Tom Niemerow, owner of Concrete-FX in Ventura County, Calif., discovered his love for concrete at a very young age. But, like most people, it took him decades to find his true calling and build a business on his passion. Niemerow, who started his company in 2002, offers both commercial and residential stamped concrete and stamped overlays, stenciled and textured overlays, concrete coloring through the use of acid stains and penetrating dye stains to create patina and mottled looks, and re-coloring concrete.

Concrete-FX, which focuses solely on decorative concrete, serves the entire Ventura County area, as well as northern Los Angeles County. Niemerow is very active in the decorative concrete industry as well. He's a member of the American Society of Concrete Contractors (ASCC), and he's also on the Decorative Concrete Council (DCC).

Here are Niemerow's Hindsight tips:

1. EstimatingAfter reading "Understanding Profit" by Charles Vander Kooi on the website, Niemerow says he changed the way he estimates.

"I now do estimates two ways," he explains. "First I build prices in and add overhead and a minimum profit. I will set a minimum profit margin—say a 15 percent net profit margin, but then I will also run it at 20 to 25 percent. I used to just run one number, but then I only had one price for a job with no room to negotiate, and if something went wrong I was under."

Niemerow adds that by estimating this way, he's able to maintain a gross profit margin by having more information to give him a range to price a bid.

"Then I double check my estimate against square foot pricing. If you just do it by the square foot, you can be out of business fast because square footage pricing doesn't account for the different nuances to every job," he notes.

2. PricingWhile Niemerow says when it comes to estimates he does look at what the market should bear, when in comes to pricing, all bets are off.

"At first, I used to worry about what the market was charging and thought I couldn't go above that or I'd lose the job," he recalls. "Now I have general profit guidelines I try to hit, and I don't let the market drive pricing anymore because I don't know who I'm up against. I could be bidding against a non-licensed contractor or a tailgate contractor with whose own labor is his profit.....It's not apples to apples."

As a result, Niemerow's allowing himself to make more money.

"I'm able to make smarter pricing decisions," he adds. "I can decide if a job is worth my time if I undercut the pricing. I find with the additional pricing information I can really make a good judgment on how much profit is needed to make the job worthwhile. Without this information, I never give myself the chance to make more money on a job."

3. Job site managementBecause Concrete FX is a small company, Niemerow wears both the sales and quality control hats in his company.

He's also learned just how much time he needs to devote to each job site.

"I've found I don't need to be at a job site all the time, but instead to be there frequently," Niemerow comments.

He also sticks with what he knows and what works for him.

"We limit ourselves to the exact products we know and work well with," explains Niemerow. "We try to duplicate what we do as opposed to reinventing the wheel every time. That allows for more profit. Someone told me once, 'You're really a factory, it's just that your location that's mobile.'"

4. ClientsOne of the ways Niemerow alleviates job site issues is by educating his clients while maintaining the "custom" feel of his products.

"With clients, I'm very detailed during the sales process so there are fewer problems down the road," he says. "I learned in dealing with customers I can make something we do all the time feel custom to them."

He also has the clarity to realize when something's just not going to work out.

"I've learned to walk away when I don't feel comfortable with the customer or don't like the project," observes Niemerow. "It's not worth the stress. It's important to recognize when you should not take a job, which is probably the most difficult lesson to learn. I call it my January mistake—each January I take a job that just ends up costing a bunch of money because my eyes saw the money and not the project."

As for helping his clients, Niemerow takes control of the situation, which he says they appreciate.

"People want to be told what they should be doing, and I have a higher success rate of closing sales when I tell a customer what they should be doing," he adds. "If people don't have information and you supply it, they will defer to what you want. Be the expert."

5. Marketing/advertisingNiemerow's a believer in advertising, and says he uses the Yellow Pages, monthly ads, local newspapers, trucks and shirts to get the word out.

"From day one—when I started out people assumed I was an expert because of my lettered truck," he laughs. "My truck is a huge lead generator and wherever I go I hand out business cards. I've also picked up two $60,000 jobs from having a prospect write down our phone number from my guys wearing company shirts."

Adding that he had a website within the first few months he started his company, Niemerow explains, "The website has been amazing. This year we've gone over 6,000 hits so far, almost double what it was for the past four years combined."

In addition to lots of product explanation on his website, Niemerow says he also takes pictures at every job, most of which end up on the site.

"The Web is one of the most effective marketing tools, and I put it on everything and in my voice mail message. I always steer people to my website, which gives them ideas, and I send them to the Concrete Network for more ideas," he notes.

6. Vendors/suppliers/manufacturersNot only does Niemerow make sure he knows his vendors, he often gets referrals from them as well.

"Everyone has been in the field in the middle of project and something isn't going right—you need to have the ability to call your vendor immediately and get info," he explains. "Knowing your vendors is critical."

Niemerow also gets involved with the industry in other ways. He's a member of the ASCC, and he's now on the board of directors at DCC.

"I'm able to meet manufacturers themselves now," Niemerow explains, adding that those relationships are crucial to success. "The decorative industry is constantly changing, and knowing the manufacturers allows you to get insight into what's new and get feedback on what others are doing around the country. This helps give me a competitive edge."

7. Disposal of hazardous waste materialsThis very issue has led to Niemerow's taking advantage of local small business programs in his area, which allow him to dispose of hazardous waste materials properly.

"In California, it's a $5,000 fine if the cement truck wash ends up in the gutter," he adds. "The other big problem is what to do with empty sealer cans, acetone, urethanes, etc."

"But this is something we all have to deal with, not only because of the law, but because we need to keep our environment up for the future," Niemerow observes.

8. VarietyUsing the "two is better than one" philosophy, Niemerow advises anyone to have at least two tricks up their sleeve.

"As a concrete contractor, you need to have more than one product," he explains. "I pick up a lot of clean and seal jobs from concrete contractors who only pour. That's an entrée into staining, overlays, etc., and often leads to other things."

"People will call you for concrete, but if you add stain or overlays, you have multiple products to sell at different price points. You increase the effectiveness of your advertising dollars by not letting price make the prospect go elsewhere," Niemerow adds.

9. Response timeOf course, nothing would ever happen if Niemerow didn't return phone calls and inquiries.

"The number one complaints from people that they don't get call backs," he says. And although he says sometimes it isn't possible, he always try to respond within 24 hours.

As Niemerow and Concrete-FX prove, combining savvy business skills with decorative concrete spells success.

Concrete FX
Tom Niemerow
5737 Kanan Road suite 283
Agoura Hills, CA 91301
(818) 865-1198 Office
(818) 865-8838 Fax

Read other articles in the Hindsight Series.