Kimberley Robles, president and owner of Robles Concrete Design, recently joined our podcast to discuss her experiences in coming up through the trades as a journeyman. Based on those experiences, she has some great insight on how the industry might be able to attract — and keep — quality people to help decrease the labor shortage. She also shares some challenges and opportunities she’s seen within the industry over the years. In the episode, Kimberley mentions a Citi Foundation ad that she was featured in last year. Check that out here.
You can also connect with her on LinkedIn, or via the company’s website. See below for a complete transcript of the episode.
Stephanie Chizik: Kimberley, thank you so much for joining us today.
Kimberley Robles: Thank you for having me.
SC: Why don’t you go ahead and start by giving us your background? How did you get into the industry, into the concrete world, so to speak?
KR: I got into the industry years ago when I was out of high school. I had a friend who was a carpenter, and he asked me if I wanted to go help him at work. I was like, “To do what?” I really didn’t know what the construction field was, but he offered me $10 an hour, and that was a lot of money then. I went along with him, and I worked there for a little while, until his project was done. I thought it was a good way — I wasn’t interested in college very much. I went to school, and I was kind of bored, so that was a better way for me. When I saw that you can make good money and you don’t have to go to college. You have to go through apprenticeship.
SC: What about it did you like? Obviously, something hooked you in once you were there.
KR: It was working with my hands and actually being able to, at that time — that was a long time ago. It was $3.35 an hour for minimum wage. So to get $10 an hour was kind of a lot of money, or three times the amount of minimum wage. I looked into it and went and got in the Carpenters. I didn’t stay in the Carpenters. I switched around to different trades because when you’re young, people will make you offers like, “Oh, you should come over here. You should be a taper or a painter” or whatever. It was San Francisco, so there was always opportunity. I ended up getting into concrete in the early ‘90s.
SC: When you say concrete — I know this because I follow you on LinkedIn and your website — but you’re talking about mostly flooring, right?
KR: No, I was a cement mason. Prior to doing this — that’s why I feel like I have an understanding of coatings and concrete polishing and toppings because I worked with concrete. I went through my union apprenticeship to be a cement mason. I am a cement mason.
SC: That’s awesome. You started when you were — it sounds like right out of or very close to right out of high school.
KR: I started pretty young. I got out of high school kind of early, so I started when I was 17. I had other jobs. I did do other jobs in between just to see if I liked it, but I really didn’t. You know, you always end up doing something else when you’re young. But I’ve been in and out of the trades since then.
SC: I know there’s a lot of challenges with labor shortages these days, and people would probably be clamoring to get someone else who’s 17 to come into the industry. Do you have any tips or ideas of how we could help to work on the labor shortages? As you’re someone who came up that way.
KR: I really think that, for me, I was just motivated to get into the trades, so I looked into it. I don’t think that younger people, especially women, know about how to get into the trades. I think it’s more — now in San Francisco, it’s a little different because they’ll put you through, you can go through a job program and they’ll teach you, like a pre-apprenticeship, and then put you in a trade. But when I was doing it, there wasn’t all the online. Now I would think that you’d have to use any resource, maybe like Job Corps or any kind of job training programs, and just present yourself to them.
For here, it’s more the union trades, but for people that aren’t union, I would try to find a program in my area to recruit. I think the best way is to get them when they’re young. It’s also difficult when we get people that have experience, and you want something done your way. You know, everybody wants to do everything their way. That could be a challenge as well, getting someone that you can work with. But there is definitely a labor shortage.
SC: For sure. I do think that — something that always has been sticking with me lately is “hire for attitude, not necessarily for skill.” I think that kind of goes to what your point is, that maybe if they don’t have the skill but they’re teachable, that’s almost better because you can teach them the way you want to teach them.
KR: Yes. I do think that is the key. You want to hire someone that has enthusiasm, because if nobody wants to be there, they’re not going to show up. It’s very difficult to get someone to get into the trades now, because I feel like everything now is so much dot-com jobs where you don’t have to do physical labor. Physical labor’s not for everyone. But if you have enthusiasm, anything you want to learn, you can learn if you keep your mind open. I’m always learning something. From every job I do or other contractors. You just have to be open to be teachable, like you said. If you want to do it, you can do it.
SC: Do you have a community that you reach out to to learn? Are you part of an association or do you attend trade shows? How are you getting that new information that you’re trying to learn all the time?
KR: I always go to World of Concrete. I feel like you can always see innovative products. Prior to starting my own company, I was selling the concrete polishing equipment, selling and renting. I did have the opportunity to be at the Superabrasive booth for two years at World of Concrete. You see everybody at World of Concrete. You guys know. You’re out there. There’s a lot of innovative products, and you can mingle with people that you wouldn’t really have a chance to meet going to the different classes and even social events. There’s a lot of those.
