NFC’s Tatge Recognized as an Industry Disruptor
It never hurts to ask! When I started buying lumber I had no idea what I was doing. I relied on my vendors, the people who had an interest in my success to answer the questions I had. You don’t need to have it all figured out. You just need a good place to get the answers.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Tatge.
Chris Tatge is a turn-key framing contractor and the President of DC Materials, the fastest growing lumber material supplier in Wisconsin. A 25 year veteran framer, Chris is a leader in his industry having served as the President of the National Framers Council. He currently serves as the framer representative on the Board of Directors for the Structural Building Components Association.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was never a great student. I never made time to study or put in the work. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself. After high school, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was offered a job as a framing carpenter. I fell in love with the work. I was good at it, really good at it. Framing gave me the confidence I never had in school. By the time I was 20 I had my own small company and a contract to build 26 houses!
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
We are disrupting the way lumber material is delivered in the state of Wisconsin. Most of the time if you want to build a 100,000 square foot building you call a lumber yard for the material. For years my labor only company’s profit margin was dependent on the accuracy of the estimate and quality of service the lumber yards would provide. In 2019 we decided to take control of our jobs, build our own wholesale relationships and provide material directly to our General Contractor customers.
Now, because we control the material and labor we can get involved in a project very early on, share ideas with the architect and general contractor about how to design to optimize the framing process. We use a panelized walls system. All of our walls are designed and built offsite, because we control the offsite design and the flow of material, we can better control the onsite schedule. The buildings we frame range in size from 50,000 to 300,000 square feet. We guarantee our schedule to our customers, one week to put up all the walls, one week to build the floor, no matter how big the building is. That means we can build a four story building in just eight weeks. We are proud to have streamlined the process, while delivering efficiency and quality at every turn!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The species of lumber you use can be very important because of the different strength properties. Well, I was awarded a big job. Biggest job of my career. The plan called for fire treated doug fir larch #1 for one very specific but crucial part of the building. I missed it, the General contractor missed it, the designer missed it. We figured it out and I spent the next several hours calling all over the country looking for this (very specific) type of wood that we need in two days. I found it in Denver, Colorado, so I do what any self-respecting business owner would do. I drove overnight to Colorado to pick up the material we needed. Not a lot of fun at the time but, it showed my customer I was willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I have had a lot of mentors over the years. My father Tony taught me how to work. Don Ludzack taught me how to build. Kenny Shifflett and Scott Stevens, two Mid-Atlantic framers showed me I could go from being a carpenter to being a businessman. One big turning point for me was at a Framers Council event a few years ago. I was talking with Bruce Jones, a very successful turnkey guy from Hanover, Pennsylvania. He mentioned having bought a few semi loads of half inch plywood for four dollars per sheet. I looked up the retail price and it was selling for almost double that. I thought to myself I need to get in on this lumber thing.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
“We do it that way because we have always done it that way!” That’s the attitude you get from a lot of the people who have been in the trades for a long time. It’s the wrong attitude to have. If you look at the last 100 years, construction is amongst the least innovative industries. So I say bring on the new ideas, innovations, better way of doing things. There are a lot of people investing lots of capital into our industry saying the same thing. I think what tends to be forgotten is the tradesperson who has spent years perfecting their craft. Many who have all of the wisdom and tricks you need to know to build a building well. I don’t think the innovators give that enough respect. I don’t think there has been a spot at the table for them and I think there needs to be if we want to find better ways to build.
Can you please share 5 ideas one needs to shake up their industry?
1 . Trade associations are a great place to learn from peers. My business wouldn’t exist as it does today without the Framers Council. Getting involved with your broader industry or industries adjacent to you can spur a lot of great ideas.
2 . When you are disrupting an industry, remember you are disrupting an existing model. Don’t be surprised when people start working against you.
3 . It’s about adding value! My competitors sell lumber. Do they actively work for a project to succeed? Maybe on the front end to get the sale. Because I am selling a labor and materials package I can add value beyond that in ways they can’t. If you are in an industry with old school thinking, thinking differently can create a lot of opportunities.
4 . Understand what you’re good at and maximize it, come to terms with your shortfalls. I’m a big picture guy, I like having the big ideas. My business partner Eli Brotzman is great at operations. He reels me in and makes sure my ideas are anchored. We are a great team.
5 . It never hurts to ask! When I started buying lumber I had no idea what I was doing. I relied on my vendors, the people who had an interest in my success to answer the questions I had. You don’t need to have it all figured out. You just need a good place to get the answers.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I just started trading lumber futures. It’s a great way to control price risk. It’s a tool the lumber industry has used for years but turnkey framers have largely ignored. We just broke ground on a big addition to our facility and plan to continue growing for the foreseeable future.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I love Hemingway’s The old man and the sea. I try to read it once a year. Reading about the old man’s struggle keeps me grounded. It reminds me of all the winters I worked outside swinging a hammer building houses.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I heard a great one today from my friend Charlie. “Nobody needs more time but everyone needs more focus” That hit home for me. When you are a fast growing company, opportunities are around every corner. It’s easy to get sidetracked.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
People need a place to live. More and more that’s out of reach. We need to find a way to build affordable housing. To that end there are a lot of great ideas. A lot of people are working toward the solutions. There are also a lot of people who have been building homes for decades that we can learn a lot from. I think the thing that’s been missing is collaboration. I don’t see the old and the new working together the way we need them to. Rather than protecting what we have, let’s be open to new ways of doing things and new business opportunities that come with it.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find my thoughts on LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!