Contractingbusiness 1620 Michel 0

The Rant: Dust Bowl Contracting

Nov. 1, 2008
We’re not entering a depression, though the depression provides lessons for survival.

Many contractors are worried. The collapse of residential new construction, mandated efficiency levels that make replacements less affordable, refrigerant laws that are further impacting pricing and costs, the credit crisis, see-sawing energy prices, and general economic uncertainty gives cause for worry, but not for despair. We’re not entering a depression, though the depression provides lessons for survival.

During the 1930s, plains farmers were hammered by one blow after another. Pricing collapsed — wheat prices dropped 68% from 1930 to 1931. Farmers endured drought — between 1930 and 1934, Nebraska rainfall fell 28% resulting in 28% lower crop yields. The country saw record heat — the hottest year on record is still 1934.

Plus, devastating tornados swept the countryside — between 1916 and 1935 the country saw 61 killer tornados (only 69 were recorded over the next 70 years, despite much greater population levels). Straight line winds stripped the dry land of topsoil, creating great black clouds of dirt — over 50 major dust storms were recorded in 1932 and 1933, leading one reporter to describe the Great Plains as a large “Dust Bowl.”

If all of that isn’t enough, Oklahoma even experienced an earthquake in 1936. By far, farming in the 1930s was tougher than 21st Century contracting. Thus, in the Dust Bowl farmers’ tenacity, there are lessons for the contractor.

Dust Bowl Farming
Though many Dust Bowl farmers went bankrupt, others hung on. Though many left farming, left the Great Plains, and moved west, others stayed and survived.

The farmers who survived found themselves faced with an annual dilemma. Do you plant your seeds and hope for rain, risking loss if the wind blows away the topsoil? Or, do you wait, conserving your seeds and foregoing a crop this year, in hopes for one next year?

Stated differently, the question was whether the farmer should invest in his farm and risk loss or do nothing and guarantee it. The farmers who survived took the risk. If a loss meant going out of business, what was the alternative? Going out of business slower?

Those who did lose crops found other ways to survive. They got creative. They added milk cows, sold the cream, and used the skim milk to feed other farm animals. They dug up thistles and soap weed to grind into meal for feedstock.

Dust Bowl farmers invested in themselves and in new technology. They were willing to change the way they did business. They learned new ways to farm, planting trees as windbreaks, rotating crops, and plowing in contours.

Dust Bowl Contracting
Just as some farmers didn’t withstand the Dust Bowl, some contractors won’t survive the industry’s current challenges. Others will. They’ll survive the same way Dust Bowl farmers survived.

Dust Bowl contractors will invest in their companies. They won’t try to save their way to prosperity. They’ll invest in marketing. They’ll use direct mail, Internet marketing, affinity marketing programs, referral programs, and more to build their brands, and generate leads. Dust Bowl contractors will aggressively market for new customers, taking them from the future failures — the contractors who retrench and retreat.

Dust Bowl contractors will invest in themselves, in new technology, and remain open to new ways of doing business. They will attend top shelf training programs like HVAC Comfortech. They will buy training programs like Charlie Greer’s Slacker’s Guide. They will invest in technology like truck GPS, company websites, blogs, podcasts, and more. They will change the way they do business by self-branding, system selling, and so on.

For some, a slow/no growth market spells doom. For Dust Bowl contractors, it spells opportunity. The Dust Bowl contractor gets more aggressive when conditions toughen and emerges stronger when the market improves.

Dust Bowl contractors have the tenacity of Dust Bowl farmers. Do you?

Matt Michel is the CEO of the Service Roundtable ( For a FREE, no strings copy of his audio CD, “Staying Positive in a Negative World,” or to comment on this column, contact Matt at [email protected] or call his mobile at 214/995.8889. For information on the Service Roundtable, call toll free 877/262.3341.