Avalon Flooring: flagship store grows to 15 locations in 60 years

Expansive offerings and emphasis on training contribute to success


Avalon Flooring (AvalonFlooring.com) was started by John Millar in 1958 with a single store in Avalon, NJ. It has since grown to 15 stores in New Jersey and Pennsylvania with 330+ employees. In 2018, Avalon Flooring became 100% ESOP (employee stock ownership plan). As an employee-owned company, with its corporate office located in Cherry Hill, N.J., it prides itself in providing professional service and an exceptional range of quality products for each of its customers.

Original store opened by John Millar in Avalon, N.J.

The original store opened by John Millar in Avalon, N.J.

Avalon Flooring services the retail, contractor, builder and commercial segments in both new construction and renovation projects. It offers a variety of flooring and window treatment options and installs all the products it sells. 

Robert Showers

Robert Showers,
Avalon Flooring

Avalon Flooring has been a member of NTCA for 14 years. “At Avalon Flooring, making sure our tile installations are done the correct way the first time is extremely important to us,” said Robert Showers, Director of Estimator Sales at Avalon’s Cherry Hill location, and a NTCA Regional Director.

Inside Avalon Flooring’s corporate offices.

Inside Avalon Flooring’s corporate offices.

“To help guarantee a successful process, we take the time to educate our subcontractors to better their installation performances to ensure positive customer satisfaction.” Avalon has been a huge supporter of the NTCA education program, often serving as host for the regional workshops and training programs and Certified Tile Installer (CTI) exams.

“Being a NTCA member helps our contractor sales teams provide helpful and proper installation information to their clients by citing the NTCA Reference Manual, which is a very beneficial tool,” Showers added. “It also opened up the opportunity to learn more about the CTEF certification program, and we were fortunate enough to have hosted a certification this past December.” 

Avalon Flooring corporate office

Avalon Flooring’s Cherry Hills corporate office today.

Currently Avalon has eight CTI subcontractors that handle part of the ceramic installations for Avalon Flooring. “We also just hosted a certification on December 1st, at our Cherry Hill location, where 11 out of our 13 participants passed and became certified CTI contractors!” Showers said. 

“Our goal at Avalon is to keep working on the growth of our expert installers, as well as creating the awareness of the fact that tile installation is a very skilled trade that’s more than worthy of being considered a full-time career.”

The company’s employee cantina.

The company’s employee cantina.

Avalon Flooring also takes pride in maintaining an active role in the communities where its customers and employees live, donating both time and money to charities and non-profit organizations in order to give back to the community and raise awareness for important causes. It’s also a good steward of the planet, taking seriously the responsibility to care for the environment, so it constantly strives to preserve natural resources and reduce its environmental impact. The company features high-quality, green flooring options in its showrooms and operates its own recycling program that successfully diverts approximately two million pounds of used carpet and pad per year from landfills throughout the region.

What keeps the company going, Showers said, is “The sense of accomplishment when you step back, and realize you are part of a great company that started with one man’s dream that now employs over 300 people.”

Avalon Flooring is 100% employee-owned, with more than 330 employees.

Avalon Flooring is 100% employee-owned, with more than 330 employees.

Homegrown tile company

Deen Contracting melds art and problem-solving with great results


In the prairie of the Midwest – Springfield, Ill. – my career started with a broom, and the willingness to clean up construction sites and use a shovel. I was a summer helper for my friend’s father who built elaborate houses in Springfield, and worked on part of their extensive remodel on an old mansion. 

Andy Deen standing in his most recently completed residential shower.

My job was to tear out a custom shower that was installed pre-WWII. I still remember the lath cutting through my young hands as I burned through saw blade after saw blade – everything we had that day. Then I got to the pan, which was a bed in a lead liner base. Instead of a 40 mil or foam liner, this was a lead sheet. Amazingly, it never leaked, and lasted about 60 years. I thought to myself it is awesome how something so beautiful could last so long. That is when I said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could construct functional beauty that lasted longer than me?”

At the end of the summer, I worked finishing concrete for a year after high school and eventually got in the electrical trade, but it didn’t satisfy me. There was an itch inside me that needed to create. I needed to explore construction and art; I needed to set tile. It was the only thing that would pass the time in an enjoyable way for me. I went to a local box store and picked up some material and tiled a kitchen in 2000, and then a friend’s mom’s backsplash, and then a shower. 

The prep work involved before the shower pans are poured and any tile is set.

Next, I met Rob Yates – a NTCA member – at the supply house. We had not met before, but had mutual friends and started talking. He mentioned that I should check out the TCNA Handbook and go to a NTCA seminar when it was in town. I did – and everything completely changed, again. I was invigorated with new knowledge and access to years and years of previous work the handbook contained. 

A homegrown tile company had been created: Deen Contracting, Inc. (deentile.com), based in Rochester, Ill. In the middle of a cornfield in Central Illinois, I got a job with one of our local farms. I was dying to try tile installation on a 3D-scale and I wanted to do crown molding with a waterfall off it for bathing. I had an idea and the homeowner, Dennis, made the plumbing work – he can probably fix an alien space craft if it crashed in a field! I field-framed the crown ledges from 1”x 4” pine and then I clad it in cement board and membrane. Next, I used foam. I have even used .050-gauge aluminum sheets and bent them into forms to be filled with mortar. My first ledge was in 2006 with a lot more geometric tile installs since. 

