In this edition, we sat down with Rod Owen, president of C.C. Owen Tile Company in Jonesboro, GA. Owen was also recently elected to serve as the second vice president of the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA) for 2021-2022.
TILE: How did you first get involved in the tile industry?
Owen: I am a third generation. That may explain a little about how I got involved in the tile industry. To elaborate a little on myself, I used to go with my dad to work when I was around the age of 10 on the days that he would do his work in the office, pick up plans from clients and pick up materials. When I reached the age of 12, he began taking me out on the jobsites for physical work when he was going to the jobsites himself. At that time, he was dual tasking it, taking the responsibilities of the office, as well as working on the jobsite. Now take into consideration these were commercial jobsites back in the mid-80’s. In today’s risk-controlled environment, this would not be possible. From the age of 12, I continued to work in the field through school. At the age of 30, I was moved into an office position, learning the responsibilities and roles of an estimator, then project manager, obtaining a full 360-view in the operational functions of business. I always tell people that there are two trades of knowledge when you are in business providing a service: the trade of the service you provide, which is the trade of tile, and the trade of business. Two, totally separate skills.
TILE: Has the tile industry changed much since you first started? If so, in what ways?
Owen: I would most certainly say 'yes.' The industry has changed from the sizes of the tile to the materials we adhere with to the substrates we install. When you think about it, there have been quite a few things that have changed.
Let’s first talk about the sizes of the material. Tile back in the 80s and 90s that I installed was primarily 4 ¹/4- & 6- x 6-inch soft-bodied tiles for the walls and either quarry tile on the floors or 8- x 8-inch ceramic. In modern days, the technology has allowed tiles to be made of all sizes. From the common 12- x 24-inch tile we see all over the place to the large porcelain tile panels of 60 x 120 inches in size.
Moving beyond tile, we will talk now about setting materials. First, thinset. Thirty-five years ago, a tile setter would mix liquid latex with standard thinset to make a “multipurpose,” modified thinset. Now, multipurpose thinset is primarily premixed in a bag and has even expanded beyond just multipurpose to specialty type thinsets: non-sag, large and heavy tile, etc.
For the market of work we performed, wall mud was phasing out as I was coming into the trade. This was because cementitious backer boards were gaining more market share. My biggest recollection of wall mud was on Winn Dixie grocery stores. It was on a Winn Dixie store I had my first experience working a two-bag mixer at the age of 12. All of their walls were mud, probably 6,000 square feet. I remember my uncles being excited when my dad was able to get Winn Dixie to accept cement backer board as an alternative.
Now onto floor mud. For the last 20 years, we have been seeing less and less of this method being replaced with the thinset method. I think with the popularity of self-leveling underlayments (SLUs), we will see even less mud floors in the future.
We could also talk about how waterproofing has changed from the old sheets that did not want to conform to the bends and corners to now the more user-friendly, thinner sheets. Shoot, we have liquid waterproofing now that meets that same standards as sheet membranes and what we call “bondable waterproofing membranes” that we can apply tile directly to the waterproofing. Revolutionary I say! I remember making the comment, “They want us to stick to rubber?” Yep, that is what they said we could do.
Crack isolation membranes have come a long way, too. My initial experience in treating cracks and movement joints was a product called Ultra-Set. This stuff, you could not argue on its effectiveness in absorbing joint movements. But doggone, it didn’t make any difference how hard you tried, you could not keep it off of you, and once on you, it wasn’t coming off. Crack isolation membranes are now in sheet and liquid formats just like waterproofing membranes. Utilizing crack isolation membranes is basically a standard task for tile setters now and they are great products in the successful longevity of a tile installation.
Grouting materials have also evolved tremendously. Cementitious grouts are now designed to have less color inconsistencies and higher strength. Epoxy grouts are offered commonly as a hybrid epoxy and industrial grade. But let’s not forget that we no longer only have the choices of cementitious, epoxy and furan, but we now have “ready-to-use” grouts with components of acrylic and urethane. Each serve a particular purpose.
I would not be serving our industry justice if I did not point out the fact that, with all of these changing variables, that this also changes the level of knowledge a skilled tile craftsman or craftswoman needs. What makes a professional tile setter is the combination of three components: knowledge, skill and experience. The knowledge component has never been more critical. This is also why, as an industry led by the NTCA certification, is being driven to be a tradesman’s qualifier on his/her skill level. The Ceramic Tile Education Foundation is heavily certifying these tradesmen in the certifications of Ceramic Tile Installer, Gauged Porcelain Tile Panels/Slabs, grouts, membranes, large-format tile, showers and mud work. These certifications are recognized by union and non-union businesses. If you’re a tile professional, get certified today to show your skill level.
We could probably touch on several more topics of change within the tile industry. Being a tile professional, I could go on and on.
TILE: Is there a particular job you’ve completed that stands out? Why?
