Listen to this episode to learn:
- What ISFA is, how it has evolved, and why it’s sustainable
- The hands-on training opportunities available to ISFA members
- The enormous success of the mentor program
- What is “Lean” and the “Theory of Constraints”
If you have stories or insights that you’d like to share with other fabricators, please reach out to Patrick.
Patrick: Welcome to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. Brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I’m your host, Patrick Foley.
Today I’m speaking with Keith Haight, Executive Director of ISFA, the International Surface Fabricators Association. Let’s give him a call.
Keith: Hello, this is Keith. How can I help you?
Patrick: Hey, Keith, Patrick from Moraware. How are you doing?
Keith: Good, Patrick. How are you doing?
Patrick: All right. Well, let’s dive in. Tell me about ISFA.
Patrick: What is it and who is it for?
Keith: Sure. Well, ISFA is an acronym. It stands for the International Surface Fabricators Association. Basically ISFA was set up awhile back as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit trade association.
Keith: So the intent was started to train and educate its membership in the decorative surfacing industry.
Patrick: Okay. You say decorative surfacing, is it all different kinds of surface or did you start out with a focus on granite?
Keith: That’s a great question because it certainly has evolved over the years. ISFA basically started in 1997. A group of fabricators in what was known then as solid surface industry, got together. They saw other industries that had their associations and provided venues for them to train, educate, become aware of the latest technologies and things of that nature and decided this is something that they needed.
Not too many people understood solid surface and so it was part for the membership themselves, as fabricators, but also to help bring an awareness and help promote solid surface as a great alternative to surfacing, primarily in countertops, which is the bread and butter of the industry, but certainly in other areas. There are vertical wall cladding or shower wall systems and things of that nature. It was a way for a group of fabricators to get together and create their own association.
Patrick: Nice. So what is the main thing that you do for members? Is it mostly a training and awareness thing? Is it mostly just the act of getting people together and figuring stuff out that’s useful or do you do things to raise awareness for customers? What is the focus?
Keith: Right. It’s kind of “E”, all of the above. With that said, it’s mainly focused on training and education and one of the things, to get back to your earlier question, is it material-specific, it started out ISFA had two S’s, ISSFA. It was the International Solid Surface Fabricators Association. But then later on, around 1999, 2000, when [inaudible 00:03:16] taken effect, there was a recognition that it was an absolute [inaudible 00:03:22] player in the material selection.
Around 2006, 2007, ISFA adapted that into the envelope, if you will, of materials and dropped one of the S’s and just became the International Surface Fabricators Association.
Patrick: I think it’s a better set of initials for what that’s worth.
Keith: It just makes a nice conversation too when people say, “I saw you guys with two S’s before.”
Patrick: Oh, that’s true. What’s your URL if people want to check out your website as they’re listening to this?
Keith: Sure. They can just go on www.isfanow.org.
Patrick: Very nice. All right. International, is ISFA really international? Where are some of the far away places you have members? I assume you have plenty in the US but where else do you have members?
Keith: Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah, we have hundreds of members all over world, all over the globe. Primarily the concentration of our membership is in the US but we have a fair amount in Canada, Russia, United Arab Emirates, parts of Africa, Europe, South America, Mexico. We have literally scattered all over the place.
Keith: And New Zealand. I can’t forget New Zealand.
Patrick: Yeah, we actually have a couple of customers in New Zealand as well. Let’s take a break for a second and tell me about you. What is your background in the industry? What do you do with surfacing?
Keith: Well, sure. If you want to start about how I got involved in the industry, I guess?
Patrick: Yeah. Go back a little. I’m trying to connect the dots of how you became Executive Director of ISFA. I assume you know a little bit about fabrication in order to wind up there.
Keith: Sure. In my background, I used to work for the DuPont Company.
Patrick: Oh, okay.
Keith: I started out with DuPont as what they referred to as a “small lots manager.” I started in the Corian business in 1996. In that capacity I was in charge of manufacturing small volumes of custom colors of sheets and shapes of Corian that would then get mocked up and sent for demonstration purposes. Eventually those custom colors were put on a production line for full scale production.
