The calm before the storm...and thereafter

Recently Robert Varner with the Mississippi Ready Mix Association inquired about decorative concrete training in his state to increase awareness of the industry for local consumers as well as local contractors. Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi teaching stamped concrete, stamped overlays and acid staining at the association's facility.

Although attendance was down - probably due to the great weather most contractors were taking advantage of to make money - the training was good with some nice in-place permanent displays. We were fortunate to have one of the local decorative concrete contractors, Elliot Davis, and some of his employees from Decorative Concrete Designs, Inc. in attendance to offer a helping hand. We had prescribed our mix design for the class not realizing how fast the concrete would set up (we finished stamping this 5-yd. pad exactly one hour after the concrete was placed). Thanks to Elliot and crew, it came out nicely.

While driving to and from the training site each day, we observed the region's rebuilding process as well as much of the untouched debris left behind from the storm. The true devastation and economic impact this region had experienced really sunk in, and we wondered if the state, as well as local concrete contractors, would recover from this horrific freak of nature called Katrina.

So many of us "concrete junkies" take for granted our daily routine of being able to get up each and every day doing what we love while at the end of a hard day's work, coming home to our families and comfortable homes. Conversely, think about a once-thriving market producing your livelihood that no longer existed for years after the storm, let alone driving back to a now vacant lot with the only visible structure being a concrete foundation that you once called home!

That evening we went to a local restaurant and while waiting for Robert and Elliot to join us we were enjoying a cold beverage and asked the bartender what the painted line on the wall and ceiling represented. He informed us this was the water line from the storm surge - and oh, by the way, it was 13 ft. above their finished floor!

In any event, once we were seated I started questioning

Elliot, who had provided so much help earlier that day, about his business pre- and post-Katrina. I was so intrigued with his approach toward business and his positive attitude even after such destruction, that I asked our waitress for a pen and started asking him questions while taking notes on my napkin. Here are just a few of the questions I asked.

Bob Harris: How was your business before the storm?
Elliot Davis: Before the storm, business was thriving.?Work was at an all-time high, and the company was looking to start a third crew because of the high demand.

BH: How did the storm affect your business?
ED: As an individual, it really put things in perspective of how one can never take anything for granted.?The experience also taught me how to take each day as if it were my last.

For the first month, we were busy doing debris removal.?My initial thought was that I would be out of business and that no one would want to consider decorative concrete because it is a luxury product. However, unbeknownst to me, the people must have been thinking like I was thinking because, in having another opportunity, they wanted to upgrade to the best product there was to offer.

So, everyone was calling wanting concrete floors.?Customers no longer wanted carpet in their homes.? Instead, they wanted stained concrete floors because of the low maintenance of clean up after a storm.? (Imagine how heavy that muddy carpet was.)?Moreover, after having a knee-jerk reaction and purchasing two 20-ft. dump trailers, one 318 excavator and two additional skid steers, we find ourselves back on our hands and knees scoring and staining floors everyday.

BH: Is there currently a demand for decorative concrete?
ED: The demand is not as aggressive because of insurance problems that many homeowners and businesses are faced with.?Those jobs that would normally go with stamped concrete are looking for other options.?We have to look at our budgets. We are finding that the companies which have a great reputation are getting the work.

BH: Has your competition changed as a result of the storm compared to before?
ED: Shortly after the storm we had to deal with companies from out of town that came in to strike it rich. Those guys stayed around for about a year and have now gone back. There are some who have decided to take the plunge into decorative concrete after the storm (some had no other job to go to; they lost their jobs due to the storm).

That's when we had to really depend on the relationships we had developed with our customers over the years. Now, it's kind of?like it was before the storm - the same contractors (good competitors) are still around.

BH: What is your target market (residential, commercial), and is it different before and after the storm?
ED: Before the storm we did about 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial. We have two subdivisions for which we are stamping the driveways and patios.?The insurance and housing market has hurt the residential market to the point where we are forced to market commercially. The casinos and condominium projects are keeping us going.

BH: Where do you see your business going in the future?
ED: For 10 years, 95 percent of my business was decorative concrete, but since the storm I have learned to diversify my company.?Although my passion for decorative concrete will always be there, I have learned that the market can change at any moment and you and your staff have to be ready for it.

Katrina has really made us ask ourselves where do we want to be since the coast is going to build back bigger and better.?It will take some time, but we will come back. We have done some pervious concrete, and we like the concept of going green. We are in the process of redoing the showroom.?We know once the insurance crisis is over we will be busy.?I can see the company playing a major roll in the rebuilding efforts here on the coast.

Decorative Concrete Designs would like to thank all of the contractors and volunteers that have and are still helping us in our time of need.? May God Bless You.

After great conversation and a great meal that evening, there was one additional item that impressed me about Elliot. Each year since he started his business he gives a project away to an unsuspecting client as his way of giving back to his community!

The most recent was an older woman who had major storm damage and was upgrading to concrete floors instead of carpet. Once the job was complete he asked his client if she was satisfied and if there was anything else he could do for her. Her comment was, "I'm so satisfied. What do I owe you?" Elliot just smiled and replied, "This one is on us." As he put it, the smile and look on her face was worth a million bucks!

Bob Harris is the founder and president of the Decorative Concrete Institute, Temple, Ga., which provides hands-on training in architectural concrete. He has personally placed or supervised the placement of more than 3 million sq. ft. of decorative concrete and is the author of a best-selling series of decorative concrete books and DVDs. For more information, call (877) DCI-8080 or visit www.decorativeconcreteinstitute.com.

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