There are endless possibilities of which we have only scratched the surface. When I say “we,” I am referring to installers who truly care about their art. I have been on course to manufacture kits, however, funding to change an industry can be hard to obtain, so I have been utilizing my print reading skills from my electrical experience to bid commercial jobs. We have gone from 10% commercial work to 80% in about four years. 

Support through NTCA

Commercial restaurant project, recently completed.

The first time I had real guidance in the industry was in 2012 when Mark Heinlein from NTCA had a seminar in Springfield. His knowledge and approach to explaining setting techniques was top shelf. By attending the meeting and joining the NTCA, I was empowered with a great deal more knowledge. The TCNA Handbook has all of the ANSI ratings for products and installation, so by being aware of this, I was able to cite the proper pages and explain installations on my scope of work for commercial products. When I placed these references in my scope of work, I found that I was getting more jobs. By just attending a NTCA function and utilizing the information they gave me, I have increased my business.

Until now, I have been pretty guarded about my creations and patents. However, the February 2019 TileLetter featured RodKat and it inspired me to share as well. I am impressed and always intrigued when a fellow tile mechanic installs in three dimensions. Just because we have a two-dimensional material to work with doesn’t mean we must stay there. Hats off to setters who are pushing the limits and exploring new designs. 

Tile crown molding with waterfall feature.

I have been to the Coverings conference in Tampa, Fla., and had a great time. I plan on attending in Orlando this year as well. The conference is the best way for me to see new products and ideas and it is also the best way to re-charge my creativity.

The key to staying busy in a small town is diversity. My wife Karen, who is a ceramicist, has been an irreplaceable asset and inspiration helping run the business, making payroll and putting bids in on time, as well as executing simple organization that I have botched for years. So, with our small crew of 3-5, we have been remodeling commercial restaurants. We go in and demo all the tile, and then polish the floor with mechanical grinders and install new tile throughout the lobbies, kitchens and bathrooms. 

Waterfall feature in use.

Commercial restaurant tile job.

In the course of doing this work, I have noticed the commercial kitchen is under attack. This is where I got my start at age 21, repairing epoxy grout in commercial restaurants before I landed my first residential builder. Epoxy grout is a must. Incorrect installations and/or poor grout choices have hurt tile’s reputation in the commercial kitchen. Owners are switching to other products when they shouldn’t have to. A properly installed quarry kitchen could and should last 30-40 years with proper cleaning and minor maintenance. 

Residential tile bathroom project.

All in all, I love tile and I love to problem solve. To me, residential tile is art and commercial tile is problem solving and accuracy by the scheduled deadline. They are two different worlds that make both a great challenge and a rewarding career. I have been fortunate enough to have great product suppliers and so many local residential clients who have allowed me to create artistic spaces in their home. In addition, I want to give a big thanks to the people before me who have helped inspire me and continue to do so! 

Creativity and attention to detail characterizes Artisan Tile

Sometimes, good things can come from bad beginnings. By his own admission, Michael Moreno, the owner of Artisan Tile, was a “horrible helper” when he started out in 1987 in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he was employed for a husband/wife tile setting team. Eventually this couple went out on their own, hired Moreno, and over a period of 14 years, taught him everything he knows today. 

“I was still a bad helper,” he said. “I’m unsure if they felt sorry for me or if they saw something in me. I would like to think the latter. They were and still are an incredibly artistic team that started me from scratch.”

Michael Moreno, Artisan Tile owner (left), with his son, Michael Jr.,

Michael Moreno, Artisan Tile owner (left), with his son, Michael Jr., who recently moved and works for a tile company in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Moreno was 18 when he started working with them, and was their first employee, so he watched their outfit grow into a premier high-end company. In 2002, he left their employ, and started working for a one-man show out of Lompoc, Calif. But after two years, he was dissatisfied by the lack of learning anything.

“I was spinning my wheels, with no path forward,” he said. 

Though he never felt “good enough” to go out on his own, his two years with the Lompoc company made him feel that he was “going backwards. 

“That’s when getting my license ‘clicked’,” he explained. “It was like, 1+1=2. It was that simple and that jarring. It was like I woke up. This was unequivocally my path! Once that had entered my head there was no going back.”

Moreno got his license in 2005. “With no business sense, and a little skill, I put my head down and charged forward,” he said. “I’ve made all the common mistakes you can make when transitioning from being an employee to having employees. But I was learning and still moving forward hard.”

This 200-sq.-ft. project of round Saltillo was planned, and in great detail.

This 200-sq.-ft. project of round Saltillo was planned, and in great detail.

In 2008, he had six employees and spent most of his time on estimates. The recession was not kind to him, and his company fell apart. “But I did not give up, though it was one of the hardest personal struggles I’ve been through. I kept my license current and by 2010/11, I was back in the mix.” 