I then transferred over into the fabrication side of things in 1998 and worked in the Corian business as one of the instructors for a school that we had put on as the Corian School of Industrialized Fabrication. I continued in that capacity for a number of years up until about 2001, 2002. From there, during that period, developing my expertise in machine systems and processes and help fabricators look at their businesses differently in terms of what a manufacturer would look at their business, helping to set up process optimization and ultimately better material flow and shop layouts and things of that nature.
So I did that and maintained that capacity with DuPont both with Corian and in the Zodiac side up until about 2009. Then I left DuPont and started a couple different businesses with some friends of mine and later on started my own business in consulting, where I had the opportunity to work with a couple businesses in helping improve their processes. These are back into the surfacing industry and helping them to optimize their processes and impacting their bottom line.
From there, I’ve always maintained contact with Chuck Sawyer, who’s my predecessor in this position. Chuck and I have known each other for a number of years and worked on many projects together when I was both at DuPont as well as outside. When Chuck was the Executive Director of ISFA he approached me to help him out as a volunteer project manager on some initiatives that he was working on, so I was doing that in addition to my consulting business.
In between one of the stops, while I was consulting with a customer I stopped in to the ISFA headquarters here in Pittsburgh and sat with Chuck and he basically said, “You know, I’m looking to retire here pretty soon and was just curious if you would like to consider taking this over.” It took me a little while to think about it. I told him I’d have to really, really consider it. After a few months I came back to him and said, “You know, I think this makes sense.”
I sat down and put together a game plan and went before the board of directors to present that to them and they basically voted me in.
Patrick: Very nice. I assume being Executive Director takes a fair amount of time. As part of that or as an adjunct to that do you still get to be hands-on in fabrication shops or is it more just really focused on I guess what I would call more programmatic efforts and creating programs that help fabricators?
Keith: There is opportunity for me to still visit with fabricators but, you’re right, as an Executive Director, the majority of my time is in making sure that the business is operating in a profitable sense. Though we are a nonprofit, we’re basically not for loss too, right?
Keith: The one thing that I make sure that budgets are maintained, and the office operations are going on but the programs that we provide and the education and things like that, those are still going on, and if there’s anything to adjust or improve upon, that those things are being done, as well as coordinating and implementing all of the events themselves. It’s a full-time job, certainly, for something like this.
Patrick: Yeah. Well, let’s dive into the education side a little bit. What are some of the forms of education you do, whether classroom, online, print, etcetera? What are some of the types of educational resources you provide and are you satisfied with that or are you always looking for different kinds of ways? What are you thinking about? What are you doing now and what are you thinking of doing?
Keith: Sure. Well, the one thing I certainly hope folks will appreciate, I’m never going to be complacent with whatever we do, okay? I think we’ve got some great programs and great opportunities for our membership to help themselves with but always look for ways of improving. With that, I’ve always encouraged our membership to get back to me, keep in touch. If there are some things that make sense or ways in which we can improve, to let me know.
With that said, one of the biggest things that ISFA is recognized for is the hands-on fabrication training that we provide, both in solid surface and in quartz. That’s primarily ISFAs main focus is the solid surface and quartz industries or surfacing products, recognizing that there’s other materials out there that our membership deals with, whether it’s natural stone, laminate and things of that nature. We certainly don’t want to lose focus on these materials. They’ve been a great attribute to our industry and it’s one of the things that we want to make sure continues and grows.
Patrick: Sure. What do you mean by “hands-on”? If I were a new fabricator, if I just opened a solid surface shop, do you come to my shop? Do I go to a central classroom? Do I do online? How would I learn how to be a better or even a new solid surface fabricator from you?
Keith: Sure. It is a face-to-face training. When we say “hands-on,” you’re actually going to get dirty so you’d better be coming dressed accordingly, right? With that, we provide facilities that you can come and learn to actually template, fabricate, and install a kitchen, whether it’s in solid surface or quartz.
Keith: We do have associate members that have been gracious enough to work with us and use their facilities. You have Alpha Professional Tools who we’re utilizing their facilities in Las Vegas and also in their main headquarters in Oakland, New Jersey. Actually, they have four classes lined up for next year with Alpha.
Keith: Then for solid surface we have another associate member, Surface Link, and they’re located in Chantilly, Virginia, basically near Washington, DC. They are loaning us their facility to conduct solid surface training for folks.
