In this edition, we sat down with Ken Ballin, owner of Skyro Floors in West Creek, NJ. Ballin is CTI #1392 through the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation’s (CTEF) Certified Tile Installer (CTI) Program and Certified Floorcovering Installer (CFI) #13604 through the International Certified Flooring Installers Association. He is also an active member of the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), as well as the “Tile Love 2.0” and Flooring Installers of America Facebook groups.
How did you first get involved in the tile industry? Please explain a little bit more about yourself.
Ballin: I started my business a little over 10 years ago while I was working in retail. After a suggestion to get into flooring professionally from my father-in-law, I started installing hardwood and floating floors for a local big-box store. They asked me to start doing tilework so I learned how and started out on floors and kept it simple. I kind of stayed away from tilework to grow my company with them and took on the more simple installs so I could keep an eye on the other crews I had to bring on to handle the influx in business from them. At my height with them, I had about a dozen crews and 13 stores. They've since converted their installation to a workroom format and got rid of the smaller installation companies, so I went off on my own, targeting a higher-end clientele looking for more custom work. I only started doing showers in the last three years or so and my first one was for my friend, Carl Leonard of Cutting Edge Tile. He took a chance with me and I'm forever grateful because it's opened so many doors that wouldn't have otherwise been opened.
Are you a company owner? If so, what were some reasons for starting your own business?
Ballin: I own Skyro Floors in New Jersey. For the most part, I'm self-taught. I didn't have the opportunity to work under anyone and had to learn as I went. Fortunately for me that meant not picking up anyone's bad habits and reading a lot of directions. That's kind of my strong point, though. I'm no more talented than the next guy or gal. I'm just too paranoid not to follow the directions.
Has the tile industry changed much since you first started? If so, in what ways?
Ballin: My first tile installs were 6- and 12-inch floors in straight lay patterns and not much more. Now, my standard size is 12 x 24 inches, but I recently completed a porcelain plank job with 10- x 60-inch planks. They were ridiculous to work with and they just keep getting bigger. I've done quite a bit of training with large-format tiles, but that trend hasn't really taken over too much locally quite yet.
I think the biggest change that I've seen in the industry is the support we have from our peers and everyone at all levels of industry involvement. Social media has put the best minds in the industry right there at your fingertips. You can post a question while you're on a job and have a multitude of responses within minutes. You can reach out to reps, other installers and just about anyone that could be helpful to you at any point in the day. The community we've built and continue to grow is phenomenal and the quality of craftsmanship impresses me daily.
Is there a particular job you’ve completed that stands out? Why?
Ballin: I have two that have a special place in my heart. The first was a curbless shower with a herringbone floor that I had to template. It was my first time templating a floor like that and my buddy, Jason McDaniels, who uses templates regularly, was right there on the phone talking me through it. That shower won my way into the competition at The International Surface Event (TISE) in 2019.
The other project was a tub surround with a curvy glass mosaic that I scribed into the field tile. It was the first time I attempted a scribe like that on an actual jobsite and it came out awesome. The customer loved it and it got me hooked on scribing. I've got three more scheduled in the next few months because of it.
What are some common issues you have to deal with on the jobsite? How do you overcome them?
Ballin: The most common issue I see is customers being given bad information by other contractors, family and friends who have some tilework, and television shows that promote this ridiculous idea that a bathroom can be completed in an hour. It makes it difficult to explain the importance of what we do when others are telling them it's unnecessary or they've done it a certain way for 30 years and have never had a problem. I've developed a reputation in my area for being a step above. I've completed all of the certifications I can. I'm CFI #13604 and CTI #1392, and I attend all of the training I can find locally. It really gives me a one up on the other local contractors because customers know that they're getting top-quality work and that I stand behind that work. Instead of getting calls saying, “I found your number online,” I'm getting calls saying, “I saw that project you did with the fish in the shower pan and I absolutely love it. I need you to do my shower.”
What are some steps you take to educate your customers about their tile installation before you begin?
Ballin: I'll go through the entire process with them to show that I know what I'm talking about, and if they haven't chosen their tile yet, I'll steer them towards my social media feeds for ideas. Typically, seeing my previous projects will sell them. I'll also send them to the CFI and CTEF websites for a better explanation of the organizations I'm involved with.
If you could lend any advice to professionals just beginning their careers, what would it be?
Ballin: Take a business class or three. You don't have to go into debt for the rest of your life, but definitely be aware of what you're getting into on the numbers side of owning a business. Also, focus on your social media feeds and not just Facebook. Work on your Instagram, LinkedIn and TikTok. They're all great for exposure to different types of clients. You can edit videos in TikTok and share directly to your Instagram and Facebook pages, making it super easy to get your content out to your followers.
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.