Owen: Through my career, there have been so many different metrics of projects that have been completed. There is not really one job that sticks out. However, there are several jobs that when I think back come to mind for a variety of reasons that have made me who I am today. Just to name a few. An indoor mall that I worked on in Orangeburg, SC, when I was 13 sticks out because it was my real first experience on a large project, out of town for two-week durations. Obviously, at 13, I only worked out of town when with my dad or uncles. An office building in North Atlanta's suburbs because it was my first experience mechanically anchoring exterior stone tile. A local school that I bid and won as I was starting out as an estimator -- only to have my dad reveal to me “why” I won that job. I have always said education costs money -- you’re going to pay for it one way or the other. So, recapping I would say there is not just one job that I take pride in. It has probably got more to do with taking pride in what we’ve done as a whole opposed to what I’ve done in one instance.
TILE: What are some common issues you have to deal with on the jobsite? How do you overcome them?
Owen: There are two common issues on the jobsite. One is the technical issues, the other is personnel politics. Let us just say the technical issues are a lot easier to deal with. Personnel politics is always an ego-driven metric game of “he said, she said” and it drives one crazy.
But, let us focus on the technical stuff like substrate issues, lighting concerns, tile shading and caliber issues, and trade sequencing problems. Typically, the technical issues can be dealt with reasonably. Substrate, lighting and utility issues can normally be best addressed with the general contractor by making a jobsite visit prior to the date you are to mobilize on site. In retrospect, the general contractor takes a dim view of you showing up the day you are to start and begins calling out deficiencies on their part. Tile shading and caliber issues are obviously part of the manufacturer and ordering arm. Proper planning and communication with the distributors and manufacturers can typically eliminate problems at the time of mobilization, which gains favor with your client.
Proper construction sequencing seems to be a common problem. When the construction process gets out of sequence and the general contractor begins trade stacking, the job then becomes a potential money pit. Documentation and political savviness begin showing one favor in these circumstances. It is unfortunate, but I always say there is one person on that jobsite to which their performance has a direct effect on my bottom line, but yet I have no control over, and I have no authority to discipline their actions. That person is the general contractor’s project superintendent. Choose your clients wisely.
Most of these issues with the builder, contractor or owner can be avoided with a preconstruction/pre-installation meeting with all parties involved to clarify any potential concerns.
Back to the personnel politics. This is something no one avoids unless they live in a silo. When this arises, the best method of dealing with it is to find the objective points of discussion and take the subjective out of the equation. We can argue points that are objective, that which is subjective no so much.
TILE: What are some steps you take to educate your customers about their tile installation before you begin?
Owen: Making sure the end user knows what to expect during the process and when the finished tile assembly is complete in terms of aesthetics and performance. This is important and will eliminate potential problems on the tail end. Providing them with performance information and maintenance instructions are just some of the information they will need. Obviously, it depends on the type of installation and environmental conditions the installation will be subject to as well. If a large floor is being installed with a rectified, polished porcelain tile in front of clear glass panels, facing direct west, you will want to educate that end user of potential shadowing and the false appearance of lippage prior to you installing tile and battling the concern on the back end. It is always best to identify potential issues that are out of your control and bring up these concerns on the front end. Certainly, putting them on paper for documentation purposes is in the best interest of all parties.
Our projects are all commercial, so typically the conversation roadmap takes us going through the general contractor and architect who represent the owner. Most people will make a claim that, 'Well, you do commercial and therefore your installation system is specified out.' That is true 99% of the time. But, what people do not understand is even though the architect will specify the process out, it does not relieve the tile professional from taking ownership and responsibility of that installation system once installed. If something is incorrect or will be prone to an installation failure, the tile professional can be subject to risk due to their negligence of informing the ownership team otherwise. Therefore, I try to be diligent in advising those involved up front in any necessary changes or concerns and document as necessary.
TILE: If you could lend any advice to professionals just beginning their careers, what would it be?
Owen: My recommendation is work underneath someone. Learn from a professional. Humble yourself and understand that even when you have been in this industry for 30 years, you will still be learning. Learn the proper methods of installation through an apprenticeship program or a mentorship-type training system. Learning the tile industry from the substrate up and understanding the field aspect from a hands-on experience provides insight for an individual that can be invaluable. With the proper attitude and organizational skills, a field person can have opportunities later in their career that could consist of an estimator position, project manager, technical rep, etc. But these paths take time. I mentioned earlier that education costs money. You can have someone else pay for your education in a mentorship-type program or you can pay for your education through failed experiences.
Another recommendation would be to get involved with the NTCA. The opportunities to learn and grow through your fellow peers is invaluable. Discussions of tile successes and failures in a non-competitive environment is monumental in growing and learning. Just as the Proverbs 27:17 states, “Just as iron sharpens iron, friends sharpen the minds of each other.” We all grow and learn from the interaction of others. Get involved!