Today, he owns Artisan Tile in Lompoc, Calif., that gets 90% of its business – mostly residential – from referrals, without a website! Why? He stands out from the crowd due to his attention to detail and a certain artistic flair that stems from the artistry and precision he learned when working for the tile setter duo. 

“I was taught the trade by an artist couple, and their emphasis on meticulous details and creativity has stayed with me to this day,” he said. “I will always be far from perfect but the joy from that challenge of trying to be so strikes new on every single job I do. There are guidelines and proper methods, but there are few limits to the artistry of installation itself. I love to tile.”

This spontaneous, unplanned Saltillo corner sun was just fun to do, Moreno said.

This spontaneous, unplanned Saltillo corner sun was just fun to do, Moreno said.

Moreno has been a NTCA member for only a year, which he joined to bring himself up to date with proper installation methods and materials. Though he is still feeling out the ultimate benefits of the association for his business, he said he has “found great value in having access to a variety of tested methods, materials and professionals through the NTCA. What I do take away from it is knowledge and a community that wants to bring this age-old trade into the future with informed and educated installers.

“My greatest satisfaction is solving problems, and the finished product,” he concluded. “I thoroughly enjoy the challenges of the intricate and often monotonous details that make my work stand above my competition.”

This shower featured blue encaustic tile with 3”x 6” subway tile.

This shower featured blue encaustic tile with 3”x 6” subway tile.

This shower featured blue encaustic tile with 3”x 6” subway tile.

RODKAT: Integrating high design with function!

I grew up working in a custom cabinet shop that my parents owned. I was always building something and learned, at a young age, the skills of working and creating with my hands.  

At age 16, I started working with a schoolmate that had seven older brothers, all with their own tile company. That first day I was blown away when I saw how much prep went into the tile installation process. My job was carrying buckets of mortar to the bathrooms where the brothers were floating showers. I knew those guys were doing something very specialized that not everyone could do. They explained to me how they were making the walls plumb, square, and flat with the mortar and float strips. I knew right away this was the career I wanted to pursue.  

Rod Katwyk playing in the mud

Rod Katwyk playing in the mud, age 20.

At age 18, I moved to the Bay area of Northern California to work for my cousin. He was a union tile contractor and learning from him was like going to the Harvard of tile setting. We did very high-end, custom residential and occasionally commercial work. 

As the trend turned to natural stone I used a lot of what I had learned in the cabinet shop as far as cutting shapes, miters, and book-matching. I really liked working with natural stone and having some freedom to custom cut to achieve better layouts. 

At age 22, I moved back to Utah and got a job with a company installing tile in custom homes in Park City. The skills I acquired while in California really helped me to advance to the top of the class, so to speak. These new developments were attracting owners who were building homes similar to the kind I had worked on while in California. I decided it was time to get my license and start my own tile company. So at age 23, Katwyk Tile was born. I specialized in custom, high-end residential and enjoyed the challenges of making the homeowner’s vision, the designer’s choices, and the contractor’s reality all come together.  

Social media skills paid off for Rod Katwyk! The fortune cookie confirms it!

In 2009, a Facebook friend introduced me to the John Bridge Tile Forum. This was the start of networking with other tile people from around the world who are just as passionate about the trade as myself. I am still very close with a handful of people I started conversations with the first day on the Forum. From there, another Facebook group was hatched – Tile Geeks. This is where I was able to share and get feedback on installation ideas and techniques.

3D Stone and Tile is born

In 2012 I installed the exterior of a home with 3D wedged stone. The designers loved the look of the 3D tile and wanted to use a 3D wedged Calacatta Marble, herringbone set on a fireplace. Since 3D wedged Calacatta wasn’t available I told the designers that I would come up with a way to give them that look. I was doing some

The EPS foam was waterproofed with
fabric and flexible sealant. Katwyk’s cut
shop made templates and cut the top pieces for the tile installer.

second story exterior balconies using wedged foam that I had custom made to create the slope. I had a light bulb moment. Why not attach a wedge to the back of the tile creating a 3D look using any tile? After obtaining a patent, this was the beginning of 3D Stone and Tile. This became a niche market for me as I started picking up jobs installing 3D feature walls in both commercial and residential applications. I also started selling my product to tile suppliers and installers. Because of social media, my product was introduced to an internet tile tool company that wanted to distribute my product. This opened the door to introduce other products I developed. The line was branded as RodKat products. I started enjoying having tile contractors as customers more so than dealing with owners and builders. This has allowed me to put together a cut shop where I offer water jet cutting, strip cutting, bullnosing, and custom foam cutting services. Thanks to a great staff at the shop, I can actually walk around in circles all day and be productive. 

NTCA workshop paves the way for membership

Katwyk came up with this bullet inlay a few years back and has been asked to do four more since the first one.

I went to a NTCA workshop in 2014 and met Michael Whistler and Mark Heinlein. I joined the NTCA that night and spent the next day with Michael and Mark driving them around Park City showing them some of my projects. We shared a lot of knowledge back and forth, along with some laughs. Best of all, I made a couple more phone-a-friends that I could call on when I had technical questions.  

