For this edition, we sat down with Mike Micalizzi, senior director of technical services for Custom Building Products, who previously owned a tile and stone installation company in New Haven, CT, known as Ceramic Tile Services. He currently serves on technical committees for the Tile Council of North America (TCNA), Materials & Methods Standards Association (MMSA), National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), Marble Institute of America (MIA), American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and ASTM International.
How did you first get involved in the tile industry? Please explain a little bit more about yourself.
Micalizzi: I was a machine tool computer programmer prior to entering the trade. I wasn’t planning on becoming a tile contractor or a technical representative for an adhesive manufacturer, but once you get into the ceramic tile industry, you’re in it for life! Two of my brothers were union tile installers who moved over from the bricklayers’ trade of my grandfather and uncles. My older brother decided to start his own installation company and over time, he convinced me to join him in 1985. Seeing a project start from an empty room to finished installation made an impression on me and although it was hard work, there was a lot of satisfaction in what you built; I was hooked. Over a few years, my older brother and younger brother taught me the ins and outs of surface prep, mortar beds, waterproofing, tiling and grouting. The training they received in the union gave me a great start to know how to install tile the right way.
What were some reasons for starting your own business?
Micalizzi: I had previously operated a small cleaning service, so when my brother decided to move to the West Coast and tile for the Hollywood stars, I decided to pick up where he left off and start my own company. He gave me his contacts in Connecticut and along with some advertising, in a short time, I came to have four to six installers working for me. Over 15 years, I contracted a mixture of commercial and residential work, which helped when the economy fluctuated. Eventually, I began to work with a local mortar manufacturer doing field testing on experimental products and found it interesting, so for my last four years, I ran my business, Ceramic Tile Services (CTS), while working full-time for the manufacturer. I now work for one of the largest tile installation product manufacturers in the Americas, Custom Building Products, in Santa Fe Springs, CA.
Has the tile industry changed much since you first started? If so, in what ways?
Micalizzi: Over the years, I’ve seen the trade change and yet stay the same in many ways. Tile installation was always a very physical profession, but after recently installing some 30- x 30-inch porcelain tile at my own home, I feel for contractors today! Just the weight of these tiles alone is a challenge. Aside from installing large natural stone, in my day, a “large-format tile” averaged 12 inches. The majority of tiles installed then were 2- x 2-inch mosaics, 4 1/4- or 6-inch wall tile or 6-inch quarry and 8-inch pavers with wide grout joints that hid some of the variations between the tile edges and variations in the substrates.
The large-format tiles installed today add time and labor to a project. Increased surface preparation for flatness is required on practically every project to accommodate these lengths, especially in the popular running bond layouts. Added to this are the tight grout joint widths expected by designers/owners, so leveling clips used to hold tiles flush are a must to control lippage between tiles. We never needed them for 12-inch tile. With the introduction of Gauged Porcelain Tiles/Panels (GPT) measuring up to 5 x 10 feet, “large-format” has a whole new meaning, as special tools and procedures are needed to cut and carry these monster sizes.
Also, tile installation products have definitely changed. The most significant differences are with the properties of mortars. I never imagined that I could place a stone tile weighing more than 10 pounds per square foot on a wall and not need to support it until the mortar dried. Today’s installers have lightweight, thixotropic, non-slip mortar formulas, such as Custom® MegaLite and ProLite, that are in everyday use and they’re certainly needed for these large tiles.
There are also grouts that don’t effloresce, epoxy grouts that are easy to install, waterproofing membranes that don’t require fabric and can be flood tested in just a few hours, and even mortar beds that are ready to tile in an hour. There have been many great product changes in the industry.
What hasn’t changed is that contractors are still fighting the same battles to convince general contractors and owners that surface preparation is not part of their expense in the contract and that it’s needed now more than ever. It’s a shame because mistakes and short cuts are more likely to happen without proper surface prep. And in regards to high speed, “fast track” installations, they’ve been a part of the tile industry for a long time because tile is installed at the end of a project that’s always behind schedule. Only today we have a name for it. It doesn’t look like this will ever change either. The business side of the specifications and contracts, as in all of construction, has become much more certification/document-driven and legally complicated. Contractors need to be careful what they agree to.
One of the issues that really affects our industry today is the lack of qualified installers. It takes time and training to be proficient in the tile trade because it’s not just a job, it’s a craft. Overall, it appears that fewer people are working with their hands and there’s a real shortage. Like a double-edged sword, we see unqualified installers laying tiles with failures damaging the tile industry, but with this shortage, we see the opportunity for qualified tile contractors to earn more and be more selective with the projects they choose.
Is there a particular job you’ve completed that stands out? Why?
Micalizzi: You always remember the projects that gave you a “challenge.” Mine was a public school project in Plymouth, CT, that included 17 large bathrooms with elaborate mosaic patterns on ceiling height walls and floors. Right at the start, we found that not one wall was flat or plumb. Every trade appeared to have some issue that caused delays and there was a deadline to open for the new school year. Just when we thought we’d be done a week early, a defect was found in some of the tiles and we worked 16 hours a day that week to be ready for the opening. Even though so many issues occurred on that project, it gave us great satisfaction not to have any items on the punch list.
What are some common issues you have to deal with on the jobsite? How do you overcome them?
Micalizzi: There will always be work done prior to yours that is not performed correctly or not done at all. Concrete will be out of plane (high or low), cracked, treated with curing agents or mistakenly painted. Tubs won’t be level, floor drains will be too high or too low, sheetrock or cement board and wall framing will be out of plumb; the list goes on and on. Along with these common issues, practically every project has multiple contracting trades on the site and schedules never seem to match your plan. Effective negotiation and communication on a jobsite is the key to getting your work done without losing your sanity. It’s important to talk to the project manager/owner about timing and your expectations in order to stay on track. And when an obstacle comes up, present a plan — don’t just complain. Then you’re not the problem contractor, you’re the solution. Only take care to not give in on “cutting corners” because any problem leads back to you.
What are some steps you take to educate your customers about their tile installation before you begin?
Micalizzi: Guiding your customers to choosing the right types of tiles and materials, especially grouts, is a matter of setting expectations. Presenting “good, better, best” options at the start will help you understand the motivations of the customer and help you guide them to a good choice. If they’re going down the wrong path, feedback can help turn them around, especially if you refer them to online information. Everyone wants a trouble-free installation, so saying something like, “Do you want the grout that stains or the grout that doesn’t stain?” can lead them in the right direction. Explaining the benefits of dense porcelain tile over other materials that may require maintenance or refinishing in high-traffic areas is important for them to know up front. Sharing pictures and some short stories on your past experiences, especially good ones, can also help with making decisions. Try not to present too many options as it won’t help them narrow their search.
In reference to the work itself, be clear and specific on what others need to do before you start and be realistic on your schedule, especially for keeping other trades away from your area after installation.
If you could lend any advice to professionals just beginning their careers, what would it be?
Micalizzi: Managing your finances, managing your time and keeping a great reputation are critical to starting and growing your business. Find a good accountant to make you aware of the real “costs” of doing business because profits are quickly eaten up by taxes, insurance and other expenses. Look over your profit on each project to learn where to improve. Take pictures of your installations and use social media for recommendations as it’s the most popular way to gain new business.
With regard to specifications and contracts, read every word and consider it with a view to self-preservation, as these documents are written with the goal of protecting the owner/general contractor and placing liability on the contractor. One word or phrase can mean the difference between payment and loss. And if you ever have reservations about taking on a project, if you feel uncomfortable with the other party’s attitude and contract demands, trust your instincts and pass. “You never lose money on a project you don’t take, but you can lose your shirt on one that you do!”
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.