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The Party’s Over: Custom Installers Face Brave New World

“Will our lives ever return to normal?”

It was the final question from the floor, and none of us could really answer it then. I was on an industry panel a few weeks ago, during which we spoke of the changes we had experienced and observed over the past 18 months.

The question has haunted me since. While all of us offered something in response, none of us seemed to have reflected much on the subject prior to it being raised.

The simple fact that we had all not thought about the potential impact, longevity and finality of the changes we have experienced speaks volumes about our arrogance in facing what is now an obvious reality. That reality is that the simple answer to the question is no. Our lives will never be “normal” again.

Beginning about 18 months ago, as all of our businesses were growing at breakneck paces, we were faced with a truly significant, dynamic change when the stock market began to do weird things. Weird things like plummeting by large percentage points each week and wiping out many of our clients’ retirement accounts. Not only were so many of the big investors wiped out or severely wounded, the confidence of the little investors was beaten nearly to death.

That disastrous spring was followed by the long summer drought and eventually Sept. 11. For many of the smaller or poorly run companies within our industry, it was simply too much to survive. As a result, we have witnessed a far larger falling out of installation companies over the past few months than we could ever have anticipated.

Our lives are no longer “normal” because our segment of the industry came into being during an era of unprecedented economic growth, and has only experienced ten years of unmatched prosperity.

Frankly, I believe our picture of normal has been a bit skewed by our history. One graphic way to view our successes — or more appropriately, the environment in which we have gained success — is to imagine ourselves being born on third base. We’re opening our eyes for the first time, and each of us believes we hit a triple.

Imagine the disappointment each of us will feel as we learn how we got to our current levels of success, or as we face the inevitable industry consolidation and additional business failures of our colleagues.

What will the coming months and years bring? What have we learned over the past 18 months that might assist us in surviving or even prospering in the days ahead?

I believe that perspective may be the greatest gift we have been handed in the last year and a half. We have learned that the economy cannot possibly continue unabated, and that when the little investor loses a lot of money in the stock market, it really scares the hell out of them and they stop buying things as they try to recover.

Maybe we’ve also gained the perspective that the world is a lot smaller place than we ever realized and we, within our country’s borders, are not immune to the trials and tribulations the rest of the world has been living with for decades.

Maybe we’ve also learned that if we run our companies as hobbyists, rather than professional business managers, we are at serious risk as the economic climate shifts. Perhaps we’ve learned the lesson of growing our businesses too rapidly, or that expending client deposits or lines-of-credit is not the smartest thing to do.

Perhaps we have realized that when we create a successful industry segment, especially one where the current demand is outstripping the supply, new competition is inevitable. Some of us have even gained the perspective that much of this new competition is formidable and should be taken very seriously.

Perhaps we more fully understand the need to bring this new competition into the fold, to teach them the standards and expectations we have of each other and about charging for all of our services and doing high quality work.

If asked the same question by the panel today, this, in hindsight, is how I would respond:

“No, our lives will not return to what we perceive as ‘normal.’ The economic and political climate has gone through a dramatic and irreversible metamorphosis over the past 18 months and we will likely not return to what we knew only two short years ago.

“We will face new and different competition and business challenges in the coming years, some of which we could never have imagined only two short years ago. Many of our friends and colleagues will lose their businesses while many of us will become dramatically more successful.”

No, we will not see “normal” again and I, for one, am delighted. I am delighted because this kind of environment is what gets any entrepreneur’s blood flowing. It is a time of rapidly increasing risk and opportunity and I find that exciting. It is a time when I know that tomorrow will not be more of what today brought us.

Enjoy yourself if this type of environment suits you, because what is not normal is now the norm. It should be a very interesting and uncertain decade.