Best Practices: Certified Finishes is a good partner to both customers and Mother Earth - Feb 2018
By Jessica Chevalier
Friends Mark Hutto and David Dendy started Certified Finishes, an Atlanta-based commercial contracting firm, in 2004 and saw their revenues grow by more than 40% last year. The reasons for this success are many, of course, but Mark attributes the achievement to the business’ overarching mission of being a good partner-to its customers, its associates and even Mother Earth.
BUILDING A BUSINESS
Both Hutto and Dendy had flooring industry experience prior to opening Certified Finishes. Hutto joined Shaw Contract after graduating from Georgia Tech. After serving Shaw for nine years, he transitioned to Blue Ridge Carpet Mills, where he put in another five. David Dendy grew up in the business-or at least around it-his family owning LaFayette, Georgia-based Dye and Chemical (today, Dixie Color), which serves the carpet industry, and worked at the firm for 12 years prior to opening Certified Finishes.
The pair started Certified Finishes in a small location in Smyrna, Georgia doing primarily what Hutto calls “corporate rehab work.” “We had some relationships in the commercial real estate field, so we started out doing upgraded tenant work-20,000-ish square foot spaces in class A properties. That was a foray into the business,” Hutto explains.
Today, Certified Finishes has spread its wings, employing 42 individuals in three divisions: Atlanta, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Orlando, Florida. In addition, the Georgia office moved from Smyrna to the trendy Upper West Side of Atlanta, with a 52,000 square foot location-that includes a 4,000 square foot showroom-in the heart of the city’s design district. “We’re the only commercial flooring contractor in the city limits,” says Hutto. “Here, we’re closer to our jobs and the design community, and we feel that we really got some traction by being closer to our customers.”
Certified Finishes’ expansions to Charleston and Orlando-opening in 2012 and in mid-2016, respectively-were based on the need that they saw in those markets, and though the three locations are fairly disparate, Hutto reports that there is a great deal of synergy between them. “We’ve been very fortunate and experienced tremendous growth in all three markets,” says Hutto. “In addition, we now have an expanded labor reach, and we can share some labor, which addresses the biggest challenge facing everyone in the contract flooring world. We’ve also found a lot of good synergy from the experience of the individuals we’ve hired in those different markets. Our Florida team, for example, does a lot of hospitality work, and they’re very good at it, and that has helped us spring more into that field in Atlanta.”
Today, Certified Finishes is about 50/50 hard surface to soft surface, with porcelain tile a significant growth area. “Our tile business has absolutely gone crazy,” says Hutto. “We’ve seen huge growth in the last 12 months. We attribute some of that to growth in different segments. But mainly, it’s harder work, and we have a good reputation for not backing away from harder work. We’ve developed an excellent labor force with tile, and we are known for being able to perform.”
The company’s tile repertoire includes gauged porcelain, and Certified Finishes reports that it is seeing use of the material increasing annually. Certified Finishes has taken advantage of manufacturer and distributor training programs for gauged porcelain installation to get its team up to speed with the material. Says Hutto, “Customers love it. They love fewer grout lines. But it scares contractors who haven’t worked with it before. It’s tough to handle, tough to get into buildings, very expensive if you break one. We’ve worked through a lot of that.”
HONING A REPUTATION
Hutto believes that the key to Certified Finishes’ success is the team’s cooperative approach. “We strive to be easy to work with. We know that construction is an imperfect world, so we try to look at our customers and see their challenges,” he explains. “Flooring contractors enter the construction process at a critical time; the completion dates aren’t moving back when we get there, and, due to that, we have to work in difficult situations sometimes. In those imperfect situations, you can complain and throw up your arms in protest, or you can work through it. That’s how you become a true partner to your customers. At the end of the day, after all, we’ll hopefully be working together on another project. It’s about constantly earning the right to be there.”
Hutto takes a similarly proactive approach with his installation team, which is a mix of employees and subs. “No commercial project is going to go 100% smoothly, and they need to know that we’re in it together,” he notes, explaining that this often involves making financial concessions. If a crew leader brings ten installers to a job site, and there isn’t enough work to go around, the crew can’t always be expected to take the hit. Instead, Hutto seeks to build a partnership in which both he and his crews benefit, and he believes this approach has helped him attract and retain good installers.
As for in-office staff, Hutto desires strongly to provide opportunity to those who have helped make Certified Finishes successful and sees expansion of the business as a way to offer these individuals that upward mobility. “We want this to be a great place to work,” he says, “and we want there to be opportunity for people who have helped get us where we are today. If that leads to further expansion in other markets, we’ll consider it. We want our people to have good opportunity.” For now, the entrepreneur believes there is plenty of possibility within the business’ existing markets.
Though he is nowhere near ready to hand over the reins, Hutto believes that the evolution of his role in the business-both Certified Finishes and the larger industry-has reached a tipping point. Hutto long saw himself as a “son” to some of the older, more experienced contractors in the business and set out to learn everything he could from them. But, nearing age 50, Hutto sees his role changing to some degree, “I see myself staying in this business for quite a long time and will start having to share my sensei knowledge with the younger generation soon.” He believes this as especially important given the brain drain that the industry is experiencing in both the labor and business segments. “We have low turnover at Certified Finishes, but as our business is growing, it’s been a challenge to find individuals from younger generations to come into industry,” Hutto reports. “We need to strive to make this a field people want to come into. We can only do so much with the people we have; we need new talent. Young people coming out of a classic college situation might not view the flooring business as glamorous, but it’s a great way to make a living. It’s a challenging business; it’s strategic; it’s not a cookie cutter corporate environment. I believe people want to be challenged, but we have to get the message out about what a career in the flooring industry really is: it’s a fun business where you can make a really good living, and it isn’t going away.”
DOING ITS PART
Certified Finishes has an active carpet tile reclamation program that has diverted between 2.5 and three million pounds of carpet tile to date. The business not only collects tile from its own jobs but will also-for free-collect tile from jobs on which it is not working.
Some manufacture partners-such as Shaw, Interface and Tandus Centiva-offer a small return for reclaimed product. Product that is not returned to the manufacturer is used in a multitude of ways. In some cases, Certified Finishes cleans the tile through an in-house process and repurposes it for another use, often charitable. In other cases, the commercial contractor reuses the tile in another way, such as for floor protection on a job site.
Hutto believes that the program has helped reinforce Certified Finishes’ brand and has opened quite a few doors as well. International Interior Design Association (IIDA) Georgia hosts an event called ZeroLandfill Atlanta each year, and due to its involvement with reclamation, IIDA contacted Hutto about holding the 2017 edition at Certified Finishes.
ZeroLandfill Atlanta enables design and construction professionals to offer their unwanted materials to educators, non-profit associations, artists and crafters. The event took place at Certified Finishes over two weekends last August, and the commercial contactor will serve as host again in 2018. “It was a really great way to get our name out within a segment that we aren’t calling on every day,” says Hutto.
Certified Finishes sees its new large space as a boon and looks for ways to maximize its use. For example, the business sectioned off a portion to rent to an independent furniture agent and also partnered with J+J reps to host a holiday party in the showroom. “We look at the space as a way to promote collaboration and build brand awareness, and it has worked beautifully,” says Hutto. “Being so close to Dalton, we seek to position ourselves as a consultant to the industry. Do we see immediate business from that role all the time? No, but it’s a constant reaffirming of our position within the market.”