With that said, I’ve also been getting a number of inquiries from folks about, “I can’t travel to Vegas or any of the other places you’re mentioning here but what about coming to my shop?” Okay, and we do have that flexibility and have set up a program if you will, but there is a set of criteria to ensure that whoever we’re training has the appropriate tools and things of that nature. We can coordinate shipment of materials and glue sheets, things of that nature, but they do have to have the tools and everything right there and an appropriate facility to conduct it and conduct it safely.
Patrick: That’s very cool. I’m not actually a new fabricator but I will say one of my favorite television shows is “How It’s Made,” so if ever I had the opportunity to attend one of those classes I’m sure I would find it rather interesting to see how my customers do their work. To tell you the truth, I didn’t realize you were that hands-on. I didn’t realize that you could learn how to do the craft at that level of detail. That’s really awesome to hear.
Keith: Oh, right. I think that’s one of the things that we’re recognized for is probably the most comprehensive training session that you’re going to find. Most folks can a la carte things but we’re doing a soup to nuts type of a training to ensure that folks understand the full process. It’s more than just teaching the hands-on. We talked about some of the scenarios that they’re up against.
When you go to an actual install site, what can you potentially face or what are some of the issues? We touch on some of the repair techniques as well as other things, just trying to give them as much real world exposure as we can in your two and a half days and once they’re there to take the training on.
Patrick: Cool. Is there a cost to that?
Keith: Oh yeah. As I said, we’re not for loss, remember?
Keith: Well, and there is. That’s something that we have posted on our website. Folks can easily come in and find that. They can certainly contact me too and I’d be more than happy. If you’re interested, Patrick, we’ve got a training coming up this January, right after KBIS and the ICE shows that are coming up. That’s also going to be in Vegas at Alpha’s facility. That’ll be our quartz training session, so that’ll be something maybe if you or folks that are listening to this, if you’re interested they can contact me or go on the website and find out the information.
Patrick: Very good to hear. Both Las Vegas and New Jersey are pretty easy places to fly into. Again, going back to the international part of this, do you get a lot of people from other countries coming in to do these trainings as well?
Keith: We’ve had some, yeah. It’s probably not going to be as many, again, as you can imagine, North America. That’s where our main concentration of membership is. Yeah, we’ve had some folks come in from overseas and take these trainings.
Patrick: Very cool. One of the trainings that I am familiar with for ISFA is the mentor program. Some of the other guests I’ve had on this show, Ted Sherritt has been a mentor. Dave Paxton, I believe, was his mentee. Mike Langenderfer has been on both sides of that coin. Tell me about the mentor program. How did that start? Where has it evolved to now? I’m assuming where the training you were just talking about is more on the craft level, that the mentor level is probably a little bit more on the business level. Is that the case or am I misinterpreting that?
Keith: Yeah, no, absolutely. With the mentor program, it’s covering the entire business. The focus is for a well-established business to take a young upstart, if you will, under their wing and nurture them into a very sound fabrication business, much in like you mentioned earlier with Mike Langenderfer and Dave Paxton. Mike certainly has done great in helping Dave along to make sure that Paxton Countertops is a very sound business, not only from a financial or business operations, but even from an operations side in the shop itself.
That’s where this program is still maintaining that. We have a few fabricators that are engaged with each other, helping each other out, but like with any program of this nature, we certainly would encourage others to jump on board and participate, specifically with mentors. If we have some folks out there that are wanting to help other fabricators along, we certainly would appreciate them reaching out to us so we can get them engaged.
Patrick: I am constantly amazed by the level of generosity in this industry, the number of people who give back, speaking with Dave Paxton recently, saying that he communicates regularly with Mike Balogis, who is one of his main competitors in his market. People in this industry really help each other out and I get the impression from people who have been formal mentors that they get just as much back from being a mentor as from having a mentor. Mike Langenderfer said as much. Anyone out there who hasn’t done it yet, if you think you know a lot about the industry, the message seems to be that you’re going to get an enormous amount back from helping others.
Keith: Absolutely true. This is an incredible group of people that we are associated with. Both you and I and anybody involved in this would have to agree. The generosity from this group of folks is just mindboggling. The many things that I’ve witnessed first-hand as a fab manager with DuPont, as well as within my own consulting business or even now in ISFA, it’s always interesting.
