In this edition, we sat down with Kristan Blanchard, sales representative for tile and stone installation systems in Northern California and Nevada at Ardex Americas, and former owner/general contractor/tile setter at Blanchard Remodeling, LLC. Follow Kristan on Instagram @Norcal.Ardex.Tile, on Facebook @Norcal.Ardex.Tile and catch him active in many industry Facebook groups.

TILE: How did you first get involved in the tile industry? Please explain a little bit more about yourself.

Blanchard: I got involved in the tile industry due to necessity, really. Call it evolution maybe, but I had to produce to provide and I determined that tile was a niche opportunity. I habitually refuse to back down from much of anything, so I dove in headfirst.

I grew up mostly alone. My siblings were much older and I had much older parents. We were low income and lived on old farmland that my grandfather purchased and built his homestead on. I grew up with a hammer in my hands, as opposed to playing games or going to friends’ houses or sports games. I worked a lot with my father on all kinds of projects. I spent as much time alone as I could, so I became moderately handy at a lot of things, though none were tile-related.

I enlisted into the United States Marine Corps just prior to high school graduation. I always had a natural draw to law enforcement. My loosely laid plan was to serve my two deployments, then transition into Marine Security Guard duty at various U.S. Embassies overseas. That led me to working alongside other federal law enforcement agencies for three years and then allowed me to establish connections and experience that I could utilize to leave active duty and spend my career in the FBI or DEA, etc. Well, two combat tours to Iraq changed a lot of things. I decided to take my honorable discharge from active duty and pursued a business management degree, later changing to a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

I got married and my daughter was born while in college. I needed to start producing immediately. I spent nearly three years applying at more than a dozen different law enforcement agencies — with interviews, fitness testing and even chiefs’ interviews in front of the city council. It was an immensely stressful period of my life.

While I continued to pursue this career path fruitlessly, I was simultaneously working at various apartment complexes, managing the property and doing maintenance. On any given day, I would be painting, replacing hot water heaters, hanging new drywall, repairing appliances, installing flooring or completing electrical work.
 

TILE: Are you a company owner? If so, what were some reasons for starting your own business?

Blanchard: In the following years, I continued to gain experience in remodeling. I got my first general contractors license in Oregon and started my own company, Blanchard Remodeling, LLC. I worked around-the-clock to outfit the trailer and organize each of my tools, while also trying to get leads to any job that would pay for researching costs and bid software. In essence, I did what I had to do. I took a lot of risks; I made a lot of big moves, including literal moves from state to state.

I tried to network with anyone and everyone, and sometimes I took jobs that I did not really want to take. I subscribed to some notorious lead generation services, posted Craigslist advertisements (which had to contain a state license number or they would be flagged and reported to the state) and scoured Craigslist for leads, used Facebook and Instagram, and spoke to just about anyone asking if they needed any construction work done. I helped frame large custom homes on golf courses, painted houses in the wintertime, put in hardwood flooring, built decks over steep embankments, miscellaneous punch-list work and of course some odds-and-ends tile jobs came my way, too. I quickly learned the attention to minute detail and exact measuring, and the other framing skills I was taught lent a great deal to my detailed and precise tilework.

I saw how underserved the tile market was in my area in Oregon -- it was really a niche market -- so I doubled down on tile and started doing about 80% tilework from then on out. I read every bag and consulted with many manufacturers on social media (through my business Instagram account, though I never knew a rep). I focused constantly on honing in my measurements and cut ability to the point of being able to either cut along the line or split the line with the wet saw blade.

Eventually, I was worn out. I took a lead for a tile setter position for a fabrication shop in Northwestern Washington and I moved my family up there to work for someone else, again. It did not pan out after a few months, so I started my business again and earned my Washington general contractors license within a few weeks. I went out to hunt, but now without any infrastructure, support or long-time connections. I wish I could say I was part of the NTCA or the TCNA, but I was being taught by a master setter to spot-set and level with my hands spread in a rocking motion and mix my thinset relative to the different consistencies of peanut butter.

I did my very best at the time, but looking back now with all the learning and connections I have made since, I must laugh at how much I did not understand about an installation procedure. Now, I recognize the immense value in branching out. I can see how intrinsic constant education should be to the entire tile industry, not just the installer. I value this experience because it gives me critical insight to how the technical aspects of a job should be expected to be completed and how the interpersonal dynamics on jobs really play out.

I quickly found success growing my business in Washington -- far faster than I had in Oregon -- and I started hiring people to help. I decided I needed to do everything above-board and even got to the point of having real employees on payroll, purchasing heavy equipment and taking ever more complicated and more expensive jobs.

