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Episode 181 Leading Through Uncertainty in the Building Materials Industry

Leading Through Uncertainty in the Building Materials Industry

What does it mean to build a brand with purpose? This week’s podcast is about creating building materials businesses for the greater good and leading people through conflict. Whether you’re managing a team of two or 200, this is an episode you’ll want to hear.

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Photo of Beth PopNikolov
by Zach Williams and Beth PopNikolov
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More About This Episode

The Smarter Building Materials Marketing podcast helps industry professionals find better ways to grow leads, sales and outperform the competition. It’s designed to give insights on how to create a results-driven digital marketing strategy for companies of any size.

Toby Bostwick is the VP of Product and Brand at Fortress Building Products. He’s helping to grow the highly successful Texas-based brand and part of his strategy is leading and managing his team more effectively.

The Challenges of Leading During COVID

Toby started with Fortress after being in the building materials industry for nearly 20 years. “Sherstad, the owner of Fortress, was restructuring the business and the great foundation of where we were going to go,” explains Toby, who was eager to roll up his sleeves and get to work with the brand.

“And then, all of a sudden, COVID hits right after [the] Deck Expo of that year. And the whole world just changed,” he says.

But what didn’t change for Fortress was its mission and what Toby considers the purpose of Fortress as a brand. “Yes, we are in building products. We manufacture steel, aluminum and composite — different building products in eight different categories,” explains Toby. “But more importantly, it's about our purpose, right? And our purpose is leading global change in the way people build and live.”

It’s a grand vision, but Toby emphasizes that the purpose behind Fortress is what fuels its growth. “What separates us from what I consider many in the industry, is not just trying to bring new products to market, but bringing a solution. I know that's used a lot, but that's where we start,” he says.

For brands and building materials companies today, solutions might be different than before. “We’ve got to be prepared in a different way, differently than we ever had before,” Toby explains. The good news is that the building materials industry is positioned to provide solutions to the ever-changing housing market.

“As people start to focus on their home, refocus where they spend their discretionary income, the long-term play is still a good investment in your house,” he explains. “What we're going through right now is real. So an acknowledgment of the present is going to help us prepare for the future, but the investment in your home is still going to continue.

Toby points out that the same is true about investing in your building materials business. “We [have] got to keep going through with business. And so whether it's your home or the business that you serve, alternative building materials, wood-alternative materials (like where I focus specifically), they still have a play.”

With his experience in the industry and perspective on the changing housing market, we asked Toby for more insight on what else we might expect in today’s building products industry.

Predictions for a Changing Industry

We’ve talked plenty on the podcast about how to adapt to the challenges that we face, and Toby confirmed with us what we’ve discussed before. “The sales cycle is going to change,” says Toby. “So the way we market, the way we approach our customers [and] the way that we really nourish that sales pipeline has to change.”

“What I see in that near future right now [are those people who] are being creative,” he says. “Continue to market, continue to push through, find those segments in the business where growth is still going to happen. But be patient with it.”

Patience is a great tool to have in your back pocket, and we asked Toby for a few more tips on how to navigate the changes he expects in our industry.

Tip 1: Stay Vigilant

“There's going to be down times. There's going to be slowdowns,” he says. “I want to be empathetic to that and understand that there are tough times happening.” For some businesses, that could mean preparing for supply issues or losses, both internally and externally.

Tip 2: Stay Agile

The shifts in mortgage rates and the economy will also impact building materials and already have. “Those that are locked in at those lower interest rates, what we saw and what we're seeing across the country is that drove instant equity into that home,” says Toby.

“We'll have a different mindset as we look at five years from now when somebody goes to sell their house again. So putting in that new backyard's going to pay off, putting in that new kitchen or that new bathroom, it will pay off.”

Tip 3: Stay Focused

Building materials brands will have to weather more change in the near future, but will also need to stay focused on growth. Toby learned from a mentor how building products brands might navigate those challenges. “I had a mentor, an industry pioneer really, that told me a long time ago that we need to do three things in this industry. Number one, make a better and different product. Number two, be easy to do business with. And then number three, from a marketing side, you got to tell everybody about it.”

We talked to Toby a bit more about how building products marketers can spread the word and grow their audience, even during times of change.

What to Avoid in Building Materials Marketing

A strong brand is an indicator of strong leadership, in any business or industry. “And not to simplify how important that is, but if we concentrate on those things, the messaging and the team conversation that we have is to speak to the customers, how they receive messages,” says Toby.

Toby emphasizes how important it is for brands to nail down the messaging that they deliver to their audience. “I know that sounds kind of odd, but customers now versus two years ago, before the pandemic, they're receiving marketing differently,” he explains.