Certainly you have folks that want to keep certain things to themselves. They’ve got the latest technology or ways of doing things. But what’s also interesting is as they’ve come to network with each other and interact, that they realize how much more commonality there is and how much easier for them, and how better for them to share ideas and help each other out. I think everybody’s now more focused on growing the industry itself, as opposed to being more focused on just themselves.
Patrick: Yeah, it is truly shocking, I have to say. One of my very favorite things about my job is simply working with people in such a generous industry. It’s very rewarding.
Patrick: Let’s be specific for a second. You mentioned some events going on at the end of Vegas. I think Stone Expo is the one I’m going to. That’s what I’m going to, right? Isn’t that what’s in Vegas on the 21st through 23rd?
Keith: Yeah, in Vegas there’s a few different shows going on. You have KBIS.
Patrick: I’ll let you tick them off.
Keith: That’s another one. Then you have the International Builder Show. That’s going on the same week. Stone Expo, Tile Expo and Surfaces have all joined forces basically, and they refer to that as TISE, so the Tile International Stone Expo. It’s a huge show as well. So you have three different shows going on in the same week.
ISFA will be presenting at TISE on the 22nd and that will be a couple different courses that we’re offering. One, more productivity related in terms of lean manufacturing, and then another session on the area of constraints or constraint management within business. It’s really going to help fabricators step back and take a look at some of the tools that they can help to improve their bottom lines.
Patrick: You may have just begun to have answered the question I was about to ask you. I was going to say when you’re casually meeting someone at these events, what do you wish owners of fabrication shops would know? It might be the two classes that you ticked off, lean manufacturing and I’m sorry, what was the other one?
Keith: Theory of constraints.
Patrick: Theory of constraints. I don’t know what theory of constraints is. Some people don’t know what lean manufacturing is. Can you give us the abstract for those two classes? What is lean manufacturing and what is theory of constraints, and why should we care?
Keith: Sure. Lean manufacturing is something that started way back in the ’40s or ’50s where the focus was on minimizing or elimination of waste in your production facility. You probably hear some folks talk about the Toyota Lean Model and things like that. It was something that came out of the automotive industry to help minimize the amount of distance that materials traveled during the manufacturing process or the redundancy, if you will, of operational steps and things of that nature.
Lean is going to focus, in a broad sense, if you look at your overall facility and where can we eliminate extra steps and unnecessary steps and wasted material and things of that nature, okay?
The theory of constraints is more specific. You have to take a look at your whole manufacturing system overall. Within that system, there is one point which will define how much money your organization will make in a given period of time. The best way to really analogize that would be like an hourglass.
If you think about an hourglass, that constraint obviously is the neck and you’re only going to be allowed to get so many grains of sand through that neck at any given period of time. Same is true within your manufacturing facility. There’s somewhere in your organization a constraint which will define how much money your organization’s going to be able to create.
Theory of constraints or constraint management will help identify where that constraint lies and you focus all you energies on that, so it never ever goes down. That’s fundamentally the difference between those two.
Patrick: Interesting. I was talking with Dave Paxton recently and he was trying to decide which equipment purchase would give him the greatest return or whether a new equipment purchase is really the best decision at all. In other words, should I buy a water saw? He already has an automated saw but it’s not one of the newfangled water saws. Or should I buy a CNC or should I invest more in employees?
I don’t know for sure, but does theory of constraints help me answer those kinds of questions, understanding, okay, I assume it would point to a CNC if the bottleneck in that hourglass is putting holes in countertops, etcetera. Am I missing the point or oversimplifying it?
Keith: Well, that is kind of one of the misconceptions I guess, if you will, when you talk about theory of constraints to folks. When you think about theory of constraints, it will focus on your existing system. How are you looking today and what can we do to optimize that and extract as much money out of that as possible?
Patrick: Okay. Given my current constraints.
Keith: That’s what it is. Yeah. Then if you identify the constraint is in location A, that’s fine, then you focus everything on location A and optimize that.
Patrick: Got it.
Keith: Everything else is secondary. It’s counterintuitive to some of the lean practices, if you will, in essence. Everybody wants to eliminate waste all over the place. The theory of constraints says, “No, this is the most important area in your system. This is where we need to focus everything,” and that overall helps in the operations of things.
