Dave Garden is the owner of Installation Services, a floor covering contractor based in Troy, Michigan who was a successful installer that became a successful installation contractor. Our mission was to sit down with Dave and gain some insight into the factors that made him a successful installer as well as a successful contractor. You can find the full interview here. Below are some excerpts of that conversation.
TF: Is business back up and running in Michigan?
Garden: We’re back at work but with contact tracing, which means we can’t count on having an installer being on the job and ready to work. It absolutely kills customer service. Imagine Mrs. Jones wanting her carpet installed, we moved half her furniture, she emptied her china cabinet and then gets a call saying their installer can’t come out, not because he’s sick, but because he came in contact with somebody who was. Trust me, those are not easy conversations.
TF: Talk about the type of business you do in general and how long you have been in business.
Garden: Well, I started installing in the 80s. I worked for a very large company that went out of business. As a result, I started working with Lowe’s and a number of smaller mom-and-pop shops as well as interior decorators. In 2004 and 2005 when the economy started to slide, many of the smaller stores started falling off, but Lowe’s kept growing and kept growing with them. Eventually we ended up with the entire metro Detroit area for Lowe’s. Now we cover all of Michigan and parts of Indiana and Ohio for them and I am no longer installing. I love working with my hands and I am very proud of what I could do with my hands, but running this business calls on a different skill set, which I enjoy, and it has changed my life.
TF: How many crews do you have in total during non-COVID times?
Garden: There are a couple of hundred. I do not like to give an exact number. I think it is better to have some humility. I am not one to brag about the number of crews we have, the number of stores we service or counting dollars. Do not get me wrong, everybody has to make a living and support their families, but at the end of the day, I don’t think I really want to be known for how much money I made, but rather the type of service I provided.
TF: Talk about the installer schools you operate.
Garden: First, we use all CFI material. In fact, the model house we built inside our school is patterned after theirs. It is a three-room house. It is about 900 square feet; the walls are raised a bit and we put doorframes in the model because we teach some things that have nothing to do with laying floors. The schools last five weeks. I teach along with Glenn Stover, another master certified installer. We have gone to the area school districts and talked with the superintendents, finding they were all anxious to get involved and sponsor the effort. It has worked out very well.
As far as the kids we want to attract into the school, I am looking for kids like I was—kids that may be struggling. Once I started working with my hands, it opened many possibilities for me. I learned that geometry was important in life and that algebra would be a part of my everyday business, plus I learned accounting all because I ran my own business. The other thing I learned was English because I had to write reports and letters. I also had to learn how to write a bid. I learned all the things I refused to learn while in high school.
TF: Is the installer shortage a big problem for you?
Garden: We lose installers because we just cannot pay them enough. I wish I could afford to pay installers more, but I have to pay for all this infrastructure. It is also a tough thing dealing with a box store because it means we have to work within a structure. If I owned a small dealer and I wanted to give my carpet installer an extra $2 a yard, it would be easy. All I would have to do is add that to the customer’s tab. That, however, hurts a guy like me. In reality, you are telling the customer, I’m charging more than the other guy, but I’m giving you better service. And all I can say is, “I am giving you service.” But the thing is, those small stores still fail at service.
TF: What about selling quality installation on the front end? I cannot find anybody who would find fault with it, but it doesn’t seem to happen. Why?
Garden: That’s just it because the retailer is passing it along; they are making an extra profit that comes in the form of the customers wanting to return to the store. When that happens, the retailer wins. Making the customer happy is the bottom line. I have a couple of installers that are worth more simply because they are extremely good at making customers happy and earning customer compliments.
I told installers, “You want to make more money, bring me compliments”. A couple of years ago, I started a “Make Dave Poor” campaign. I would hand out $50 for each compliment that came in. I would put the winner’s names on a board every they came to me with a compliment. I was emailing people and bragging about them, and I was making far more from this idea than I was paying out.
TF: If you could cause change in the installation sector of the floor covering industry, what kind of changes would you bring?
Garden: I’d like to see everybody become employees. That would mean I could put my people in uniforms and company vans. Also, I would like to see a change where everybody would understand how to do their job properly. I deal with this all the time. I set out to hire someone. I want to hire them, but I feel as though I have to get out on his job site to check him. They say they have been installing for 20 years, but that does not mean they ever did it correctly.
But that does not mean you want to throw them away either. You hired them for a reason. The question now becomes, how can this guy be trained to be passionate about what he does? That is the other thing I’d like to change. If I could change anything, it would be to get everybody to love their jobs.