds. July 9, 2002

I am investigating the possibility of developing an installation team as a division of my company. This team would not only serve my company, but also other companies in the industry. Does anyone have experience with this?

Forum Responses
From contributor A:
I was hired 6 months ago to set up and start an installation division in the company I now work for. I had been an installer and owned a company that had crews that subcontracted work from millwork companies. There are pros and cons for this creation of a division.

The economy is moving towards companies that can provide a complete service. Most contractors and homeowners want you to install what you provide. It keeps it simple for them.

You have control over the quality of the products you produce. If the installer screws up your work, it looks bad for you.

It is an effective way to improve your company's product. Direct feedback from your crews allows for this.

It eliminates the need for the superintendent to know your problems or shortcomings. Problems in the field do not go through the corporate chain. It eliminates the headache factor to a degree. It also lightens the PM job if you have a competent man in the field installing the job.

It reduces the need to pull guys from the shop to be put in the field.

Do not expect to hire 4 installers and expect them to go like gangbusters. If you are behind the 8 ball to begin with, you will have about 4 times the frustration than you need.

Be prepared to provide tooling for the guys you do hire. Sending them to the field ill-equipped only makes you look bad.

Learning curve for everyone will not be easy. Pointing fingers at the shop and blaming them is useless.

Hiring diversity, if you are a full service company, will be a challenge. If you do high-end and casework, do not expect a casework guy to be putting in 22-piece pre-finished cherry moldings.

These are just a few considerations - there are many more. Following are some pointers that may help you out.

Ensure that historical records are kept for installs. Let the lead installer work with the senior estimator on bids to ensure they are looking at the same thing. Lead should do walks with the PM to ensure any considerations in the manufacture of components for installation are taken into account.

Remember that when you do start the install, it no longer becomes the other guy's problem. We, as installers, bear the responsibility for making everyone look good. We do our best within whatever parameters we can and it all boils down to what can you sell.

I am also writing an installation SOP and troubleshooting guide for my installers so that they can make decisions based on my past experience. Judgement calls in the field will make you or break you. I wish I were omnipresent.

I'm the owner of an installation company in New York and have installed for the finest shops, fabricators and architects in the US. I have found that a millwork shop produces its profit by building, not installing - most of the time, they loose money on installing.

There is a completely different set of rules for installing in the field. Knowing what type of job site conditions, wall type, how to set benchmarks, access lines and how to use them, contractor preparation.

We have a six-man shop and do our own installs, sometimes four at a time. How the heck can I keep all the tools straight? I've tried marking sets, special caddies full of the essentials, locks, yelling and screaming, but I still end up driving 90 mph across town with a belt sander. A new CNC will save me hours of manufacturing time, but not until I get the installs under control.

From contributor B:
For installs, I have found that if each man has his own complete set of tools, he is most efficient. Sharing tools brings on real problems when nobody has responsibility for each tool. Who forgot the sander, or whatever?

A separate division can overcome this type of problem. The division must have a realistic tool budget to repair/replace tools and buy new ones as needed. Tools can make profit for you quicker than almost anything else you can do, as long as you are organized. If a man normally takes a half hour to fit something, and a tool can speed that up to 5 minutes, how long does it take to pay for that $100 tool?

Years ago I worked for a GC firm with separate cabinet shop and tool rental divisions. When tools were needed at a job, the tool rental division sent out what was requested. Rentals were charged against each job, ensuring prompt return and preventing requests for too many tools at one job. Foremen and project managers got bonuses based on profit; tool return became money in the pocket. There was also money for tool repairs, new tools, etc. This works in a big organization, but not well in small shops, though some principles could apply.

I like contributor B's suggestions. The idea of individual accountability sure has merit, and I bet the cost savings of having "tool sets" will ultimately offset the cost of the tools.

The trouble I've seen with shared tools is that the people who take care of them are penalized by the people who abuse them.

A good installer can generally make it happen even if the proper tools aren't available, but having the right tool saves time (especially if someone is ferrying forgotten tools around), and maybe as important, cultivates good attitude.

Of course, talking about it in theory is always easier then making it happen in real time. Laying out the cash to tool everyone up is a tough thing to do when it's your own pocket you're reaching into. My guess is that tooling everyone up works best when it's a few installers being considered... it would seem that outfitting a really big operation would require some "levels" to be established, with each site foreman being the one who is outfitted with the tools.

From the original questioner:
In further investigating my own question, here is what I have found so far.

1. Demand is high for installations primarily because the skills required to be a "good installer" are no longer taught in the various institutions that have woodworking programs. The emphasis is on the technology side. This is not necessarily a bad thing until it goes to extremes. The key here is balance. I think the solution is to come up with some sort of training program that marries the technology with the hands-on practical skills. If done correctly, a program might just be the ticket for a lot of us. I have already started to look at this seriously.

