StoneTalk Episode 4 – Russ Berry
In our 4th episode, Patrick chats with Russ Berry, President of ASST, a commercial fabricator and manufacturer based in Pennsylvania that creates beautiful, sculptural surfaces for its customers. Russ has a Masters of Fine Arts in Sculpture and a reputation for hiring great people.
Listen to this episode to learn:
- How selling services can lead to selling products
- The role of craftsmanship in artistry
- How different customer types have different expectations for product lifespan
- Why commercial jobs require even more efficiency than residential
- How designers lead the market in material selection
Be sure to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes (and please give the show a review!) or via RSS … and please let us know what you think! You can leave comments for this show at stonetalk.org, on the StoneTalk Facebook page, via Twitter, or on this site. And of course, you can always email firstname.lastname@example.org, too. If you have stories or insights that you’d like to share with other fabricators, please reach out to Patrick.
NOTE: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Patrick: Today I’ll chat with Russ Berry, President of A.S.S.T., a commercial fabricator and manufacturer based in Pennsylvania that creates beautiful sculptural surfaces for its customers. Russ has a Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture and a reputation for hiring great people. Let’s give him a call.
Russ: Hello, Russ Berry.
Patrick: Hey, Russ, it’s Patrick from Moraware. How are you doing?
Russ: Patrick, I’m good.
Patrick: Thanks for chatting with us, Russ. I’m sure you’re busy, so I’m going to dive right in with some questions, and then we’ll get to know each other as we go along. How does that sound?
Russ: That sounds really good.
Patrick: You know, I’m particularly intrigued by the combination of manufacturing and custom manufacturing in your company – the fact that you seem to do custom things for people, yet you’re creating products as well. Can you tell me which one came first, and do those different activities complement each other, or are they pretty independent?
Russ: Patrick, that’s a really great question, and fun to answer … when I started my business, one of the visions that we had was that there were problems that cropped up more than once – and that we might be able to take those problems and turn them into opportunities in working clothes. What we felt was that as we started to run into problems in multiple situations, we developed a product that was a viable turnkey solution and then take that out to the design community.
So, for example, we’ve got a modular vanity system that we produce and sell as a product. Well, that comes directly from, over and over again, running into situations where an architect wanted a nice ADA compliant solution for covering plumbing and vanities. So we just came up with one.
Baby bathing bowls, the same way. We were working on a hospital project where the nurse wanted a baby bathing bowl. We had supplied several of them. She had an idea about what would work. We sat down with her, designed the product for her project, used it in that project, and then took it out to market as a product which now we’ve installed all over the country.
So it actually was part of our plan, and one of the nice things where I can say we thought this might work, and it did. I wish I could say everything about that, say that that always occurs with my thoughts, but it’s not true.
Patrick: It sounds like it’s also pretty customer-driven, that you’re just not building things because you think they’d be cool so much as you’re solving problems for specific customers and then seeing a pattern develop and saying, hey, I can bring this to a broader marketplace.
Russ: Absolutely. The things that I think are cool end up in my house because I can’t sell them. But everything that is customer-focused and customer-based where we provide solutions for our customers absolutely always tends to have more than one opportunity associated with it.
Patrick: Getting back to those cool things, Harry tells me you’re an artist. So does being an artist help or kind of hurt you in your business and the goal of having to make money? What do you think?
Russ: That question has a whole lot of layers, and I think a whole lot of meaning that I’ll just give a little voice to. Everybody kind of thinks they know what an artist is, and I was trained in a program where I was really taught the fundamentals of craftsmanship. Our notions of art in our culture tend to have a lot to do with expression. I’ll quote the guy who taught me. He said, “Don’t be confused about expression. Babies cry – they’re very expressive … but nobody would call it art.” And so I was trained in the tradition that really focused on craft, really focused on craftsmanship, really focused on learning skills, and then really focused on taking those skills and applying them to ideas. The ideation and the creative process were fueled by skills.
