Passion for excellence, knack for creativity drive Utah tile setter

Tarkus Tile brings award-winning true craftsmanship to Salt Lake City area

Mark Christensen, owner/craftsman of Tarkus Tile in Lehi, Utah

You never know where your path will lead. Such was the case for Mark Christensen, owner of Tarkus Tile, whose passion for tile work was ignited on a road trip from Utah to Arizona. In 1998, as a 21-year-old college student with dreams of visiting Mexico and beyond – but little cash in his pocket – he worked a few days with a tile setter friend to make a few bucks. 

“I was immediately intrigued with the work, and ended up staying for six months,” Christensen said. His boss “threw him into the fire immediately,” setting tile straightaway, and Christensen loved it. When his boss decided to relocate, he passed on his Target tile saw to Christensen. 

It makes sense that this exposure to tile could ignite Christensen’s passion. “From the time I could walk, I was working alongside my dad, installing carpet in his business and building stuff around the house,” he said.  “I was very fortunate to learn construction skills and common sense from him, which helped me so much.”

Once he returned to Utah to complete college, he did jobs for friends and family. Happy with the level of income tile work afforded him, at 22, he started Tarkus Tile in Lehi City, Utah, near Salt Lake City, and got his contractor license a year later. 

“The first years were hard,” he said. “I was self taught for the most part, having to figure a lot of things out on my own, making a lot of mistakes, but I stuck with it, learning and growing with every job. Twenty years later, I have managed to build a decent reputation and client base in my area. I work mainly solo with the assistance of my three teenage sons on occasion.” Tarkus specializes in mainly high-end residential work, both new construction and remodeling, with an emphasis on luxury bathrooms.

Christensen discovered the John Bridge Forum online in 2008 and eventually the NTCA. 

When his sons were little, Christensen read to them from the TCNA Handbook. From the look of it, it paid off!

“I remember being literally sick to my stomach when I saw the caliber of work that was being done out there,” he admitted. “I thought I was good. Turns out I had so much to learn. And I was intrigued that there were actual standards for our trade, and guidebooks to follow to do things the right way. I was so excited to have found a group of like-minded people, passionate about the tile craft and committed to doing things the right way and to a higher standard.”

Around 2010, he joined NTCA, reading the TCNA Handbook from cover to cover within the first few weeks. “I would even read it aloud to my young sons to put them to sleep at night,” he said. “I love that there is a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips and an answer to any problem I may have on the technical spectrum. And if there isn’t a specific solution in the Handbook, there’s another member who has experienced it and will share their knowledge.”

He credits his membership with getting in the door on some projects, and having the confidence to approach clients and projects with standards-based knowledge and techniques. “This newfound confidence helped me take my work and business to the next level, always progressing,” he said.

Christensen considers this juncture a huge turning point in his career. “The bar was raised and I grew immensely over the following years, pushing my limits and taking on more challenging projects, trying my best to do things the right way,” he said, even serving as the NTCA Utah State Ambassador for a time. 

“In 2014 I had the honor of receiving a Coverings Installation & Design award,” Christensen said. “This was such an awesome and a surreal experience to have my work recognized and celebrated on that level. What an honor. This was definitely the pinnacle of my career up until that point.”

This Residential Stone Installation Award was presented at the 2014 CID Awards. It took Christensen more than 350 hours working solo on this master bath, reframing the steam shower and removing and re-engineering the subfloor and joists. He created a 5’ wide sloped-back bench, and arranged for two-pound spray foam insulation  throughout the shower. He installed a linear drain, two niches, and electric underfloor cable heating. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Christensen should be an award-winner: his company is dedicated to breathtaking custom installs that are technically challenging. In fact, early on, he upped the ante on his expertise by immersing himself in the craft of setting with mud, inspired by the John Bridge Forum and some online tile friends.