Frankly, I could outbid and outsell my technical skillset. It was a rewarding time, but each day was wrought with that overwhelming anxiety of fearing the other foot will come crashing down violently at any hour, and my life and my business would be put through the ringer. It was a heck of a motivator to sharpen my skills on each installation. In fear of not knowing something, I kept working to exponentially improve my technical skills. Even if I bid a job that was simple, I would work to upsell it and turn it into something much more complicated. I kept pursuing larger jobs and piling them on top of each other. I grew my business too fast and suffered setbacks that taught me a very valuable lesson, hard.

Severe carpel tunnel symptoms caught up with me about the same time when my business was falling apart. A doctor told me, bluntly, that I had to stop aggravating it or I would not be able to change the TV remote by the time I was 40. It was December of 2017 and I was about to turn 31 years old.

After serious consideration, I started with wedi Corp in February of 2018 as the Northern California rep. I started teaching wedi classes and attending expos up and down the West Coast, which got me invited into the “Mud” group on Facebook; I invaded Mud2 (the only customer-organized and driven industry event on the West Coast that I am aware of) in Fresno, CA, with my foam shower demos. From there, social media engagement and in-person engagement went hand-in-hand. I made a lot of noise in that position and I took the opportunity to learn at any event I possibly could. I networked every single day with as many people as I could meet.

These connections eventually lead me to Ardex Americas and into the Northern California tile and stone installation systems representative position, where I have been since September of 2019. I have been blessed to continue expounding my exposure to the industry and technical training. I am constantly teaching and constantly learning. I know this is far from the traditional career progression in this industry, but I am absolutely thrilled by the challenge. I love it.

TILE: Has the tile industry changed much since you first started? If so, in what ways?

Blanchard: Absolutely. The processes we use to complete our installation, our interactions with the other industry members and the ways we learn our craft are all changing at a break-neck pace. It can be very difficult to keep up with.

The growth mindset is a fundamental undercurrent to the vast majority of my interactions in this industry. I find there has been opportunity for fine-tuning or sometimes even a total overhaul of a particular job, just about every time I get involved in one. I am not a fan of stagnation; change is life. I think there is a lot of merit in “extreme ownership.”

Ever since I began teaching wedi classes in California (what I quickly found to be the “mud Mecca” of America), I have done nothing but push the envelope for change. I have taken extreme ownership over Northern California as it pertains to my employer. These efforts have also bled over into territories across the country, allowing me to build relationships across the industry. This semi-global networking is part of the changes I see daily happening on social media.

From my point of view, I observe this massive meld of folks who learned in a more linear, siloed environment (such as an apprenticeship or with the Union) with the new generation of installers like me, who have learned in an open manner; like sponges from anyone and everyone, but without an apprenticeship or Union training. I think the most impactful change I have witnessed is a mutual respect that often builds between these two camps and yields magnificent results for the industry, both socially and productively. It is extremely exciting to watch the results of these two forces’ collision.

I see guys like Adam Christiansen, who has a great career in tile, delving head first into uncharted territory with gauged porcelain tile panel/slabs (“GPTP” or “super-format”) installations, and pushing the envelope of standards and products with manufacturers and other contractors and clients. This segment of the two industries (tile and stone, and the solid surface fabrication industries) is akin to the Wild, Wild West. People like Adam are pioneering this new niche market. There are certainly a handful of other industry players in this same very small circle as Adam. There’s so much ground to be discovered; it’s exciting to watch the moves being made.

I think the power of our industry on the internet is ubiquitous and I believe 2020’s plight with COVID-19 has only further cemented this in both the installer/fabricator side of the industry and the manufacturer’s side.

Now stepping back from the frame of the melting pot of the old and new generations, from a top-down view, trends are changing in parallel to manufacturer’s increased production ability. Design choices have become more intricate with more complicated materials, and when the design choice changes, it has this snowball effect down the chain to the installer, which then funnels through the various levels of manufacturers and industry organizations like the TCNA. I think these trends are affected by global movements in products, standards and the natural desire for manufacturers to improve existing markets and develop new markets. This race has really changed the landscape of the tile industry much more rapidly then for the previous generations of installers.

Now, we have this perfect storm. The difficulty of tile installations increasing exponentially (design has increased difficulty, preparation requirements and systems have become significantly more robust and the setting materials are vastly more complicated and specific now than they were in 1990 -- and to make it more challenging, as these tiles become larger in format, they become more particular to install), along with the channels in which installers learn are also changing rapidly. All the while, manufacturers are doing their job and developing new products to achieve new and sometimes even better results, a process by which its very nature is a disruption. It creates this almost poetic clash of titans of force. Its Darwin’s principles at work: adapt or cease to exist. It is exhilarating for me to be a part of, constantly pushing. “Disruption = Growth.”

