In this edition, we sat down with Dirk Sullivan, owner of Hawthorne Tile in Portland, OR. Sullivan, who transitioned from rock star to tile contractor, is currently the only NTCA Five Star Contractor in the Northwest. He serves on NTCA’s Board of Directors as Regional Director of Region 9 and is also part of NTCA’s membership and training and education committees.
How did you first get involved in the tile industry? Please explain a little bit more about yourself.
Sullivan: I started out as a musician. I studied music in school and college. I ended up starting a music career right out of college. I met a bunch of dudes and started a band. As I was transitioning out of college into ‘I’ve got a band, I’m playing at clubs and having rehearsals in the evening,’ I wanted a day job. I’d been making pizza for years, but I needed a day job. I knew somebody who knew of somebody who told me of a job opening at Daltile. Guy Boston, the manager of Daltile in Portland, OR [at that time], interviewed and hired me. I got a taste of tile and really liked it. I met some really cool tile contractors along the way and made a lot of friends during that time working at Daltile. I would go work with contractors on the weekend who had to get a job finished up and immediately loved it. I also realized, ‘Hey, this could be a cool opportunity for me. I think if I keep doing this, I’ll always have a way to make a living.’
How long were you doing that before you started your own business? What were some reasons for starting your own business?
Sullivan: The band I was in had a couple years of moderate success — touring, releasing an album, movie soundtrack and videos. Whenever I was home, I would go to work at Daltile. After the band had disbanded, I was between projects and doing a lot of studio work. One of my buddies, who was a tile contractor, said ‘Hey I need help. Would you be interested in coming to work for me?’ So I ended up walking away from Daltile. I worked with a few guys for a while and the last contractor who I was working
for between 1996 and 1999 ended up with some personal problems that killed his business and almost himself. A couple of his general contractors started calling me and saying, ‘We really like you. We really like working with you. We would love for you to get your license and start taking on our work.’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’d be great.’ At first, I didn’t want to take the other guy’s work because it wasn’t ethically correct, but he was forced to move to Seattle, WA. I realized that this was a good opportunity for me so I got my license, started my company and blindly walked into the life of a business owner. Had my last employer continued successfully, I don’t know that I would’ve started my own company. I was still invested in my music career. But, here we are almost
20 years later.
Has the tile industry changed much since you first started? If so, in what ways?
Sullivan: I’ve seen tons of changes. The assemblies are completely different. There’s been a lot of innovation trying to solve inherent problems; a lot of the problems were based around the lack of training and education, and I think that things have been developed that make our job a little simpler. The materials are lighter weight, the assemblies are a little simpler to put together and the manufacturers of these products have put together these proprietary assemblies that really help protect us as installers. We’re not having to put together a shower using components from seven different companies; we’re able to put together a shower with components from one company as long as we follow the instructions correctly and have the support of the representative from that company. I think we have more success.
Is there a particular job you’ve completed that stands out? Why?
Sullivan: Gosh, there are a lot of them. It’s hard because I’m very fortunate. I’ve been able to build great relationships and friendships. In Portland, we get handed some of the most phenomenal projects and they all have their own challenges. I wouldn’t want to do it any other way. I think that being known to be able to handle more complex types of projects is an honor. Being able to list one specific project is hard. It’s a testament to our team.
What are some common issues you have to deal with on the jobsite? How do you overcome them?
Sullivan: We do a great deal of work with general contractors. On projects of this level, there are general contractors where everything is taken care of — the framing is perfect, the job is spotless and everything is always ready when they tell you it will be. Then, there is the contractor that expects you will fix everything; they tend to leave you loose ends and schedules are almost always weeks behind. Then, there is the expectation of the interior designer and the homeowner. So you’re having to deal with the dynamics of these three parties.
We find that our biggest challenge in dealing with these relationships goes back to the homeowners. When you are that far removed from them, you almost never can do enough homework to find out what their true expectation is aside from the drawings, specs and construction documents. The phrase I like to use is, ‘We can’t exceed anybody’s expectation unless we fully understand it.’ That could be something that you just don’t know, so you have to interview and ask a ton of questions, listen and take as many notes as possible, and don’t assume anything. If you assume something is going to be standard, the way you always do it, then you’re going to find out that someone has a completely different visual expectation. That’s what our biggest challenge really ends up being — making sure that we completely understand the assignment.
What are some steps you take to educate your customers about their tile installation before you begin?
Sullivan: We don’t really have a written script for it, but we do try to educate people on the way we operate. We ask a lot of questions and we listen. We try not to tell anybody anything. I tend not to draw lines in the sand. If a potential customer’s design or selections are not appropriate or need improvement, we are diplomatic. We try to turn everything into a conversation rather than shooting down their ideas. We want to listen and if we have a better idea, we don’t want to just throw it out right away. We want to listen to what they’d like to do and be collaborative in that, tell them we may have challenges with that concept and give them suggestions. We try to roundtable it. I think people want to be part of a team — they like when it’s collaborative. And I do, too. I like to be a part of a creative, collaborative process. I think that comes back from my years playing in bands and writing music together in a group because everybody is listening to everybody else and sometimes a great idea comes from three or four smaller ideas that developed into something. When we’re working with homeowners, general contractors and designers, especially with the design community, they can draw something beautiful, but that beautiful drawing might not work in a real-life application. We have to figure out a way how to make that happen. We want to create a dialogue, show examples and communicate. I think that’s really how we differ from other contractors.
If you could lend any advice to professionals just beginning their careers, what would it be?
Sullivan: I think there’s three things I’d like to say. One is to read as many books as possible. Read Michael C. Stone’s Markup & Profit: A Contractor’s Guide, which is a valuable piece of understanding on what it takes to run a successful craft business. Number two would be by the time you figure out what it takes to run one from a financial standpoint, you’re going to realize that you’re going to be more expensive than other folks, so you really need to be in the market of exceeding expectations and
you have to continue to exceed expectations because happy people want to talk. They love referring you; they can’t wait to tell their friends about their tile guy. Number three would be to listen and cooperate.
Join the NTCA. You do have to get involved, though. You really do have to invest some time and energy into it. Once you do, most people are blown away by what the association has to offer them. It’s invaluable. It’s absolutely the most important investment I’ve ever made in my company. The most important investment that I continue to make is making sure that we’re not only members, but we show up as members and contribute as members.
If you or anyone you know is interested in being featured in a future edition of the “Contractor Spotlight,” please email Heather Fiore at email@example.com.