On his CID-award winning project, Christensen assisted with the selection of Calacatta Gold honed marble and Honed Piana Limestone. He developed the design by sorting stone piece by piece to get a pleasing layout that featured book-matched pieces, and he hand-cut and installed the herringbone accent band. He wrapped all corners with the same piece of marble to create a continuous flow of veining throughout. Then it was time to tackle the bathroom floor.

In 2010, the John Bridge Forum held a two-day mud event in Dallas. “I went and soaked it all in from some good teachers like Dave Gobis, Gerald Sloan, John Cox and John Bridge,” he said. “When I got back home I made a commitment to myself to learn it and go all in. For the next six years, I floated every chance I got. I was doing a lot of work for an up-and-coming custom home builder, back-to-back high-end homes with four to eight bathrooms each. I floated them all, learning and getting better with each one. It was an extremely challenging and humbling experience full of long days and learning the hard way, but to this day I still believe it to be the single best thing I ever did for myself as a craftsman.  It sharpened my skills across the board and gave me a new excitement about the craft. And while I don’t always use mud, it helped me to approach everything with a new perspective of flat, plumb and square, and built to last.”

This emphasis on custom craftsmanship sets his creativity and enthusiasm on fire, bringing versatility and custom attention to every job. “I feel like this has gotten me in the door on some very unique projects, and left a trail of happy clients. I treat every job as if it’s the most important one I’ve ever done.”

The bathroom floor was out of square, so care and precision were used to position an inset limestone border to lay out exactly 4 inches from the cabinet toe kicks. Christensen worked with the cabinet maker to get dimensions and adjusted accordingly for a perfect fit.

The act of creating energizes Christensen and is the joyful core of his work as a tile contractor. And his attitude towards his craft is positively inspiring.

“It’s my outlet, my place of solace,” he said. “I pour every bit of my heart and soul into my work. I see so much beautiful craft and art every day from around the globe, and I know that it all comes from a passion deep inside its creator. It’s so much more than just a job; it’s part of us. Our work is an extension of our very being, and we want nothing more than for it to be enjoyed. This is the highest compliment, to have someone smile and feel emotion when they see my creation.”

Terra-Mar, Inc.

Oklahoma contractor prides itself on doing the job right

Mike DeGuisti, Terra-Mar, Inc.

Back in 1964, Mike DeGuisti’s father started Terra-Mar, Inc., in Oklahoma City, Okla., with an emphasis on terrazzo and marble (hence the name Terra-Mar). The company installed tile, but got away from it for awhile in the early days. DeGuisti himself – a third generation Italian craftsman – got involved in the company in 1968, and around 1980, the company started turning back to tile. 

Back then, “setting tile was simpler, and it was easy to find qualified tile help and people who wanted to work,” DeGuisti said. 

Time brought a lot of changes to the company, including DeGuisti becoming a second generation owner. The company is very hands-on and family oriented, with his sons Adam and Noel, who are both Certified Tile Installers (CTIs), running all of the tile jobs.  

“They are hands-on, and do their own estimating from start to finish,” DeGuisti said. “The two of them know everything that is going on. As the superintendent, Adam goes by every job almost every day; he pulls up tiles and checks coverage. We play by the rules.” 

In the late 1980s, Bob Young, who purchased the other half of the company the DeGuistis bought in the ’60s, encouraged Terra-Mar to join NTCA. 

“I learned all the things I thought I knew,” DeGuisti said, adding, “I do not see how you can be a tile contractor and not be an active member of NTCA.” He contends that there’s so much that tile contractors don’t know. When he does local workshops, he says, “I am not here to teach you to set tile, but I can teach you how to make more money. You should get paid for leveling, control joints, etc.” 

This Oklahoma University Football team locker and training room project challenged Terra-Mar to be done by football season, after other trades took so long. The NTCA Five-Star Contractor ran into pools built wrong, which required the crews to chip out considerable concrete and rebuild. In addition, pools would not hold water, and logos came with unacceptable mounting. But DeGuisti said, “Through it all, thanks to our excellent crews, we were done on time, with a job to be proud of.”