The other thing that I will say is when you look at some of the high points of civilization, creative minds, innovative minds – and sculptors, specifically – engaged with and worked with architects. If you go back to Renaissance times, there weren’t architects. When you go back far enough, the head carpenter was often the designer of the building. So the idea of architecture comes from craft and comes from the guys who knew how to build things. The division of labor now has things so spread out, when I come in and use my skill set and my creativity to support a project and to support an engineer, a designer, and an owner, it seems to be like this really, really great role that suits my skill set.
The one difference is if I really want to make something purely for me that I will call a sculpture, I put it in my home. I don’t try and sell it. But the skills that I have to do that work really play nicely in commercial construction, and specifically, in coordinating with both engineers and design professionals. So it’s always been, from my point of view, a huge asset.
Patrick: You’re speaking my language, too. I am a musician – or was a musician – which doesn’t actually turn out to be particularly useful in what I do these days. What you were saying reminded me of Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer. He apparently always got up early in the morning, let’s say 5:30, 6:00 in the morning, and people said, oh, do you get up so early because that’s when you’re inspired? He said, no, I get up and compose at the same time every day because I want to make sure that when I am inspired, I happen to be composing.
Russ: Absolutely. I’ve got to ask, what did you play?
Patrick: The violin.
Russ: Okay. I was a bassoonist.
Patrick: Far out.
Russ: When I was in high school, I was absolutely of the opinion that I was going to be a concert bassoonist. By the time I finished high school, I realized it was too competitive for me, and I wouldn’t make it.
Patrick: I’ve known some pretty awesome bassoonists, to tell you the truth. Every part of the arts is amazingly competitive. People don’t necessarily realize that.
Russ: It is. But I do agree with you that the work piece of it and the work ethic piece of it, that still to this day, especially in classical music, but in all music where you really are honing a skill, I think the very same thing exists for the visual arts and specifically sculpture. So it definitely lends itself well.
In fact, I got my first cabinet-making job by taking my graduate school sculpture portfolio around. That’s what I used when I interviewed with people. They’d say, “Well, what experience do you have?” And I would look at them and say, “None, but I do make this.” And I got offered a job every time I used that to get a position.
Patrick: Skills are skills. If you know how to start something and finish something, that goes a long way towards solving needs for customers, too.
Russ: Absolutely. I think Moraware is involved very much in the same kind of thing. In talking with Harry, it sounded to me like your history is really tied to A) being customer focused, and B) taking skill sets and applying them to an industry that you had a relation to that was familial, and as a result, you’re growing a business, which is kind of cool.
Patrick: Right. Programmers always assume it’s going to be easy, and like any good programmer, Ted (the other founder along with Harry) … his brother needed something built, and he said, “Oh, I can do this better than anything out there,” and he built it, and of course just started grafting on, grafting on, and built a business around that, and was ultimately surprised to learn that the product mattered a hundred times less than the customer. Programmers always think you can build something, and “oh, this is going to be so cool.” But until it collides with customers, you have no idea what they really care about, and that just multiplies by another customer every time you gain a new customer. So that’s why I’m here actually, because I just find that interplay fascinating.
Russ: Patrick, I have to ask, do you find that sometimes things that you think are cool from a programming standpoint really matter little to the customer?
Russ: We definitely find that.
Patrick: I’m a very creative person; I come up with all of these ideas … and we don’t build any of them. Nobody cares, because what they care about is what they tell us they care about. We have about 1,000 customers, and we don’t have to guess what they want. They’re constantly telling us, “I’d like it if you did this a little bit differently. I’d like it if you’d add this feature.” Unfortunately, it’s not all the same feature most of the time, and sometimes people don’t describe what they need accurately, so you still have to do the work. It still requires intuition and inspiration to figure out what customers really mean and where the patterns lie.
I assume the baby bowl you created for customers wasn’t exactly the same as the first one you did, and the ADA compliant vanity module wasn’t the same when you manufactured it as when you custom built it. You learn about patterns, and then you have to make other compromises so that it’s supportable, so that it’s efficient, etc., and we see that every day. We’re repeating that every day, and we get it wrong a good deal of the time, but then you tinker with it, and adjust, and adjust, and keep moving forward.