Building materials customers are also researching and purchasing products differently than they were just five years ago. “How you talk to them is extremely different, right? How an architect looks at an opportunity now — it is different than how he looked or she looked at it two to three years ago.”

In previous years, most marketing strategies were about pushing new messages and products to customers. “Two to three years ago, we did a lot of push. So, ‘Hey, we've got this good idea. We've got this new railing, we've got a new fence, we've got a new frame. And it's a great innovation,’” Toby explains.

But the contractor buying materials for a deck in Seattle will need different solutions than someone in Phoenix. “You cannot take this just one-size-fits-all approach anymore and think, ‘Well, I'm going to sell frame this way because this contractor in Denver, Colorado really, really likes it.’”

Toby explained how Fortress has improved their messaging and marketing strategy to build better connections and solutions for their customers. “The way that we've picked out who our influencer partners are or how we talk about our products now to those target markets is completely different than it was when we were doing that push,” says Toby. “Now, it's listen first — and then create the pull through.”


A screenshot from Fortress’ Instagram page with comments listed on the right side.

Source

There are a few ways they do that at Fortress, and they’ve harnessed the power of social media to help with listening to their audience. “People kind of let down their guard a little bit when you're on Facebook or Instagram,” says Toby. “And I'll go through the comments on our Fortress Instagram, [and there is] so many great questions or input. ‘Hey, did you think about doing this? Did you think about us in our market? How can you get us product quicker?’”

The team at Fortress also puts a strong emphasis on the relationship they create with their customers — and every relationship needs quality time. “Five minutes can be quality time,” says Toby. He coaches his team to focus on this relationship and the people they’re talking to.

“They get the benefit of that — spending time with a contractor every week,” says Toby. “So we'll start our Monday afternoon calls with a conversation. Number one, it's always about core values. Can't move away from that. And number two, it's about what contractors did you talk to this week? What did they say?”

From there, Toby explains that it’s key to keep the lines of communication open with all of Fortress’ customers. “That's what we found talking with our contractors,” he says. “And that's where it really starts to come into your decision-making. ‘Am I getting honest feedback from my distributor partners? Do I have a line of communication with my dealers? What's going out the door? What are they selling? What's not moving? What are we doing well?’”

If it seems like a lot of leg work to do this kind of listening, Toby assures us that it makes an impact. “We don't learn anything by just talking internally. As soon as you just talk internal, what we have found is you start making short-sighted decisions,” says Toby.

And right now, the decisions we make in our businesses are especially crucial.

How to Deal With Uncertainty in The Industry

Zach Williams with Venveo emphasizes how building materials brands will have to navigate their decisions going forward. “I think the biggest message that manufacturers are going to need to start to speak to is the greatest pain point that people are going to start to deal with — which is uncertainty,” Zach says.

2022 is a different world. There are many things we can’t count on in the industry anymore. “Brand loyalty as an example went right out the door last year,” says Toby, a data point we noticed in our industry research over the last year.

Toby has four areas that he focuses on when it comes to leading his team through uncertain times: truth, tools, training and time.

Truth: “You hear everybody talking about ‘understanding the why.’ But it is so critical right now that we are transparent in what we're saying, how we're saying it, what we're conveying to our team.” Whether that’s giving your customer a heads up about supply issues or deadlines or working with your team members, Toby emphasizes open communication.

Tools: You can motivate your team with support, but they also need the resources and tools to perform in their roles. Toby suggests team leaders ask a few questions about the resources they provide their employees: “Do you give them the opportunity to do the job? Whether it be a computer program that they have, but the tools to execute their job at the highest level and the potential to do those things.”

Training: “Do they have the right training? Are they trained correctly?” Toby asks. Managers need to know that their team members can execute all the tasks expected of them, but managers also need to train them successfully. “Are there clear expectations? Are there KPIs set where that training to do the job with the tools that you've given me, I can do that to the best of my ability?”

Time: “Have you given them the time to execute? And did you communicate what that time was? So if you've told them the truth, if you've given them the tools, if you've given them the training that they need now, do they need three months, do they need six months, do they need a year in that seat doing that job? What's that cycle of time that they need to be successful?”

There’s no magic formula for running a business. But we’ve found that a strategy that supports your team and gives them the tools and resources they need to do their job is one of the best ways to encourage a path toward growth.

Want Even More Insight?

“We manage a business and we lead people,” explains Toby. “And there's a big difference between how you manage a business and make those types of decisions and how you lead people. And from my perspective in talking with other people in the industry, right now is that critical time for leaders to lead.

For more perspective on leading a successful team in today’s building industry, be sure to listen to more of the interview with Toby here.

You can find Toby Bostwick on LinkedIn — or email him if you’d like to reach out to him at Fortress.

Subscribe to Smarter Building Materials Marketing for even more strategies on leading and engaging your team members.