About five years ago, DeGuisti took his NTCA membership to the next level by becoming an NTCA Five-Star Contractor. Because Terra-Mar was already a high-caliber company, it was a perfect fit. “We didn’t do anything except fill out the paperwork, and wait for Adam and Noel to complete their CTI exams,” DeGuisti said. “I tell A&D professionals who ask why we are Five-Star Contractors and others are not: ‘I don’t know if we are any better than [our competition], but I’ve gone through the trouble to prove it.’ Any other trade that is licensed has a continuing education program like our Five-Star Program. So why shouldn’t we?”

DeGuisti currently sits on the NTCA Board of Directors for Region 8, the NTCA Technical Committee, and chairs a committee for a new section in the NTCA Reference Manual called “Submerged Applications.” 

For DeGuisti, tile work is a good living, and he enjoys cashing the check at the end of the day. But the joy and satisfaction he has in his company’s work comes down to pride. “I love to take my grandkids or customers to see some of the beautiful, hard, complicated work we do,” he said. 

What’s more, by doing things by the book and keeping on top of jobs – knowing everything has been done right – he leaves the job “with a clean conscience,” he said. Though a GC may not hire his company back because of cost or Terra-Mar wouldn’t agree to cutting corners or skimping  on prep work, he explained, “We’ve never had litigation on a job, and we have never not been rehired due to our craftsmanship.” That allows him to sleep well at night, confident in a job well done and proud of the craftsmanship that went into the project. 

This private residence took three two-man crews just over 12 months to complete. The pool area floors and walls were done using stone from Jerusalem, and floors had to be fresh set and laid dry first to ensure a similar pattern from end to end. The pool interior encompassed six different tiles from different manufacturers, ranging anywhere from 3/16” to 5/8” thick, which made the mud work critical. The entry speaks for itself, with stones up to 24” x 24” with mosaic emblem.  

Warrior spirit puts Blue Toolbox ahead of the competition

North Carolina tilesetter puts the focus on constant improvement

Carlos Castaneda said “The difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.” 

Kenneth Lambert

Why is this important to a tile contractor? Well, to Kenneth Lambert of Charlotte, N.C.’s Blue Toolbox, it’s his company’s motto, its raison d’etre or reason for being.  And it speaks to the company’s constant drive to increase its quality, from improving dust control during demolition, refining its timeline, improving turn-around time on estimates and following up after the job is complete.

Lambert’s crew carved this floating, heated bench out of xps foam, and then had to figure out how to hang it on the wall.” We put our heads together and came up with a great solution – and the bench is still there three years later,” Lambert said.

In fact, it’s what Lambert says is what sets the company apart from the competition. “Constantly improving in tile work is so very important, but constantly improving in all areas of the job is what really sets us apart and what is going to push us light years ahead of everyone else in the days ahead.” He said his company embodies the Carlos Castaneda quote, adding, “The more challenges we overcome, the smaller our competition looks in the rear view.”

Lambert’s career in the tile business was born in challenge. In 2010, in the throes of the recession, he had just been laid off from his job – and his wife moved out four days later, leaving him with no income and a son to care for. 

“In the beginning, I was doing odd jobs and anything I could to put bread on the table,” Lambert said. “I remember the first tile job I sold, I took a small deposit, bought  a 7” RYOBI tile saw from Home Depot, a trowel and a how-to-tile book. I fell in love with the trade from there, and a few weeks later answered an ad on Craigslist for a tile helper. I worked with him off and on for a year and learned how to lay out a room and the difference between floor mud and thinset.”

This steam shower included a custom-built chaise lounge inside that needed to be contoured comfortably to the client’s height and body type. Blue Tool Box built a full size mock up out of wood that they tailored to the customer’s measurements and preferences before crafting the template and building the final bench out of foam.

