I started my business, Accent Hardwood Flooring, here in Durham, N.C., in 1990 after leaving my dad’s business in Louisiana (Did I quit or I was fired? That may depend on who you ask). A few months ago, after more than three decades building my business, I sold it and officially retired at age 63. The plan now is for my wife, Becky, and I to do even more traveling than before, spend time with family, go snowboarding and do whatever else we want to do. Here are some things I learned over those decades running my business, and how I sold my business.
I relied on experts and made plans
I think a lot of people just don’t have any plan, but I’m a planner. I planned for my son’s college education, and I planned for retirement. I can’t count the number of people who have helped me through the years—I’m frugal, but it doesn’t pay to try to save money when you’re hiring accountants, CPAs, insurance brokers and so on.
I hired my accountant when I started the company, and she taught me a lot about money and how to plan with your money. Running my business day-to-day, the two things I paid attention to were her monthly statements and our accounts payable.
Another thing she did right away was set up the company with a SIMPLE retirement plan. I drew a paycheck from the company, and I always saved as much as was allowable from the company match on that plan. Becky was our secretary for many years, so she was able to save using that plan, too. When it gets taken out of your check automatically, you just don’t miss it.
I bought real estate
When times are good, I see a lot of contractors spending a lot of money. Well, when times are good, that’s when you buy real estate! After I had been in business about 10 years, working out of my garage, I decided it was time for me to stop working out of the house. So I bought a tiny little piece of property in downtown Durham for something like $37,000 and moved my business into it. It was the best investment ever, because eventually downtown Durham came back, and when it did, I had a piece of property on a block that a guy across the street wanted so he could have the whole block. It’s given me a big return in the long run, and it was part of my business plan.
Like I said, I’m frugal
Everybody who knows me will tell you how frugal I am. The only thing in my company that I ever bought on credit was my real estate; everything else I paid for as I got it. I’ve never borrowed money to buy a truck or this or that. I bought all my work vehicles and most of my personal vehicles from GSA auctions.
In our family, we have always lived below our means. When my son, Christopher, was growing up, I would never buy him drinks at restaurants. I would tell him, “If you want a drink, you have to buy it, including tax and tip.” One time he took a girl to the Homecoming dance, and when he got back, he said, “Not only did she get a drink, she got an appetizer!”
An offer to buy the business changed our lives
I made enough money to keep growing my business, and when Christopher was 8 and I was 45, this guy came in and offered to buy my company. It wasn’t enough to retire on, but it was a pretty good chunk of change. The offer made me think: What is it I really want to do? I was too young to retire. I decided what I really wanted to do was keep the business but travel more. So, we just started taking family vacations. I would plan these big vacations around Christmas time, because that’s the easiest time of year when you can take two or two-and-a-half weeks off.
The first big trip we ever took was to Egypt, and that was the most unbelievably fabulous trip in the world. We didn’t know anything; we just got this tour company off the internet, and they set everything up. They said there would be a tour guide and a driver for the tour group, and when we got there, it turned out the tour group was just me, Becky and Christopher. Since then we’ve traveled all over the world, from the Caribbean to Europe to South American to Africa and Southeast Asia. On one trip we went on safari in Tanzania, and on Christmas Eve, there in Africa, we ran into a customer of mine. Christopher got so used to hearing, “Are you Genia Smith’s son?” no matter where we went! I’ve done thousands of people’s floors, and they all seem to remember me (but I don’t remember most of their names!).
At first I would use calling cards to check in with the office, and now with global cell phone coverage, that made it a lot easier, because I could be available by phone—if I wanted to be. Believe it or not, the world didn’t fall apart when I took two or two-and-a-half weeks off. We also did smaller trips closer to home; one time we went snowboarding in West Virginia and came back owning a condo.
I prioritized my family
When you own a business, if you don’t have as much time in the day as you need, get up earlier in the morning. If you need to work 12 hours, that’s great—you can get up at 5 a.m. and be done by 5 p.m. I coached Christopher’s Little League baseball team for years; he played travel ball and we went all over. I went straight from work to baseball, and we figured out eating dinner whenever. You don’t get that time back—once it’s gone, it’s gone. It seems like yesterday I was dragging him around the trade show in a stroller, but he just turned 26.
I treated my guys well
I had 16 or 17 guys working for me at one time, and I always felt like I treated my guys well. A lot of my former employees still call me, or when I run into them they’re still happy to see me. I think they could tell that my family was important to me, and I recognized that their families were important to them—but we had a job to do. I was tough, but I was always fair to my guys. They made a living, and so did I.
When it came to customers, I always stood up for my guys. This is the hardest job that I know of: It’s dirty, it’s heavy, it’s smelly, you’ve got dust, and it’s tiring. There’s a lot to be said for people who choose to work in this industry, because sometimes it can be brutal work. I respect anybody that’s in this profession for any length of time. It takes a certain amount of grit, so to speak, to be in this business. I can’t stress enough that my company was the guys who worked for me.
How to get out?
I tried as best I could to keep Christopher in the wood flooring business; when he was 15 years old I paid him $20 an hour in the summertime to come to work, but he had seen there was a bigger world out there than the flooring business. After college he got a fellowship to study in China, and he got his Master’s and is currently working for Deloitte in the Pentagon on the Ukraine issue. So apart from the time I had a customer who was Chinese and didn’t speak much English and I called Christopher to interpret for us (I did get the job), I knew he wasn’t going to be involved in the business.
About five or six years ago I started thinking about retiring, but I had no idea what to do—no idea how to get out. Becky and I had so many conversations where we asked, “How are we going to do this?” The emphasis was on how we would do it without screwing our guys over, so they wouldn’t come to work and not have a job one day. We wanted someone who would come in and respect what we built, and take care of the people who have always taken care of us.
I talked with a lot of people, and we started with an expert business valuation, including an extensive inventory of everything the business owned. Selling the business turned out to be a slow process that happened over years. We ended up selling to a local wood flooring pro, Matt Poole, who began by coming to work in the business and gradually taking over. Over the last year I did less and less in the company while he did more and more. He started making a lot of changes way before we closed the sale, and I let him do that, because I remembered what it was like when I was supposed to take over my dad’s business ages ago: My dad didn’t like the way I was running things, and he said we were going to run it his way (and that’s when I quit or got fired, depending on the version of the story). So from my experience, I knew what it was like to try to come in and start running a business that was already established.
Leaving my dad’s business and starting our lives and the business here in Durham turned out to be the best thing that ever happened. It’s been a ride! Wood flooring had been good to me, and I always loved what I did. But I’m grateful that we started planning early so I could start retirement early, too.