Welcome to Inside Out with Belgard, a podcast made for professionals by professionals who are passionate about outdoor living.
I’m your host Joe Raboine, Director of Residential Hardscapes at Belgard. I started my career as a hardscape contractor over 25 years ago. I’ve always loved creating spaces that both bring people together and connect them to the natural world. I’ve met some amazing people along the way who’ve impacted the industry and inspired me personally.
Today, I’m thrilled to welcome one of those people – John Lea, a seasoned deck builder and founder of DeckSouth in Marietta, Georgia. John and his team have designed and built more than 2,000 projects since 1998. These guys specialize in all kinds of installations from decks and porches to patios, pools and outdoor kitchens. A leader in the industry, John and his team have won nearly two dozen awards.
John, I’d like to welcome you to the show. Man, I was looking back, it’s been probably seven or eight years since I first met you. We had a connection; I think from the get-go. You know my background is as a contractor and, your background, as well. I actually invited you to my home for a quote on a porch that I was looking at the time. Since then, we’ve had lots of interesting conversations, and we’ve had the opportunity to work closely together on lots of different projects in the Atlanta area. So glad to have you on the show.
Awesome, Joe. I am honored to be here and appreciate you having me on. I am John Lea. I own and operate Decksouth. We’re in Metro Atlanta, in Marietta, GA. Design build in a turnkey format is how I describe our business – going into the outdoor living space with decks, porches, pools, patios and outdoor kitchens. Started with the deck – one deck at a time – back in ‘98, and it’s evolved and morphed since then.
Yes, it’s been seven or eight years. I still remember almost like it was yesterday when I pulled in your driveway. I believe you still had the moving truck in front of your house, and I don’t think your family had relocated yet, so it seemed like from that moment we had a bond there and it’s been a good friendship ever since. I appreciate it.
I remember you quoted one time, and I think this is great, you told the client “we’re not saving lives, but we’re changing them.” I mean that just resonates, right? It speaks to a lot of what drives people in our business today and it certainly, I think, drives you.
You’re almost dead on with that. The client actually mentioned it. So, we were talking to a client that had built a deck, porch and patio nine months prior.
I was checking in with him, and he said, “John, how’s business?” I said, “It’s good Jim, everybody is pushing right now to get projects done before the holidays. And you know, we’re not over here saving lives.” I just made a flippant joke.
And he goes, “John, you know you’re not saving lives, but I got to tell you what you guys do. You change lives.”
And I kind of chuckled, I was like, can I get that on a recording? I said, “That’s awesome! What do you mean?” And he goes, “Well, let me tell you. I’ve had more meaningful conversations with my wife, a glass of wine in our hand, around that fire pit in the last nine months, than I can remember having in years,” he said. “I’ve watched three different movies on the porch with my teenage daughters falling asleep on the couch, and I can’t remember the last time we actually sat and watched a movie. So, you guys might not be saving lives, but you certainly do change the way we live in our home, our backyard and, ultimately, you guys change lives.”
And, I still get the hair standing up on my arm when I think about it, because it’s really what we shoot for, but hearing him put it in words was so meaningful for us.
It makes me think about how the last couple of years for our industry has been insane in a lot of ways, right? It’s interesting for me, being on this side. I was, as I mentioned, a contractor for a long time. Now, I’m on the other side with manufacturing. To see the evolution of this space in the last two decades has been nothing short of unbelievable. But in the last two years, one of the things that we’ve noticed from talking with contractors and directly with homeowners, is that the space itself and the drive to want these spaces has evolved immensely.
One of the things we say is that it really evolved from what, not too long ago, was considered purely an entertainment space. It has really become a daily space that’s integral in people’s lives and can really affect their life and their overall health and wellbeing in a positive way. Especially during COVID.
And you know, I think people rediscovered what’s important in their daily lives and how important being outside and in nature is. Is that something that you’re seeing as well with how customers are approaching it? I guess a deeper question, is this something people even understand they’re asking or searching for? Or is this something you kind of help draw out of them?
Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, COVID was such— wow — it hit us all square in the face in the beginning there. I still remember, in late March of 2020, having design calls at a client’s home and standing in the backyard while they peered through their windows out at me, kind of waving, and we’re doing like sign language, right? Because no one really knew what to do, and we certainly weren’t going to get in each other’s space, so we pivoted.
During that time, instead of sitting down with the client and going through their design, we ended up sending tablets through FedEx. They would open up the box and have their tablet with their design, so it would put a realistic design in front of them. Typically, I would have it on my iPad to show them because a nice design looks so much better pixelated on a screen than it does on a printout. So, we tried our best to pivot right there and still capture as much of that process that we felt like we were offering our clients during the design phase.
As COVID continued, we all settled into to what life was going to be like over those months and it ended up being a few years. It was interesting how the phones continued to ring off the hook. As you know, material costs fluctuated and did all kinds of crazy things. But what I realized was that people were really, truly leaning into the pause, as you called it. That’s such a good term because it really was exactly that.
Leaning into that time spent with their family – whether it was forced or not, which it certainly was. I think it just gave everyone pause, that deep breath. Certainly, a lot of what drove that was the forced time at home, which I think made a lot of people look outside and go – you know what? I think it’s time to upgrade our outdoor living.
So, for us, it was certainly a good thing for business, but I think what it’s ultimately done is take that mental health aspect of utilizing the way you create memories, connect with your family, connect with your space, your castle, the place of refuge that’s your home. Our goal is to always try to tie in the interior living with the exterior living and make that as seamless as possible. So that when you cross that door threshold you still feel like you’re somewhat inside, yet it’s outdoor living.
Whether everyone is cognizant of the fact that they’re increasing their ability to share more intimately with their family in this outdoor living space or not, I don’t know if I could definitively answer that. I do know that I’ve had some one-off conversations with clients that absolutely do understand that aspect of it.
The fascinating thing for me about outdoor living in general is just the sheer universalness of it, right? It doesn’t matter where people live, what they look like, how much money they make. I think we all know, and science is actually proving this, the way society and civilization began was having conversations around the fire, right? So, when we see these things, there’s this immediate connection like – I love that, I want that, I need that.
I think subconsciously a lot of people don’t even realize that’s why they want it. And so, for our industry, understanding that can actually help in a lot of ways. It can create a better space that fits the client. You can talk about things that would be on a high level of importance today; about this idea of connection and getting back to where we have more face-to-face social interactions and more interactions with nature.
More and more, science shows that your dopamine levels go up and your stress levels drop by as much as 60% within 10 minutes of being in an outdoor space. So, you look at the $300 billion that we spend in all kinds of mental health-related expenses in this country. We may not think about it, but we actually are saving lives, if we can get people out and in a better place where they’re much more balanced than they would have been. And I think for better or worse, COVID really did change that, right?
You’re outside and you’re realizing, I really feel good being out here. That leads to a lot of different things when it comes to design and how they approach the project.
Yeah, 100%. It’s hard to say there’s a positive from COVID, but there truly is. This to me is the main one. It’s the idea that the dopamine levels rise – you’re less stressful outside. There’s no doubt that’s the truth. I think anybody could attest to that.
It seems as a society that we’ve all carried the Android and the iPhones. We’ve all connected for years, right? We know what that’s like, that’s not a new thing. I think the disconnection is the nicety here. No matter what technology we’re using outside with Sonos speakers or whatever it is, there’s that desire to just disconnect from society, call it the rat race, and just lean into living. Lean into family living. So, when we first meet with a client, we do that initial brain dump, and we figure out what are we really looking for here?
It’s interesting how not everyone understands. They know they want a deck, they know they want a patio, but how they synergistically or tie in together. How that flows. That’s where I think we shine. And putting that together for them, and them understanding how they can now ultimately live in the backyard that they already own. They already own the real estate. It’s already part of their property. Now, it’s time to maximize and get it to the place that puts a smile on their face. That’s always fun for us.