Russ: So that’s where for us at A.S.S.T. – people say, well, what does A.S.S.T. stand for? Well, it’s assist. It’s the assist where we bring – just like a developer would say, “OK, tell me what it is that you want” … and the person who is saying what I want is talking about what they want relative to their context and their experiences. They’re not talking about it relative to what you have to code.
Similarly, people might look at us, and two things happen. They’ll say, “Well, this is really easy. I want this.” And what they want is really hard to make. Other times, people will say, “I know this is really complicated, but is there any way you might be able to do this?” And we ask ourselves, “Can we? Yeah, we can do that.”
But we’re translating, and so part of the assisting process that I think we all do who are customer focused is to bring our skill set and then assist what we’re hearing our customer wants, but doing what is required to get them what they want.
Patrick: Most of our audience is made up of residential fabricators, and I’m curious about how similar or different some of the things about commercial work is. If you go to your website, there are some stunning pictures of complex jobs that you’ve done. Is the complexity mostly in the planning and design? In other words, once you get all the planning and design done, are the complex jobs ultimately broken down into simple jobs, or at the base layer are they inherently more complex?
Russ: Again, it comes back to a truism that we have. Complex things are the juxtaposition of simple things; simple things in and of themselves are complex. But I would say the only difference between commercial work and residential work is the customer relationship, and often, the size and magnitude of the project. The fact of the matter is there are commercial projects that are huge and incredibly, incredibly simple and easy to do. And actually, I wish I could say we offer a huge competitive advantage in situations like that, but we really don’t. We shine on large projects that are complex. But from the standpoint of the skill that’s brought to a residential project or the skill that’s brought to a commercial project, I think they’re very, very similar.
Patrick: Do you use the same tooling and equipment?
Russ: Absolutely the same tooling, absolutely the same equipment. We might get a little bit more interested in higher rates of production just because of the size of the jobs that we do. But frankly, anybody that’s making things is trying to be as efficient as they can and trying to constantly improve if you’re interested in quality. So I think those things are very much the same.
I will say one of the real differences that I do see is the relationship with the customer, and it kind of drew me – two things: I had stronger relationships in commercial construction than I did in residential construction, and what I also very much liked was in commercial construction we really are not part of the critical path of the projects. We go in and we do our work, and if anybody finds out that our work isn’t done, we’ve just not done our job. The end user usually doesn’t even know that we’ve been on their job. Whereas in a house, the people that are coming and doing the kitchen countertops, they’re like the rock stars.
So one difference I will say is often in commercial construction when you’re executing the work, you’re just a nobody helping to get these huge buildings built, and we’re really not part of the critical path, we’re just part of this big thing called interior finishes. So we get mixed in with a bunch of other guys, and that’s okay with me. There’s some anonymity to it that I kind of enjoy, whereas the residential customers, boy, you are really, really important. So that’s one difference that I would say.
I will say some of the work that we’re starting to get into, we’re becoming a little bit more significant to the end user, and we’re getting involved in some projects where the end user is looking for someone that can assist them with more complicated projects. In that realm – just like there can be complicated residential projects and ones that aren’t so complex – the same spectrum applies to commercial as well I think.
So I don’t really see as much division. From a business standpoint, there are some divisions, but they happen to be I think more related to risk management and financial controls.
Patrick: How similar are your customers across different industries? Is a healthcare customer vastly different from a school or a retailer in your world?
Russ: Patrick, another really good question. Where I see some real differences commercially sometimes occurs through market segments. So for instance, there is a difference between hospitality and education. But if you look at a market segment, and you look at healthcare, you can say, hey, all healthcare customers are going to be interested in durability, they’re going to be interested in antimicrobial surfaces, they’re going to be interested in making sure that there are clean surfaces that can be easily maintained and can be cleaned.
