For this edition, we sat down with Roger Leasure, president of Northern California Tile & Stone, Corp. (NCTS) in Sacramento, CA. NCTS, which participates in the Certified Tile Installer program through the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF), was inducted into the National Tile Contractors Association’s (NTCA) Five Star Contractor Program this year.
TILE: How did you first get involved in the tile industry?
Leasure: My aunt’s boyfriend got a job as a tile helper and told me he was working for this cool guy, Don Watts from Custom Tile in Oroville, CA. At the time, I was tearing off roofs in 100 degrees, so I stopped by their shop every morning on my way to work. They told me they weren’t hiring for the first couple of weeks, then a helper called out sick and they sent me with a tile setter. I stayed with Custom Tile for a year learning all about custom homes in Lake Almanor, Chico and Sacramento. I was really blessed because they produced very high-quality tile setters who waterproofed shower pans, did cut-in vanity tops with A106 horse teeth and floated all of their work (everything was mud work). After my first year, I thought I had it all figured out and wanted a van and helper of my own. Thank God they didn’t give it to me or I’d still be there. When they told me “no,” I quit and moved to Sacramento to pursue large commercial installations and become an installer on my own.
TILE: What were some of the reasons for starting your own business?
Leasure: I started my own business because I could see the mismanagement in the companies I worked for, and I worked for some very large commercial tile contractors in the mid 90’s. I just got tired of the lack of professionalism associated with our field.
TILE: Has the tile industry changed much since you first started?
Leasure: The industry has changed dramatically for the better and worse. Just 20+ years ago, almost everything was floated, even interior school bathrooms. We would snap out square lines on the floors, then beat our float sticks in parallel to the square line and set the sticks plumb before rodding off the mud. This produced perfectly square walls and straight cuts along your walls. The entire commercial bathroom would be flat, plumb and square, and the floor perimeters would be level with the entire floor sloping to the drain. In homes, everything was also floated.
I think, along with the skillset required to do this, there was more of an artistic side to the tile and stone field. Today, it seems everything is thinset to wallboard or concrete floors. This used to be frowned upon, but now it’s the norm and you don’t get the same quality. I also think with the volume of work going on, guys get thrown into the field to set tile who are not ready or who haven’t been taught the proper skills. I cringe when I am out in public and see some of the stuff that gets installed.
On the positive side, I think the Natural Stone Institute (NSI) and Tile Council of North America (TCNA) have made great strides in clarifying new products and how things should be properly specified and installed. They give tile contractors the backing we need to show the general contractors and developers, “Look, this needs to be fixed” or “Hey, you need your architect to detail the expansion joints.” It allows us to put preceding contractors on notice that we are professional finish subcontractors going over your work so you need to do your scopes right.
The CTEF and the NTCA are doing a good job of educating owners that they need to train their installers and of providing that schooling. This year, we received our "Five Star" rating with the NTCA and started our own in-house school to train the field. We hired Erik Johnson from San Diego, CA, specifically to write our curriculum and teach school one day a week in our shop. We also had him develop a superintendent report card so our foremen can rank our superintendents on how they were briefed, how information was transferred and how the job was set up. He also does Quality Center (QC) reports on the foremen, raking their jobs on patch work, safety, cleanliness and a host of other important factors. Not every shop has $200,000 that they can budget just to teach their installers, and those that do, I don't think realize the Return On Investment (ROI) on this type of investment. It’s easy to control quality when it’s you and a helper, but with 100+ men in the field, it will get away from you unless you are committed to quality and professionalism. Investing in our men will pay dividends in less punch, more awarded contracts and higher volume of install. It’s going to make our clients’ lives and our lives easier in the long run.
Tile products have radically changed, too. When I was a tile setter, floors were all 8 x 8 or 12 x 12 inches, and almost all walls were 4- x 4-inch tiles or mosaics. Now, we are installing 1/8-inch-thick, 5- x 10-foot porcelain panels and thin stone panels with foam backing, floor tiles that are 4 feet long, cold fluid-applied waterproofing, and prefabricated shower systems. We have watched the TCNA Handbookgo from a 100-page booklet five years ago to a 500-page novel. Staying on top of all the updates and changes has become critical when it comes to letting general contractors know what we can/can’t do per industry standards.
TILE: Is there a particular job you’ve completed that stands out? Why?
