Focus on Leadership: Deb DeGraaf has the drive to make family business work – March 2022
Interview by Kemp Harr
Daryll DeGraaf opened Grand Rapids, Michigan-based DeGraaf Interiors (DGI) in May 1993. Having watched Jim Columbo, with whom he had worked at a prior floorcovering job, go out on his own to start an apartment replacement and commercial flooring business, Daryll decided to make a change himself. He consulted with Jim, and the two created a partnership, with Daryll offering residential replacement and builder flooring and Jim maintaining his apartment and commercial focus.
The two businesses, while independent, shared a space, and this enabled Daryll to buy products from larger suppliers under the Columbo’s flag. In 2003, having outgrown their arrangement, the two businesses made an amicable split.
Daryll brought his children, Deb and Dean, into the business, and, in 2007, the pair bought DeGraaf Interiors from their father. Today, Deb runs the retail and builder operations, while Dean heads up the commercial business. In addition, Deb gives back to the industry, serving on a host of boards and advisory councils.
Q: Tell us about your decision to follow in your father’s footsteps.
A: Neither my brother nor I were planning on a career in the flooring industry. It wasn’t until our father’s business began growing, and he asked for a little help from both of us that we decided to join him a few hours a week.
My brother was working for a very successful painting company at the time and aspired to own his own painting company. He is an entrepreneur to his very core; in fact, as a kid, growing up on a lake, he sold crayfish to our neighbors.
I was pursuing a career in occupational therapy and was halfway through college when my dad asked for some help with paperwork, and I guess the rest is history.
Q: Two siblings in the same business-what is your system for avoiding conflict?
A: We trust each other 100% with the decisions each of us must make every day. We have very different roles and gifts, and the appreciation we have for each other is what makes working together come naturally. In the nearly two decades we have worked together, I cannot remember a time that we came to a stalemate on anything. If one of us is passionate about something, we support each other. We have both made mistakes and decisions that have not panned out but have learned and grown through each of them.
Q: Can you be a discount flooring store and sell better-end goods? Tell us more about your sweet spot in terms of value and service.
A: We did have a discount flooring outlet, and about five years ago, we decided to close that location and expand our Shaw design center.
We still offer a multiple of products that we stock in either rolls or pallets, but we are not a discount center in the true sense. We strive to offer the best value for our clients, and with the depth of inventory we carry on a regular basis, I know we have the selection to fit any budget.
Q: I hear you’re an early riser. What does your routine look like?
A: I tend to get up early because I enjoy some time to myself for devotions and exercise. It helps set my cadence before I get into the fast and unpredictable pace our industry brings every day.
Q: How have you managed to increase your revenue five-fold from the bottom of the market in 2010 to today?
A: We have hired amazing people. Our management and leadership team is exceptional, and we all learn from each other each day. That is truly what has allowed us to grow at the rate we have the past ten years.
My brother and I have always known that it is important to stay in your lane. We are great at flooring, tile and window coverings and have resisted the temptation of jumping into cabinets and furniture.
We have remained diversified with a balance of retail, commercial and new residential construction.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges to your business over the last two years, and how have you handled them?
A: Our largest challenge has been the price increases and product availability. We have had to sell jobs twice because a client will work with one of our designers and have everything picked out, only to find out that what was available two days ago now has a backorder of several months.
To curtail this as much as possible, we increased our inventory levels and purchased additional warehouse space. We also had one of our team members focus full time on price increases and showroom price tag updates through all of 2021.
Q: How important is it to hire the right people?
A: Hiring the right people is one of the most important facets of a successful business. I quite often do not focus as much on the qualifications or experience an individual has but instead dig deeper on whether they will fit the culture and the ilk of our team. Most skills can be taught and cultivated, but the DeGraaf Interiors culture needs to be inherent.
Interestingly, after DeGraaf’s and Columbo’s split, Columbo’s elected to go into the retail and builder business. We were good competitors to one another and often offered support when one of us was out of stock on an item the other had available.
Eventually, Jim Columbo’s son-in-law Scott purchased the business from him. When Columbo’s closed their doors in the initial months of Covid, he joined DGI, and we have a handful of other Columbo’s staff members on our team now as well.
It’s a good example of why it’s important not to burn bridges and to always do what you can, within reason, to maintain healthy working relationships. This industry is too small to ever throw stones.
Q: Who would you consider to be your mentors, and what have they taught you?
A: My dad is the easiest person for me to name as one of my mentors because he started our business, and I was able to work side by side with him for several years before he retired.
He taught me to have confidence in my decisions and not be afraid to make mistakes as well as to also remain patient in nearly every circumstance, whether it be with staff or clients.
Our clients are not always right, but I find that in any challenging conversation I have, I can always find an opportunity to agree with them. At the point I agree with at least their frustrations or circumstances, the conversation becomes less heated.
Q: You have either served or are serving in leadership roles with the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA), National Flooring Alliance (NFA) and Floor Covering Education Foundation (FCEF) in addition to running your business. How do keep all these balls in the air? And why do you think it’s important to give back to the industry?
A: It is only through the support of our team that I am able to find the time to commit to the design councils, WFCA, NFA and FCEF.
My husband, Mark, is not only a critical part of our merchandising team at DGI but also an amazing partner at home. He does so much to keep our home in line. He understands it is important that I give this time to an industry that has given our family so much.
Q: How do you balance your work, religious and family time?
A: It is important to start each day with some time of reflection, reading God’s word and prayer. It is because of Him we have DeGraaf Interiors, and He has entrusted us to show others, through our daily actions and words, that we are here to honor Him.
It helps that Mark and I work together, but when we are home enjoying dinner or golfing together, we make a conscious effort to put work aside, so it does not consume us.
Both my kids realize that owning a business has its pros and cons, and that sometimes work is going to create challenges and obstacles for family time. In the end, they know in their hearts and minds that this momma of theirs would go to the moon and back for them. A day does not go by where I don’t tell them that I love them and am so very proud to be their mom.
Q: Stephen Covey talks about sharpening the saw. How do you sharpen yours and coach your teammates to do the same?
A: Dean, Mark and I have always had a motto that we work hard and play harder.
We all love to golf, and whenever we can, we try to play. Both of Mark’s boys and my son Kobe all golf. We have been able to enjoy many rounds together. We also all love to travel and sometimes that involves visiting family in Florida and South Carolina.
We have an amazing group of friends, and we always try to have dates on the calendar for when we can get together again. When we don’t have a date on the calendar, months and months can slip by.
All of these things, I believe, help sharpen the saw. Time away from work is essential to making “work” successful. Avoid burnout at all costs. That is true for every member of our staff. We respect vacation time and encourage everyone to use it.
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