SC: Especially in Vegas.
SC: For sure. We talked a little bit about your past. What do you see as far as your future and maybe the future of the industry in general? Obviously, there’s no crystal ball, but what do you think might be coming down the pike?
KR: I think that there’s a lot of work right now. I think that we have to stay abreast of everything, all the new technology and trying to learn, because there’s going to be a lot of fly-by-night contractors. Especially in the coatings world. You take a two-day class, and everybody thinks they know how to do epoxy or polishing or whatever. It’s completely different than when you get out and actually do it. I think the future is open for us to stay, because I don’t think it was respected prior. Now it’s written into specs and everything. I just think you have to keep learning and keep trying to get good people on your team. If you have a good team, you can move forward. It’s very difficult to do things by yourself.
If you are going to be a small company, I think you just have to stay in your lane. For me, I’m pretty small. It goes from project to project. Last year I did a grocery store, and I had to hire extra help. But if you don’t have the ability to keep that kind of work all the time, it’s also hard to keep people. You just have to know, find the area you want to be in. Do you want to be bigger? Smaller? Or do you just want to have a tight crew? That’s what I’m trying to build right now. But I still get out there. I was doing sanding, doing epoxy last week. It’s not what I want to do. It’s hard, though, to find people to be motivated. I guess we’re all in that kind of search to find the right people.
SC: It’s good, though, that there is a lot of work out there. But you’re right. I hadn’t thought about the fly-by-night problem. If there’s too much work and not enough established contractors to do the work, then you’re going to get people who are inexperienced or not in it for the right reasons, maybe.
KR: Or undercharging. I do a lot of concrete polishing, and then I have a lot of friends who are totally epoxy contractors. They say that people underbid but they’re not doing it properly. That’s why I don’t knock it, but I don’t do garages. For me, I’m lucky that I’m in the San Francisco area, so I’m able to go on more high-end projects and we can charge differently here.
SC: Right. So you don’t cut corners, is that what you’re saying?
KR: Yes. If somebody’s like, “Oh, can you do a one-day garage system,” it’s like, “Absolutely not.” You have to prep, you have to put the vapor barrier, or you’re going to be coming back for callbacks. That’s why sometimes — it depends on the customer — you have to use the more expensive products, so you have to make sure that you’re able to charge a certain amount of money. Somebody like ARDEX, I can get a moisture barrier warranty for 20 years. I heard that they stand behind their warranty. They’ll write up the specs for you and you can go out there and apply it exactly how they do, and you can give your customer a warranty. You don’t know if something’s going to happen in 20 years, but it’s better to have some backup.
SC: That makes sense. What about anyone new who might be coming into the industry? Do you have any advice for them or suggestions or tips?
KR: I would say attend World of Concrete. Either go through an apprenticeship or apprentice under another contractor. People that just jump in with no knowledge, I feel like they’re going to have a harder time. That’s like with anything. You can’t go be a doctor or a lawyer if you didn’t go to school. I don’t know why people think they can go to class for two days and now they’re a contractor. It just depends on what state. In California, you have to have a license. You have to go the contractor state license board to become licensed. But in a lot of places, I’ve seen a lot of forms on Facebook and different things. These guys don’t have any knowledge. They’re like, “I’m going to become a contractor,” and they just go out there and hit the ground running. Some people will be successful. I think that 80% of them won’t. But that’s my opinion. You know, everybody has one.
SC: Yes. And there are a lot of resources out there right now, even virtually, that people can go to. So even if you can’t go to World of Concrete, I’m sure there’s a ton out there.
KR: Yes, if you can’t go to World of Concrete, read CoatingsPro. Read Concrete Décor magazine. If you are just going to take those classes, take several. I still go to classes. I’m trying to sign up for the Ameripolish. I was looking into going to SASE training. Everybody has different methods. You can learn something from everywhere. I say, just keep your knowledge up. Be open. I have a friend who is an epoxy contractor. When I need help, we call each other up, and we help each other out. He’ll come on a job with me and work with me for the week, and he really helped me in the coatings thing and vice versa, like he didn’t really polish prior. So I helped him with that. And I met him when I used to do sales. So they were my customer who become our friend.
SC: That’s cool.
KR: Don’t look at everyone as competition.
SC: I was just going to say, I do think it’s “easy” to form a community in this industry. Everyone seems to be — not everyone, but lots of people seem to be — very friendly and willing to help and share. It’s so great.