A lot of our contractors specialize in hardscapes, and I think a lot of them aspire to be who Decksouth is today. You guys do everything in the backyard – the pools, the whole gamut. We know that, based on demand over the last 10 years, there’s still a significant gap in the number of contractors available who are willing to provide that full-service experience. Because of the complexity, these jobs and the homeowners need that. So even if, as a contractor, you’re not quite ready to make that jump or you may not want to make that jump, it’s critical to at least start those conversations upfront and provide them the insight on what is available and what is possible, if they do want to do all these things.
Even if you don’t do it all, at least put them on the right path to get a quality design up front; something that’s of quality to work from because, as you know, there’s nothing worse than someone doing a job in the wrong sequence, right?
Putting in a pool before, for instance, and not having considered where the outdoor kitchen or deck may go – it’s very challenging to work around and if it had just been done a little bit differently, it could have been a lot easier and saved them a lot of money and grief upfront.
So, I’d love to expand a little bit on that journey of how you went from building one deck at a time, as you said, to where you’re at today building these fully blown out, elaborate, beautiful spaces that Decksouth creates.
For us, through the early 2000s and into the 2010s, decks and porches were really the workhorse of our business. It was really all that we did. And slowly, I don’t know, in ‘09 to ‘10 to ’11, we started implementing patios into our projects. Being in Atlanta, ~80% of the homes that are built are walkout basements. When you walk out of the kitchen door, you’re 10 feet above grade, which creates a perfect opportunity for us to build our deck and create a watertight space, so there’s a nice patio living area below. Attach a roof to it and make it a nice porch, tier down the stairs to the pool and tie that all in with a kitchen that connects and, maybe, a fire feature somewhere.
Honestly, it was a little bit of a motivation to be able to control the process. I learned over the years that it was difficult to work with different trades who had different schedules than us.
To deliver a full-blown backyard to a client, we had to work with multiple trades. Whether it was the patio guy or the pool guy was another company, and we were in on the deck and porch. Then, we brought our electrician and plumber to do our work, but it wasn’t the same electrician and plumber that the pool guy has. So, all of a sudden, you’re fighting and jockeying for space in the driveway and figuring out the schedule.
We got real serious six or eight years ago and said if we’re going to do the full backyard, we’ve got to do it at the highest level possible or not do it at all.
For us, it evolved that way. Being able to look the client in the eye and say if we take on this project and we earn your business, then we’re going to be able to control that process from the moment we go. We’ll be able to give you a schedule that we stick with and hopefully adhere to with the weather. Now, we’re not struggling with communication of multiple companies and schedules. That’s how it evolved for us, Joe.
If I put my thumb on one aspect, it really goes back to there’s no way we can create a really cool backyard, a really cool outdoor living space, without having first a very, very detailed and really cool design. That’s where it starts for us. It drives it from the moment go. I have a ton of fun the during the design process. I love dreaming or brainstorming and wondering with the client what could be out here. Even if they don’t go with the full project, I love to come up with a master plan that can be phased.
Some of our clients have the budget to take on the full project. Some phase it over two or three phases, which can work just fine, but if you don’t think about the full plan in the beginning, then there’s a lot of one step forward, two step back scenarios by the time you get to that final completion of the job. Taking it from concept to completion, I know is where we shine when working with the client’s budget. Whether we phase it or not is really budget driven, but having a grand master plan at the beginning is where it’s all at.
You guys do some phenomenal work.
I know you guys do 3D renders and animations. How has the use of rendering software changed your business?
It has completely changed it. The truth here is that everyone around me is much better than me. I tell clients all the time, if they can get past me, everybody behind me is much better than I am.
I’m fortunate to have an amazing team around me. Our lead designer, Rob Hodichak, is one of the best. Working with him day in and day out to produce designs for our clients is a whole lot of fun. I call it the Ferrari effect – I have no idea what it’s like to buy a Ferrari, no clue, but I would imagine if you walk into a showroom and look at the vehicle you like, once you have the keys in your hand, you start the engine and get the full effect of the vehicle, that’s when you go – “Hey, this is what I want.” That’s really what we’re looking to do with the design for so many years.
In the first 10 to 15 years of our business, everything was drawn by hand on vellum. I would hold it up squinting and say, “You know, if you squint, it’s kind of in 3D,” and the homeowners would laugh at me. But it’s a brand-new day, right?
