I remember riding some pretty wild ups and downs during my 20-plus years of building, though nothing like we're seeing now. Each time things got tight I learned more about survival, which made my business stronger when the economy turned around.

Rick Schwolsky
Rick Schwolsky

Sure I got better at producing competitive bids, increasing daily output, and reducing wasted time and materials. But probably the most important lesson I learned each time the market went south was that old pride has to find a new place in your survival plan.

I remember one year we went from wrapping up a 7,000-square-foot custom home with all the bells and whistles to competing against five other contractors to build a ramp for the local library. Other jobs that year included jacking and bracing an old barn, replacing the rotten sills under a big old house (only three of us bid for that one), and insulating some pretty funky attics and crawlspaces. The work was a comedown–to say the least–for me and my guys, and it played havoc with the image we held of ourselves as carpenters and craftsmen. The adjustment wasn't easy for any of us. But we worked every day, and I never laid off a single worker.

The pride in craftsmanship, efficiency, and production that we had once applied to every detail in our new homes, from frame to finish, now had to be transformed so that we could do our best work hogging out rotten timbers and low-crawling under floors to insulate them. You have to lead the way at every stage of this transition. Show your crew that you'll do anything for them, and they'll return the favor. My experience was that the more I got used to our new market realities and took pride in our survival, the better I got at tracking down more work and setting up jobs further and further out. It was a humbling, distasteful, and yet ultimately rewarding transition. Landing a couple of months' work that earlier we never would have even considered became welcome news, because we knew we'd bought more time. I had more time to find more jobs, and the economy had more time to recover before we ran dry again.

For sure, the challenges we're facing now are the worst we've ever seen in our industry, and they're pushing all of us hard in every direction. As the markets for your services shrink more each week, the competition for whatever work exists out there becomes more intense. You've probably already been forced to do a lot of things you'd rather not do, maybe including laying off some good people. I'm sure you're looking at your hard costs and overhead for ways to streamline your operations, and you're probably already considering how to differentiate yourself from your competitors.

But now is also the time for new pride–pride in surviving. Hoping your market will return before you have to go down into a crawlspace is like scanning the horizon for a rescue ship instead of lowering yourself into a lifeboat. You have the tools, skills, experience, and instincts to survive. Now expand your vision and apply them.