In 2016 I hosted an NTCA workshop and met Robb Roderick, who was presenting. I was happy to host the workshop because it brought in tile contractors from my area that had never attended a workshop or heard about the NTCA.  

I read the TileLetter cover-to-cover every month and always learn something new. The 2018/19 NTCA Reference Manual has also been a great source of information that I turn to often and refer others to as well.  

(L to R) Dirk Sullivan, Brad Denny, Jimmy Reed and Rod Katwyk

(L to R) Dirk Sullivan, Brad Denny, Jimmy Reed and Rod Katwyk

The best things that I have made while being in the tile industry are the friends along the way. Social media and events like Coverings and Total Solutions Plus have led me to my second family.

 

Katwyk was commissioned to make this water feature for a home and garden show.

Katwyk was commissioned to make this water feature for a home and garden show.

Katwyk intentionally set the tile planks crooked for rustic effect

Katwyk intentionally set the tile planks crooked for rustic effect, worked the metal to patina the rails and hand set the pebbles, one by one.

 

 

Sacramento contractor strikes out on his own after recession; invests in certification

Russell Laird, of A+ Tile & Stone in Sacramento, Calif., (aplustileandstone.thebluebook.com) has made a name for himself in the tiling world, aiming for excellence in his typically commercial, public works projects. 

“Quality is what sets me apart from my competition,” Laird said. “I personally oversee every project and train my employees to do an excellent job so we don’t ever have any patch work or callbacks.” Though his company considers itself a commercial contractor, it applies this same level of quality to residential work for friends and family. 

It wasn’t an easy start. When the recession forced the company Laird was working for to close, he decided to go out on his own. “It was slow going at first,” he explained. “I had to bid very low to land work, but managed to grow each year. Now I am doing large commercial projects for the big reputable contractors like Turner and pricing has bounced back to a respectable level. I hope it stabilizes for a while.”

Laird’s firm foundation allowed him to springboard into his own company in 2010. “I starting doing tile in 1989 for Custom Tile in Oroville where I learned residential (mud work) and some commercial,” he said. “Around 1994 I started working for companies in Sacramento, where I learned larger commercial, which I prefer, and have found my niche today.”

For this pool deck in the San Francisco Bay area, A+ Tile & Stone floated an entire deck that was stamped concrete to make it flat enough to receive large format 12” x 24” tiles. The crews used uncoupling membrane over the entire floor and expansion joints per EJ-171. They finished off with stainless steel edge trim at pool edge and bottom of skirt.

About six years ago, Laird chose to join NTCA, “to be associated with like-minded people who constantly strive to improve and learn. The greatest value from being a member is meeting and learning from other members.”

After three years of association membership, Laird decided to pursue NTCA Five-Star Contractor status. 

“What led me to seek Five-Star is striving to be the best in my field,” Laird explained, adding, “It levels me with union companies as far as some bidding opportunities, and allows me to bid on some commercial projects that I would otherwise be excluded from. It has benefitted my company by allowing me to bid these projects – and I really like including the Five-Star logo on my company shirts.”

Laird is a big believer in the strength of qualified labor, and has made it a goal to get his installers credentialed. “We currently have four installers certified, which is 100% of my full-time installers including myself,” he said. “We all took our test at Surfaces in Vegas, which is about a 10 hour drive for us.” Laird himself is CTI #1091 (See TileLetter’s Qualified Labor story in December 2015, for details), and passed his exam in January, 2015.

“Every year I try to take one person to Surfaces to get certified,” he said. “I took two in 2016, one in 2017 and missed 2018. But I believe I have one ready for this year.”

Being a tile contractor holds many benefits for Laird. “The greatest joy I get from being a tile contractor is I get to pay my bills,” he said.  “Each job is different, so it’s not boring – and I am passing on my knowledge to my two sons so they can take over my company some day when I retire, if they choose. It is also satisfying to see the completed project – which completely transforms the area – and have satisfied customers.”

This lobby at Truckee Public Utility Office features an inlay of Donner Lake with blue tile and river with pebble stone. This remodel had an existing slab that varied 1-1/2“ in elevation, so Laird and his crew ground 1/2” off the high spots and floated everything level to that. They chose this strategy because the elevator was at that elevation and not movable. The floor angled down to the front door to meet that elevation, bending at a grout joint. The contractor employed a tile band saw for some of the radius cuts.

 

John Roberts Designs, LLC: from mud to membership and beyond

Roberts tells the tale of 40 years in the tile industry, and still going strong

I started in the tile industry almost 40 years ago, working as an apprentice. My first day on the job was spent at a mud box with a mud hoe in my hands. When I started out, everything we did was mud. All walls and floors were hand mudded. It wasn’t too long that my tile mechanic had a hawk and trowel in my hand and was teaching me how to mud walls and mud floors. We did mostly commercial work and I traveled all over the Southeastern U.S.