Now, if you come to the point where you want to move the constraint, you can do that, or identify that maybe it’s time to expand and we do get new equipment, you can make those decisions later. But you know when you make those decisions, they are going to be the right decisions. It’s less of a guess at that point.
Patrick: Well, that’s very cool. That’s certainly intriguing and, as I said, I’m going to be in Las Vegas at that event, so I will make a point of trying to go to that session and learn a little bit more.
Keith: I look forward to meeting you there.
Patrick: Yeah, exactly. It’s one of those things, it’s always fun to ask someone to boil down everything they’re going to learn in an hour-long session into a two-minute answer but, hey, we do it anyway.
Let’s also talk about for a moment about training employees. I had a customer ask recently about trying to figure out is there anything out there to help him find and train good employees, is there certification programs, etcetera. All I could do is tell him, “Well, you should probably look at ISFA. That would be where I would start.” What does ISFA have to help owners train their employees?
Keith: Maybe we could touch on some of the other educational forms that we have. When you talk about specific employees, it’s not like our programs are designed for owners only or employees only. For the most part, we’re here to educate any and everybody. There are no real boundaries in that regard.
If the owner is willing to send an employee to any one of these forums then great, they’re certainly going to get a lot out of it. Some of the things we haven’t touched on, one of the sessions that we put on last year was what we refer to as our Knowledge Is Power Symposium, which you folks helped us sponsor and we thank you very much for that.
Patrick: You’re welcome.
Keith: Moraware helping us to put that on at our location here in Pittsburgh allowed us create some presentations. We brought individuals from both inside the decorative surfacing industry and outside to offer some presentations and just good interactions around sales and effective marketing, branding, effective leadership and things that it would take to empower your employees and motivate and things of that nature.
Your boss, Eric, came in and talked a great deal about data and the digital side of your business and things like that. There was a lot of good discussion in presentations on what happened there.
We also have a form we refer to as a “CEO roundtable” where we’ll bring business owners together and they’ll create a forum where they can talk about the various issues that keep them up at night. We’ve conducted a number of those over the years and what we’re going to be focusing on next year is a CEO second generation. Right now, one of the things that we’re seeing is the evolution in this industry of the first generation to a second generation industry.
Patrick: Do you mean within families or technology?
Keith: No, no. It’s an evolution where the founders of these businesses are now at a point where they’re starting to retire and so maybe it is their kids who come in to basically take the business over. I’ve had several new members come in that have worked for other corporations or other businesses in other industries and decided they wanted a company of their own, they wanted to start something of their own. So you’ve got the mergers and acquisitions, things like that that are taking place.
This CEO roundtable will focus specifically on that kind of a transitional period and what can we do to help make that as smooth as possible for these folks. Certainly, to go at it alone, it’s difficult, and knowing that you’ve got a powerful network like ISFA working with you to make that as smooth as possible is certainly a welcome relief to a lot of these folks.
Patrick: Very nice. That makes a lot of sense.
Keith: Another session I’ve got coming up is a productivity event, so [inaudible 00:29:16] some of the things that I’ve done, things we talked about, lean-based or TOC, but more focused on helping businesses, again, look at their shops with a different set of eyes, focus on the bottom line. I’ve got a productivity event coming up in Mexico in June and we’ll conduct that and look to expand upon that in North America here.
The other thing we’ve got coming up, in the fourth quarter of next year we’re going to put together a good sized grassroots gathering of that. The idea is bringing fabricators, suppliers, distributors, everybody within our industry together, put together some nice presentations at which they can network and share ideas. And give a perspective of the industry to make sure everybody is all on the same page and that we understand not only where ISFA is but where the industry is going and what we can do to work together on that.
Patrick: Very nice. Before we wrap up, what’s your pie in the sky look of where you think the industry is going over the next year or 5 years or 10 years? What changes have you seen starting or do you think are going to be happening over the next few years?
Keith: Sure. As we just talked about, the evolution of our industry from first to second is going to be one of the biggest things. It’s interesting now having been in this industry and seeing how every material is trying to be everything to everybody, versus now, everybody’s finding their niche, not only from a material standpoint where you’re seeing quartz coming on strong and actually giving granite a run for its money. Granite’s still doing strong and everything but quartz is coming up and getting a lot of popularity in the residential markets. Solid surface is finding it great for holding in the commercial end, and specifically in healthcare, in education.