KR: I think that’s what the difference is now, the time in this industry. Back in the day, the old school, everything’s a secret. But now there’s YouTube, internet. You can’t hold all these secrets to yourself. If you do, knowledge is power. You have to grow and help one another to grow. Why would I not help someone else? The Bay Area’s pretty large, and I’m going to ask for help or tips on something, and somebody else will ask me. I don’t mind helping someone. I don’t feel like it’s competition. Everybody does their own thing. There’s enough money to be made for a lot of ppl here.
SC: I have definitely heard something similar, like if your niche is polishing and someone else’s niche is epoxy, then you can kind of tag team, or maybe there’s a larger project where you can both work on it and help each other out and throw work each other’s way. I think that’s awesome.
KR: I definitely did. My friend Richard came out, and he has a company. He’s like a small, one-man guy, Vision in Concrete. He’s out of, I want to say Brentwood — no, Rio Vista. He’s a really nice guy, and he’s helped me with my coatings. He’s been doing it a much longer time than me. And I also get the reps to come. You want to sell me these products? Come show me how to put it down. I feel like there’s no training, but you always have to work. Show me the ease of use, and then we can use your product.
SC: I really do feel like, from what I understand, coatings — it’s like you have to be a chemist in the field, especially if there’s two parts. And make sure, like you were saying, it has to be a vapor barrier, a water barrier, what have you. It’s not just slap something down and walk away. There is an art and science behind it, which is really fascinating.
KR: It is, and everybody has their own methods. There’s so many people out here that sell epoxy, but you have to find the one that’s good for you to work with. What’s going to be ease of use. Everything’s a skill. Even the person mixing the epoxy. You have to mix for 3 minutes. You can’t cut corners, so it takes time. You can’t just go in there —. Even the people pouring it out. I feel like it’s all acquired skill, and the more you do it, the more you’ll learn. But if you partner up with someone who knows more than you, I think that’s the best thing to do.
SC: I just interviewed someone for an article, and they were mentioning that they had the same person doing all of the mixing throughout the entire job. For exactly what you were just explaining. You want it to be the same.
KR: That’s what — all the guys I know say that. If you’re doing overlays, if you’re doing epoxy, they’re like, “Do not change the mix guy. Once you change the mix guy, they’re putting the water in different.” Or they’re doing something different when you’re doing overlays. But yes, I think it’s important to get someone — everybody has their skill set. Everybody’s can still be a good product. I would just say, you asked the question earlier, if you’re trying to keep people, treat them right. You treat people good, and they’re going to stay. So you have to respect everyone from the laborer to the guy who’s mixing, and give people opportunity for growth and I think you can keep people.
SC: I love that idea of the growth. What would you say are your biggest challenges or, in a positive spin, maybe your biggest opportunities that you’ve seen since owning your own company?
KR: I think there’s a lot of opportunity for me because there’s no women-owned companies, and I haven’t even tapped into the women- or minority-owned business sector yet because I’m just busy doing private jobs. But that’s why I still think that there’s growth in the industry. I have things I need to take care of. But the biggest challenges are just being a woman in the industry. There’s not many, so sometimes you’re not as respected. But if you do your job, you can earn your respect. You do the job right and stand behind your job that you’re doing.
SC: I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but just as an editor in the industry, I’ve experienced that I’m expected to prove that I know what I’m talking about. It’s not just understood that I know, which I think is interesting.
KR: You know what? It’s always like that. I’m not trying to focus on women, but whatever field women are in, it’s always like that. If it’s a woman doctor, they’re going to go to the male doctor and ask him something, even if she has more experience. For me, I’ve been in the industry for so long that it doesn’t bother me. Now I’m just — I started my own company in 2018, and I’m just being now recognized for the work that I do around the Bay Area. But I’ve been in this game for a long time. I’m used to it. I just did a project and the store owner’s a super nice guy. He owns the produce store next door. He’s like, “Why don’t you get your husband or a boyfriend to come do this work? Why are you doing it?” I said, “Oh, because it’s my bank account.”
SC: I love that. And because you want to.
KR: I like what I do. I think that’s a big part of it. If you’re going to work every day and you don’t like your job, how are you going to be good at it? You’re just going through the motions. For me, I like to see the end result, and I like to make the customers happy. We all don’t know everything. I’ll be honest. I did a job a month ago, and after it came out, I rushed to a different job and I let somebody finish. I didn’t like the finish at the end. I didn’t want to give the customer that, so I went to do some touch-ups, and my friend was like, “How many touch-ups are you going to do?” I ended up doing the whole floor over. I had to tell the owner. I said, “You know what, Rick? I want you to be happy with the outcome.” It took me four extra days. I had to pay people. But at the end of the day, that floor came out super nice and they were happy with it. So it’s not always about just the dollar. It’s about customer satisfaction. Are you going to leave your name on that job? Because that’s embarrassing. You’ve got a quality product and you’re still going to get customers.
