In this edition, we sat down with Terry Wick, owner of A & T Stoneworks, Inc. in Palmdale, CA.
How did you first get involved in the tile industry? Please explain a little bit more about yourself.
Wick: Growing up, my dad was a finish contractor and later a general contractor. I worked with him until I left for college. When I returned, my dad told me a tile contractor he worked with needed help. I worked with this tile contractor for a couple of years. At that time, we floated every job we did; something that would continue throughout my career. I learned a lot about technique, quickly mastering floated countertops, backsplashes, tubs and showers. I enjoyed the work, not the contractor. I relocated to work with a larger contractor in a bigger market. My new boss did military barracks, restaurants, custom homes and tract housing. My knowledge and skill base expanded exponentially. I soon moved up through the ranks and began running large commercial and residential projects.
Are you a company owner? If so, what were some reasons for starting your own business?
Wick: From the time I was a child, I wanted to own my own business. My father and my wife encouraged me to get my license. I’m glad I listened and had my license when the company I was working for decided to scale back, downsizing from 20 crews to just himself. He offered me some of the work he was giving up. These were large projects I could not have gotten just starting out. I jumped in with both feet and never looked back.
Has the tile industry changed much since you first started? If so, in what ways?
Wick: Yes, originally, we had to soak our tile overnight in buckets of water and we set it with pure cement. Thinset was yet to be invented. Just kidding; although these things happened, it was before my time.
Oddly enough, tile size is the most visible change. An 8- x 8-inch tile was considered large, and rarely if ever, used on anything but a floor. Kitchens and baths were mainly 4 1/4-inch formats and occasionally 6 inches. Now, 8 x 8 inches is tiny and we are installing 10- x 5-foot pieces of tile.
Nearly all kitchen and bath tile had a variety of matching trim when I began. Now more often than not, there is no trim available and we are using metal to finish the tile. Ceramic tile and laminate were the most common countertop materials. Stone was for exterior cladding not countertops. Setting materials have come a long way, too. There were no modified thinsets or grouts. Everything was floated; there were no cement boards or foam boards.
Is there a particular job you’ve completed that stands out? Why?
Wick: My very first job stands out the most. Three hundred barracks at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, CA. Yes, my first contract was for 300 units. Each unit contained two floated showers and 150 square feet of wainscot. We ordered a train car of tile to get started. I had to learn how to be a business owner, how to find and deal with employees, how to do certified government payroll, how to manage cash flow — and all over 100 miles from home. My second contract, also a barracks on a nearby military base, hit in the middle of this. I was just 24 at the time.
There is a residential project that also stands out. We did a 15,000-square-foot custom home on the beach in Santa Barbara, CA. The owner was a legacy builder and his wife, a well-known designer. We ordered custom-made tile for each area of the home. Nothing was off the shelf or readily available. For the master bath, the homeowner selected a mermaid he wanted to have made into a mural for the shower wall. We found a studio willing to do the commissioned work. We designed the rest of the bathroom around the view of the mermaid and the ocean from the bathtub. The homeowners found a lovely mural on one of their European vacations and had kept it packed away for years, waiting for a custom installation in the wine cellar. Surrounding the mural with stone tiles, we created the illusion you were peeking through a window at the characters in the mural. One of the most enjoyable designs was the wave we created in the beach bathroom, custom-floated to mimic a wave curling around a surfer on their board. The homeowner found a surfboard manufacturer willing to make a surfboard emblazoned with the family crest. We were able to place the surfboard in just the right place in the wave; it would become the shower seat. Imagine your grandchildren surfing their way through the shower wave. The floated wave was set with small glass mosaics gradated to mimic the depth of colors present on the beach, just a few steps away. Beginning with the tan and yellow colors of the sand, curving up to deep ocean blues finishing with the whites of the sea foam atop the wave, with the yellow and golds of the sunset on the wall behind the breaking wave. There were tiled custom murals on exterior walls, with underwater scenery along the pathway from the ocean to the first beach shower located outdoors. There were more unique features in the home than in any other single project we have worked on.
What are some common issues you have to deal with on the job site? How do you overcome them?
Wick: Scheduling delays, prior trades work, whether arriving at a worksite that is not yet ready for you. Many issues can be avoided by walking the job prior to sending crews out to complete the work. Having trusted employees who can think on their feet and help solve many issues in real time on the jobsite. Most importantly, having a good working relationship with the contractors. Communicating with them what you need done before you arrive and knowing what to expect from each other.
What are some steps you take to educate your customers about their tile installation before you begin?
Wick: Client expectation is key. Often a client will see something on a website or TV show and think it will be perfect in their home. Sometimes they are correct; their project will be beautiful, function well and be timeless, and they will still be happy with it for years to come. However, other times they need to be educated about how fragile that particular product is, how the layout doesn’t fit their space, and how a trendy application may be dated just as soon as the job is complete and will require maintenance beyond their expectations. We make it a point to discuss materials, layout, longevity and maintenance with each client.
If you could lend any advice to professionals just beginning their careers, what would it be?
Wick: Get to know the people in the tile trade organizations. Having a good relationship with other people in the industry who are working through the same issues as you are is key. Having someone to call when you are unsure of a situation you have encountered on a job can be a great help. There are many relevant Facebook groups; join them and learn. Learn what to do, what not to do and how to know the difference.
Join tile organizations, go through their training and get certified. Go to tradeshows, meet tile manufactures, tool manufacturers, setting material manufacturers and other contractors.
Never be afraid to learn. Education is important.
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.