How did you first get involved in the tile industry?
Denny: I have been blessed to have family in the business. My grandfather, David Nichols, began installing tile in 1953 at Art Mosaic in Nashville, TN. Earning his union card in 1955, he became a proficient tradesman, traveled extensively running terrazzo crews and began to see the opportunities available to separate from the company. In 1964, he began a partnership (Dudley and Nichols) with Bob Dudley and focused on residential projects, ending the partnership in 1967. That same year, he partnered with Gene Arrington (A&N Tile) and continued to primarily focus on residential, but could see the advantages of commercial contracts. Ending the Arrington partnership in 1972, David again created a partnership with his brother, Lonnie Nichols, with the intentions of venturing into more commercial-focused projects. After a few months, they decided that going further could be difficult on the relationship. On August 21, 1973, David, with his wife, Juanita, anchoring the office, started Nichols Tile & Terrazzo Co. Inc., and operated the business as president and secretary/treasurer. In 1976, David's stepson, Billy Denny Jr., my father, graduated from Belmont University with a degree in Business Administration and came aboard in the role of estimator and vice president. In 1998, I joined the family business full-time as project manager after working as a helper and installer for five years. My sister, Amber (Denny) Hunter, joined in 2001 as an office manager. On August 21, 2017, 44 years to the day, David and Juanita passed on their legacy to my dad, my sister and myself in hopes we’d continue the family business.
What were some reasons for starting your own business?
Denny: Owning and operating a business has its challenges. One day, we’re on top of the world, and later that same day, we’re at the lowest of lows. We try our best to separate family time from business, but having that common goal to continue a thriving business really binds us together. I think we have all analyzed whether this is something we want to continue or go our separate ways and we are (currently) in accord to move forward. Our greatest concern lies in supporting our family and the families that partner with us. Being profitable with the goal of putting food on tables can be a heavy burden, but it is exciting to build a contracting company that can meet the needs of its clients with excellence and support its own. It may seem easy to go out and get a job to work on, but finding the good ones is a thrilling hunt. Personally, I have said before that my favorite part of our trade is the perfectly thought out, efficiently planned and highly profitable project where everyone comes out happy — the true unicorn of the business.
Has the tile industry changed much since you first started?
Denny: The tile industry is very different from the days of 4 1/4-inch wall tiles and the monstrous 12- x 12-inch floor tiles when I first started. Coming aboard under the tutelage of my grandfather, we still employed mortar beds, floated walls and traditional pans on many of our projects. From what I’ve seen, the trade has gradually moved from a trowel-skilled industry revolving around the manipulation of raw ingredients to a more cerebral industry that relies on the technological advancement of products and the ability to choose the best one, install it per manufacturer recommendation and make a profit from those actions. Manufacturers continue to slug it out for the most innovative way to address what was once a very basic material industry, which in turn makes it easier on the body, more user-friendly with shorter learning curves and applicable to today’s building trends. I think it is more complicated today and it can be more difficult for the contractor to decide where they are going to invest their time learning, but there are many positive directions in which to go. I just hope we have reached the pinnacle of tile sizes.
Is there a particular job you’ve completed that stands out? Why?
Denny: Every job stands out, as we look for opportunities to learn from each job. Recently, we installed gauged porcelain tile over existing finishes. Marrying the past and present, we were able to utilize mortar bed skills, a few wall float patches, self-leveling underlayment, epoxy mortars, new thinset mortars for the larger format materials and metal outside corners. Looking back on the project, I feel like our commitment to educating ourselves about new products and methods while honing our traditional skills paid off by being well-rounded enough to complete the project in an efficient manner with beautiful results.
What are some steps you take to educate your customers about their tile installation before you begin?
Denny: This is an area we are always looking to improve in. Some projects allow us more freedom to educate the customer than others, but when we have that opportunity, we go straight to manufacturer recommendations and industry methods and standards. Depending on the situation, we may verbally explain the steps we are going to take or include them in document form. If it is necessary to close the deal, we’ll provide pictures or links to Internet sites where the customer can have visuals. There’s a fine line between overloading our customers to the point of confusion and informing them just enough where they know what needs to be done and they can be confident we will do it.
If you could lend any advice to professionals just beginning their careers, what would it be?
Denny: Be a consummate learner. You’ll never arrive at that place where you can give up on furthering your education. To be truly successful, strive to increase your motor skills and your thinking skills. Ask for help, clarification and advice from your peers when you run into a head scratcher; there’s no shame in not knowing all of the answers. Have fun and be creative. What we do is a business, but it is also an art.
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