SC: And it literally is your name on the job. Obviously that matters.
KR: Exactly. My grandmother always told me, “All you have is your reputation.” Your word and your reputation. Once you start getting a bad reputation, it goes around fast. People like to talk about bad things before they talk about good.
SC: That’s so true.
KR: I try to keep the good.
SC: Yes, if people don’t want to work for you now, I don’t know what’s wrong with them. We connected over on LinkedIn, and you’re very active over there. You’ve been highlighted in a couple other magazines. You guys are really doing an amazing job as far as marketing your company. Is that something that you’re doing on purpose, or is it just opportunities are coming to you? How’s that working out?
KR: No. Last year, I actually got to do, when the pandemic happened, I got a small business loan, City of San Francisco Main Street Launch. It’s a program for the city, so I applied for it. I didn’t get it the first time. Then they called me back. Last October, I think, they called me up and said City Bank was one of the funders, and they wanted to put me in a commercial. I thought it was going to be maybe a bus ad, but it ended up being a national commercial. That kind of opened people up to who I was.
SC: What was that like?
KR: They played the commercial all over the United States, and it did so well that they played it again from January till March. They just stopped again. That opened me up to other opportunities.
SC: Was that fun, doing the commercial?
KR: It was. It’s a lot of hard work. Everything is work. I totally respect TV shows, people that have 911 or something where people have to wear all this gear. It’s super hot in there. I did 10 hours for 30 seconds.
SC: That’s insane.
KR: It is. But it’s also super interesting. I got to play movie star for the day. I had my trailer and my makeup people, even though I don’t use makeup. They make sure that you look the same for everything. Move your hair, move your hard hat. It was interesting. Plus, they ended up paying me, so every time that ran it was good.
SC: I’ll see if we can link to the commercial when we post the podcast. I think that’d be really fun for our listeners to see. I’ve got the rapid-fire round to close things out unless you had anything else that you wanted to chat about that I didn’t ask.
KR: No. I just appreciate the opportunity to be on your podcast. I think it’s so cool that there’s a woman in your position as well, so thank you. That’s all.
SC: I love it. I love that we’re able to chat like this and meet virtually. Definitely, in my opinion at least, one of the silver linings of us all being stuck remotely from each other right now, is that we have the time to do these kinds of things. I appreciate you taking the time, too. Rapid fire. Who is your hero or mentor?
KR: My grandmother. She was a jazz singer and an educator in San Francisco. She always told me, if you don’t know something, learn about it. Never open your mouth and speak upon things you don’t know. I always try to become educated before I talk. Otherwise, you put your foot in your mouth. My grandmother passed away with cancer over 15 years ago, but that’s pretty much who I look up to. She wasn’t the easy kind of grandmother. She was super young, and she was tough. Sometimes I was like, “I don’t think this lady…. Maybe she doesn’t like me.” I was kind of intimidated.
But you know what? It all comes back into play. Everything that she told me is true. She was a straightforward type of woman. She would tell you something. She would be like, “Don’t burn your bridges. You may have to cross them again.” “Kimberley, you think I need you? No, but you’re going to need me.” Then I’d have to go ask her for something. Like, “Oh man, she was right.” I wish she was here now. She was really into technology. I didn’t even know how to make a CD when she was still — she was a teacher. She’s like, “You don’t know how to burn a CD?” My grandmother’s over here teaching me how to burn a CD. It’s hilarious.
SC: She sounds fun.
KR: She was. She played all the jazz clubs.
SC: That’s so awesome. What is your biggest pet peeve?
KR: People coming up to me — men coming up to me, “Oh, you’re a woman? You’re the boss? I’m surprised. I never saw a woman before.” It’s very annoying. I hope it just gets to the point where, “You’re the contractor?” “Yes.” That’s it.
SC: Well, you’re helping to normalize that. What place would you most like to get stuck in for a week?
KR: Somewhere tropical. Maybe Thailand in a hut. Even in Hawaii. Anywhere I can have beach and sand and sun.
SC: Love it.
KR: I hate the cold.
SC: Well, thanks so much for spending some time with me today and our listeners, of course. If people want to reach out to you afterward, how should they follow up with you?
KR: You can find me. I’m on LinkedIn. Kimberley Robles, Robles Concrete Design, or www.roblesconcretedesign.com. I’m on Facebook. I’m on everything. Social media. Instagram. I’m all around. I do all my own marketing.
SC: We’ll link your website and your LinkedIn in our show notes.
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