Best Practices: Lakeland, Florida-based Sunshine Interiors - February 2023
By Jessica Chevalier
Father Dennis Harrison and his sons Dino and Darren are the proprietors of Lakeland, Florida-based Sunshine Interiors, a small-in-staff but mighty flooring and window coverings operation that grosses $3 million annually. The business serves both residential and commercial flooring clients with a staff of only two-besides the Harrisons-leaning heavily into its ethos as a longtime local family business and buoyed by high word-of-mouth reviews.
In spring 2022, Darren was thrust into the national spotlight when he successfully piloted and landed a chartered Cessna after the pilot lost consciousness, and while the fame that followed offered Darren potential new career paths, he decided that the flooring industry is where he wants to stay.
After graduating from college, Dennis Harrison spent several years in Sears & Roebuck’s window covering department before stepping out on his own in 1974 to open Sunshine Draperies. It was a family business even then, with Dennis handling sales and installation and Dino and Darren’s mother, Susan, sewing the curtains and draperies in their home.
In 1982, seeing opportunities in flooring, Dennis expanded the business into that category and renamed it Sunshine Interiors. In addition, he purchased property and constructed the building in which the operation still resides. At the time, the location was off the beaten path, but that has changed drastically. “The road was just short of being dirt back then,” says Darren. “Today, the traffic count in front of the business is ridiculous-it’s one of busiest areas of town. Amazon moved its Southeastern hub to the Lakeland Airport. Home Depot, Ace Hardware and Rooms To Go all have distribution facilities here. Lowe’s is building a warehouse. And that’s all within a three-mile radius of the store.”
In the early 1990s, the company also sold furniture as a Norwalk dealer, but moved out of that business when Norwalk went direct-to-consumer, eager to regain the retail floorspace that the furniture ate up.
The Harrison family naturally fell into differentiated roles within the company, and allowing each individual to steer their own ship has been a successful strategy for the trio. Dino runs the window treatment business. Darren is in charge of flooring. And Dennis oversees the big picture. The window covering and flooring departments might coordinate logistics on a job, but otherwise, they operate independently. “We stay in our lanes and don’t babysit each other,” says Darren.
However, that doesn’t mean that the business operates in silos. Dennis, Dino and Darren meet Tuesdays without fail to discuss every aspect of the business. “That’s the policy,” says Darren.
While Dennis is of retirement age, he has no interest in stepping away or even slowing down, and more often than not, after getting to the office at 6:30 a.m., it’s Dennis who locks the store up at the day’s end. Reports Darren, “Dad loves talking to people and managing things. He oversees everything and jumps in when one of us needs help,”
On the flooring side of the business, Darren largely focuses on expanding the company’s commercial work, which accounts for about 80% of flooring sales. While commercial jobs have “a lot of moving parts,” according to Darren, “We strive to perform and to file as few change orders as possible.”
Darren especially appreciates the relationships he has built in the commercial market. “I have a close circle of friends that do commercial contract work for a living, and it’s fun because I’m interacting with friends.” Sunshine Interiors’ commercial projects include mainstreet commercial jobs, as well as work across the commercial segments. The company does not do epoxy or terrazzo work.
In the retail showroom, Sunshine Interiors stocks LVT, hardwood, laminate, ceramic and many types of carpet, with the exception of the very high end and wools. The company has the capability to serge area rugs but says the service isn’t frequently utilized.
A ROOTED REPUTATION
At present, all Sunshine Interiors’ marketing is word of mouth. The company does no formal outreach, but in the process of developing long-term plans for the business, the leadership team is deciding how it wants to proceed with marketing. “How do we want to attack this? Where do we want to go?” asks Darren.
Darren has taken note of a new generation coming into the store and has noticed a similar trend on the commercial side, as well. “I’m finding that my dad’s customers’ kids are becoming my customers,” he notes.
Whatever way the company decides to go with its marketing strategy, it will highlight its unique strengths: its longevity and presence in the same community for 40 years, under the same ownership. “Not a lot of people can say that, especially after the recession of 2008. A lot of companies didn’t make it. We got lean and mean,” recalls Darren, who notes that, to minimize costs, the family eliminated lawn service at the store and Dennis cut the grass, while Darren added warehouse management to his list of duties.
Darren believes the roots Sunshine Interiors has grown in the community inspire a remarkable level of commitment and trust from customers. “We stand behind what we sell and focus on being able to perform, to live up to what we commit to. It’s rare that we don’t make our deadlines,” he says, adding, “There are times when a customer will hand us their keys and go to the beach, saying ‘Send us some pictures.’ We have been around for a long time. People know who we are, and we have a reputation for being trustworthy.”
If Darren’s name or face is familiar, that’s likely because you saw him on the national news last May when the pilot of the single-engine Cessna charter plane he was a passenger in went unconscious, and both the flying and landing of the aircraft fell to Darren, who had no flight experience whatsoever.
Flying from Marsh Harbor, Bahamas to Fort Pierce, Florida, the aircraft was still more than 30 minutes from landing when the pilot became incapacitated due to a medical event. Looking out the window, Darren-who, moments earlier, had been lounging barefoot in the rear of the plane-realized immediately that the plane was in a nosedive, with the ocean in close view out the right-hand window.
Darren thought of his wife, Brittany, who was seven months pregnant with their first child. Brittany’s sister had recently lost her husband when she was six months pregnant, and Darren knew the family could not endure another similar tragedy.
Darren reached over the pilot and gently pulled the yoke and was ultimately guided to fly and land the plane by an air traffic controller.
Successfully doing what seemed impossible and saving the three lives aboard the plane, Darren was thrust into the national spotlight with profiles by high-profile media, such as the “Today” show and People magazine.
After the event, Darren considered whether he wanted to use his fame to catapult him into a speaking career, but concluded, “I’m self-employed, running a family business, with a new baby at home. I enjoy what I do. I live comfortably. At the end of the day, the one thing you can’t get back is time; leaving my family to go out to speaking events isn’t something I want to do.”
Darren, however, notes that both his priorities and nature have changed as a result of the event. While he used to go hunting or fishing every weekend, he now stays closer to home to have more time with his wife and baby. And once a self-described “hot head,” he now has a better view for what’s worth getting upset about and what’s not.
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