Mark Fowler: Should I Lay up?
Golf and plaster are more similar than you may think.
Plaster and drywall are both materials in competition with each other to be the finish for walls and ceilings. Plaster has far more history but is more expensive. Today, many wall and ceiling contractors provide the option for both drywall and plaster. Yet, most of these contractors do very little plaster work. When pressed as to why plaster is declining, most admit they try to avoid or even value out plaster or stucco. Why?
Could it be because of the savings on promotional efforts needed for any upgraded product? Could it be that there is no market for upgrades? Most people tell me it is has more to do with avoiding the inherent risk in plastering. They consider plastering a poor risk-to-reward proposition. I thought about how this might be similar to golf. In golf, there’s also a risk-to-reward shot and there are similarities.
In golf, there are three types of holes: par three, four and five. Regulation play dictates you should be on the green in one, two or three shots accordingly. Many par fives are what is known as reachable in two shots—if you have the skill. Playing it safe or “laying up” is safely reaching the green in three shots. Those that decide to go for it in two shots can shave strokes off their score. The decision is based on two factors: how far did you hit your tee shot and how confident are you with your ability to make the second shot. Opting to lay up or simply being on the green in three is knowing your limitations. Some projects can be seen as a reachable par five. Plaster could be going for it in two shots, while drywall or fiber cement panels are the safe lay-up.
While you may not agree with this analogy, consider that pros and many good golfers reach par fives in two shots regularly. The same is true for skilled plaster supervisors in lathing and plastering. Like the golfer, they put the time and effort in to know they can hit the tee and second shot with confidence.
The wall and ceiling contractor who is a pro at his craft with knowledge gained from experience will be similar to the golfer who has worked and trained to minimize the risks. Risk comes from contractors in plastering who are like weekend golfers: they think they are a golf pro. The result is often dropping a shot short of the green and into the lake. Lath and plaster is like the golf swing—you do not inherit the talent. To be good, it takes time and practice. But why put in the time and effort? Simply, you can make more money.
As the executive director of two national trade associations, plastering and terrazzo, I am also struck by the similarities of these two trades. Many flooring contractors do tile and terrazzo, just as wall and ceiling contractors do drywall and plaster. A major difference is the flooring side invests resources into the terrazzo market. Another similar trait is that tile is more common and easier to install. Most flooring contractors tell me that tile is high volume but with low profit margins. Terrazzo dollars yield more profits—significantly more. This is why they invest in terrazzo promotion, marketing and even training of workers. They are surprised when I tell them the wall and ceiling industry invests very little into plastering and virtually nothing into training.
Another similarity is that designers want terrazzo, just like they want plaster. Both are high-end products and many are willing to pay for the upgrade. Why is the wall and ceiling industry giving up on plaster? I am not suggesting to avoid drywall, but there is extra money to be made in plastering. Yet, it seems we are resigning ourselves to the decision of just laying up.
Shouldn’t you make your company special or at least move to greater profits? There are few things needed: one is promote plaster more; two is train more workers, and; three is to educate the superintendents on lath and plaster. Be wary of those who claim they know plastering. After all, to a person who has never seen a golf swing thinks the weekend hacker is almost pro. But he is not.
I have seen so many hire a person who convinced them they could run the crew, only to discover they were hoodwinked. My little bit of advice to wall and ceiling CEOs: I never met a plasterer who did not think he was the best in the world. I have even had guys who I have had to fire turn up running work for a big firm later on. I just waited for the other shoe to drop and it always did. You need a pro, a real pro, to not just lay up. W&C