Leasure: The Valley Fair Mall is not complete, we are about 70% finished. I have to pick this job because of the sheer size and complexity of it. There was 240,000 square feet of stone we demolished, then ground down the thinset and high spots. We poured the entire floor with leveling compound and installed a cold fluid membrane to 40-Mil all before we even laid out the stone. We are close to having 240,000 square feet of equilateral triangles installed that form a three-dimensional cube-like pattern. We have 10,000 square feet of thin stone sheets and honeycomb-backed panels to install throughout the interior of the mall. There is also another 110,000 square feet of stone triangles in the expansion; bathrooms filled with glass, mosaic and porcelain tiles; and a six-story parking garage filled with stone lobbies. You just don’t see jobs like this anymore and you don’t see developers drop this kind of money on such high-quality stone and labor. They could have gone with cheaper stone and they could have gone with a cheaper contractor, but they spared no expense. When you walk into the mall, you feel the warmth, quality and class of the property.
TILE: What are some common issues you have to deal with on the jobsite? How do you overcome them?
Leasure: The biggest challenge we see on jobsites today is a result of the move away from an 8- x 8- or 12- x 12-inch tile to 12 x 24 inches being the standard format and tiles up to 48 inches being common. When setting these large-format tiles, it is the contractor’s responsibility to make sure the general contractor provides the appropriate wall and floor flatness. It is also the tile contractor’s responsibility to back butter large-format or cupped porcelain, even if it is not called out in the specifications.
A flat floor is especially important on a renovation project where old, smaller tiles with large joints have been demolished and the substrate has been ground down. Under these conditions, you will almost certainly need to flatten the floor to meet the tolerances for large-format tile.
Other issues consist of proceeding work not being up to standard. It’s not uncommon for our superintendents to show up and check floors and walls, and find the wallboard isn’t taped or is taped with taping mud, floors are out of tolerance or they screwed over handicapped backing and put a big bow in the wall. We take the time to point these things out and reject the proceeding work, but quite often, the general contractor or subcontractor responsible just want us to tile over it or expect us to fix it. Of course we refuse to just hack something in. Being a finish contractor with a focus on quality can create some tension when we push back, but we have to. When the job is done and it’s perfect, everyone is happy, but in the beginning, sometimes others think we are there to cause problems when it’s quite the opposite. We want to ensure we deliver quality.
TILE: What are some steps you take to educate your customers about their tile installation before you begin?
Leasure: That really begins with our senior estimators and project managers before we even get in the field. Since we don’t do residential work, a lot of the educational work is done when looking at the plans. We will point out shower heads that point out into the locker rooms instead of on a side wall because only the shower floor is depressed with a slope. We will point out light washing when the architects put their lights up tight against a wall then pick a clay tile product. We walk the job during faming to point out thick ADA backing or poor framing that will result in poor wallboard installations. We always bid a floor prep and wall prep alternate when our bids contain large-format materials because the tolerances are 1/8inch in 10 feet and we just know the proceeding subcontractors are not going to deliver that. We don’t want our general contractors and developers getting a surprise or think we are gouging them, so we bring it to their attention during the bid process, let them talk with their owners, concrete and drywall subcontractors, and give them the option on how to proceed.
TILE: If you could lend any advice to professionals just beginning their careers, what would it be?
Leasure: Pick a team of professionals outside of your lawyers, CPAs, bankers, bonding agents, insurance agents and real estate brokers, and get to know them well. Save every dime you make. Pick great people and pay them well. I have friends that run tile shops and they are up at 4 a.m. every day, working six or seven days a week; they can’t grow because they want to do it all. I’ve never been the brightest, fastest or hardest working guy in the room, but I sure can hire those guys and pay them good money. You’re not going to save yourself any money or headaches by underpaying employees. In turn, they are loyal and dedicated, and it just creates an easy working atmosphere.
Last, I would say never quit learning. We have a business coach who comes in once a month who is available for anyone to call or email anytime. During our monthly meetings, everyone in the office works on team building and we try to strengthen our weaknesses. We pay for education, we have our own school in-house for the field and we are always sending our guys to train on new products. You can never read too much either. There are people out there who have successfully built and run multi-billion-dollar companies. They usually write books and I want to hear what they have to say.
If you or anyone you know is interested in being featured in a future edition of the “Contractor Spotlight,” please email Heather Fiore at firstname.lastname@example.org.