Like many wood flooring contractors, I grew up in the business. I learned the trade from my dad, who had learned it from his dad. I was running sanding machines by the time I was a teenager, and as soon as I could drive, I was getting out of school early to work on jobs for my dad's business. My dad was a great teacher, and he gave me a great foundation of knowledge.
I worked in my dad's company until a few years ago, when I relocated and partnered with my brother, who is also in the business. I realized that although we were doing quality work for higher-end customers, I had been in it all my life, and I was finding the work boring and monotonous.
Then about two years ago I went to my first NWFA school, and I loved it. I came home super-motivated. I realized there was so much more to the industry; I could not believe how little I actually knew after having more than 20 years of experience. I learned new techniques for board replacement, how to use slivers instead of filler, new ways to start installations, and I also learned about different products that I hadn't been exposed to.
The school really motivated me to just try to be better. After realizing there was so much that I didn't know, it created an appetite to learn even more and to dig deeper. That's when I went to the NWFA Expert Sand & Finish School in St. Louis. I made a lot of important connections at that school with instructors, and I even learned things from the other students at the school that I have applied to my jobs and my business—just simple things that I had never thought about.
For me, the most important part of the Expert School was forming a great relationship with one of the contractor instructors who I now consider my mentor in the wood flooring industry. I was able to go on an actual job site with him, and now I call him on a regular basis.
My mentor relationship has given me a whole new avenue of getting insight, information and advice. It also motivates me to try to do better work, because there's no way I would want to put out work that wouldn't be up to the standards of my mentor.
It also works well because we don't work in the same area of the country. I think long-distance mentor relationships are best, because there are no competitive feelings between the two people. It's much easier to give somebody information when you know he isn't going to try to come in and take a job from you—he's halfway across the country; what does he care? It also helps because people do things differently in different parts of the country, and different products are popular in different parts of the country. Something I don't get a lot of exposure to here in North Carolina might be very popular in, say, Chicago. So, I'm more apt to get good feedback and information from outside my area.
I'm still learning to ask for all the help I can. For example, on a recent job, we installed exotic wood, and the customers were adamant that we use a certain finish I had never used before. I followed the instructions on the finish can to a T, but I had a finish failure. It turned out that there were a couple steps that weren't printed on the can, and that caused the failure. I talked with my mentor afterwards, and he was familiar with the product. I realized that a 20-minute phone call with him beforehand could have saved me two or three days correcting a finish failure.
I've enjoyed and appreciated the connections I made at the NWFA schools so much that I became a volunteer instructor at the schools. Before, I was in my own little world here, but this experience has created a totally different vibe and fueled a fire for me in the industry. Now I have people to bounce ideas off of, and it keeps things fresh. Lots of times contractors think they know everything or they don't have the time or money to educate themselves, but it's something that shouldn't be overlooked by any contractor; it has made a world of difference to me.