We did a lot of work at Walt Disney World, and one of the coolest projects at Disney was working on the world’s largest sundial building, when it opened in 1991. It was designed by architect Arata Isozaki and holds the Guinness World Record of

Roberts worked installing tile on the world’s largest sundial at Walt Disney World, in 1991.

being the world’s largest sundial. We helped tile the outside facade with 3” round green circles, one at a time. 

After traveling for 15 years doing tile work in the Southeast, I hung up my commercial work boots and married an interior designer and formed a design-build business based in Orlando, Fla. I continued to install tile, but in high-end residential projects. One memorable project was in Telluride, Colo., for a vice president of Marriott Corp., who hired our firm to completely remodel a ski house. After living in sunny Central Florida most of my life, I learned quickly about Carhartt jackets and bucket heaters for your wet saw in February.

In 2008, after the economy had crashed and the Central Florida market died, I decided to move to Atlanta, Ga. Fast forward 10 years – I am now outside Dalton, Ga., close to the mountains. 

After many years of commercial tile setting, Roberts now installs tile in high-end residential projects.

 

Joining NTCA

Roberts is a Regional Evaluator, helping to bring CTI tests to interested tile setters all over the Southeast.

Through social media and tile groups I found out about and joined the NTCA in the fall of 2015 – one of the best decisions I have ever made. I have made many friends in the tile industry and am very proud to call a lot of them tile brothers and sisters. I attended my first NTCA workshop early in 2016 and met Scott Carothers, the director of the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF), who encouraged me to take my Certified Tile Installer (CTI) test. In Dec. of 2016 I took my test in Pendleton, S.C. at CTEF along with a special Tile Love/ Schluter sponsored workshop. The best Christmas present ever was finding out I passed my test to become CTI #1278. I then volunteered to become an NTCA State Ambassador. In 2017 I became a Regional Evaluator for CTEF and hold CTI tests all over the Southeast. This has been truly meaningful to me, as I love teaching younger installers the trade and it has become a passion, to teach them industry standards.

In March of 2018, I helped NTCA Five-Star contractors Woody Sanders (DW Sanders Tile and Stone Contracting, Inc., Marietta, Ga.) and Rod Owen (CC Owen Tile Co., Inc., of Jonesboro, Ga.), and NTCA member Cain Curtis (A Tile Experience, Atlanta, Ga.) with the Georgia Skills/CEFGA high school tile competition. I helped to build the modules and judge the competition. This was a great experience for me, as I got to help instill a love for our industry to these young students.

The camaraderie of Coverings

Roberts joined DW Sanders Tile and Stone Contracting, Inc, to set tile in the Installation Design Showcase Tiny House project during Coverings 2018.

In May of 2018, I was asked by my friend Woody Sanders to help install the tile in a tiny house at the Coverings Installation Design showcase in Atlanta. This brought me back to working my commercial days with big crews in tight spaces. It was a great experience for me, and I am grateful to be asked to participate. These tiny houses were later towed to my hometown of Orlando, Fla., where they were set up in a park and rented out as Air B&Bs. Maybe some lucky person will stay in one of them for the upcoming Coverings 2019, which will be held in Orlando.

I highly encourage everyone involved in the tile industry to attend this show. You will not be disappointed. I have attended many Coverings shows, and Orlando is one of the top venues. This year I met so many people that I knew from the tile groups. One that comes to mind is “the man, the myth, the legend” 2018 Coverings  Rock Star Jason McDaniel. Jason runs a Facebook group called Global Tile Posse (GTP) and it was a pleasure getting to spend time with him at the Golden Trowel Challenge.

Roberts made his mark in wet clay during the Global Monumental Hand Print Mural Project held at Coverings 2018.

I will never forgot attending Coverings in Orlando, back in 2015. While I was online in the Tile Geeks social media group, a guy was disappointed that he couldn’t attend, since his travel partner bailed at the last minute. I reached out to him, offering him lodging at my mom’s house with me for the show. I picked him up in South Georgia, on my way to Orlando and we drove straight to the show. Donovan Lucero of Lucero Flooring Company, Jesup, Ga., and I have become lifelong friends and brothers in the tile industry. 

We also met up with another great guy that I knew online through Tile Geeks, who has become one of my best friends: Ben Ernst. We walked in the Orange County Convention Center, and the first person we ran into was Brad Denny, NTCA Five-Star contractor (Nichols Tile & Terrazzo Co, Inc., Joelton, Tenn.) We knew him from Tile Geeks, but not in person. He grabbed us and brought us over to the NTCA lounge and made us feel at home.  What a great guy; I am proud to call him a friend.

CTEF

Roberts enjoyed a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the TCNA headquarters while helping present a CTEF introductory course in nearby Pendleton, S.C.

I just finished helping Scott Carothers teach a weeklong class in Pendleton, S.C. at the CTEF in early November. The class was an introduction to ceramic tile and mortar shower bases. It was attended by people from all over the U.S., including staff from the Tile Council of North America (TCNA) – headquartered close by in Anderson, S.C. – and NTCA’s new Marketing and Communication Director Avia Haynes (see related story on page 54 of this issue).  Some of us got a special behind-the-scenes private tour of the TCNA. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and am very proud to have been invited. 

