Sponge for Knowledge: How to ensure that training benefits your business

polished concrete bartop in restaurant

Getting Equipped in Class

“If I had known how to do it [CCI’s] way, it would have been a lot easier.”

Like many of the students who come to The Concrete Countertop Institute, Matt Shields of Owasso, OK already had experience working with concrete. He ran his own business, Ramcrete Concrete Designs, for more than ten years. CCI’s classes, as Shields hoped, helped him develop very advanced skills in GFRC. In addition to those GFRC skills, Shields learned a great deal about business, and has applied those lessons in ways that have helped his to business grow.

Right before attending CCI’s Ultimate class in 2016, Shields had taken on a precasting job that motivated him to update his skills.

“I went there [to CCI] because of the process that they were teaching,” Shields says. “I wanted to know how to do the GFRC style and to get better at precasting. I had precasted a job before that and we made solid, and heavy, multiple pieces. If I had known how to do it [CCI’s] way, it would have been a lot easier. We were carrying pieces that were basically twice as heavy as we were making in class. I said, ‘There has to be a better way to do this.’”

A self-described sponge for knowledge, Shields said he went into class with the right attitude, determined to get as much as he could out of the GFRC training. The benefits of the training turned out to be multifaceted. Since the training, Shields has gotten more attention for his work, has been able to handle customer questions in a way that gives them confidence in his abilities and, importantly, he has been able to charge a fair price for the intricate, knowledge-intensive work that GFRC involves. Those benefits did not take long to manifest after Shields finished his training.

concrete fireplace hearth and stacked stone surround

“My Facebook has gone from twenty people liking it to almost three hundred within a couple of months, just because we’re promoting concrete countertops,” Shields says. “People are searching for that and finding it. Last week, I had forty new views on my website from Facebook.”

Shields is able to handle quite a bit of his advertising himself. While a website company handles his web page, Shields takes portfolio pictures himself, posts them on Facebook and sends them off to the website designers to be included in his site.

The increased interest in his work is not solely due to the venues he uses for publicity. Shields credits his improved outreach largely to the quality of the work he’s been able to produce since attending CCI.

The Business Side

‘”This is a high end product, you should not give your training away.”

Quality work, however, requires time and money. In addition to teaching state-of-the-art GFRC skills, Shields noted that Lane Mangum of CCI emphasized the need to run a business in a legitimate way, which means charging appropriate prices for one’s work.

“Lane’s very nice about it,” Shields explains, “but she says, ‘This is a high end product, you should not give your training away.’ Lane’s been out there and has done it and can explain it in a real way,” Shields says. “I liked that part of it. I didn’t expect the business side of it as much as I got.”

Shields said the knowledge and skills he acquired also translated to him being able to outdo his competition in terms of customer service.

rustic concrete countertop with brick wall

“You get the skills to explain things to the client without giving away your secrets,” he says. “When customers call you, they want you to know what you’re talking about. If you don’t, the customer will know that. With the education, you can transfer that to working with the client and that’s why people will pay more.”

Shields has only had one client who turned him down over price. Shields didn’t offer a discount and the customer was not receptive to the idea of paying a bit more for a quality product. “He wanted something cheap and that’s probably what he got. He was just interested in one thing: price.”

Shields has stuck to his guns about prices and, because of that, he was able to pay the entire cost of his CCI training with the income from his first job after he graduated, a strong argument for not lowballing work.

Simply because Shields has acquired a range of updated skills and has been able to demand a better price for his work doesn’t mean that Ramcrete now only takes on the priciest jobs. Shields wants to work with customers at all price ranges and is also coming up with new ways to translate his skills into more business. He’s currently in the process of launching a new product that makes outdoor kitchens, a big seller in Shields’s market, more flexible and customizable. The old process Shields used to create outdoor kitchens required hiring a mason and was overly complex. His new product will incorporate all the flexibility and quality of GFRC, along with multiple purchasing options, to make outdoor kitchens more accessible, no matter what the customer might want. Shields is ambitious when it comes to getting his idea to market.

“I want to sell two hundred of these next year,” he says. “That’s less than one per day. I can make that work.”

long concrete vanity with integral ramp concrete sink

Advice for New Graduates

Shields has some simple advice for newly-graduated alumni of CCI, and his advice speaks to having skill and integrity as a business person.

“Start making samples,” Shields says when asked what graduates should do first. “Get your hands dirty making this stuff and tell everyone about it. You need to get your mistakes out of the way.”

Shields is not offering armchair advice. Making samples is exactly what he started doing as soon as he returned home from class. Shields compares it to writing out one’s homework after getting home from school. The process of using the knowledge fosters memorization of what was learned and allows the development of better skills. Shields has even gotten sales from pictures of samples he worked on while at CCI.

Shields says there’s another real advantage that comes with being able to show customers samples of your own work. “I do not believe in showing someone else’s work if you didn’t do it,” Shields says. “You’ll set yourself up for failure really fast.” By creating samples and only showing customers projects he’s worked on, Shields can assure customers that he can deliver on what he promises.

In fact, Shields has already gone through several pallets of material since graduating CCI’s Ultimate class. He strongly advises new graduates to do the same; to not just think about how they want to apply their skills, but to actively do so, right away.

“If you go to class and don’t buy any product and don’t make anything right away, you’ll never do it,” he says.


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