Focus on Leadership: Mr. David’s Leonard Zmijewski is grateful for the opportunities the flooring industry has afforded him - Dec 2019

Interview by Kemp Harr

At the age of 19, Leonard Zmijewski joined his brother David as a partner in his flooring installation business, Mr. David’s. The business, which operated out of a van, had been started by David in 1972, when he was only 18 years old. Having come from humble beginnings, the brothers had been trained in residential flooring installation by their Uncle Weldon and saw that trade as their path forward.

Two years in, the pair bid on a commercial project for the Hyatt Regency O’Hare. They landed and successfully completed the job and realized that commercial work was their “true calling.” Today, it’s not an overstatement to call what the brothers have created an empire. With locations from Illinois to Florida, and new partnerships with Floors by Beckers and RD Weis stretching their reach into Minnesota and the Northeast, respectively, the $170 million business is a leader in the commercial contracting world.

Q: You joined your brother’s residential installation business at age 19, and now, over 45 years later, you run a $170 million commercial contracting business. That requires a different set of skills. How did you develop the necessary skillsets to run this size of a business while you were focused on growing it?
A:
Together, David and I navigated running the business while growing through a very strong partnership. We each concentrated on the part of the business where we had natural strengths. We both have hard work wired into our DNA, and we have always made a point to do the right thing and deliver for the customer no matter what it takes. These core skills, which were natural to us, allowed us to perform and grow early on. We were very fortunate to then attract and retain some incredible teammates, whose skills helped us drive further growth. There are many-such as Tom Nowicki, the VP of operations who joined us as we were just getting started-who helped take us to the next level. Today, we’ve achieved a level of professionalism in our business that allows us to hire some of the most talented individuals from across different industries and sectors to make up our executive team.

Q: What was the secret to winning that first Hyatt job at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport? What did you learn then that has helped you today?
A:
We learned to deliver on time and to deliver top quality work. No customer ever says, “We need a job done in three weeks, but it doesn’t have to be quality.” When we take on a job, we do whatever it takes to do the best job possible. That’s the guiding principle we still follow.

Q: Who are your mentors? What did you learn from them?
A:
There are many people who have inspired David and me throughout our time in business. Leonard Parker, founder of the Leonard Parker Company-a leading procurement company in the hospitality sector-was always a good customer and friend and he provided great advice and direction whenever we needed it.

I would also add Jack Duffy, the former CEO of Carpet Laying Service, a company that, when we were starting out, represented everything we wanted to be, the very best in the marketplace. We always looked up to them as the best for integrity, quality and service.

Q: What has inspired you to build an organization that has national scope?
A:
What most inspired David and me to continue to build is our people. Our people are everything. They have and always will be the motivation for our growth. We don’t ever want to lose a talented team member because they don’t have a path to growth and success. As we have expanded the business, the most rewarding aspect has been watching our team develop as leaders. We want our people to grow within our organization and to never feel they have to look outside for career advancement.

Q: How do you choose the suppliers you work with?
A:
You really pick each other based on shared values of service, quality and integrity. Those are the key qualities that make a relationship successful.

Q: You’ve recently formed partnerships with Floors by Beckers and RD Weis. What attracted you to these companies?
A:
We could talk for days about all the positives that both Beckers and RD Weis bring to the greater organization. But, quite simply, their cultures are what attracted us the most. We are not a private equity firm that looks only at numbers. We are passionate about this industry and want partners that share our commitment to innovation, quality and service.

Q: How do you work around the issues that the tariffs have created, namely committing to a specific price with your customer and then having the cost jump 15% overnight?
A:
The tariff issue is unfortunate and is introducing difficulties to not just our business but to everyone’s business. We are handling issues on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, we will switch to a comparable product that doesn’t incur a tariff cost. In other cases, we have candid conversations with the customer about the situation and work together to find the best solution. This is a shared experience across businesses, and we all have to work together to get through.

Q: As you bring in young talent to backfill those that retire, what is your biggest challenge?
A:
Our team is constantly thinking about how to create stability in our business platform. I will tell you, David and I are both very pleased with the diversity of talent we have achieved over the past five years. We have a great blend of young talent and seasoned professionals. We have people from within the industry and from other industries or sectors. David and I have worked hard to create an environment where everyone can feel included and valued. I think our greatest opportunity lies ahead, and we are continuing to invest in our team through education, training and career pathing.

Q: In the last distribution evolution, the big guys lost their edge to the local entrepreneurs. What will you do to make sure Mr. David’s is successful in the long term?
A:
It is important to keep in mind that we are a business led by entrepreneurs. David, John Becker, Randy Weis and I are all entrepreneurs at our core. We are building a business platform that will grow through an entrepreneurial spirit of innovation and achievement. We are not in this just to be big. We remain focused on delivering quality services and making our customers successful. Doing good business allows us to do more business.

Q: How do you balance your work life with your family and spiritual life?
A:
Our perspective isn’t based on segmenting different areas of life but, rather, focused on living a full, complete life. We really are passionate about our business, and it is part of who and what we are. The passion we feel for work and the happiness and satisfaction it brings cascades into all aspects of our lives. As the saying goes, if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.

Q: What would you say is the secret to your success?
A:
The secret really isn’t a secret at all. It’s the people. We have been fortunate to surround ourselves with incredible people. As people, none of us are perfect. But when we are well intended, we, as people, can achieve amazing things.

Q: What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the flooring business in the last ten years, and what big changes do you see on the horizon?
A:
Our industry has seen a lot of change over the past ten years, as has virtually every business industry. Technology is certainly playing a bigger role and will continue to do so. As businesses mature and grow, the challenge of introducing business system platforms and practices will increase. It’s one thing to use email to communicate business information and instructions. It’s quite another thing to introduce an enterprise resource planning platform or a CRM. As the businesses in our industry evolve, this is a level of change that successful businesses will have to master.

Q: What advice do you have for the young people who are just entering the flooring business?
A:
Ours is an amazing industry that doesn’t get enough credit. There is great opportunity to do wonderful, rewarding work that will support a good life. Learn the craft, do the right thing for your customers and your partners, and keep looking for ways to do better. You’ll have all the opportunity you can handle.

Q: I see you smiling a lot. Tell us about that philosophy.
A:
The smile is a byproduct of loving what I do. David and I grew up in an environment where options were extremely limited, and a career was thought to be nothing more than a dream. To have achieved what we have really is a dream come true.

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