Who would have thought that 40 years ago, mixing mud in that mud box, I would be where I am today: a proud member of the NTCA, NTCA State Ambassador, CTI #1278, CTEF Regional Evaluator and a tilesetter who takes pride in doing things that will last the test of time.

Maris Tile Pro: from destiny to distinction


You never know when the tile setting bug is going to bite. For instance, Ulas Maris of Maris Tile PRO in East Moriches, N.Y. (www.maristile.com) didn’t start his career in the industry. Instead, he was originally in hospitality, hotel and resort administration in Southwest Florida, years before he left his position and moved to New York in search of a new career and life.

Ulas Maris (right) along with NTCA’s Training Director Mark Heinlein at a recent workshop.

He tried his hand at a number of things, but nothing clicked until one serendipitous morning while he was having breakfast out in Long Island. A tile setter working nearby randomly asked if he could help mix mud and carry tiles. “It was fun working with him in the Hamptons and I liked it,” Maris said. “I started going with him regularly and he taught me everything he knew about the tiling trade. It is how my tiling career started a long time ago. I worked with him about three or four years and he encouraged me to start my own business. I have been on my own for 15 years now.”

With his mentor’s encouragement and the encouragement of his wife Rachel, Maris now does high-end, custom installation throughout Long Island and the Hamptons. He works on new homes and renovations. His specialty is mosaics, handmade tile, large-format tiles and natural stones. He also works with glass slabs and other sorts of glass material, and he fabricates custom marble, granite and quartz countertops.

Maris gives equal attention to clients, no matter the project size. “My main focus and priority is my client’s satisfaction,” he said. “I give them quality work installed with the highest standards so that they will enjoy my tile installations for many, many years. I believe this is key to having a successful business.”

This philosophy has worked for Maris – he’s never advertised his business or services. Word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied clients are all the advertising he has needed. 

He takes the time to educate clients about the importance of proper prep work and use of quality setting and waterproofing materials for their investments. Though clearly this is his livelihood, Maris said, “I do not think of money performing my skills. I am in no rush to complete and collect. It is my job to give my clients the highest standard they deserve and maintain a great relationship. I take time and focus on details. This is what sets me apart from the competition.”

Great feedback spurs Maris on to learn even more about new tile and installation systems. “When I see a five-star review online for my work with great comments, it motivates me to keep learning about new systems, to become more efficient and do better with my profession,” he said.

Drive to excel anchors NTCA membership

His drive to rise above the competition drove Maris to join NTCA three years ago. He benefits from interacting with other installers across the country, which positively impacts his business and work relationships. 

“Since becoming a member of the NTCA, I have seen that I am taken more seriously at all meetings with my clients, general contractors and architects,” he said. “I have seen that being a member gives new clients confidence in my abilities.

“From a client’s view, a company being an NTCA member and also a CTI/Certified Tile Installer (Maris is CTI #1309) lets them know how serious the company is and that they are in good and professional hands,” he said. “This makes them feel better to hire me to complete their precious projects.”

As the only CTI in his company, Maris installs most of the jobs himself. His staff keeps current by regularly attending manufacturer training classes and available education opportunities. And he is focused on being as knowledgeable about tile systems and “eager to learn more.

“Being up-to-date with everything and being able to answer all my client’s and general contractor’s questions in regards to any kind of tile installation lets them feel better with me and my company,” he explained. “My clients know they are in good hands seeing I am a Certified Tile Installer and an NTCA member. My CTI and all other certifications I have from manufacturers separate me from other installers. I am proud of all the certifications I have. It is the greatest feeling which motivates me to perform my skills at the highest standards.”

Peer and technical support: icing on the NTCA cake

Support from other NTCA members is invaluable to Maris. “I gained a lot of knowledge, experience and professional friends who are some of the best tile installers in the country,” he said of his experience with NTCA. “I have learned so much from the NTCA community, which has helped me improve my skills greatly. Support from a community of tile installers is priceless. This would not have been possible without NTCA. I can also call some members and ask for help and even answer questions when they call me about certain installations. ”

Maris – who is also a NTCA State Ambassador for the state of New York – also values the 24/7 NTCA technical support available to members. “I know they will be there if I ever need help answering questions while working on a complicated project,” he said. And the relationship that NTCA fosters between installer and manufacturer members is beyond measure. “From my viewpoint, NTCA is the ‘bridge’ between us as installers and member manufacturers,” he said. “For example, members have the privilege of having manufacturers contact and inform them ahead of time of all new materials, systems and methods. This is a huge advantage to being a member.”

In the end, it’s all about making clients happy. “I get so excited when I see my clients satisfied and happy at the end of a job,” he said. “I am so happy when I receive a call for a new project and hear that I was recommended by my previous client. I am glad I was able to achieve this kind of relationship with them. It makes me proud to be a tile installer.”

Elegance brought to life: the work of Nadine Edelstein

Before Nadine Edelstein, of NTCA member company Tile Design by Edelstein, developed a following with her distinctive tile work, her early training was studying molecular and developmental biology. “I was interested in the processes involved in pattern formation in developing organisms,” she said.

