Built Differently

July 6, 2023

The Contractors Group Is Building Up the Community

M. Brejt

Contractors live by the seat of their pants. That’s the first thing I hear from Pinny Braun when we set up a time to speak. Contractors’ lives are hectic as they run from one thing to the next, keeping the pulse of a thousand different things.

No one said it’s an easy job. Despite that, for a group of frum contractors in the Lakewood area, it is the source of a beautiful haven for chessed.

It’s a warm day at the construction site where I meet up with Pinny Braun, one of the founders of the Contractors Group, the Hessed Chat, and the Central Jersey Association of Builders. The Contractors Group is his brainchild, and he’s eager to fill me in on the details over the banging of hammers behind us.

“It’s every type of construction. You name it—contractors, plumbers, electricians, HVAC techs, handymen…we’re all on there. We’re all there to help each other out.”

How it all started

A couple of years back, three contractors, Pinny Braun of Lagom Construction, Yaakov Groner of YMG Contracting, and Moshe Jacobs of MJ Construction, realized that if they came up with a way to assist each other on the job, they would all benefit. “Parnassah is from Hashem and helping others will only be a help for ourselves” was their motto.

The nature of the contracting industry is such that some people are experts in some areas while others never touched that field. “We wanted to create a platform where people can reach out and possibly get advice they need from someone who knows it best.”

The easiest way to do that? Creating a simple WhatsApp chat.

Its success was evident from the start. It has been a valuable resource for those looking to break into the construction industry. Moreover, all the contractors involved quickly found it to be a helpful tool, so each added a few more contacts, until it grew to include nearly 600 people, providing a reach and a pool of expertise beyond the founders’ dreams. A spreadsheet with contacts became an industry-wide sort of directory which could also be used for referrals to competent contractors.

Competition aside

What does an average conversation on the chat look like?

“Today, a plumber asked on the chat how to drill a hole in an LVL beam, a complex task. A helpful contractor swiftly provided guidance, benefiting the less-experienced plumber. This incident demonstrates the power of the chat.”

The members are eager to share their expertise with those who will gain from it, and the information offered tends to be very valuable. With 600 members on the chat and an average of 100 messages per day, the chat serves as a “Wikipedia” and a support group for its members.

“Someone will post on the chat, ‘I discovered a problem on the job I’m doing, but I don’t want to charge my client an extra $1,500. What can I do?’ They’ll get a whole slew of answers. Some will answer on the chat, others will reach out privately, and still others will say, ‘I can help you. Would you like to meet tonight and I’ll work through it with you?’”

One contractor reached out to another contractor asking for help with an estimate for a complicated job. When they met up, the helping contractor noticed it was a job he had just sent an estimate for earlier that day. He was able to use his firsthand knowledge of the job to better assist with the estimate—despite the fact that he was helping someone bid against himself.

That’s the real beauty of the chat: all this support is offered despite the fact that technically, many of the people on the chat are direct competitors. You would never know they’re business rivals from the conversations that take place. Plumbers help plumbers and electricians advise electricians, often in cases where the recipient of the help is working on a job the other wanted.

In one recent case, someone posted a message that he had given an estimate and then realized there were two huge beams in the house. This meant the estimate he had quoted was way too low. Forget breaking even, this contractor was looking at losing $20,000. A different contractor responded, “I was wondering who got that job. I’ve been thinking about this issue and how I would deal with it. These are my thoughts…”

Turns out, the respondent had lost the job to him. But that didn’t deter him from offering him an option that would save him a fair amount of money.

All that mattered was the opportunity to assist another Yid.

Beyond basics

The attitude on the chat is one of wanting to have the jobs come out right. “If I’m looking for a new guy, then I’ll look at chat,” Eliyahu Langer of Everest Contracting says, “because I know they’re team players. They want to help others; they want to work hard.”

A qualified business coach is also present to offer advice for those who are new to the business world. “I told him he’s not here to get clients, but to give quick tips,” Pinny Braun explains. “He’s probably the only one on the chat who’s not in construction, but he’s a huge help for people.”

As the chat quickly grew beyond its boundaries, the founders realized there was a natural next step. People in construction often come up against the city and township, and they need an advocate. In response, CJAB, the Central Jersey Association of Builders, a nonprofit for contractors and vendors dealing with the municipality and government, was created.

“Let’s say the contractors are complaining that the permits are taking too long.” Aron Hirsch of High Point Builders explains. “CJAB will reach out to the township, tell them whom they’re representing, and ask for help. We meet with Lakewood construction officials to help clear up a lot of issues.”

All these efforts have been made possible with a tremendous amount of help from Chaim Dubin of Dubin contracting. Recently, he arranged a meeting with township committeeman Isaac Ackerman and Jeremy Kuipers, chief construction official in Lakewood, on how to improve communication between contractors and the township. It seems easy, but state requirements vary from job to job, rendering this work invaluable.

The Halachic symposium

CJAB is constantly looking for ways to benefit both the contractors and the community, and the next area they focused on was Halachah.

It started when one contractor on the chat got swindled out of a substantial amount of money by a customer, which put him out of business for a while.

“We made a get-together,” remembers Pinny Braun, “primarily to give him support. It was held informally in my house with Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, the rav of Congregation Tamarind Park, speaking. The topic was what had happened, the halachic considerations, and other halachic ramifications when it comes to contracting monies.

Since then, halachic issues kept coming up on the chat. “One night on the chat, a bunch of guys were arguing about a certain halachic she’eilah,” Eliyahu Langer says. “I said, ‘Let’s make this real, find out what we’re doing here.’”