I call our designs the 98’ers. They’re 98% dead on accurate. It’s not sort of the house, but it is exactly the house that they live in. It’s showing exactly what we can do on the back of the house. When we present those designs, they can really get a sense of what can be built. There’s really not a whole lot of interpretation needed to figure out what the end result would be.
We’ve been working on something similar with Belgard Design Studio over the years. We have something called Belgard Rooms, which takes that to another level where we create pre-designed packages.
I think what’s fascinating for me, going back to when I was contracting, it was hand drawn for the most part. When you would do a perspective drawing how it immediately connected with people. I think what’s happening is that once people see it, they have an immediate emotional connection because it’s their house. It’s in their setting. And it also leads to fewer change orders, I’d imagine, because it’s so clear to them what it’ll end up being like.
Whereas, if it’s hand drawn 2D, pencil drawing or 2D CAD file, it’s very difficult for the average person to visualize a 3D project looking at a 2D image that’s black and white with no color or texture on it. I still think there’s still a lot of opportunity. There are a lot of contractors who aren’t utilizing that technology, which leads to a lot of untapped potential.
I would absolutely agree with you. You guys do a great job with your design house there and that’s the goal, right? Really being able to present to the client accurately what can be done.
You mentioned change orders, and it struck a memory I’ve got. A client, a few years ago, was sharing with me the importance of the design. The project was done and we were having a conversation about the overall process, what he liked and if there was anything that we could do better. He said, “John, we would have paid 10 times the cost of the design.”
He goes on to discuss the importance of his job and how he’s got a lot of demand on his time. So with every question that his wife had during the several month-long project, he would say, “Honey, look at John’s design.” And she would say, “what color?” – “Look at John’s design.” “How many posters” – “look at John’s design.” “How will the stairs come down?”— “look at John’s design.”
He kept repeating that. It was the first time I realized, from a homeowner’s perspective, what these designs look like, what they feel like and the pragmatic side of them. The way they literally use them as the recipe for the end result – the meal we’re preparing for him. I think we get caught up in the moment of designing what we want to build, designing what we feel like they’re wanting us to build. Then, we get really excited about the nuts and bolts and nerd out on the build. But we sometimes forget the overall effect of what that design is led to, which is this clarity for the homeowner to understand exactly what the end result is going to look like. I like to say we roll up our sleeves and we sweat the details on the design. I wouldn’t do it any other way. I think there’s times when you can try to cut corners here and there, but it leads to less change orders and a ton of clarity for the client, so that’s big for us.
I love that. I mean it’s funny you say that – if you don’t do it on the front end, you’re going to have to do it at some point to go through those details. You might as well spend the time on the front end and do it.
These projects have become much more elaborate in terms of scale and just, really, everything. You’re essentially building an outdoor home without a roof in most cases – well, you guys do roofs for pavilions and porches – but how important it is that you have products that work well together?
As you know, Oldcastle APG, which owns Belgard, recently purchased MoistureShield and now PebbleTec, which is in the pool space. I know you use all those products in your projects, so, what are some of the considerations with mixed materials? There’s a lot going on in the outdoor space today. How challenging is it to work with those products and how important it is for those products to look and work together cohesively?
Joe, you know today’s material landscape with fluctuation and channel distribution challenges. To bring it all together in a finished project is difficult.
We’ve always used the Belgard product in our patios. A few years ago, when the purchase happened, and Belgard and MoistureShield were underneath one umbrella, it was good news to us because it brought those together. MoistureShield decking and the CoolDeck Technology is something that’s important for us because in Atlanta it can get hot. It’s been a big winner for us and our clients to utilize the CoolDeck Technology. Whether it’s the Cathedral Stone, Mochaccino, Cold Brew or the new Meridian line. Tying those in with the Belgard paver has been really nice.
Then, the recent purchase of PebbleTec. We’ve been spraying our pools with PebbleTec for years, so it’s been real nice to tie all three of them together. They were all products we were using. Now, they’re all under one umbrella, which is really nice. It speaks volumes to the client because they know the products that we’re choosing are the right ones. I called it a salad buffet approach to products – we’ve used the best that we feel like is in the marketplace for that space. So, to have all three of those under one umbrella is pretty unique. You know it’s a nice thing for us.