If you’ve seen any of Edelstein’s work, you’d agree that her style – which honors the deep historic roots and cultural significance of this industry – pays homage to organic patterns and processes, transforming them into elegant works of art that serve her clients with functionality, beauty and singularity. 

Vashon, Wash.-based Tile Design by Edelstein offers a trio of services: full-service tile and stone contracting; mosaic art based on mirror, pebble and stone mosaics; and No Tile Left Behind, Edelstein’s salvage and repurpose studio. “I do a bit of everything,” she explained. “New residential, renovations, small commercial, public art. I am also a mosaic artist and enjoy integrating my work into my installations.”

This ungrouted installation is the feature wall of a new cooking school. Edelstein sorted and cut the pebbles, and used 1/4” foam board waterjet cut into circles and triangles. Pebbles were arranged and attached and made into circular and triangular “tiles” in her studio, then installed onto the wall with tinted thinset mortar over concrete board. Sheet aluminum was cut, bent and welded into the circular frames.

Edelstein designed and installed this shower with handmade glazed terra cotta tile and colorful Italian Smalti glass. It received the 2018 CID Residential Tile Installation Award.
Photo By Mike Urban

No matter what aspect of the work she is focusing on, Edelstein derives great satisfaction in bringing an idea to life, and loving the various mental and physical aspects of her job – designing, client interaction, problem solving, setting tile and grouting – basically playing with tile. She approaches her “design and installation work with an appreciation for the elegance and economy of the processes of the natural world,” she explained. “So I think that my greatest satisfaction comes from those daily occurrences that reveal elegance: finding a solution to a problem, understanding a client’s desire (no easy task!), working out the perfect layout, finding the right tool for the job.”

A tile contractor for 24 years, Edelstein provides clients with full design, fabrication and installation services. “I am fortunate to be able to design nearly all of my installations, and have had some adventurous clients,” she said. “One thing that sets my company apart from others is that I like to collaborate with other tile artists and design custom installations. I have found that clients appreciate working with someone who can design a space while understanding the complexities of the installation process.”

Her studio is 100% women-run, with all female assistants. “I am happy to see more women joining this career path, and look forward to a time in the near future where it will not be the novelty that it has been,” she said. 

Largely self taught, Edelstein came to NTCA 10 years ago seeking the support of the technical resources to support her knowledge. She also thought NTCA affiliation would help her business stand out. In fact, NTCA has become a “sort of partner” to Edelstein’s business over the years. 

“As one must only be licensed and bonded to be a contractor and there are no skill or aptitude prerequisites, having NTCA affiliation has shown my clients that I care about my work,” she said. “I have often over the years received excellent tech assistance and solved many installation problems with the help of NTCA staff. Being a member of the NTCA involves me in a larger professional community and this has greatly enhanced my day-to-day life as a sole proprietor in a career that can otherwise feel quite isolated.”

An added bonus of NTCA membership for Edelstein is the voucher program. “Yes, it can save money, but more importantly it removes the barrier to trying new products,” she said. “That’s great for the entire industry.”

Edelstein has won a number of awards, including the 2010 TileLetter Residential Mosaic Grand Prize, 2013 Coverings Installation and Design (CID) Award for Residential Stone Design, and 2018 CID Award, Residential Tile Installation. 

Interested in learning more about her work? View her professional profile on Houzz.com and a portfolio on Instagram (@tiledesignbyedelstein).

JSG’s Stephen Belyea made the leap from chef to tile contractor

What do Legal Sea Foods of Boston and tile contracting have in common? Stephen Belyea, owner of JSG Tile and Stone LLC in Weymouth, Mass. (jsgtileandstone.com) is the common thread in both scenarios. Belyea gave up his career as head chef at Legal Sea Foods and pursued commercial flooring work with a small company while he was contemplating his next move in the restaurant business.

“When I realized how much better life could be not working 12-15 hours a day, I stuck to learning as much as I could about flooring,” Belyea said. “I worked my way up to a lead installer and enjoyed the work I was doing” – work that included installing carpet, wood, vinyl, rubber and turf in the gyms at Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park.

Belyea gravitated towards tile, captivated by the rewarding technical aspects of the installations, and eventually focused solely on tile. Pursuing his passion for tile the same way he pursued his passion for food, he made excellence his goal. “I wanted to be as good as I could be,” he said. “I attended any and all events I could to network, meet people and learn as much as I could.”

The Tile Geeks Madison Fields Project in 2017 was one of the most rewarding personal and professional projects in which Belyea ever participated.

In 2014, he discovered Tile Geeks on Facebook – only 500 strong at that time. “I realized from that page that there was a hell of a lot of knowledge about tile I did not have.” Belyea said. “So I made a point to learn about all the new/different techniques and tools there were. I have attended Coverings in Las Vegas, Chicago, Orlando, and Atlanta.” Belyea met Salvatore DiBlasi through Tile Geeks and in person at the Journal of Light Construction show in 2015 and the two have been great friends since.

