Focus on Leadership: Darren Hearns leads Great Lakes Carpet & Tile with a focus on service – April 2022

Interview by Kemp Harr

Darren Hearns, president of Great Lakes Carpet & Tile, is a second-generation flooring retailer, working alongside his siblings, Daniel and Dawn. Great Lakes, a National Floorcovering Alliance member, comprises five retail locations, including Classic Wood Flooring of Rockledge, Florida, which the firm acquired from Don and Julie Herndon in January 2022. In addition to retail, Great Lakes has a strong builder business, providing flooring for a large, Florida-based adult living community, The Villages, among others.

In addition to running Great Lakes, Hearns, a pilot by training, serves in the Air Force Reserves and has also been a member of the National Floorcovering Alliance leadership board.

His wife, Donita, is a Registered Nurse. Together, they have a son, 26, who works for Lockheed Martin; a daughter, 24, who works as an illustrator; and another daughter, who is a senior in high school.

Q: Why did your parents move their flooring business from Michigan to Florida?
My father started as a salesperson with New York Carpet World; he was based in Royal Oak, Michigan. Eventually, he and my mother decided to move to northern Michigan, where they started Great Lakes Carpet & Tile-originally Bellaire Carpet & Tile. For a while, my brother, Daniel, helped them in that store, but then, and after 25 years in the small town of Bellaire, Michigan, they decided to retire to Ocoee, Florida, which is a suburb of Orlando, and they closed the Michigan store.

After about a year of retirement in Florida, they got an opportunity to get back in the business as a flooring contractor with The Villages, Florida. The Villages is the largest single-site developer in the U.S., a privately held company owned by the Morris family. There are currently 140,000 folks who live in The Villages, with enough land remaining to build the same number of homes they have already built. You can basically get to any part of The Villages by golf cart. I liken it to Disney World for adults because basically anything residents want to do, they can do there. We are one of five flooring contractors for The Villages, and we do somewhere between 35% and 40% of their business.

Q: You are the second generation in your family to run an independent flooring business. Tell us about your decision to follow in your father’s footsteps.
When I graduated from high school, I decided to join the Air Force. After serving for four years, I wanted to become a commercial pilot. I attended Southern Illinois University and received my associate’s degree in aviation flight, bachelor’s in aviation management and my commercial multi-engine and airline transport certificates. I started off flying Cessna 152s and 172s, then moved on to multi-engine aircrafts.

I stayed on with the university as a flight instructor and then taught at another community college in the St. Louis area. I decided to move to Florida to help out in the family business, while still continuing as a flight instructor at a local airport. After a while, I realized my father’s health was failing and he needed more help with running the business. He spent about two years teaching me the business before his passing in 1998.

Q: You are one of three siblings working in the same business. How do you make that work? How do you divvy up the responsibilities?
My brother, Daniel, works in commercial estimating. My sister, Dawn, works in outside sales and marketing. Running a family business has its challenges, but I have always preached separating family from business. Each of us understands our role in the company and we work together to achieve our goals for the company. If there are disagreements, we try to work through them without it affecting our personal relationship as siblings and family.

Q: Tell me about the current profile of Great Lakes’ retail business.
Great Lakes is made up of five retail locations, three that are serviced out of our corporate office, from which we also run our installations for The Villages. Our Castleberry location has its own crews and warehouse, as does our recent acquisition, Classic Wood Flooring in Rockledge.

Q: How did the acquisition of Classic Wood Flooring come about?
Don and Julie Herndon have owned Classic Wood Flooring for 30 years, and I have known them for over 20 from distributor trips we went on together. All those years, we’ve kept in contact. They wanted to retire and approached me about the possibility of buying the business. Eventually, the stars aligned, and we did. The acquisition should increase our annual revenue, which last year was over $30 million, by roughly 12% initially.

We will keep the Classic Wood Flooring name because of its reputation in that area, but incorporate the business into our system and way of doing things.

Q: What do you think sets Great Lakes apart from the businesses it competes with? What are its guiding principles?
We try to create the best overall experience for our customers shopping for flooring, cabinets, countertops, area rugs and window treatments by giving them a one-stop shopping experience. I believe first impressions are very important, and our showrooms are organized, inviting and well laid out compared to our competition. It is important to have experienced and professional sales associates to ensure that our customers have an unforgettable experience.

My father created a slogan, “Service is not just a word but a way of life,” which we live by. In fact, we have it written on our business cards. Our core values are respect, loyalty, teamwork and customer service.

Q: How engaged do you get with consumers and builder clients that have hired your firm?
As the company has grown, I have hired a general manager and sales manager to oversee the day-to-day operations and interact directly with the consumer to ensure they have the best experience possible. In the event that they want to speak with the owner, I am more than willing to speak to them directly to address their concerns. I am more actively involved with the builder clients and try to meet with them on a weekly basis to review our performance and see what areas we can improve upon.

