I am the 4th generation of my family residing in Omaha, Neb. I have spent my entire career here as an independent entrepreneur in the commercial interiors industry. My business is a natural extension of my sense of community and involvement with Omaha and I believe it is those connections which have made my business succeed.
After college graduation, I faced a difficult choice of attending law school or working with my father, who was a partner in a regional contract interiors business with locations in Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis and Denver. I took the second path and enjoyed working with my father for 15 years—both in that business and later in a business we started and managed for an investor group. During that time, the business grew significantly and I believe the greatest value I gained from the experience was a strong understanding of business overall as well as the ability to work with people of all ages and expertise. It goes without saying that I also learned a great deal from my father, and our working relationship was strong and productive.
Facing a Crossroad
In 1991, my father announced that he planned to retire. Once again, I was faced with a personal crossroad. I thrived as an entrepreneur and I enjoyed the working environment which my father and I had created. Now on my own, one option was to join a larger company as an employee; however, I knew at that point in my career that working for “someone else” was not the best fit.
After much deliberation, I decided to start a new company focused on commercial flooring exclusively. The result was Commercial Flooring Systems. I felt this focus on the flooring was critical for long-term success; the flooring industry was increasing complex and the technical demands were growing. My strategy was to gain expertise in this segment of commercial interiors and to offer to end users and facility managers a full-service operation which provided the right solution for their flooring needs.
From the beginning, Commercial Flooring Systems specialized in three high potential business segments: corporate, healthcare and higher education. We started out small with four employees in leased space and four years later built and moved into the owned facility we occupy today. I am proud to say that two of the employees—Karen Sempek and Dwight Maurer—continue to work for our company today.
In the early years, every employee had to multi-task. Everyone did everything. We enjoyed quick and steady growth, far exceeding my initial projections for the business. I know the relationships I had developed were incredibly important, but I also had a strong team that was committed to success for the business.
Early on, I realized that sustained success for our business depended on our ability to meet our customers’ needs with services not offered by the competition. I try to stay close to the trends, and over the years I have been able to identify the growing areas of commercial flooring which were catching on with end-users and property managers. For example, while we had dabbled in ceramic work in our early years, about 10 years ago we began to develop that area with a strong focus, as architects and designers were seeking new flooring types for commercial facilities. We pushed to train our estimators and installation teams to perform the highest quality work in the area. Today, ceramic tile represents 15-20% of our total business.
As we grew, it became necessary for our employees to specialize their skills. In the early years, training became a high priority for our business and it remains so today. Even though many of our employees have the skills to carry a project from “soup to nuts,” the pace of business requires we are structured by function rather than by business segment. For example, our sales team hands off their projects to the project manager team so each group can deliver the highest results in their area.
With an eye on new opportunities, we approach each new business segment slowly, utilizing current talent to tackle the initial projects. However, once an area shows meaningful potential, we bring in a new team to lead the work. In many cases, we have been able to utilize training resources offered by our vendor partners as well as training programs through our membership in Starnet Worldwide Commercial Flooring. With growing need for technical expertise in flooring projects, these training resources are invaluable.
I believe our business will thrive only if we expand in strategically sound areas and our expansion is supported by the core foundation of our business. A good example is floor care, which we began as a joint venture in 2005. Initially, I partnered with a company in another city to offer floor care to my customer base and the excellent potential for this area became readily apparent. However, sharing resources and working with a team not based in Omaha was limiting the long-term potential of the business, so I exited that partnership.
Two years ago, we launched a floor care business under the Commercial Flooring Systems umbrella, and I hired a dedicated manager to sell and support the business. We wanted to support our customer base on a local level and provide the high service level required to be successful. We have a complete team of employees dedicated to floor care and this branch of our business has been a tremendous asset. We consistently provide value to our customers while offering continuity with the rest of our business offering.
As an extension of that business, we have recently added specialty coatings to our portfolio—a segment which restores current flooring that has become discolored and unattractive, as well as offering protective coatings to allow for easier everyday maintenance. In addition, we offer ceramic restoration which, again, is embedded in the balance of our business. Both of these areas have grown out of the floor care area.
Beyond these services which improve the aesthetics of a commercial building, we also offer a full menu of services which are required during the installation phase: demolition, subfloor prep, moisture testing and moisture mitigation. Our goal is to be the one-stop solution for our customers so they can rely on Commercial Flooring Systems as a complete flooring resource.
Commercial Flooring Systems is a charter member of Starnet Worldwide Commercial Flooring—one of 13 companies which founded this outstanding organization. Our membership in Starnet has been immensely valuable to us. As already noted, for our employee group, the training and industry development offered by Starnet has been critical. Not only is the quality of training very strong; our employees are able to connect with other individuals in Starnet companies who work in a similar function and with whom they can connect for knowledge and mentoring.
As a business owner, my association with Starnet has been equally valuable. I have taken an active role in the organization’s governance, having served as a committee chairman, on the advisory council and most recently on the board of directors. I have participated in the growth of Starnet from the very beginning and am gratified to see the high quality of our members and the development of excellent programs which benefit both the members and our Preferred Vendor network.
Starnet gives us a vehicle to work toward the common good of the industry. It is very important to look beyond your local market and understand the issues facing the industry as a whole. I have many good friends within Starnet—I learn from them every day and at every membership meeting. For me, the single greatest benefit is the ability to talk freely with non-competitive companies and to interact with people who understand my business. I think the term “networking” is overused; however, within Starnet, sharing industry best practices has been a tremendous asset.
Looking Forward to the Future
Looking forward, I am focused on several areas which are critical to the long-term success of my business. First, we are challenged to recruit, train and retain a qualified labor force for installation. Many of our installers have worked for Commercial Flooring Systems for many years and we need a pipeline of new, young talent to support the business in the years ahead. This is not an easy task and it is a challenge I share with many of my fellow Starnet members. At my company, we continue to try new approaches to meet this need. We are making progress.
In addition, I am actively engaged in developing the national account business for my company. This is a great opportunity for us to leverage local customers who are part of a Fortune 500 company and who can identify business opportunities outside Omaha. Largely through my Starnet affiliations, I have been able to expand these customers in other states and, in some cases, to Latin America, the Philippines, the Caribbean and Canada. Omaha is a smaller market, but it offers a diverse economic base which is stable and growing. The foundation is the corporate segment and technology is also a growing factor in this market. All of these factors provide an excellent foundation for national account work.
Finally, based on the strong growth we have enjoyed, I am currently looking at sites to construct a larger facility in order to accommodate more working space both in the office and in our warehouse area. With the new services being offered by Commercial Flooring Systems and the manpower required to support these new areas, my goal is to plan ahead for space requirements over the next decade and beyond.
The journey of Commercial Flooring Systems has been long and successful. Personally, I am grateful my working career has offered to me such a wealth of experience and associations. I am proud of what we have accomplished and am looking forward to continued success in the years ahead.