He discovered he had an eye for tile, a creative edge and the hand-eye coordination to pull it off. Add to that a strong drive. “I not only wanted to be the best but I needed to,” he said. He navigated through many challenges – electricity cut off, insurance cancelled, buying an extra blanket when he couldn’t afford heat in the winter, but he kept going. 

He worked for a year with his mentor-turned-friend, who then decided to leave tile to open a restaurant. Lambert pressed on. His business turned into “something that now not only pays my bills but pays the bills for a couple of other families as well, and this is where the story really gets good,” he said. “With the talent that’s on the team now, we’ve only scratched the surface. Todd Neubauer is an experienced and talented tile setter who can flick his pinky and make tile magic happen. Joey Chiappetta, who only has a year or so of true tile experience, is dedicated to the craft and catches on to new things so damned fast. He’s going to have a great career in the tile industry.” Lambert declared, “You’re going to see big things come from us over the next few years. Don’t blink, because its going to happen fast.” 

The company is now firmly established in residential, with a few custom commercial jobs thrown in and the occasional remodel, he said. “Our focus is on high-end residential, working directly with homeowners. We plan to continue to grow in this segment. We really enjoy jobs that other contractors can’t figure out and take pride in finding solutions for tricky installs.”

This project was an example of how the community came together to make a bathroom accessible for a man who had been involved in a car accident over the summer. Blue Tool Box  provided labor, Frank Donahue and Best Tile of Charlotte donated thousands of dollars in tile and setting material, and Sophia Lodge in Salisbury organized a fund raiser to take care of the rest. “It is maybe our proudest moment of the year,” Lambert said. Pictured is Todd Neubauer grouting and Joseph Chiappetta surveying the work.

Lambert is new to NTCA, joining in 2019 “because [tilesetter and CTI evaluator] John Roberts said he was going to send the tile mafia to my house if I didn’t,” he joked. “John is a great friend and yes, he said I should join but I really joined for the business education and connections that are available through the NTCA.” Lambert’s company recently experienced a “fall from glory when a couple of contractors got into us for multiple thousands of dollars. It was a really hard hit and we’re still dealing with the effects today,” he said. “I pridefully thought that I could dig myself out of the hole we found ourselves in, but it just felt like I was spinning in circles. I thought that the NTCA might have some great resources for me.

He found what he was looking for. “Jim Olson was kind enough to connect me with some great people who are much wiser and more experienced in business than me, and while these relationships are just beginning, I feel that it truly is the beginning of something special and great things are going to come from it,” he said. 

This was before scribing was cool and popular. The challenge for the bubble tile project was to precut all the field tiles (with lots of core bits and lots of time) to fit the bubble tile that was going in the corner. In the funky drain photo, Todd Neubauer hand scribed the field tile to fit the drain the homeowner bought.

Though Lambert is not yet a Certified Tile Installer (CTI), he has vowed that his coworkers and he will take and pass the test this year.  Here are Lambert’s reasons:

  1. We want to be part of the effort, raising industry standards. This not only benefits the installer but the homeowner as well. 
  2. It’s silly to produce the quality of work that we do and not have this certification. 
  3. John Roberts said I had to. 
  4. After speaking to several CTIs, I really do see the benefit. I was one of those prideful installers who thought, “I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me what I can do.” I realize how silly that is now, and know that it has more to do with improving the industry that I love than it has to do with me.

Lambert summed up his work, saying, “The greatest joy for me is the homeowner’s happiness. I had a client walk in one time as we were finishing and her eyes filled with tears of joy. She said ‘I just can’t believe that this is my house.’ I don’t know how you could ever top the joy and satisfaction that I felt in that moment.”

MM Floor Coverings Passion and education build a successful business

Even though the owner of MM Floor Coverings, LLC, Michael McConnell, left the tile industry for over a decade, he came back to the first trade he learned and has been making his mark ever since. He has used his passion for his trade and knowledge he has received from continuing education to build his business into a successful company.