You can be certain if you’re in hospitality and in lodging that there are some truths. For example, quite often – except for the extremely high-end parts of that market segment – they’re refurbishing their buildings every three to five years. So their life expectancy of their product is really different, and that’s something that you have to cater to with that customer, whereas in education, they’re really looking to solid surface for durability. They’re really looking for its aesthetic and its durability, and it plays nicely to that customer.
So there are some differences within the customer base. I will say the area of commercial that we’ve had the most success in that we’re doing most of our work in is in corporate. Corporate spaces often for higher-end businesses are really heavily branded, so there’s a real opportunity to understand that corporate brand and really hear and listen to the voice of the customer and what the customer wants and then come up with solutions that really accommodate and support their brand. That’s where for us we’ve found some traction and found some people that really like A.S.S.T. and the assists that we provide them.
Patrick: Are you able to mention a brand that you’ve helped? I’m trying to imagine what it would look like for surfaces to support a brand. Are you able to mention one of those customers?
Russ: Sure. We’re doing a lot of work right now with a project in Houston, Texas for Exxon’s world headquarters. They need product that has a very consistent aesthetic, and they’re also looking for clean, precise, crisp images, clean, precise radius forms, and to have a life expectancy for the product of 50 years. So the quality standard to build something that’s going to last for 50 years is pretty significant and pretty challenging.
Patrick: You don’t want to do anything faddish obviously, because it could look funny in 10 years. You’re not going to be doing bleeding edge work with something like that, right?
Russ: Yeah, good point. Things become a little more – in one sense, maybe aesthetically beautiful, but not really directly attributed to this decade. So the aesthetics tend to be a little more – not classical, but long in their sensibility.
Patrick: Interesting problem, and as you said, a hotel doesn’t want a 50-year reign for any style, so yeah, that’s going to affect the economics. That’s very interesting.
A second ago, you said something about higher rates of production being one difference. I have in my mind a simple example. If I’m building an apartment complex and putting the same countertops in all of the units of the apartment complex, is that what you mean where, okay, if I’m building 300 of these kitchens, do you look at how I get faster each time or how I accelerate and not just do a good job, or is it something else? And how do you accomplish that acceleration?
Russ: The higher rates of volume tend to be exactly like you’re speaking of, and here’s where there’s a nuance that I will suggest. I define the difference between a residential project and a commercial project as whether or not I’ve – if I go establish a pricing program for a high-rise building, and I’m providing 500 wall-to-wall vanities for every apartment in that building, and a residential user is going to use that vanity, but I’m talking to a designer and that designer is making a design decision for the entire building, and I’m talking to a general contractor that is going to be coordinating and installing the entire building, in my opinion, that’s a commercial project, not a residential project.
I think a residential project is one more along the lines of talking directly with the homeowner. So I would say even to me being a supplier to a large box company, whether you’re supplying the big orange box with countertops or the big blue box with countertops, the box shop I think is really more closely aligned to a commercial environment and commercial fabrication, whereas when you’re really servicing that end-user and really interacting with them from start to finish, that residential business, I look at that as being more purely residential. And I think there’s a real opportunity to interact with that homeowner who I think can be sold on wanting what’s best for their home, not necessarily what’s cheapest for their home.
So that’s where that transaction then becomes that unique space for that unique customer, and then you go have another transaction like that. That’s where I’m saying the volume of commercial becomes I’m making something that I’m making 50 of as opposed to one for this one unique space. And so that’s where we have to line up and create space from a manufacturing standpoint, where – for instance, I was talking with our plant manager yesterday about a work order we have on the plant floor where we have 38 of something, and they actually happen to be 38 wall-to-wall vanities, with a bullnose edge and ogee backsplash and integral sink that was centered in it. So we have 38 of them lying now through the plant, and we were talking about staging the material and how the whole project was going to flow through our entire operation, and that becomes, how many people are we going to use? We’ve got a team of people that make that whole thing, whereas in a residential environment, I might have a 10′ x 10′ workspace or a 10′ x 20′ workspace with one or two guys working that make the whole top from start to finish.
So those are some of the differences that I see in what I would call a commercial shop as opposed to a residential shop. But I’m looking at extremes, and there’s a lot of in between this, and there are a lot of companies that do both. We don’t do any residential work.
