Justin Tousignant, president and co-founder at Black Bear Coatings & Concrete, recently joined our podcast to discuss how business has changed for coatings contractors in 2020. Tousignant also shares lessons learned and tips from the field after his team's recent application project at a new medical marijuana facility in Massachusetts, which was profiled in the July 2020 issue of CoatingsPro Magazine.
A complete transcript of the podcast is available below. For more information, contact: Black Bear Coatings & Concrete, www.blackbearconcrete.com
Ben DuBose: Justin, welcome to the podcast. How are you?
Justin Tousignant: I am doing well. Thanks for having me.
BD: No problem. For anyone who is not aware, we profiled Justin and the team at Black Bear, their work, in a few projects. Most recently, the July 2020 issue of CoatingsPro, we wrote about a project that they’ve completed in the last couple of years, working on a new medical marijuana facility up in Massachusetts. It’s a very interesting story. We will be talking about that some on today’s podcast, trying to get some tips to potentially help our other coatings contractors that are hopefully listening.
But before we get to specifics of that job, I want to start you with a question that I’m guessing is on everyone’s mind. How is business different for you all at Black Bear in 2020? There’s obviously a new normal when it comes to dealing with work in a pandemic. How have you and your crews adjusted. Basically, what’s different in 2020 compared to 2019 or 2018 for you guys?
JT: Do you mean besides the obvious COVID?
BD: Yes, I mean what’s different in terms of how your crews have adapted to the various ways that you have to conduct business now?
JT: That’s actually a great question. My partner, John, and I were talking about this a few weeks back. We’ve been very fortunate and blessed in 2020. A lot of people are struggling, and we at Black Bear seem to be thriving. One of the things that’s been very different for us is, I say we’re fortunate now. It was scary at the time. But before everything got shut down and when COVID was new, we had one of our employees had a person, someone’s mother’s grandmother’s doctor, test positive for COVID. Like many of our fellow contractors, we load up guys in vehicles and go to jobsites. Our employee got the call about 6:30 in the morning saying that the person removed from them got tested and they were positive. They let us know. We ended up having to send five guys back. That was, I think, on March 8.
We made a decision corporately, from that point on, we switched to single-occupancy vehicles. What that did is it really got us thinking about the current environment, how we were going to adjust to COVID, what we’d have to do, because governments were talking about shutting down for 15 days. Well, at this point, now we’re what? 170 days later? A lot of the clients we service, we knew that they would be nervous about it as well. So we wanted to get ahead of it, and we met as a leadership team at the company and thought about things we could do to hedge our bets with COVID. And the underlying sentiment at Black Bear is we always want to be authentically helpful. We want to be authentically helpful to our employees, we want to be authentically helpful to our clients, to our suppliers, all the way around. We have a belief system underlying that: If we help, it comes back in the end.
With that in mind, what we started to do is, with the single-occupancy vehicles and more people than normal having to take their own vehicles to work, we started paying our employees when they left their house. Typically, they’d come to the shop, they’d start getting paid when they got to the shop, round-trip to the shop. If they took their own vehicle, they would get paid when they got on the site, when they left. Now, we changed our policy where we pay them when they leave their house, whether they come to the shop or not. They still get paid round-trip when they come back to the shop. But if they go home, they only get paid one-way. We did that as a way to offset the time, the consideration of taking their own vehicles, and things like that. Because we realized we’re all in this together. If the ship goes down, we’re all going down. So what can we do to make sure that doesn’t happen, and what can we do to ensure the best interests of our Black Bear employees and also our clients?
BD: So is there anything new with regards to the precautions that you all take at the jobsite? Or is it a situation where — I’m guessing one thing that’s sort of been official for coatings contractors, in terms of PPE, this is a business where a lot of that is already baked in. You should have been already doing a lot of the things that you're seeing out in broader society in 2020. So in terms of the jobsite itself, day to day, when you're on a project, is that really that different in 2020 compared to the last couple years?
JT: I think that’s a great question. I think you’re right. We do wear the PPE on site anyway while grinding and things like that. I think what’s really different is you have to teach people to keep their head on a swivel. It’s constant reminders — and it’s not just constant reminders from the top down. As a company, we all police each other. If you see someone doing something that’s unsafe, if they’re interacting with someone that they don’t normally see and they’re not 6 feet and they’re not wearing a mask, we all kind of give ourselves a little shrug, like, “Hey, guys, put your mask on.”
