Just say yes
Next to price and product quality, customer service is the key for contractors who purchase aggregates. Nearly two in three say that it is very important in their procurement decisions.
By Therese Dunphy, Editor-in-Chief
Three simple words underlie the success of Watsonville, Calif.-based Graniterock: Yes, we will. More than a slogan, ‘Yes, we will’ is the company’s commitment to do whatever it takes to serve the needs of its customers.
The philosophy was born in the ’80s after Bruce Woolpert, grandson of the company founder, A.R. Wilson, returned to the family business. “‘Yes, we will’ means that we listen to what a customer wants, we understand what they want, and we will figure out how to do it,” says Woolpert, who serves as Graniterock’s president and CEO. “It’s up to us. We don’t make it our customer’s problem.”
Building in quality
During a 10-year tenure as an executive with Hewlett Packard (HP), Woolpert learned firsthand the importance of understanding and fulfilling customer needs. In its effort to build defect-free computer products, HP told the manufacturers of its integrated circuits that if they produced units with more than three defects per million, the company would discontinue doing business with them. One of the U.S. manufacturers was unable to meet that quality standard and lost all of its business with HP, which opted to buy Japanese integrated circuits for its products. “HP was one of the first well-known American companies to do that,” Woolpert says. The decision, he adds, was made purely on the basis of product quality even though the previous supplier met the industry standards for quality in the United States.
Not long after that experience, Woolpert returned to the family business and began to scrutinize the use of industry standards within the construction market. “I think the term ‘industry standard’ undermines competitiveness,” he explains. “It basically creates an excuse to do something the same old way.” For example, the then-current industry standard for integrated circuits would have left HP with enough defective products to fill whole repair shops, thus the standard became unacceptable.
“When I got to the construction industry, the so-called industry standard was very heavily used,” Woolpert says. “There are industry standard hours of operation, industry standard this, industry standard that. I think the term is used even when there is no standard. It’s basically used — I think — to shut down conversations with customers. That’s dangerous. Every time we use the term industry standard, it basically says, ‘I’ve made up my mind, and we’re good enough.’ You stop caring why, from customers’ perepectives, you aren’t good enough.”
The theory was driven home when, shortly after taking over the reins at Graniterock, Woolpert attended a California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) event where reliance on an outdated industry standard caused long-term consequences for contractors throughout the state. At the time, Caltrans announced that it planned to repave Highway 101 at night. “In 1985, that was shocking to the industry,” Woolpert says. DOT officials said that voters were tired of having road construction and repair exacerbate traffic congestion. They explained that Caltrans could voluntarily begin to repave roads at night or the state legislature could pass a bill dictating that. “I remember sitting there and thinking that if the voter wants it that way, why would we want the legislature telling us how to run the business?” Woolpert says.
But while he was thinking about how to satisfy the public, other contractors in the audience spent the next several hours wrestling with how to stop Caltrans from wanting to change the industry standard of daytime road construction. Caltrans persevered and the roadway was paved at night, which is commonplace now. But, within a couple of years, that standard changed when the state Assembly passed a bill that outlawed daytime road work in California. “Sometimes, that’s absolutely necessary,” Woolpert says of the need for daytime paving. “(The legislation) eliminates the discretion that intelligent people working for Caltrans and our industry should be able to have.” If contractors had met the agency’s need voluntarily, such measures may have never been taken.
Although Graniterock was a solid business when Woolpert took over, good was not good enough to carry the family business into its second century. Its ‘Yes, we will’ philosophy elevated the importance of fulfilling customer needs and transformed the way the business operates. As a result, the company has not only expanded its product line, but also has greatly enhanced interaction with customers.
On the road-building side of the business, Woolpert says that one example of the philosophy is how it led to the development of rapid-set concrete. A customer told the company that, for one of its projects, it needed to be able to allow traffic in a work zone after only a few hours. A special mix design that sets up in three hours was developed to meet that need. While no longer new, this requirement is an example of how responding to a customer request led to a new product.
In the construction materials area, the range of product offerings has been expanded to meet the needs of numerous new market niches. “Ten years ago, we had maybe 10 products in our quarry,” Woolpert says. “Now, we have 200 because of different mix formulations, different sizes, and aggregate products support a broader range of needs.”