"Many of these folks are now interested in improving their business skills, whether it's marketing or leadership or job costing or sales," says Humphrey, who has been a contractor and a consultant to the industry since 1988. "Of course the technical aspect of doing a quality job is always there and will always be there, but there's no question there's been an increased interest in and awareness of the management side of the business, and I think National Pavement Expo and Pavement magazine have definitely helped breed that."
By appearing more professional and by running a more respectable-looking operation these contractors often were able to command higher prices. Professionalism, respectability, reliability, and job quality helped differentiate some contractors from others, so contractors essentially created a tiered system in which some contractors appeared to be better, more professional, and more reliable than others.
This is not to say that contractors who didn't (or don't) follow that business approach are not reliable or that they don't do quality work. But it does say that all of a sudden price was not the only selling point. And when price becomes only one of several factors in the buying decision, the other factors -- professionalism, image, references, relationships, repeat customers, participation in local and national organizations, among others - became increasingly important to contractors and their customers. That made marketing an even more important aspect of running a paving and pavement maintenance business.
Humphrey points out that "professionalism" means different things to different people, but the overall impact is that contractors are thinking about it and trying to make the effort to make their own company more professional - whatever that means for them.
"I really enjoy speaking with contractors at the NPE shows because I get an opportunity to talk with contractors who take all different kinds of approaches to their business," Humphrey says. "Some are small companies, some are large and fairly sophisticated operations, and some are the mom-and-pop type businesses. But they all are trying to figure out how to solve a problem or how to do things better - how to become more professional.
"Professionalism is probably the umbrella under which all of this falls," Humphrey says. "The contractors as a group seem to take more pride in what they do, and that reflects into just about every aspect of their business - and the industry."
Image Becomes Important
As contractors began to develop the management side they began to market the company and to define the company as different from their competition. "Over the years there has been a much more coordinated marketing effort on the part of many contractors," Humphrey says. This lead directly to an increased importance on establishing a cohesive brand image for each contractor.
"Twenty-five years ago you'd say 'branding' to most of these people and they'd look at you like a deer caught in the headlights, but branding is now an accepted part of running a contracting business," Humphrey says. "It was probably inevitable that this was going to happen - these are bright guys after all. But branding means more than just getting a logo. You brand yourself by everything you do, by the quality of work you do, by your reputation, and I'm not sure that part of branding has gotten through."
Many contractors pursue this on their own, developing great logos and marketing pieces built around a corporate or even annual "theme."
But some contractors who don't feel they have the expertise or the time for such marketing are turning to other "branding" approaches and recent years have seen a boom in that area. Vanity phone numbers such as 1-800-PAVEMENT and 1-800-ASPHALT offer contractors an easy-to-remember brand complete with contact information (along with marketing support), and many contractors have found success with this approach. Other organizations such as Black Dawg (and its new pooch Yellow Dawg), National Paving, and the Pavement Network - while different business models from one another - offer structured opportunities that help contractors brand their company within a specific framework.
Jeff Stokes, Next Level Contractor System, who with Humphrey had been a contractor and also a consultant to contractors since 1988, has both witnessed some changes and prodded contractors to make them, and his take on branding is insightful.