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Material facts

Price wins over patriotism when it comes to building products

THS National has remodeled hundreds of kitchens for apartments owned by Camden Group. And for each remodeling, the company can trace the origins of just about every part.

The cabinets: Lexington, S.C.-based KB Kitchen. The faucets: Ohio-based Moen. The drywall: Mount Holly-based National Gypsum.

But not all of THS’ clients are embracing American-made products. Thanks to construction being in a slump across the U.S., clients are watching every nickel they spend, and that means opting for cheaper, Chinese-made products for their projects, contractors say.

“They are watching that almighty spreadsheet,” said Will Fisher, THS vice president of business development for the Charlotte-based construction company. “On a personal level, they may like to see that we are suggesting American-made products, but at the end of the day they are thinking about price.

“Now this is for the middle managers that we deal with. If there is a company owner or president that is at the top that pushes using American-made products, they generally will have a big impact. But the stuff coming out of China is so cheap.”

Other contractors point to another problem: Finding American-made products, such as paintbrushes or sandpaper, can be tough.

Ben Mandon, project manager for Charlotte-based Andrew Roby General Contractors, said his company tries to use American-made products as much as it can.

“I don’t know of any particular places we go to find stuff that is strictly made in America,” Mandon said. “We’d like to, but sometimes it just isn’t possible.”

Still, contractors say they try to push American-made items, like toilets, roofing materials and lumber. Fisher, for one, tries to highlight what he says is the higher quality of products made in the U.S.

“Maybe it is a little more expensive, but our customers appreciate it,” he said. “Everyone is buying value, and we can try to show that value through longevity and the ease of maintenance costs.”

Fisher points to one brand of faucets, Moen, saying it’s an example of how spending more on an American-made product can be offset by saving on maintenance costs down the road.

“Moen makes a cartridge for their faucets that makes repairing them easier and cheaper than having to replace the whole thing every few years,” he said. “You don’t have to disassemble it, spend hours fixing it and then put it back together, all the while paying a maintenance guy or plumber $25 an hour to go monkey with the faucet.”

A quick Internet search for the replacement cartridges shows prices ranging from $7 to $14.

Roby has homebuilding and commercial construction departments, but Mandon said these days most of the company’s work comes from additions, maintenance and handyman services. On those jobs, clients usually don’t care about the origins of the building materials, he said.

“We go to our local suppliers and try to get what customers are asking for,” he said. “But a lot of times things are specified for us by the homeowner or even an architect, and we have to go with what they want.”

Beyond just buying from American companies, Mandon said the company tries to support North Carolina and Charlotte companies as much as possible, purchasing most of its lumber from Charlotte-based Queen City Lumber.

For U.S. companies that make products used in construction, there’s this hopeful sign: Mandon and Fisher say the topic of American-made materials has come up more often in recent months.

“People have started to talk about it more, because of the economy and thinking about American jobs,” Madon said. “But everybody is price-conscious to a certain extent these days.”

THS worked with KB Kitchen, whose main manufacturing facility is in Alabama, to provide cabinets for all of the Camden Group apartments the company is renovating. THS has a three-year, multistate apartment renovation contract with Camden, and the different contracts, spread across North Carolina, Georgia and Washington, D.C., are worth from $1 million to $4 million apiece.

“We did the work to bring that cabinet supplier to the table to help them navigate where their price needed to be based on the volume we anticipate, which would be 50 to 100 cabinets a month,” Fisher said.

An order for thousands of cabinets over the next three years gave a big boost to KB, said Drew Takach, director of sales for KB. He said the company dealt with lean times, even during the real estate boom years, and had to make serious cuts to stay in business.

“It is tough right now because, when you’re dealing with some of the Chinese products, the cost is a pretty good difference,” Takach said. “We went to a couple of our suppliers in the United States and said we need to find a way to fight this off so we can continue to do business, not necessarily together but in the USA.”

To compete and keep costs low, KB has limited some of the colors and door styles it offers. In addition to the Alabama plant, the company also makes cabinets in Pennsylvania and Texas. To help sell customers on the idea of paying a little extra for American-made cabinets, Takach points to the manufacturing.

“Our cabinets are already assembled in the U.S., so when you get to the job site you don’t have some assembly required,” he said.

While some clients don’t care about the origin of products, in the case of Camden, THS’ push for American-made parts and materials helped the company get the contract, said Dane Allen, senior account manager for the Eastern division of THS.

“We try to buy American-made products as much as we can,” Allen said. “Camden is a great client and a prime example of the positive reaction we often get when we bring this up to clients.”

BAUGHMAN can be reached at [email protected]

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