Located in Cody, Wyo., MM Floor Coverings offers customers interior tile installations for both new construction and remodeling residential projects. McConnell said his passion for his work sets his company a part from the competition. “I am extremely passionate about each and every install I am apart of,” he said. “I do everything within my power to give my customers the best experience with me in their home.”

McConnell and his father at Schluter. McConnell said he put additional pressure on himself to pass the CTI test because he didn’t want to let his father down. McConnell’s father, Paul, has been an installer for almost 40 years and taught McConnell the trade.

McConnell is a second-generation tile setter. His father, Paul, has been installing tile for almost 40 years and introduced his son to the trade at a young age. “So growing up of course I was always ‘expected’ to learn the trade. I remember fabricating bullnose tile at around the age of eight, which is a great memory now to look back on. As the years progressed, I was always the helper – cleaning buckets and tools and sweeping and cleaning the jobs. And of course, the always-dreaded task; I grouted the jobs for my dad,” McConnell said. 

McConnell formed MM Floor Coverings in 2012 after spending 12 years working as an auto mechanic, while doing tile work on the side for extra money. He said he started out with small tile jobs and worked his way up to the projects he specializes in today. “I started off taking any job possible to get my name out there,” he said. “[I moved from] doing small installs and spec homes to now doing high-end residential houses. I now even put my Dad on my projects, which is always fun.”

McConnell believes being a Certified Tile Installer (CTI) also gives him and his customers an advantage. The knowledge he needed to become a CTI gave him the certainty to stand behind his work and confidence in knowing he is giving his customers quality craftsmanship that meets industry standards. “The biggest impact [of] becoming CTI #1439 is simply that I am giving my clients an install that I can stand behind because I know that the things I do are within TCNA standards,” he said. “Another way CTI has impacted me and my company is the value of the education and the humility the CTI test itself provided me.”

Passing the CTI exam was triumph for McConnell, who suffers from anxiety and has limited use of one of his hands. “I am overly proud of myself. It was a good accomplishment for me and very humbling.”

Passing the CTI exam was a milestone McConnell will never forget. At the time he decided to take the exam, it was not offered in a location close to him in Cody, so he drove nearly 700 miles to take the exam in Boise, Idaho. In addition, McConnell suffers from extreme anxiety, and lost half the function and fine motor skills in one of his hands while he was a mechanic. He said while facing the time crunch of the exam, he fought off tremors and panic attacks. “My anxiety was through the roof,” he explained. “I was very much out of my comfort zone. But then I just kind of hit a zone and went with it.”

Jason McDaniel, owner of StoneMan Construction, LLC, and Shon Parker, Commercial Sales Manager for Schluter Systems, were evaluators when McConnell was taking his exam. Both noted his conviction, in spite of his challenges, to complete the exam. “I was fortunate to be there as his evaluator,” McDaniel said. “It was one of the most painfully impressive feats to watch. He shook his way through the entire test and passed! Michael is an inspiration; I look up to him in so many ways,” McDaniel said.

Parker echoed the sentiment and remarked on what an asset McConnell is to the industry. “I was blown away with his determination despite his physical challenges,” Parker said. “Michael passed the CTI. In the few years that have passed, I have gotten to know him very well. I love Michael’s enthusiasm to better himself and bring up people around him. Michael is a strong voice for methods and standards in his local region and an amazing advocate for the NTCA/CTEF.”

The designer for this project desired a garden path look and had requested to keep the straight edges of the tile. McConnell suggested scribing the tile to give the project the organic look she was striving for.

Beyond his passion for his work, McConnell also has a passion for the tile industry. That passion is what led him to be an NTCA member. He said the greatest value he gained from his membership are the education the association offers and the connections he has made. McConnell been a member for three years and the NTCA Wyoming State Ambassador for two years. He said he joined the association for the education opportunities and to make a difference in the industry. 