Awesome, we appreciate the feedback, John, and having you as a partner to help us create even better products that work more cohesively in the future. We appreciate that.
As we look out to the future, what are some of the challenges that you see on the horizon for your own business and our industry in general?
I think it hovers around the distribution channel, Joe. I mean, obviously, that’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Being able to earn the business of the client and then offering a solution in real time – a finished project within months, not years. Being able to kind of forecast that is big.
We’re a proponent of technology when it comes to that – project management software and point of sale software – so we can try to be real efficient with our time. When we have a contract and it’s on the schedule, we try to make sure our sales guys who sell the product to us are privy to what’s in the pipeline of upcoming projects. They can go ahead and get their inventory where it needs to be since we’ll be purchasing product from them in the coming weeks and months.
I think the biggest challenge is trying to get ahead of that. Really trying to get your hands around it, because it wasn’t too long ago where you could order a concrete truck at 8:00 o’clock in the morning, then by 1:00 PM that afternoon they’re on the job site. Now it’s three or four weeks out before you can get concrete. It’s so across the board. I think for us, the challenge is holding our client’s hand and guiding them through that process. Being transparent with the fact that this isn’t going to be a one-week project. And a lot of times, it’s not going to be a one-month project. Being honest about that early and often, and then making sure we can get the products that were in the design and, ultimately, are going to be in the build.
Yeah, it’s interesting. When COVID first began and none of us, I don’t think, could have predicted what would happen to our industry. It’s just been incredible, right? And a lot of ways, it’s forced us all to be more focused and to plan better. You know things we probably should have been doing collectively prior, but here we are today and it’s moving forward. I think it’s good for us all. It provides a good, streamlined approach to the business.
One of the things I know you and I have talked about at length – for our industry and for a lot of contractors who are listening, there is this massive interest, and we believe it’s going to only continue to grow, despite ups and downs with economic headwinds over the next 5 to 10 years. But the cool thing is, it feels like there’s been a slight baseline shift, or maybe a massive one, in terms of general awareness.
In this industry, people all of a sudden know more about what outdoor living spaces can be, and they’re interested. It’s not even a trend – it’s really become an expectation. People want this type of space, they want the outdoor fireplace or whatever that feature may be. And because of that, we believe there’s unprecedented opportunity.
The biggest challenge really is how we find, recruit, train and retain new people into this business. I think for us all that’s going to be our biggest challenge as we move into the future. We believe the opportunity is there.
What are some of your thoughts? You guys have quite a few employees who have been there a long time. How have you managed to recruit and retain those individuals and keep them engaged and give them opportunities as well.
For me, it’s always been making sure that I lead from the rear, if you will. From the end of the line, supporting my team – not from a pull through but support from behind. If I can make sure the Decksouth umbrella is big enough to house all my teams and their personal dreams, whether that’s managing their own crew, managing a team of crews, designing, selling or something else, and trying to check the boxes of that personal growth that each and every one of them have, then I think I’ve hopefully done my job at the end of the day.
We’ve got a second-generation employee and that’s of a ton of importance for me. This employee first walked on our jobsite when he was four and picking up nails when his dad was working with me. Now, he’s 25, and he’s running one of his own crews.
I’m honored, and I take great pride in the fact that we’ve got five 20-somethings in our organization and that’s the future right, Joe?
I’m a big proponent of Mike Rowe. I love the fact that another COVID effect, if you will, is the reality that contract work is not just: oh well, I didn’t make it in school, so I’m just going to flunk out and go be a contractor, right?
I think over the years, there’s been some of that mentality. For everything that we’ve seen over the last couple of years, with the importance of outdoor living and improving the home, whether it’s interior or exterior, has increased the demand for high-quality craftsmanship and timeless craftsmanship. That’s going to last, not just flash in the pan stuff. That has been a big positive for our industry, and I’m excited to see where it goes.
