A contractor recently called me for advice. He had suffered a major financial setback caused by some illegal actions of his former chief financial officer. He had lost lots of money and was so desperate that he was thinking of giving up on his dream of building a successful construction business.
He was looking for some hope and help. So, he asked me if I had ever experienced hard times and thought about giving up on my dreams.
I think he was surprised by my answer. I replied, “Did I ever think about giving up? Hell yes, and more than once.” Then, as I always do, I shared some experiences where I had to respond to incredibly challenging conditions.
First, I described the challenges we overcame to bring Grout Hog to the masonry industry. I came up with the idea in the late 1980s when I was part of a mason contractor roundtable. The group discussed how installing grout (slurry concrete) in block walls was an industry productivity problem. I remember thinking that if I could find a solution, mason contractors would pay a fair price to overcome this problem. I knew this difficulty was real as my crews were facing the same issues. Shortly after that meeting, I was with my masonry crew building stairway walls in Pennsboro, West Virginia at a window factory.
It was a summer day with temperatures above 90 degrees. We had just spent an hour pouring grout with five-gallon buckets filling wall cavities. This work left the crew exhausted. I saw a tremendous loss in our productivity while laying block that afternoon.
With these experiences lingering in my mind, I set a goal to solve this industry problem.
There were lots of critics who said I should give up on the idea. They told me I was only a brick layer, not an inventor or manufacturer. Some of those critics were people I admired, so there were times I thought about giving up. Instead of listening to the negative people during hard times, I found others to hang with who were positive. I never let anyone stop me from following my dream.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, in my small mechanics shop, my brother Darren, Dan Kern, and my truck driver Buzz Thieman started building what I felt would be the solution to grouting masonry walls by hand. We tinkered with gravity fed buckets, vibrating buckets and many other ideas over a ten-year period. You have to remember what the old ways were like: operators hoisting the mortar tub with the forklift and landing it on the scaffold. Masons then dipped five-gallon buckets into the tub and poured the grout into the block cores. Exhausting, indeed!
Our breakthrough came when I told Dan we needed to put an auger in the bottom of the tub. The auger would force the grout through the pipe, down a hose and into the block. We laughed about how funny this thing was going to look and how expensive it would be just to build one to try. Even so, we built a prototype and tested it on a couple of jobsites. One was a Regal Cinema project where we were laying the block near Akron, Ohio. I always measured daily production on our all jobsites, and I noticed this particular job was turning four extra dollars per man-hour. I visited the jobsite and asked the foreman who had been with me for several years what the difference was. He pointed to the protype grouting machine and said he could not imagine doing another block job without it. He said we were filling walls with sand and grout without lifting the weight of the material, and the guys were loving how quickly and easily they could install it.
On my ride back to the office I thought to myself, wow, I am going to patent this thing, build it and sell it to contractors all over the world and get rich. I was foolish to think it would be that easy, as it was not. I sank most of my finances into this idea. I often thought about giving up. But I kept the dream alive by moving forward meeting small goals along the path I had created to achieve my dream.
In 1998, my goal was almost in sight. I needed one final step and that was achieved while I was enjoying deer camp with several friends who stayed over in my shop. While several hunters were sleeping in the backroom for an early morning start, Dan and I were leaning up against the refrigerator that housed the beer keg talking about moving forward with the dream. I said, “Dan, do you remember that machine we built to pour grout in the block walls? I’ve been working on getting a patent on the design. I’m ready to start manufacturing and selling them all over the world.” There was one problem. There was a masonry convention coming up in two months, and I needed to build a working model to display. I said to Dan, “To make it in time, you are going to have to quit your job and come to work here building these things. What do you think?” Dan replied, “It sounds pretty good to me.”
A couple of weeks later (after we sobered up), I called Dan and asked if he remembered what I told him at deer camp about taking on this challenge and achieving our goal of selling our machines all over the world. I told him I was serious. He replied in a heartbeat, “I was too.” Dan came on board and is still a partner and plant manager today. The Grout Hog was a smash hit at the show and orders began rolling in. Our goal was to sell 40 units the first year and 100 the second year. We sold 120 and 410 those first two years.
But my success created the second challenge that almost crushed my dream. We had built our Grout Hogs so durable that they never wore out. Therefore, contractors only needed so many units. After a few years, sales were leveling at around 100 per year. I had already invested in a facility and signed on fellow workers to build 400 units per year! The overhead was so high that we would either need to shut down the company or reinvent ourselves. We kept the dream alive by choosing the latter. We came up with new productivity and labor-saving products. Our first innovation was the Mud Hog mixing stations. It eliminated the back-breaking work of lifting sand and mortar high into the mixer. The design allowed operators to lift only to their waist instead of their chest, as the machine itself lifts the material high to dump into the mud pan. One of our other inventions was the wall bracing system that greatly reduces the time it takes to brace masonry walls.
My third and perhaps scariest challenge happened soon after the recession of 2008. Our sales had dropped from a $1 million per month to $170,000 per month. I had just invested millions in a new location in 2007. And I was going through a divorce that same year. Being flat on my back and almost broke, I brought in consultants for advice on how to turn the company around. After I paid them $30,000, their advice was to shutter the company. I thought about giving up as it looked like too much of a long shot to keeping moving forward. However, I never gave up on my dream. Instead of dumping the company, I dumped the consultants.
With a very short window to reinvent ourselves, we came up with a plan and developed goals that marked our path to survival. One aspect of our plan was to use our excess manufacturing capacity by doing metal fabrication work for the local plants. The extra work kept the doors open until equipment sales picked back up. And at the same time, we continued to develop new product prototypes that helped prepare us for the future. Perhaps that desperate time made us what we are today. EZG Manufacturing will do over $30 million in sales this year. Our innovations are allowing us to enter more markets. And we have expanded the custom shop work part of the business at the same time.
Thank goodness I knew my goals, followed the path I crafted to meet those goals, and more importantly, never gave up on my dream. After listening to how I overcame these and other hardships (including my own experience with employees stealing huge amounts of money from me), the contractor told me he had the answer and the inspiration he was looking for.
He won’t be giving up anytime soon!