Those are interesting things to watch this whole industry evolve in that direction. Those are some of the things right off the top of my head.
Patrick: I definitely also have noticed specifically with the next generation, yes, I’ve noticed that some of our customers will hear, “Hey, I just bought this business. I’m trying to understand what your software does,” so something like that. But it’s particularly interesting to me, just personally, to notice how many parents are transferring control of their business to their kids. Again, Paxton, Langenderfer, it goes on and on, Mel Hill. So many people are examples of second generation families taking over and doing even bigger and better things so I just think that’s kind of on trend. I hadn’t noticed until you mentioned it.
Keith: Oh it is, it is. In fact, I’ll bet half our board of directors are in that very position, Erica Hussey with her business and Kate Bisley as well. These are individuals that are well-equipped and very much capable of running these operations and these businesses. It’s great mentally to see that but also to be involved with these folks as part of our board of directors to help the whole ISFA as well as the entire industry.
Keith: Before we do, if you don’t mind, I’d like to plug a few more things.
Patrick: Please. Go for it.
Keith: One of the biggest things when members call and say, “What do I get for my value? What are some of the things?” A couple of the biggest things that come to mind, in addition to all the training and education forums that we have, ISFA has its own continuing education program. We provide a forum and a way for any of our members to provide continuing education units, or CEUs, to architects and designers. There’s five courses that we have and that we can provide and we’re growing. We’ve got a few more in queue that we’re looking to develop and make available.
These are all accredited through the AIA, the American Institute of Architects. So we have that program.
Recently ISFA started a discount program for all our members. We call this “the marketplace.” This is an area where, as a ISFA member, you can gain access to discounts through Federal Express, Staples and W.W. Grainger. As I said, this program is going to grow and we’ve got a bunch more vendors waiting to get online. Actually, some of the vendors that are coming online are ISFA members themselves, so it’s kind of interesting to see how we can help them find a new avenue to sell their products and services.
Then one of the other things that we have coming up is a scholarship fund in recognition of Mike Nolan. If you know Mike or remember Mike, he was our education and training director who oversaw the hands-on training. Unfortunately we lost Mike earlier this year to lung cancer and in recognition of that, his widow Teri had allocated a substantial fund to us to start a scholarship fund. So now we’re in the process of building that up and defining how the monies will be collected and appropriated and criteria for who the recipients are in that. This is going to be a very interesting and very positive program for the industry I see.
Patrick: That’s fantastic. What a great thing.
Keith: It is.
Patrick: Anything else?
Keith: Well, on our typical advertising side, we touched a lot on education and training and the one thing that I hope folks will recognize is our ability to help them get their message out through our advertising channels. As you know, we have the Countertop and Architectural Surface magazine that comes out once every quarter, the business issue that comes. Then we have the newsletters, the website, email blasts and other channels that we can use to get our members’ message, or even in a lot of cases we have some non-members that are advertising through these forums. It’s just something that the entire industry, I hope, is aware of and takes advantage of.
Patrick: Very nice. Again, the simplest thing, I assume, for anyone who’s not a member is to go to your website, right, isfanow.org?
Patrick: So go to isfanow.org and start from there.
Keith: Certainly. They can go on the website, there’s a link for membership, or they can quite simply call the office and that number is 412-487-3207.
Patrick: Fantastic. Well, Keith, thank you so much for spending time with me today and I learned a lot. I hope some of our listeners did as well, and I look forward to meeting you in person in January.
Keith: Thank you, Patrick. I appreciate this opportunity and certainly appreciate the forum that you’ve guys established to help get messages like this out there.
Patrick: Thanks. I look to keep it going. All right.
Keith: Thank you.
Patrick: Talk to you soon.
Thanks for listening to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. If you liked this episode, be sure to visit stonetalk.org or subscribe to StoneTalk in iTunes for more. Visit the StoneTalk Show Facebook page to join in the conversation and follow @stonetalkshow on Twitter.
StoneTalk is brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I’m your host, Patrick Foley, and I look forward to spending time with you again on the next episode of StoneTalk.