When he was 16 years old, Richard Harris woke up at 5 a.m. to work in his father's carpet warehouse.
He swept, helped installers measure and cut carpet by hand, and hoisted the rolls onto the truck. Meanwhile, his father, Hy, was in the office, checking on jobs, calling installers and balancing the books of the Harris Carpet Co.
Fast forward 22 years. Harris, now vice president of Marshall Commercial Floors Inc., is faced with a dilemma: Double the size of his business again and risk alienating his current customer base or take a step back and risk losing new customers to competitors.
Most business owners dream of having more business than they can handle. But Harris chose to slow the growth and follow a philosophy he developed during his eight years working side-by-side with his father.
"I think you have to get to a point and say, 'Time out,' and look at what you have and take care of the people that have been loyal to you," Harris says. "The key to success in this business is loyalty. Loyalty is everything."
He may be the head of a $6 million company division, but Harris still proudly dresses as an installer. On a mid-January day, he strolls out of his Beachwood office in jeans, sport shirt and a leather jacket, then explains that he saves the business suits for sales meetings with company CEOs and real estate developers.
"I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty," Harris says. "I'll go in the warehouse, help them cut carpet and help the guys load carpet. I talk to my installers on a regular business day because I want to be in touch. They're my eyes and ears."
Although he worked with his father for eight years, Harris spent the bulk of his 24 years in the carpet business at other flooring companies, absorbing the knowledge of how to and how not to run a company. He worked for Crown Carpet and ProFlor, then Carpet Barn and Tile House, which Harris points out filed for bankruptcy well after he left the company.
But while he developed his skills elsewhere, throughout his career, he continually called on the sales and management savvy he learned working with his father.
"I'm still from the old school," Harris says. "What is done in today's age and today's economy, over the Internet and by phone calls and sending out pamphlets and brochures and bidding, my philosophy is beating the pavement. Going right after the owners and cutting to the chase, winning them over with integrity, my name in the business and my dad's reputation in the business."
So it should have come as no surprise when, in June 1996, Marc and Chuck Wien, owners and co-presidents of Marshall Carpet & Tile Inc., tabbed Harris to help launch and run the commercial division of their flooring business, which up to that point only served retail customers and homebuilders.
"Being in business at that point for over 25 years, we felt that we had a void in our business," explains Chuck Wien. "We were getting faxes from general contractors, we were getting inquires from property managers who knew of us, but certain types of commercial needs were beyond our capabilities."
As the Wiens began to plan their company's expansion, they bumped into Harris at a business conference. At the time, Harris was looking to branch out, and his reputation and experience in the industry made him the perfect leader for the Wiens' venture.
"We basically built the business around him," Wien says. "We did open separate facilities, staffing, labor. We kept everything separate and independent of our current operation. From there, he just went to work."
Using contacts from his former jobs and some of the Wien's current clients, Harris landed $2 million in sales for the commercial division in its first year.
Then the floodgates opened.
Three large flooring and carpeting businesses in the Cleveland area went out of business, unleashing hundreds of customers into the market. Marshall Commercial Floors started to more receive business than anyone had imagined. Apartments, offices, stores and restaurants by the dozen called with orders.
New installers were hired. More office staff was added. Over the next two years, sales tripled to $6 million.
That was when Harris pulled back the reins.
"We were hearing some rumblings out in the field that people were concerned that we weren't going to do the same job we always did," says Harris. "I said 'Time out, this doesn't make sense.' If we can take on some of the new business, fine. But only if we can handle the existing business the way we always have. That's what's important."
Staying the course
Harris knew his competition would benefit because he was passing on some new projects, but in the long run, it was better for the company.
"All a customer wants is someone to respond to them, take care of their needs, do the job they're looking for, and continually have that aggressive service they want," he says. "As soon as you lose that service, they're looking to do business with someone else."
Harris' growth rate is now where he wants it. He manages approximately 20 crews of installers, who are all subcontracted, a five-member office staff and three employees in his warehouse. Although there are two part-time sales representatives, Harris still handles 99 percent of the commercial division sales himself.
"I beat the pavement, knock on doors and keep coming at my customers until I get an opportunity to sit face-to-face with the people that run this city and run the businesses," Harris says. "You just can't work behind the desk. It's being out at the project, being on the site and getting your shoes dirty."
While Harris never shies away from the bigger jobs -- he recently completed a $200,000 flooring project for Cleveland State University -- the foundation for his division was built on smaller jobs that can be completed in days instead of months. Too often on the larger projects, flooring companies wage bid wars and drop estimates until the jobs are barely profitable. The risk usually outweighs the reward.
"I'm geared for (the big projects), but I'd rather stay away from them," Harris says. "I would rather do 20 jobs that equal that amount than one, than be on the hook with one person. I'd rather be on the hook with 20."
Like everything else in the construction industry, carpeting and flooring projects are prone to error and delays. Sometimes, it's the fault of one of Harris's suppliers. Sometimes, it's one of his people.
Harris never claims to be perfect, but what keeps his customers coming back is that he admits when he's wrong and corrects the mistake.
"From the mill level to making the goods, to shipping it, to unloading it, to cutting it, to sending it out on the job site, there's a lot of hands on that carpet," Harris says. "The way I look at it, if you jump through hoops on accounts and you make mistakes, you have to be human, be honest with them and fix what you did. My customers know I'll do that."
Harris' ability to soothe an irate customer was one of the key characteristics that landed him the job at Marshall.
"Rick is a super salesman," Chuck Wien says. "He's very caring about his accounts and very responsive with his accounts, and that's what it takes to succeed in that business."
Today, with slow, sustained growth in check, it's what Harris says he's able to maintain. And, it's exactly what he learned from his father all those years ago.How to reach: Marshall Commercial Floors Inc., (216) 514-7900
Morgan Lewis Jr. (email@example.com) is a reporter at SBN Magazine.