TILE: Is there a particular job you have completed that stands out? Why?

Blanchard: From my installer days, my favorite job (and essentially my most challenging job looking back) was for a wealthy couple who owned a local maintenance company. The theme of the entire house was coastal. It was a small house, very custom, and everything very high-end.

I was hired to take care of their master bathroom shower, as they had a local shop designer in-tow who had some wonderful, but technically very difficult ideas, and the general contractor (who was a family friend) was not remotely comfortable doing that tilework. I captured this job (part of my pride comes from the fact that I won the job against a competing bid for the fabrication shop I worked for previously) and it evolved into doing all the tile in the house, including heated floors. I then took the opportunity to install the engineered hardwood throughout and true hardwood on the stairs. This was my first and only significant opportunity to work with transparent colored glass subway tiles, through four walls, with an island, a ton of outlets, a large window needing to be wrapped and daylight LED under-cabinet lighting.

There were a seemingly infinite number of missteps on the job: clashes with the designer over what was technically correct versus her design language, issues with other trades installing electrical boxes one foot in the wrong direction, cash flow issues from the homeowners -- all the usual job dilemmas. When I left the job, I realized I really gave it every ounce of me. It was a growth spurt, full of high pressure. I took a few scars away from it, but I did thrive. I feel like I earned that job.

TILE: What are some common issues you must deal with on the jobsite? How do you overcome them?

Blanchard: Right off the top of my head, I would say many new people I meet have a general lack of awareness to industry standards or just reading the product packaging. I combat a general resistance to change from nearly everyone who I have not broken that mold with yet, which ties in directly to the second most common obstacle I must overcome: people being resistant to advice from me. I am young, I work for a manufacturer or maybe they just do not know me yet. I must prove myself, constantly. It’s almost like clockwork at this point. I can count on it and I can predict the way it will play out. I even start to have fun with it.

I am an Ardex tile and stone installation systems sales representative. People know that. However, I feel that what I really do is often misunderstood. In truth, I (directly) “sell” products to a few dozen people (companies) in my territory (my distributors) and I provide constant technical support to everyone else (sometimes, well outside of my territory).

Going back to it being like clockwork much of the time, installers stand back, far enough away from me to make sure I understand I am not in their circle. Eventually, they start to realize I am not asking them to buy anything, but instead I am solving the problems they have already shared with me, and sometimes, I even illuminate problems they were not aware of or were about to have, and then I solve those, too. Once I can establish that rapport and they see I have value, we start forming a mutually beneficial relationship, where we learn from each other and focus on sharing industry experiences and knowledge, and communication really opens. Now we are back to “Disruption = Growth.”

TILE: What are some steps you take to educate your customers about their tile installation before you begin?

Blanchard: I always start with a phone call to initiate the process. Sometimes they come to me, and most of the time, that is through social media. Either way, I start by asking questions and listening to build a picture of the installation. Then I walk them through a comparison and contrast of the installation as it stands, or as they are proposing it to be, to industry and manufacturer specifications. In cases where the install is not straightforward or it is particularly sensitive, I bring the details (and sometimes even the installer) to Ardex’s technical department and we have a higher-level technical discussion. I learn a lot from these engagements, too, so they are immensely valuable.

Of course, Ardex has formal classes and many of these classes have hands-on time. These opportunities are great for establishing a baseline expectation and informing the installers with how much information is out there, and perhaps what they do not know. I find that even if the installer does not retain all the technical data we teach, when it is time for them to do that work, a question mark goes off in their head and they realize there is something here they need to delve into further -- and that is the critical juncture where they reach out to me. I see a lot of success at this point.

TILE: If you could lend any advice to professionals just beginning their careers, what would it be?

Blanchard: I would tell anyone just starting out or with 20 years into the business to network, engage in constant learning and call your rep. Be a sponge. Gain as much exposure to as many variables and facets of the industry as possible. Break those silos down. Be likeable. Be humble. Be malleable. Fear stagnation, not failure. Implement change, often, and truly hunger for knowledge.

I learned something very valuable from my former teammate, Art Boyd. When we conducted classes together, he always had a habit of saying, “No matter what you take away from today, take my card. It is the single most valuable piece of information I will teach you today. Take my card. Call me.” We are all a team, the same team -- so call your rep.