Patrick: Most of our audience does more residential, some wholesale, but most of our customers have direct connection with that homeowner, and many of them are reporting that the economy seems to be improving. I’m curious, does that perception match yours from the commercial perspective as well, or is the pace of general economic improvement, is it different in your work, or what do you think? Or is it too difficult to draw an inference?
Russ: I think I’m really not qualified to answer that question, but certainly willing to offer an opinion. I think from my experience – and I’ll tell you if we just look at the last five years, if we look at 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 … that was really a hard time for a lot of guys who were in residential. 2009 actually was one of my best years. 2007, 2008, 2009 were not bad years for me. We’ve grown every year.
When I looked at that and I thought about it, I said, well, probably because I’m working on specifications that took two years to happen. I think the commercial market can lag behind the residential market, and my reasoning for that is that I suspect the duration of a commercial project can be years. So the immediate impact that might hit the retail market and the residential market might actually take longer to pick up, whereas I’ve seen and talked to some residential guys that are really seeing a more dramatic increase in business. While I am optimistic, positive, and feeling like things are getting better, I’m not seeing the same kind of growth in revenue that the residential guys are seeing. So I think commercial really might lag behind a little bit.
Patrick: That’s interesting. As you said, probably none of us in our industry is truly an economist, and is probably not qualified to talk about these things, but it’s kind of fun. It’s kind of fun to make these observations. At least it’s fun when it appears to be going up. It’s probably not fun when it appears to be going down.
Do you have time for one more quick question?
Patrick: You have a reputation for hiring really good people. How do you do that? How do you attract people, and do you have a secret to getting really good people to work with you?
Russ: Well, I can say that I am very, very blessed and lucky to have great – I don’t have good people working for me, I have great people working for me. I really, really do. I attribute it to luck. I can’t say that it is anything that I’ve honed a skill for.
I can say that we’re working with really fun customers in a really great industry. I think when we’re making crazy stuff, that’s crazy hard, with customers that really want that kind of stuff, that starts attracting a certain kind of person who wants to do that, who wants to come to work and be challenged and wants to try and service the customer.
I think the only thing I may have done was try to be really clear about that. Then beyond that, I’ve been really lucky. I do feel blessed, because we do have a great crew.
Patrick: Well, at least you’re honest about that.
One other really quick thing, ultra-compact surfaces, since you’re a sculptor, what do you think about that new surface? Do you think it’s truly something new? Are you high on it, or are you kind of wait-and-see or blasé?
Russ: I’m wait-and-see to blasé. Again, I think things can come to market residentially pretty quickly, and I think things take just a touch longer commercially. The other thing, Patrick, I do have to say is that we try to be really pretty focused, maybe to a fault, so where a lot of folks will tend towards a product or get interested in a product, we tend to stay focused on what we do, and then look for those surfaces that maybe people aren’t looking at that are really beautiful, really extraordinary, and designers will recognize, utilize and specify, that, again, serve the customer’s needs. We tend to be a little bit reluctant to just jump on what a manufacturer brings to market. Just because a manufacturer brings something to market, it doesn’t mean that it resonates or gains traction with designers and customers.
Commercially, we kind of let the design community lead us through their specifications. We tend to be interested in the materials, but we don’t make business decisions based on what is being brought to market. We make business decisions based on what’s being specified, if that makes any sense.
Patrick: That makes perfect sense. That helps me fill in the picture of how things become used or not.
Russ, thank you so much for spending a little time with us. It’s very interesting to hear what you guys are doing.
If you haven’t gone to asst.com, go there. It’s super interesting. Russ, thanks for telling us more about it.
Russ: Patrick, thank you, and I do want to just – on the customer side of software, thank Moraware for putting out just a really, really innovative, effective product for small companies that are really, really lucky to have the talent that you guys bring to the market.
Patrick: Well, thank you. That’s very kind. I appreciate that, Russ. Thank you.
Russ: You bet.
Patrick: If you need anything, you know where to reach us.