I think the big difference is being aware of your surroundings. It really depends on the size of the jobsite. Some of these jobs we’re on for a week. Some of them we’re on for a year and we’re back and forth. The larger the jobsite, the more we encourage everyone to keep their head on a swivel. We’ve actually even gone as far — and I recommend it to everyone — to empower our foremen and our leads and anyone who sees something unsafe to say something and do something. Not just with Black Bear employees but with others too.
I’ll give you a tangible example. We’re on a jobsite, I think a 10,000-foot room on this project we’ve been on probably off and on for a year between polishing and the different forms of coatings that we’re installing. And we’re in this 10,000-foot room, wide open, and all our guys are socially distancing, we’re doing our work, and we have electricians who have to come in and do some stuff before we start applying. Well, the electricians aren’t wearing any of their masks. My foreman says, “You guys need to put a mask on.” Typical electricians and plumbers, “I’m not putting my mask on.” I said to my foreman, “You go tell the lead, the superintendent on the job, you tell him that he needs to have these people put their mask on because we’re not going to jeopardize all our hard work that we’ve done since this started and run the risk of getting infected. We don’t see these people every day. And if they don’t do it, we’re going to leave, and if you have a problem with it you can call my boss.” Needless to say, the electricians put their masks on pretty quick.
But again, that’s the thing. We’re all in this together. Common sense prevails. None of us want to wear masks, but to a certain degree if you're in hot spots you have to. It’s just the responsible thing to do. At the end of the day, whether you agree with it or not, our clients pay our bills. And if they want us wearing masks, we’re going to wear masks, and that’s just the way it is.
BD: I think that’s a great way to look at it. It’s about the bottom line. I think that’s something that everyone can agree with. Certainly, we should all be in it together from a health perspective, but in terms of business, it’s just common-sense business practice as well because clients want it and it’s what’s in the best interest of completing the project. So I think it works on all sorts of levels.
JT: That’s exactly right.
BD: Let’s transition to the recent case study that we did on you guys, the medical marijuana facility. I think a good way to start, and beyond the fact that it was in the July 2020 issue — one reason why I wanted to talk about this was because medical marijuana, that’s a relatively new industry, or at least in terms of the growing scope of it in recent years. I think a good place to start, tell our listeners how you all got involved with this project, because I’m sure there’s going to be other businesses in the coming years and decades that are relatively new and grow in scope.
How did you at Black Bear sort of insert yourselves to where you were in position to land this job? I don't know if it’s fair to say it’s a new industry, but it’s certainly a new industry in terms of the rapid pace that it’s growing at now. How did you position yourselves at Black Bear to land this gig?
JT: The funny part is, it’s not a new industry. But in Massachusetts right now, we jokingly call it the Green Rush because there’s so many facilities that are either permitted or getting ready to open once the red tape clears up a little bit to start growing marijuana.
This particular project, we always pride ourselves on doing high-quality work, as I’m sure everyone in our businesses do. We have high standards, not only on the quality of our work, but also on our operation, meaning how we coordinate jobs, how we communicate with the client, how we phase the project and work with them to really develop a project plan. I’m sure most of the people listening can relate to that. The GC tells us the job’s going to be ready on a Monday. We show up on a Monday and it’s not ready at all. So we work really hard to partner with our clients, whether it’s a GC or the owner direct, to really go over and above of managing their schedule, to make sure that we can execute our work at the highest level possible, as efficiently as possible, while providing the best product possible.
With that said, we got into this because we have a reputation for that in our local market. We had done a couple of other small cultivation sites in the Massachusetts area. Their industry, just like ours, is a niche. So word gets around. We were introduced to the client. The manufacturer was separately reached out to, and it kind of all came together where we were able to do that work. That’s how we got into it. We worked really hard. Everyone has budgets. Everyone doesn’t want to spend a ton of money if they don’t have to, and all those things come into play.
So we’re always cognizant of the fact that we can’t spend people’s money, but we want to give them the best advice possible. Almost like a doctor. We joke around when some competitors will go against our painting companies. Nothing wrong with it, but we laugh because — we tease. If you are getting heart surgery, do you want your general physician doing the surgery or do you want a heart surgeon? That’s kind of how we present it. These are your options, these are what the costs are, this is what we can do. I think that’s really ultimately what led us to winning that project and doing that phase and multiple other phases for them.
BD: To clarify for our listeners, it’s certainly not a new industry. I say new industry from the perspective of coatings contractors because the rapid pace at which it’s growing now means that there’s a lot more opportunity. So other contractors around the various states where this is growing, they have an opportunity that they didn’t have in the early stages of medical marijuana, where it wasn’t nearly at the scope that it is now. Maybe I shouldn’t say new industry. It’s a new business opportunity. I think that’s a good way of summing up the way it is for coatings contractors in 2020.
