Contractor's Corner: Interior Surface Enterprises Grows Through Diversifying and Training
When my business partner, Larry Burt, and I purchased Kansas’ Interior Surface Enterprises in 2007, we had some very simple and basic goals for the business.
With 62 years combined experience in the commercial flooring industry and extensive experience on the operations and installation side, we were eager to assume ownership of a business and leverage the many lessons we had learned. Plus, our investment was a “family affair,” as our wives, Cindy Burt and Janell Porter, planned to work with us to grow our new business—and we were all excited about the challenge ahead.
We were fortunate to find a company that had operated in our market for over 25 years and knew we had a strong foundation for our future business goals.
At that time, Interior Surface was a classic commercial flooring operation, focusing on carpet and resilient flooring in all segments—education, healthcare, corporate and public space. However, the business was not growing and its original owner was ready to leave.
As the saying goes, timing is everything. Larry and I were in our first year of business and just establishing our key staff members when the economy began to sag. The year was 2008 and, especially in the Midwest, we were beginning to experience a serious slowdown in commercial projects. We were forced to make some quick decisions, which ended up fundamentally changing our business futures.
First, we assessed how we could broaden our services with an emphasis on which areas would generate the most incremental business. The answer was very clear: Tile installation was a growing segment, and we were not playing in this area. Increasingly, commercial projects demanded ceramics and we knew we could better control our projects by adding this service.
In 2008, we started our tile division, which has proven to be an invaluable addition to our business, as Interior Surface is one of the few flooring contractors in our market to offer the full spectrum of products and services. This fact distinguishes our business and has helped capture projects, which previously would have been met with very high competition. Designers and end users prefer to work with a flooring contractor who can manage the entire job and who is solely responsible for the end result. This allows end users to have a single point of contract for all aspects of the projects and, we have discovered our team is better able to manage the timetable and costs. At this point, tile installation represents 25% of our business and is our fastest growing segment of the company.
The experience of launching a tile division taught Larry and me a valuable lesson. First, don’t be afraid of a new challenge. Working with ceramic is very tricky. Estimating the project is a very different exercise than estimating carpet or resilient. There are so many parts and pieces needed in a tile project and our team works very hard to correctly plan the job in order to meet our cost projections and deliver a great result for the end user.
Several factors helped us significantly: First, we hired a project manager who not only understood the ins and outs of the hard surface business, but the importance of quality craftsmanship. Secondly, we hired experienced ceramic installers who took pride in the quality of their work. Third, we started with smaller, more manageable projects and gradually expanded our scope of work as we became more proficient and experienced.
With these things in mind, we have started seeking additional avenues to grow our contractor’s skills. Vendor specific training provided by suppliers such as Dal-Tile as well as those offered by the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA) has increased our educational opportunities by providing outstanding courses for both entry level and seasoned employees.
Following our successful expansion into tile, we are continuing to explore additional segments. The most important factor is the evolving needs of our local designers and end users. We track the emerging product areas and material choices preferred by this group and we are considering expanding into other flooring areas such as resinous, polished concrete and post-installation floor care or maintenance. We feel these areas in particular will build our market strength and provide additional service to our end users.
Unlike many flooring businesses, Interior Surface Enterprises is not a family-owned, multi-generational company. When we first purchased the business, Larry’s wife, Cindy, joined us and she currently oversees our accounting. Five years ago, after a 23-year career in automotive finance, my wife, Janell, joined the business and her focus is on the operations side. Larry oversees field operations and he and I schedule our teams. I run the office including our administrative staff, project contracts, vendor negotiations and real estate matters.
At this point, we don’t have any other generations in the company, but we have created a family environment with our employees and we feel this atmosphere supports our desire to fully engage our employees in the business’ future.
As we create new service offerings, we develop a project management position to oversee that area. We have learned our projects are most effectively managed when a single team focuses on the area of work and the employees increase their expertise on a specific discipline. Not only is this approach more cost effective, it gives the end user the confidence in knowing the most knowledgeable individuals are responsible for their project.
Training is a huge priority for Interior Surface. Through our membership in Starnet Worldwide Commercial Flooring, a number of training opportunities are available to us. Starnet offers Webinars twice a month and we take advantage of them as often as possible. Our employees also have used Starnet University, a 24/7 virtual training platform offering technical and product education. We encourage our employees to think independently when sourcing additional training and information and we have found these Starnet tools make it easier for our people to advance their knowledge and skills.
We have taken advantage of the “live” seminar program offered by Starnet. Through this program, our employees receive specific skill training in sales and installation. In addition, employees have participated in training offered by the Starnet preferred vendor network, conducted either at their facilities or at our offices. This training is very convenient and the team learning dynamics are very effective.
Finally, we launched an important new position in our company, which we identified by networking with other Starnet members and better understanding their route to market. We realized negotiated work is critical to our business success and, while we continue to work with the local general contractors, we could see that controlling projects from the material selection through installation gives us an advantageous position and we are better able to elevate the margins of the job.
With this in mind, in 2010, we developed a business development position. We understood this position required an investment mentality, but we also recognized this could be one of the most important investments we could make, especially as the economy started improving. We sent this person to Starnet’s annual Specifier Seminar offered just prior to NeoCon and, through that training, our business developer was able to connect with other individuals who were succeeding in this area.
Now, in 2015, we are starting to realize the results of this investment and are very pleased with the progress in shifting our business more into the negotiated market.
In the eight years since we purchased Interior Surface Enterprises, we have learned a great deal and have enjoyed some important successes. However, probably our most gratifying experience occurred in 2011 when a catastrophic tornado struck the Joplin, Mo., community, which is 160 miles from our offices. It was the costliest single tornado strike in U.S. history. Out of the rubble came plans to rebuild Joplin. A number of notable buildings had been seriously damaged including a hospital, high school and a combined middle/elementary school.
We felt the need to help, but didn’t know how being some distance away, and we believed the work should stay with the local flooring contractors. However, one of our general contractors reached out to us on the re-build of the Joplin East Middle and Soaring Heights Elementary. This combined school was designed to connect home and community by utilizing sustainable building elements and incorporating flexible and adaptive learning areas.
The project included a shared auditorium in the center of the facility that connects both schools. Other adaptive areas include multi-functional gymnasiums, library nooks overlooking the cafeteria, “Theater in the Park” featuring a stage, seating and sunken floor space as well as open classroom designs called neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are identifiable by wide hallways, which utilize like-color accented flooring and furniture. The Middle School’s entrance features learning stairs and a complex compass floor design. The intricate design of the compass was achieved using water jet fabrication, completed by Creative Edge Master Shop. This public space allows students to feel secure while providing a sanctuary to showcase their learning.
This project was challenging and gratifying at the same time. Not only did we enjoy helping to rebuild this great community, we recognized our work in growing Interior Surface to its current level of expertise made our involvement possible.
The bonus of this work was our submission, and subsequent Silver People’s Choice Winner in the Starnet 2015 Design Award competition. This was the second Design Award we won in 2015, taking the Gold award in the healthcare category for the 39 Rainbow Healthcare Facility, but the award for the Joplin schools was especially gratifying. We know we helped a community in its time of need and our project management and installation teams were delighted to play a role.
Looking forward, we feel the future is bright for Interior Surface Enterprises. Our pace of work is strong and we are focusing on margin improvement, a residual issue coming out of the recession. We are steadily growing our employee team by carefully identifying future growth opportunities and management needs. And we are enjoying our success and are very gratified by the team we work with everyday.