Ralph Feurer (right) owner of Norton's Quality Exteriors, Salt Lake City, and production manager Jeremy Estrada.
Credit: Michael Skarsten Ralph Feurer (right) owner of Norton's Quality Exteriors, Salt Lake City, and production manager Jeremy Estrada.
Augusta, Ga.-based Southern Industries' general manager, Charles Gorse (left), relies on production manager Lee Crews (right) to take sales and turn them into successfully completed jobs.
Credit: Michael Skarsten Augusta, Ga.-based Southern Industries' general manager, Charles Gorse (left), relies on production manager Lee Crews (right) to take sales and turn them into successfully completed jobs.

Three years ago, Ralph Feurer realized that his company, Norton's Quality Exteriors, in Salt Lake City, had outgrown its production manager. When the employee had signed on a dozen years earlier, 80% of the company's jobs had been new construction. Over the years that changed to remodeling and home improvement making up 80% of the business, which meant there were many more homeowners to deal with. There were too few referrals, not enough repeat business, and too many complaints and unhappy customers caused by “huge issues of either workmanship or miscommunication,” Feurer says.

“The production manager had a really hard time with the concept of customer satisfaction,” the company owner recalls. “No matter how hard we tried, we could not get him to change.”

It's All About Customer Satisfaction Today, with a different production manager in place, Feurer says that “customer satisfaction is 99.9%; calls from unhappy customers and poor communication have virtually disappeared, and repeat and referral business went from 25% to 30% to 53% last year.”

Feurer found himself facing a challenge common to virtually every home improvement contractor with a growing business: hiring a good production manager. He met that challenge, and in the process learned a fundamental truth of the home improvement business: “The production manager is absolutely key,” Feurer says. “He is the heart and nerve center of the company, and unless you have a quality production manager, you're in trouble.”

A good production manager is also something of an alchemist, contractors say. He turns the potential dollars of a signed contract into cash in hand. “Most home improvement companies, the larger ones in particular, put a lot of emphasis on sales and marketing,” says Charles Gorse, general manager of Southern Industries, in Augusta, Ga. “Both are extremely important. But it's the production manager who takes those sales, the results of that marketing, and turns them into successfully completed jobs. That's where the money comes from.”

A home improvement contractor who fails to acknowledge this does so at his own peril. “I see that in companies that are struggling financially or where the owner is a full-time ‘firefighter,'” says Scott Lemons, director of member services for Certified Contractors Network, an Ardmore, Pa., consulting, networking, and training company.

Key Transition Hiring a production manager often represents a vital transition for a company, Lemons says. Companies hit a point, usually at somewhere between $1 million and $5 million in volume, where the owner/ founder who's been a one-man show up to that time just can't do it all any longer, he explains. “The reality is that there aren't enough hours in a day for somebody to effectively manage all the things that have to happen.” A lot of owners, especially those who came up on the sales side of the business, don't want to deal with production headaches, he says. And that's where a production manager comes in.

A host of factors makes finding the right candidate a challenge. And yielding to the temptation to go for the quick solution is generally a mistake, Lemons says. “They promote a guy who's a good carpenter, a top performer. But just because he's a good mechanic doesn't mean he's a good manager.”

Nor do you necessarily want to pluck one away from a competitor. The production manager who's just right for one company may not be nearly as effective in another. The skills required may be the same, but the ideal mix is likely to vary with company size, job mix and quantity, the effectiveness of business systems in place, and the owner's management style.

These days the job description for a production manager is broadening, with greater emphasis on the management portion. The job includes all the traditional elements — scheduling, ordering materials, choosing subcontractors, supervising installers, and maintaining quality control — plus some newer ones such as ensuring customer satisfaction and being responsible for collections.