One thing that really intrigued me about this, Justin, when I interviewed you for this story a few months ago, I had not written about a job at a medical marijuana facility before. One of the first questions I had for you was, What’s different about it compared to, say, a standard food and beverage job? And one of the more intriguing things that you told me was that it’s really not that different in terms of the way you approach it from a contractor perspective. So for anyone who has not done this type of work before, how different — or in this case, not different — is it compared to a standard F&B job?
JT: That’s a great question. This would be a tip to any contractor who’s doing these. There’s a propensity — everyone needs work, so never tell anyone what system to install. But the one thing we have to keep in mind is that marijuana, specifically, is not a traditional pharmaceutical product. But it’s becoming more and more widespread. With that, the governance on that is going to become more and more strict. While they may not be overseen by the FDA right now or the USDA, depending on whether they’re doing edibles and consumables or if they’re just doing cultivation, at some point, if it becomes federally legal, those agencies are going to come in.
One of the things that we’ve seen in our space is that these cultivation sites weren’t always the best-funded businesses at the time. Because of that, they didn’t necessarily have budgets to spend $7, $8, $9, $10 a square foot on floors. They were expecting to spend $1 a square foot on floors. Well, what they’re finding in the industry now is that it’s just like a food and beverage plant. If a food and beverage plant is not — let’s say they make muffins — if a food and beverage plant is not making muffins, are they making money? No. So it’s not about the cost. It’s about how much revenue they’re losing. There’s no different with these marijuana cultivation facilities because if you’re not growing plants, no pun intended, but you're not growing money.
Now we have facilities we’re going in and doing repairs in, where we tell them they have to shut the room down and pull everything out, and they’re like, “What do you mean?” Well, what I mean is that we’re going to be grinding the floor, we’re going to be installing coatings, even though they’re zero VOC. We don’t want anything to affect the plants. The same way if we were in a traditional pharmaceutical plant, we don’t want anything to infect the drugs that are going to be inserted into the patients. It’s the same thing. It’s a consumable. I think that’s one of the biggest things that you’re starting to see.
In Massachusetts — I can’t speak to California or Colorado or other states like Washington, where this stuff is super prevalent — but in Massachusetts, I think they’re starting to get more intelligent and looking ahead, like, “Look, we may save a few bucks a square foot now, but what is it going to cost us when we’re up and running and we have to shut this room down because our floors are peeling?” Does that make sense?
BD: Yes. I think another noteworthy part of this project, at least towards the beginning of it, and we’re talking about Commonwealth Alternative Care. You guys are basically helping retrofit what was a warehouse space into this new cultivation site. Because it was basically retrofitting the whole building, there’s a lot of other trades that you had to work with. For example, earlier, this is in 2020, you mentioned electricians, you mentioned plumbers. There are all sorts of other trades that are at this site.
JT: I think the biggest thing that helped us is a general knowledge of how the other contractors work and execute, and really requiring a high level of communication among them. When we come into the space, what trades happen? Even though our floors are industrial, they’re a finished floor. No client wants to get a floor that they just paid — easy math, say, make it easy — $10 a foot for and have it scratched. We always would communicate that with the GC and client and try and minimize the impact of our work on the entire site, because ultimately, when we’re in a space we don’t want anyone in there after us. We don’t want to worry about contamination. We don’t want to worry about things that are going to affect the bonding of the flooring system that we’re installing. So it’s super important that we’re smart about it.
A tangible would be hallways. You have access to these rooms that other trades are working in, but if they shut down the hallway how are they going to access it? We had to get creative with points of access from other sides. So if we were working on rooms, let’s say we were doing four flower rooms, we would get ahead and edge grind the hallways and install cove base so that when it did come time to shut down the hallway, we would minimize impact. Instead of starting that work on a Monday, we may start it on a Thursday. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, for example to make it go forward. And really communicating turnaround times.
That’s one of the reasons, when we talk to clients, they want to get to growing as quickly as possible. Well, if we use let’s say an aliphatic urethane, depending on the ambient temperatures, it could be 24-48 hours before you can get back on it with a lift. That’s one of the reasons we elected to go with the polyaspartic, because we could finish on a Friday or Saturday and we wouldn’t be concerned on a Monday with other trades getting back on the floor. Those are the kind of considerations we think about when we’re — at the beginning when we’re value engineering it, but also during the project when we know that the electric control subs, for all the systems, the electricians, the sprinkler guy, the wall panel guy who has to do his final details, those types of things.