“One of the biggest reasons was the opportunity for furthering my education,” McConnell said. “I just want to be installing to the best of my ability and in the correct ways; plus, I always have wanted to be better. Another reason for me wanting to join, as well as becoming an ambassador, was because one day I’d like to know that something I did and do might make a difference to someone else.”

When asked about what he enjoys most about being a tile contractor, McConnell said it was the finished product. “The greatest joy and satisfaction I get from being an installer is when I step back and look at a finished product and think that all the planning, preparations, and hard work I put into each and every project was worth it. One of my favorite parts of a job is when the customers see the final product and I get to see their satisfaction; makes it all worth it!”

K&S Flooring Pierre, S.D.

Enthusiasm and chutzpah lead to satisfying installation career

Enthusiasm for the trade, and the willingness to go outside one’s comfort zone, are two qualities that bring immeasurable value to a tile setter’s career path and success.

Kylor Knox

Kylor Knox, owner of K&S Flooring in Pierre, S.D., got his start working as a warehouse manager at a local flooring store. He had a burning passion for learning about the flooring industry. When he went online to learn more, the first thing that he encountered was NTCA University – which led him to join the association three years ago. 

Knox sought information wherever he could find it. He went to Schluter trainings, and then to Portland for an ARDEX training. He discovered the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) and the vast resources it offers for someone starting out. 

He learned that the store he was working at was going to have a shortage of installers and he wanted to learn the trade at the hands of an experienced installer. He asked some local installers to mentor him, and was excited when most of them said yes. When push came to shove, though, no one really came through with the help he needed.

Not to be deterred, he connected with John Roberts, who was one of his CTEF instructors. Roberts recommended Knox call someone from the CTEF site. That’s where he found an installer to mentor him, and he wound up working with him and his wife for a while, and continues to reach out to area installers to see if he can help with projects to hone his skills.

About a year ago – Knox also became the South Dakota State Ambassador. “I saw the need for more education in South Dakota,” he said. 

Knox proudly displays the NTCA logo along with his own on his truck.

“I have jumped in head first, and have been learning from all my mistakes,” Knox said. “How else do you learn? The thing that sets me apart is I’m willing to go outside of my comfort zone and try something new.”

Knox specializes in residential installs right now – both new and remodels. Joshua Nordstrom has also inspired and encouraged him to take on more mosaic projects as well.  

With the high value he’s put on education and training, Knox wants to make that available to others who want to learn too. “I’ve been working really hard this past year with the help of my local reps to bring training events and [looking for] ways to bring installers together,” he said. He partnered with Anna Langsjoen – another South Dakota installer who recently joined NTCA – to establish a Facebook group for South Dakota installers to help each other and post events. “I am working on different kind of events with all the sales reps in our area, and working on having a bigger presence of the NTCA in South Dakota,” he said. 

NTCA offers Knox resources and support that enhance his growth as a tile installer: “Networking, having a team of installers and the technical staff that you can call on,” he said, “It’s great to be able to call someone because I always have questions, and it’s great for people to critique my work. Having this team helps me become a better installer. Every day – and every job I do – I do better because there is always someone giving me guidance.” Knox plans to pursue his Certified Tile Installer (CTI) credential next year. 

Learning and helping others learn go hand-in-hand for Knox, providing him with “great joy…seeing other contractors coming together and helping. I know I wouldn’t be able to make it if I didn’t have people rooting for me to succeed.” 

Two of Knox’s projects: a mosaic floor and river rock shower pan.

Midwest Mosaic: from possibilities to an American dream

A selfie with Malcom Campbell’s favorite tools: Sigma, Black Beauty and Suspenders.

Malcom Campbell said when opening his company, Midwest Mosaic, Inc., it represented possibilities. Now, 15 years later, the Toledo, Ohio-based company is still going strong with loyal clients, a customer-focused strategic business model, and a plan for the future.

Campbell began his tiling career in 1987 as a helper at a local commercial tiling firm. In 1999, he bought into a local tile firm, but became frustrated with the company after it went through years of jurisdictional disputes. Campbell then decided to start his own company. “[Midwest] Mosaic represented what could be possible if I just took what I knew and all the contacts I had and just did it my way.”