The next conference, held this past January, reflected how much the group has grown. The group rented a hall, and there was a two-hour shiur. Over 70 contractors attended to hear the halachic approach to hundreds of business-related topics, and Rabbi Ari Marburger of Bais Din Maysharim gave it all over with immense clarity. Questions ranged from how to avoid lashon hara if a previous contractor’s work was terrible to whether it is assur for a material supplier to give benefits to a contractor who gets them customers.

The goal? To gain clarity on how to be as ethical as possible when dealing with customers; to build not just the edifices that grace our town, but also the spiritual edifices of being mekadesh Shem Shamayim in business dealings.

The group didn’t stop there, though. “After the first seminar, I had guys calling me up yelling after it was over, wanting to know why I didn’t tell them about it,” Eliyahu Langer shares. “Which is why last week, we held a second Halachah seminar with Rav Dov Kahan of Bais Din Maysharim with a much bigger group,” There’s a major desire for clarity on these topics.”

It’s not only Halachah they’re concerned about. “Contractors have their own language,” Pinny Braun explains (I realize that, since it wasn’t easy to decipher some of the stories he’s told me so far!). “It’s really important to us to be honest with our customers so they know what they’re getting themselves into.”

The highest form of tzedakah

One of the most innovative ideas that originated from this group is the business owners’ fund.

The idea was developed from Pinny Braun’s personal experience. “A few years back, my business was going under. When that happened, I started going under.”

When a person feels they are losing the ability to provide for their family, all coherent thought goes out the window. Desperate measures come into play—often ones that are unhelpful for the crisis. Pinny learned from this experience how much a support network can mean for financial stability and how crucial it is to have outsiders with a clear head helping to look at the situation from outside.

“I had a friend who saved me. He sat me down and said, ‘Don’t worry about the bills, don’t worry about the grocery, your family…it’s all taken care of. Now, tell me about your business.’”

Hearing that allowed him to breathe and to take a good, clear look at his business so he could intuit where things had gone wrong.

“We sat for three days talking things out. Then I needed another four weeks or so to start implementing changes. All that time, I didn’t have to worry because my bills were covered.”

From this incident, the desire to offer this service to others was born.

“The collecting really started when we collected for Pesach needs for the same guy for whom we had started doing the get-togethers.” says Pinny. “It developed from there. Yaakov Groner did, and still does, most of the tzedakah collecting. He is building his Gan Eden with the amounts he raises for those who are on shaky grounds.”

The group has already extended this service to several contractors, loaning them the money to pay their bills and setting them up with a forensic accountant who helps them crunch the numbers and pinpoint what’s going wrong. The fund grants those who need it the opportunity to fix up their business without the stress of parnassah hanging over their heads. Since it’s a loan, the contractor can accept the help with his dignity intact.

“Our dream is to be able to do this for any business, to give any person who’s been running a business for at least a year the opportunity to change things up properly. If they’re worried about making ends meet, they can’t think straight. Every year before the Yamim Tovim, we collect about $40,000 to support this cause.”

For the klal

But that’s not the only form of tzedakah the group arranges.

“We created another chat, nicknamed the Hessed Chat, which is run by the Lakewood gabba’ei tzedakah. Any contractor who is interested can be part of it.”

When there’s a need, say a family whose father is sick has a leaky sink, a message goes out on the chat: “Help needed in area x.” A contractor who can do the job will offer, and only then will he be given the address, protecting the family’s dignity.

The gabba’ei tzedakah have made arrangements with building supply stores like Gator Plumbing Supply, Community Lighting, and Lakewood Building Supply to receive the materials from them at deeply discounted prices. Upon accepting the opportunity, the contractor that is helping out will pick up the supplies from the respective supplier and perform the repair on his own dime, saving the family from having to pay for prohibitively expensive repairs.

A profession of chessed

When asked about his plans for the future, Pinny Braun looks thoughtful. “We’re always looking to do more events that will be helpful. We have something very specific planned, something we think will be really beneficial for the community, but we can’t reveal too much right now.”

He is quick to point out that this isn’t the only way that contractors are eager to help out. “I haven’t seen another profession so steeped in chessed. Look around any construction site and you’ll see Hatzolah jackets, Chaveirim jackets. The reality is that much of the chessed done by the community is accomplished by those in construction.”

I can only guess why. It takes a certain type of guts, a willingness to buckle down and do what needs to be done, to go into construction, and it’s that same nature that lends itself to the type of chessed that isn’t glamorous but is simple and effective.

These contractors have nailed it.


Tips from the pros

“Small changes add up. You just want to add a few outlets, and it’s a few dollars each, but it makes a big difference in the end.” —Pinny Braun

“Every choice is a balance between quality/design, and cost. There’s no such thing as getting the best for the cheapest.” —Eliyahu Langer

“Make sure you have a signed contract and that you read it and understand everything you signed up for.” —Aaron Hirsch

“Advance planning (design, layout…) saves a lot of time, money, and frustration.” —Moshe Jacobs

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions; there is usually a good reason for it.” — Moshe Eigner

“Small additions add up faster than you can imagine. The changes don’t stand independently; it’s yesterday’s change plus today’s change. Each individual change may be in your budget, but if you’re not very cautious, before you know it you will be over your budget. I have seen time and time again that the final cost of the job has skyrocketed.” —Yaakov Groner

“Work with a designer, sure. But make sure they work with your budget to get the result you want. For an indecisive customer, it’s the greatest thing.” —Dovid Gottlieb