Founded 45 years ago, as the Paul G. White Tile Co., the growth of the company is consistent with many successful family businesses: The original founders created a business leveraging a personal skill and a goal of financial independence. The subsequent growth of the business came from a combination of hard work, calculated risks and some good luck when favorable economic conditions worked in their favor.
The factors that separate successful and thriving businesses from those which do not sustain long-term viability largely depend on solid initial values which are maintained through the life of the company: An excellent “product” for the customer base and a next generation with a passion for the business and the willingness to make the tough choices necessary to overcome difficulties.
In the case of Paul G. White, its market area of Portland, Maine, is relatively small and the company’s initial product focus was relatively narrow—commercial ceramic tile. Regardless, the company has succeeded by focusing on high quality work and remaining committed to excellent customer service.
As the second generation to lead the company, I can proudly say our success definitely stems from the dedication of family members and key employees. We are reminded daily of how lucky we are to have such great people with the same values my parents had when they started the business so many years ago.
In 1970, a young married couple, Paul G. and Maureen White, decided to create a tile contracting company for one simple reason: At 27 years of age, they already had four children and added two more in quick succession.
Paul was an expert tile mechanic and was generating a solid income, but they knew that having their own business would ensure a stronger financial future for their growing family. Paul left his position with the dominant tile contractor in Portland at the time to start the Paul G. White Tile Co. Working together, the couple restricted their work to tile contracting only because that was the business they knew.
From the early days, Paul and Maureen had several priorities for their business. First, they insisted on excellent craftsmanship in their work and this dedication led to a strong customer base offering repeat business. Second, they began to build a reliable and trusted employee group and they realized early on the training and development they offered to their employees would pay long-term dividends.
Paul G. White has always made it a top priority to provide good healthcare benefits to employees and it established regular training sessions with the content provided by its vendor community. As the employees increased in skill level, Paul and Maureen gave them increasing levels of responsibility as a reward.
After a decade of business, Paul G. White Tile Co. began to integrate the next generation into company management. Still under the leadership of Paul and Maureen, the company responded to the growing trends in the local flooring market.
While the business base was originally limited to the greater Portland area, it began to expand both geographically and with its customer base. In the early 1980s, they opened additional commercial offices in Stratham and Keene, N.H., as well as in Bangor, Maine.
Within the commercial segment, Paul G. White expanded its business segments to include hospitality and multi-unit housing. In terms of additional services, over the years, the company invested significantly in demolition, shot blasting and moisture mitigation services in order to better serve the comprehensive needs of its customer base. In expanding its footprint, Paul G. White traveled throughout the Northeastern portion of the U.S. to service high-end retail mall clients.
Also in the early ’80s, Paul G. White opened a residential showroom in Portland, with the goal of acquiring incremental business through its established customer base in that market. Leveraging flooring as the basic business, the company expanded its residential offering to include stone countertops and kitchen cabinets.
Paul and Maureen White created a strong foundation for their company in its first 30 years in existence. During the same period of time, the city of Portland was growing commercially and becoming a more significant market for business growth. The next generation of the White family began to assume increasing leadership over the years and the ownership transfer was complete in 2007. It was also at this time the company changed its name to Paul G. White Interior Solutions to better reflect its growing business solutions.
However, as is the case in many family businesses, the transition to a new leadership team is not a “straight line” and many decisions and adjustments must be made in order to successfully maintain the original momentum of the business. In our case, the situation was complex. My parents had six children and three of the sons and one son-in-law remain active in the business today. I am the president of the company while my brother, Jonathan, is vice president of operations, and another brother, Stephen, is vice president of information technology. Our brother-in-law, Richard Gadbois, is a vice president in charge of the New Hampshire offices.
Immediately following the leadership transition, the new team was challenged to maintain the momentum after the original investment and establishing controls to oversee the many “moving parts” of the business. The challenge of a family business is to keep the family members working happily and productively together.
External factors contributed to the transitional stress, also. For example, hiring, training and retaining a large team of skilled trades people is a challenge. Less young people are entering the trade and the strong original team of installers was either retiring or moved to supervisory roles. With the expanded services offered by the company, the stress on the labor pool was even more significant.
Jonathan has been instrumental in constantly recruiting new prospects, using social media, word of mouth, technical schools, and associations like ABC’s Craft Olympics. They have also dedicated a large portion of a building to a training facility assisted by vendor partners.
Our company was incredibly smart to join Starnet Worldwide Commercial Flooring in 1994. We are the only member in the state of Maine and we have gained a tremendous advantage in the area of training and best practice sharing. Being part of Starnet has helped us make smart decisions about the business and, most importantly, to learn from very bright business people throughout North America to improve our business.
In addition, the economic downturn between 2008 and 2010 was particularly hard on the economy in Maine. To start with, Maine has a low average annual income and our cost of living is relatively high. We depend on tourism for a strong component of our economy and that market really dried up during the recession. Plus, our industrial base was changing and the state is very committed to attracting new companies offering unique products and services.
Since 2011, however, the strengthening economy has been a positive factor in the marketplace, a situation that is benefitting our company.
Paul G. White Interior Solutions is positioning itself as a resource and a partner for its customers and vendor partners. Moving from a ceramic only model in the earliest years of business, the company is now perceived as an asset in the process of selecting, preparing and finishing a commercial floor.
The company has adopted a strong project management approach to commercial flooring, another area where Starnet has been a huge plus. We have learned from various project management models employed throughout the Starnet membership. We want to be perceived as an asset in the process and not a commodity. Our focus going forward is on stronger budgeting, a clear pre-construction plan and offering flooring consulting to our end users. Our goal is to partner with the design team, the owners or end users and our vendor partners to create a successful project.
For Paul G. White Interior Solutions, the commitment is to continue a strong growth path ensuring that the level of quality holds consistent with our foundation. We operate in a small market, but have overcome that barrier with a diverse menu of services and broad product selection. As the economy strengthens in 2015 and beyond, our team is clearly optimistic about the future.