BD: Another part of this project that was interesting to me, you mentioned the polyaspartic. This was a pretty complex system. Well, first you had to shot blast, grinding. You were going for the CSP 3 profile. Then the system itself, we’re talking about a cementitious urethane flooring system, custom cove, the polyaspartic topcoat. There’s a lot of stages to this job. Yet your crew is relatively small. I think you said on average four to six crew members, right?
BD: So it’s a relatively small crew. One thing that stood out to me to complete all of these different stages, the surface prep, the application, these guys have got to be fairly versatile. So I know you all at Black Bear place a high degree of importance on training and versatility. Talk about how that helped you in this job as well as, I’m sure, others since then. The versatility and the well-trained nature of your crew.
JT: That’s a great question and a loaded question. That’s one of the things we’re still working on figuring out. We don’t have the final answer yet, but we’re working towards it. For example, we’ll do a 3-day training of new employees before we even let our guys touch a grinder, before we even let them get in the field. We want to make sure they have their OSHA, their DOT. All those things we sink costs into before they even start actually being able to produce revenue.
The second part of it is we want to give our leaders as much leverage in the field as possible. We always try to identify what are the things on a project that are the bottlenecks: prep, patching, cove. We want to get people up to speed as quickly as possible with those things while at the same time recognizing that our direct leads and PMs need to manage quality. We have training — I don't know if you’d call it benchmarks — we try and do different levels, like Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, Level 4, Project Lead, Project Foreman. We identify hard skills and soft skills that we want to train people to. Because people learn differently, people have different aptitudes, and then we adjust accordingly.
We also flex guys in. Four to six guys may get us to the point where we’re ready to pour urethane cement, but then we’ll have a crew of 10 on there if we’re going to pour 10,000 square feet in a day because we want to make sure it goes on without a hitch. I think the other part is communication. Everyone needs to be speaking the same language. Everyone needs to understand the same processes. There are different ways to do things and that’s okay, as long as the end result is the same. That’s the important piece. You may trowel differently than I do with the cove, which we don’t really care, as long as the cove is appropriate, it’s smooth, it’s stoned or sanded, the edge detail looks tight, that’s fine.
BD: One part of it that stood out to me on this job, you had the full Dur-A-Flex system. How much of this equation for you guys depends on having a relationship with the coating manufacturer? I know that, in terms of the expertise of how you lay out and apply these coatings — you mentioned the cove was trowel applied. I believe the system itself was squeegeed on this job, right?
JT: Correct. We squeegeed out with a gage rake, and then when the coating goes on a notched squeegee, then roll out the topcoat, yes.
BD: That’s what I thought. How important is the relationship, or I guess the background knowledge, of the manufacturer so that you all have, going in, a good understanding of the technical properties of the coatings themselves?
JT: I don't think it’s as much the technical property of the coatings — and this is the flooring systems, like the urethanes — as it is about the familiarity with the material, as well as the workability with the material. Many of your listeners, we use many different manufacturers, and we do that because we want to offer solutions to our clients. One single manufacturer doesn’t have all of the solutions. So we want to have that in our bag of trucks.
Dur-A-Flex we have a great relationship with. Their urethane cement Poly-Crete is one of the best on the market, from a workability standpoint, predictability standpoint, knowing what to expect when you put it down. So that’s important. It’s also important, the relationship, when you run into stuff you don’t expect. On that particular project, there was this one room, we shot blasted, hang the cove, come back the next day, floor is black. It was an old warehouse, they had machines and equipment in there, so oil was being brought to the surface. We’re like, okay, go in, shot blast, grind it again, we let it sit for a little while. Five hours later, the floor is black. What’s going on? Obviously, there’s something driving the oil to the surface. So we figured out a solution, we milled down the concrete enough where the manufacturer felt comfortable, rebuilt the floor, and then put the flooring system down.
Those things are important. The reactivity of your manufacturer to be able to support you is the most important thing. If we’re calling someone, and again I’m sure your listeners can relate, if we’re calling you it’s not because I’m asking you how to apply the material. I’m calling you because there’s a problem and I need an answer. That relationship we have with Dur-A-Flex, we have it with a few other manufacturers, but we have a great relationship with them where if we call you, there’s a problem, they handle it. That’s the most important thing for us. Does that make sense?
