Refractories are NOT a Commodity

Category: Tips
16 September 2013,

Refractories are NOT a CommodityDuring my career as a refractory contractor, there’s been one question that I consistently hear from current and potential clients. It’s a question that both excites me and frustrates me at the same time:

“Why is there such a big difference between your price and their price?”

It’s true – at times our bids for new construction projects or large repair projects do come in significantly higher than some of our competitors.  There’s a reason for it – a reason that makes us proud – but if our potential customers don’t understand the reason, it makes us frustrated, because they may walk away with the perception that we’re just an expensive choice in a commodity business.

And there’s no truth to that statement.

The Nuances of Our Craft

Refractories might not be exciting, but they are a vital component of industrial manufacturing; they’re used in just about every type of industrial process that utilizes heat.

The tremendous volume of choices for different types of refractories results in a wide range of potential outcomes. The right choice can lead to the safe, low-maintenance and cost-effective protection of vital industrial heat-processing equipment for a 5- to 10-year period. The wrong choice can lead to downtime, equipment failure and accidents that place our friends and colleagues in harm’s way.

Understanding the difference between the two isn’t something you learn overnight. Yet as the years pass, I’m finding that we’re encountering more competitors who don’t have the proper expertise and experience to do the job “the right way.”

Today’s industrial manufacturers are production-driven and often place demanding schedules on their engineers and staff.  Many times these engineers and maintenance people lack the time to research what the right decision in material and contractor might be. They may even make the assumption that all bidders on a refractory job are relatively equal in their expertise, so it’s just a matter of getting the best price.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Refractories are not a simple commodity.

Our Dwindling Fraternity

Refractories are a complex field, heavy on both science and art. And it feels like our “fraternity” of experienced refractory contractors is shrinking as time marches on. There seems to be a dwindling understanding of the important elements of our craft.  Maybe the universities are shifting ceramics from an entire course to a chapter in a book? Or maybe corporate budget cuts have eliminated this type of training?

As a group of people that are proud of our craft and doing things “the right way,” this saddens us.

Maybe it’s natural to feel this way as we get older. Maybe I’m overly sentimental. But even if both are true, I’m passionate about what I stand for. And I’m passionate about what our small fraternity (which includes the people in our company, numerous clients, many of our suppliers, and a few of our competitors) stands for:

  • Understanding the proper refractories to use for any given situation
  • Understanding the correct way to install them
  • Performing the work in a safe and effective manner
  • Adhering to proper refractory maintenance procedures

Knowledge and Experience Makes a Difference

The above list is my answer to the question “Why is your price higher?” It’s because we have the knowledge and experience that makes all the difference in a complex field.

We love talking about our craft, because it’s more than just a job to us. We take pride in our work, and are excited to use this blog to share our ideas, tips and feedback to a wider audience.

We are opinionated, so at times we might rub some the wrong way. Our goal isn’t to offend, but it’s important for us to “tell it like it is.” We won’t shy away from sharing ideas about how “not” to perform certain types of work.

I hope that you find our posts valuable and interesting. We love talking about refractories, so if you have questions or comments, please participate in the conversation.

Barry Cox President F.S. Sperry



R. Barry Cox
CEO – F.S. Sperry

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