In Chicago 2016, Belyea met NTCA member Bradford Denny, who signed him up as a NTCA member. “Joining the NTCA has been a great choice for me,” Belyea explained. “It has given me access to some of

Brad Denny (L) signed Stephen Belyea to NTCA membership in Coverings 16 in Chicago.

the best and brightest in the business. I know that I have access to people like Mark Heinlein – who is a great friend and resource – to turn to when I have questions about an installation method I might not be well versed in. A year after joining, I became a State Ambassador for the NTCA. I attend workshops all over New England giving support to the NTCA at their events.”

In December 2016, Belyea and DiBlasi took a road trip to the CTEF in South Carolina to attend a Tile Love/Schluter/CTI event. Belyea also took the Certified Tile Installer (CTI) test and passed as CTI #1274.

“I have the pleasure of seeing my test in Sal’s video, which is also used by the CTEF in a video to promote qualified labor,” Belyea said. “I am currently a Regional Evaluator for the CTEF and look forward to certifying more installers in my area. Being a CTI has helped me in my business because it shows my customers that I have a vested interest in the industry. Educated consumers realize that they are better off having their project done right by a professional the first time, rather than a costly failed project being done for a second time.”

CTEF’s Scott Carothers evaluates Belyea’s CTI hands-on test.

Today Belyea is cooking with gas, bringing artistry and excellence to high-end residential custom tile projects, from new construction on summer houses in Cape Cod to renovations on multi-million dollar residences in downtown Boston.

“I take great joy and pride in what I do,” he said. “I compare the finished tile project to a prepared meal. The customer’s approval of the finished project is very rewarding to me.”

Another rewarding experience – one of the highlights of both his life and his career – was to be part of the Tile Geeks Project last year in Dickerson, Md., for the Madison Fields Autism Foundation (see TileLetter, January 2018 issue). “It was nine grueling days of work,” he said. “But I am so glad I did it. I got to meet and work with great people, installers and now friends.”

JSG Tile and Stone LLC project work

New NTCA member Skyro Floors, turns knack for flooring into satisfying profession

Certifications and NTCA membership feeds his hunger for knowledge

New NTCA member Ken Ballin, owner of Skyro Floors in West Creek, N.J. (www.skyrofloors.com), located near the Long Beach Island and the Jersey shore, got his feet wet learning about tools from his grandfather, who

This Skyro vehicle is as beautiful as the floors it helps Ken to install.

was a carpenter and a Seabee in the Navy. “He taught me everything I know about tools,” Ballin said. “After my wife and I purchased our first home and started renovations, it was pointed out that I have a knack for flooring. I started installing for customers on my days off from my ‘regular job’ and business took off. I was lucky enough to pick up a contract with a local box store and quickly became the guy they called to fix the mistakes.”

NTCA Training Director Mark Heinlein (L) signed Ken up as a member at a recent training event.

Ballin  started out installing only laminate flooring but learned about other types along the way. The box store “asked if I could install hardwood (so I learned),” he said. “Then they asked if I could install tile (so I learned). Then they asked me if I could install carpet (so I hired a couple carpet crews). At my peak with them I was running about a dozen or so crews and we did the work for about a dozen or so stores.”

Ballin says that unfortunately the proverbial rug was pulled out from under his feet when the box store decided to go with a work room format instead, jettisoning the small companies doing their installs. Today, Skyro Floors installs tile, hard surface flooring, and concrete overlays in mostly residential remodel projects with some new construction. 

Though Ballin has only joined the NTCA in the last few months, he’s always been focused on training and bettering himself. “I’m hungry for knowledge so first I got certified for hard surface flooring with CFI, then I took and passed the CTI test, and most recently joined the NTCA,” he explained. “I try to focus on higher-end/higher-paying customers since I live in a tourist market. While I’m still learning every day myself, I try to share my knowledge with others as much as possible. 

“I joined the NTCA because aside from my love of the industry I wanted to see firsthand what it can do for my business,” he continued. “I’ve heard the ‘voucher argument’. I’ve also heard that some small business owners felt it was more geared towards bigger companies so instead of just listening to stories I decided to find out for myself. What better way than to jump right in?

“So far the greatest value in joining the NTCA is the support,” he said. “I don’t mean technical support. I mean from the other members and yes, I know, I didn’t have to join the NTCA for that but the reassurance from other members and knowing that I’ve got someone to turn to if I need a hand is well worth it. The vouchers are nice too.” (Learn more about the Partnering for Success program here: https://www.tile-assn.com/page/vouchers?)

Ballin feels a great responsibility as CTI #1392. “Responsibility to my customers, responsibility to myself, and responsibility to the other men and women who’ve decided to make it their responsibility to represent high standards,” he said. “Being a CTI has given me the confidence to charge a premium for my services and the confidence to know I’m worth that premium.”

Ballin said the greatest satisfaction he gets in being an installer is “knowing that  my customers will be making memories for the rest of their lives on one of my floors,” explained. “Something I did will be with them through birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, and everything else a family goes through. I shouldn’t say I don’t do this for the money because it’s how I (attempt to) pay my bills, but I genuinely love what I do and I love being around others who feel the same way.”

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