2. There seems to be a lack of professionalism when it comes to installing something on site. Let me give you a scenario. You have just bought a built-in wall unit and it needs to be installed. The manufacturer says no problem, he will send out two of his shop guys. Delivery time comes and the two "installers" come. One of them is wearing dirty jeans, a ripped t-shirt, and does not look like he has shaved in 3 days. The other, although slightly better, is also wearing jeans, an AC DC shirt and is smoking like a chimney. They mumble something about the wall unit and you frightfully let them in to do the job. Part way through the install, you ask one of the guys a question about a small nick in one of the doors. He turns to you and stares blankly (as if to say what do you want me to do about it?). You finally get an answer - "We'll see what we can do". Not exactly what you were looking for.

Does anyone get my point? I'm sure there are some companies out there who do not operate this way - fantastic! I'm sure there are other companies out there who don't think they operate this way - not so fantastic. All I am trying to say is we have to portray an image far beyond what is currently accepted for the Installer or Cabinetmaker. Any thoughts?

From contributor A:
It all comes to the economics of the matter. You get what you pay for. If you hire a $10 an hour guy, do not expect much more than a box lifter. He keeps his mouth shut and does what you direct him to do.

I seem to have a hard time explaining this concept to my boss, who hires these guys and looks at me and says "why don't you have it done yet?". I reply "Give me some qualified people." His response is "We can't afford it." We do what we can with what we have.

Why not ask your boss to give one of these guys his job? Then he can go golfing. After all, anybody can do anything, right? The old saying "You get what you pay for" applies to most things in life. Some people don't think about a person's abilities when they delegate jobs and responsibilities. I have worked for some like that. Some want the cheapest material and help and think it should come out right, regardless.

If they are really interested in the bottom line, insist you be given a chance, say for 6 months, to improve it. It will take a decent, honest trial to prove your worth. Make sure they understand that they need to invest some money, as well as their trust in you, but they will either see an improvement in the bottom line, or they can fire you and go on from there. Nothing builds confidence in a work crew like confident, intelligent leaders. Show this post to your boss and ask for a chance to do the job you were hired for. He is tying your hands and should know it. Let him put you in charge of the job he has given you. Or you find someone who will appreciate your intelligence and dedication. Those are qualities that are hard to find and easy to market if you need to move on.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor C:
I've been in the construction/cabinet/millwork buisness since the late 1960s, and things have changed considerably. In those days, we built the cabinets all on site, along with door jambs, window casings, millwork, etc. We were shop and installer all in one. I'm 57 now, and earn my keep installing custom cabinet/millwork, and still thoroughly enjoy a satisfied customer's praise.

I install for several shops as a seperate subcontractor, not as an employee, and for a reason. In the past, as an employee, I had a good crew most of the time (large turnover in shop industry). We delivered the job using crewcab diesel pickups, 20+ foot trailers with fold down rear ramp, and could hit the jobsite, unload, set up tools, power up, and install quickly yet proficiently and accurately, because we had the tools we needed whether the company supplied them or we got them ourselves. As with most jobs (commercial or residential), there were problems usually due to not fitting (unknown changes, poor measurements, etc.), so we would do what we had to expidite the job. Problems arose when the guys in the shop found out we were the can-do crew, and we would fix or repair problems passed on from the shop to the field. Management did not deal with the problem. So it became us, the installers, and them, the shop guys, and not a real team.

If you're developing a crew of installers, I believe the individual's desire, integrity and hustle is just as important as experience. Most shopworkers just don't like working in the field, and I believe it takes a special type of individual to deal with job sites, poor access, terrible power, icy cold or oven hot, unpleaseable superintendents and interior desecrators, along with all 14 subcontractors on the 6000 square foot job site wanting to work in the same closet you're working in. It's a totally different world out there than the shop enviornment. I've always believed it takes a really special type of individual to be able to be a boss, babysitter, psycologist, instructor/teacher, friend, loyal to the company and fellow workers. But without someone to create and maintain a real team, it dosn't have much of a chance.

Don't misunderstand - I have absolute respect for all those shops that are working hard to make a living and supplying jobs. It's a tough, competitive buisness. A company that decides to get into the installation of their products will have an edge over competition simply due to the fact that they have more control over the end product. Just remember, though - your installers basically represent your company with their ability to fit your product to the existing job. Get them the tools they need and listen to their comments about the problem on the job or mistakes with the cabinet construction, or things like a simple design change in the shop taking 10 minutes more, but saving your installers 60 minutes in the field, and producing a better looking job to boot.

Also, a neat trick I tried was to take a guy from the shop every so oftem as a helper so he could see what it's like out there, and see what those "minor" problems from the shop can cause in the field.