BD: Yes. Another part of the coating selection that was intriguing at least to me, you guys had some interesting substitutions. I know, for example, the urethane cement you chose because of the quicker recoat windows and it’s fairly forgiving of cooler temperatures, which working in Massachusetts that’s obviously a concern. I think on this job you had the polyaspartic topcoat because it’s pretty suitable for food and beverage environments, but I think rather than two layers of the polyaspartic, for cost reasons, the one underneath it was an epoxy grout coat, correct?
BD: Talk, if you could, about working with the client and having the flexibility to adapt the system a little bit for the needs of a particular project, like in this case the urethane cement because it works well with cooler temperatures. The epoxy grout coat because it’s a little more cost efficient and of course you still get the benefit of the polyaspartic as the topcoat. What was that like in terms of the specific coating selection for this job?
JT: Again, a lot of it went back to when — we use the term internally, we call it value engineering. A lot of that value engineering took place around deadlines and also workability of the schedule. We would have loved to have done two polyaspartic topcoats, but that wasn’t in their budget.
We always break things down because our industry is arbitrary to most people. People are like, “Oh, epoxy, you just paint floors.” I’m like, “No, no, no. We don’t paint floors. We install flooring systems.” It’s a dirty word in our world. But the reason it’s important to differentiate not only is because not everyone can do what we can do, it also helps them understand that we’re not just applying a basic paint. We have step 1, prepping the floor. Step 2, patching the floor. Step 3, hanging the cove. Step 4, applying our basecoat. Step 5, applying our grout coat. Step 6, applying our topcoat.
When you start to educate the client and they start speaking your language in those terms, it makes it really easy to explain it to them. Rather than saying, “We’re going to put a urethane cement down, an epoxy, a polyaspartic,” you can say, “Look, these are our steps, and this is where we can save time. This is a critical piece of it, and this is how we would facilitate the project.” Depending on what we’re doing, how much area, for Steps 1-3, we can leap-frog ahead and start working on Steps 1-3 while Steps 4, 5, and 6 are curing. So it allows us to keep moving forward, and that’s how we approach it.
BD: In closing, I know that we profiled, I believe, the first phase of the job. But then there were a couple phases after that, correct? What did this all lead to once you got the first done?
JT: They ended up, the first one, I think it was like 50,000, and then they did another 50 and there’s another 20. It led to more collaboration. Instead of retrofitting a warehouse for the next phase, they actually installed pre-built pods, which was interesting because the pre-built pods were massive. Massive rooms with steel floors. Well, with that we had to come up and say, “Well, you want to do the same system but we can’t just go pouring urethane cement on a steel floor that has a coating. We need to do adhesion tests and pull tests. We need to make sure that, when we put the urethane cement on top of it, we’re not going to pull the basic coating off and you're going to get back to bare steel.” The client trusted us. We did that test. We worked — you go back to that relationship with the manufacturer. Found a solution to be able to do the same system and provide them the same product.
Because the one thing you don’t want to do is you don’t want to have building 1 has this system, building 2 has this system, because it requires the operator to have completely different SOPs, standard of protocol, to clean the space, to repair the space, to back to service. You don’t want to do that. You want to make it as easy to use for the end user as possible. So that’s what it led to. It also led to more work in the space. Again, it’s a small space. Cultivators move around, just like facility managers move around. They jump around, and they know who you are and what you do and how you approach things, and it leads to more work ultimately.
BD: And I assume the feedback was pretty positive after not just the first phase. We talked about that in the article, which you can find in the July 2020 issue of CoatingsPro Magazine. By the way, that has all sorts of background details on the project as far as the coating thicknesses, the equipment used. Again, just check out that July 2020 issue for more specifics than what we’ve discussed on the podcast. I’m guessing because you progressed to these others stages the feedback was pretty positive, right?
JT: Yes. It still is a great relationship with the client. We feel very fortunate and blessed to be a part of that project and to have been able to work on it. It was a really good project team all around, from the owner to the architect to the GC to all the other subs. It was a really fun thing to be a part of. And you know, you see some crazy stuff.
BD: No doubt. Justin, before we sign off, any way that people can either get in touch with you or Black Bear to find out more information if they’re interested in learning more about what you guys offer?
JT: Yes, of course. One of the best ways is always our website, www.blackbearconcrete.com. But I always love to be accessible to people. You can email me. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. More than happy to answer any questions, or if someone has a similar project they want to pick my brain about, don’t hesitate to reach out.
BD: I’m sure our listeners will greatly appreciate that.