It’s been a challenge, there’s no doubt about it. It’s been a challenge and continues to be a challenge. But, for us, weekly meetings, monthly meetings and really trying to listen to each team member to make sure everybody is fulfilled in what they’re doing day-to-day. I think that touches a little bit on the mental health scenario. If we’re not having fun, if it’s not something that you wake up in the morning and you’re excited to do, then, I think, as human beings, we’re in the wrong. We’re moving in the wrong direction.
I look at my job as touching on that. You know, Mike Rowe talks about the ability to hopefully grow vocational schools in and around the United States. I think that’s very important. I wonder what our education system is going to look like in the next 5 to 10 to 15 years. I don’t know that the liberal arts degrees will be happening as much as they are these days. I’d like to see more. In high school, shop was my favorite class. For the last couple of summers, we’ve run a vocational camp for high school kids for a week to work with us on a crew. They either leave there and go, “Oh, I’m never doing this again,” or they go, “Hey this was kind of fun maybe it’s something in my future.”
I love that. Number one, I love the idea that you look at each individual in that company and work toward what their dreams are. If you have that mindset as a business owner, and you get the right individuals that you can tap into – there’s unlimited potential for everyone. The opportunities are there. I think you’re right too.
I think there’s a certain segment of people who just are not cut out to be in an office-type position, spreading the idea that what we do is very fulfilling. You’re creating space. One of the most satisfying things for me back when I was a contractor and one of the things I probably miss the most is the end of the experience where you’re done and you’re meeting with the client. You’re walking through the project, and you’ve taken something that was, in some cases, very, very unattractive and created an amazing, beautiful, creative space from nothing. Building something from nothing is something that’s hard to describe if you’ve never done it.
For us, collectively as an industry, inspiring that next generation and making them feel that being in something like this is worthwhile and is something that’s real and authentic. It’s the key, right? And showing them that we’re not in the Stone Age. We are using the latest technology with computer animations, software, mechanical installation techniques and the latest materials – like recycled composite decking. For instance, where we’re working on sustainable materials, I think that entire message, if we package it up in the right way as an industry, could really attract a lot of people into this business. And who knows, our business could maybe be twice as big, if we had more quality people in this space because we certainly believe that the demand is there.
I would agree the demand is there. We pay attention to the remodel index each year – the ROI stuff. As we all know, kitchens have always had a high ROI, and I don’t think any homeowners ever really questioned that. If they invest in a new kitchen, they know they’re going to get a large chunk, if not all of that investment back out of the house when they sell it, because a really nice kitchen does make a nice flash when selling a home.
I love the fact that the ROI in the backyard has done nothing but increase. Maybe that’s regional. I imagine it is around the country, and some regions are higher than others, but being able to focus on outdoor living and know that our clients are going to get a high 80% return on investment out of that. That really helps – long gone are the days that we’re building out of wood that’s needs to be replaced in a handful of years. To your point, with these high-performing products that we can utilize in the project, the high ROI, I don’t see anywhere but up for our industry.
Awesome. I have to ask you one more question before we wrap it up. What is the most fulfilling part of what you do each day? What gets you out of bed and just keeps you going? Probably depends on the day, right? Some days it’s the paycheck.
For me, after it’s all said and done, the biggest pleasure I get, believe it or not, is when I get these one-off texts from a client on a random Saturday afternoon. They send a selfie of them enjoying the space that we’ve designed and built them. It could be two thumbs up, or just want to say thank you. It sounds so trite, but that right there is what keeps me going. Yes, we’re changing outdoor living one backyard at a time. Yes, we’re designing and building some cool stuff. But until you get that personal thank you, putting the smile on their face and them sharing that with you, that’s really what keeps me going. It might sound a little bit weird and cheesy, but that’s really the truth of it. I find great value in hearing their enjoyment, seeing their enjoyment. So that’s got to be it for me.
That’s awesome. I think it’s got to be the case. It would be tough to stay in this business for a long time, if you didn’t feel that way, right? It’s not an easy business, but it’s definitely one that can be very rewarding and fulfilling for sure.
Thanks, John, for being a guest and joining us on the conversation.
To learn more about John and Decksouth, visit Decksouth.com or follow him on social media at Decksouth on Instagram and Facebook.
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