Q: How do you work with your installers to make sure they are good representatives of your company’s philosophy?
First of all, we screen our installers, who are subcontractors, to see if they are well-suited to deal with customers. We try to make sure we have installers who are clean-cut and professional, who will represent the company properly.

We have an installation manager who schedules the jobs and calls the customers the day before to remind them of their installation. On the day of, we have a field supervisor who goes out and discusses any issues the customer might have, and we monitor progress throughout the install. After the installation is complete, we have an employee go by to inspect the home and make sure the customer is happy, so while subcontractor installers are doing the work, our staff is managing the entire process.

Q: To what do you attribute the successful growth of your family’s business?
We wouldn’t have the success we do without our employees and subcontractors. We always want to make sure we are letting our people do what they do best and not micromanage them. We give them the training they need, then monitor any issues that come up. Some of our employees have been with us over 20 years and have been instrumental in our growth.

We currently have 94 employees, 14 of those coming from our acquisition of Classic Wood Flooring.

Q: What have been the biggest challenges to your business over the last two years, and how have you handled them?
Obviously Covid-19 has been a huge challenge. With that have come supply chain issues and the struggle to find good help-people who want to work.

To add to that, business has been booming, and it has been difficult to fully take advantage of that growth because of the constraints with supply and employees. Now, we have inflation and price increases on top of everything else.

Q: How important is it to hire the right people? How do you know at the onset?
First and foremost, we look for someone who will be a good fit with our culture, who shows an interest in the company and in wanting to work. I don’t have a magic formula for always finding the right person-sometimes people do well in interviewing, and it still doesn’t work out.

With staff, we try to continually hire. We have had success with word-of-mouth recommendations from employees. We’ve had a little success with recruiting firms. But, ultimately, the shortage has put a lot of pressure on our personnel, requiring them to work longer hours sometimes and handle additional duties.

Last week, we had two interviews set up and neither interviewee showed up or called. This has been happening for a few years, but it seems like with Covid it’s gotten worse.

Interestingly, on the installation side, there hasn’t been a critical shortage for us. Not all flooring retailers in our area have been as busy as we have, so we have benefited from installers looking for work.

Q: How do you mentor a staff member if he or she has fallen off board?
We always try to address the issue as soon as possible. Often, I find that conflict or poor performance are a result of a misunderstanding, and we can get people on track with just a sit-down.

Q: Who would you consider to be your mentors and what have they taught you?
My dad was a mentor for me, of course. I’m a very detail-oriented person and kind of sensitive in that regard. He taught me to be patient and not so serious.

After that, my supervisor in the Air Force during my years of active duty was a big influence on my life, and later, the head of construction for The Villages helped me through the process of learning the flooring business. I only had a couple of years to learn the business from my father before he passed away. The head of construction was tough on me, but patient.

Q: In addition to running your business, you have served on the board of the National Floorcovering Alliance. How do you keep all the balls in the air? And why do you think it’s important to give back to the industry?
I take things as they come. If I think about all the things I have going on, I will get overwhelmed quickly, so I just focus on what I am trying to do at that time. The drive to work is not something I struggle with. I believe it’s useful to have good time management skills and set goals for each day.

In addition, I’m a big believer in paying it forward. I want to help in any way I can to support the industry and mentor other folks in the industry.

Q: How do you balance your work, family and downtime?
I am better today than I was years ago. I worked more than I should have years ago and sacrificed time with my family, both working on the business and being away for the Reserves. Sometimes, as you get older, your priorities change. Today, I’m less adamant about working until everything that I wanted to get finished that day is done. Although, my wife would probably disagree that anything has changed. But I recognize that I am a workaholic, and that’s not necessarily a good thing, so I have tried to do a better job of balancing work and time with family..

Q: What are your hobbies outside of work?
I like to fly, of course. I like to weight lift. My family and I try to get away on weekends when we can. And we like to take trips back to Michigan.

Q: Stephen Covey talks about sharpening the saw. How do you sharpen yours and coach your teammates to do the same?
I try never to be complacent with how things are and like to always have process improvement. Part of that is being a perfectionist: I always think there are ways to do things better and more efficiently, to work smarter, not harder.

As far as my employees go, I encourage them not to simply be happy with how things are done but to try to look at things differently. They usually say, “Yeah, that makes sense. I never thought of doing it that way.” It’s about encouraging them to do their jobs in the best way that they can. I believe strongly in being a servant leader and leading by example.

Q: Tell us what satisfaction means to Darren Hearns.
I like the fact that we improve our customers’ lifestyle by enhancing their home with new flooring. I enjoy seeing the end result and seeing customers happy. When you are dealing with customers in the intimate environment of their home, they are trusting you to provide them with a great experience, installation and service. I want to make sure that happens all the time. No one is perfect, and it doesn’t always work that way, but we try to fix it when it doesn’t.

Copyright 2022 Floor Focus 

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