“Take Your Kid to Work Day” – Summer ‘18.

Midwest Mosaic, Inc. now has a long list of loyal clients. One of the reasons its clients are attracted to the company is that its installers are part of the selling package. “People hire us because they know what and who they are getting,” Campbell said. He makes sure the residential projects are assigned to the right installer for the job, while commercial clients know that Campbell will be their project lead.

Midwest Mosaic offers both residential and commercial installations and has two different teams that serve the different customer types. Campbell said the teams almost operate as separate divisions in the company, with the residential and commercial teams rarely crossing over. Installers on the commercial team may have the opportunity to work on residential projects if they the adopt certain habits crucial to working in occupied homes, such as cleaning up after themselves, protecting the homeowner’s belongings, and not smoking on property.

Testing the custom tile rack for Lourdes Cloister Walk in Campbell’s Toledo, Ohio backyard.

According to Campbell, operating the teams separately was a strategic decision that benefits the way the two customer types operate. “In commercial, time is of the essence,” he said. “In high-price residential, care is of the essence. The least caring thing you can tell a client while they suffer through disruption in their home is to tell them you are leaving because Kroger called and it’s your turn at the next store two states away.”

Midwest Mosaic has been a member of NTCA for the last 10 years, and became a NTCA Five-Star Contractor earlier this year. Campbell said the membership is worth more than its cost. He cited benefits such as regional training, webinars, professional services, and a pathway to Certified Tile Installer (CTI) certification as a few of the highlights of being an NTCA member. “If you are selling skilled tile installation and not a member at the NTCA, you are leaving money on the table,” he said.

Progress photo of Lourdes University Cloister Walk in Sylvania, Ohio

Campbell is hoping to use his recent NTCA Five-Star Contractor distinction to target more premium work. He said before becoming one, he wasn’t sure what to expect from the distinction, but now it is presenting interesting opportunities. He feels the NTCA Five-Star “grapevine” also provides good fellowship, and noted the targeted e-newsletter the group receives from Amber Fox as an additional benefit of being an NTCA Five-Star Contractor.

Campbell himself is a CTI and encourages his team to also become certified, crediting the test with providing necessary preparation for everyday occurrences in the field. He contends that it not only teaches you to work within ANSI standards, it forces you to perform at a high level even with time constraints. “The written test forces you to get educated about how to avoid a whole host of common failures,” he said. “By the time you finish that, you should have a new understanding about bonding, mixing cement, grouting, backer board, duty rating, ANSI, TCNA, the Robinson test and more. And the practical test you must finish. This presents a psychic challenge for all us. Anybody working at a high level will only do high-level work but [within] the time-management constraint.”

Getting dirty with the crew at a Burger King in Flint, Mich.

Campbell’s drive and hard work are factors of his company’s success, but he was quick to also note his estimator, Adrian Grec, as another factor. Campbell said Grec began working for him in 2013. After working with Grec, an engineering graduate, for a while, Campbell decided to train him in estimating. Campbell said Grec has become a champion of their commercial estimating. “He has taken it over and he does a really good job at it,” he explained

Campbell’s greatest joy about being a tile contractor is that it allowed him the freedom to spend time with his children. He has pictures and memories of them coming to work with him. Because of this, he feels is he is “living the American dream.”

Seven stars at the 2019 NTCA Awards during Coverings: two Rock Stars and one NTCA Five-Star.

Fischer Tile: enriching professional experience with association membership

Fischer Tile & Marble, based in Sacramento, Calif., (, was established in 1906 by Henry Prince Fischer Sr., 113 years ago. 

Trent and Taryn Fischer are the brother-sister team at the helm of this fourth-generation business, based in Sacramento, Calif.

Henry was Taryn Fischer and brother Trent’s great grandfather. This brother-sister team are now the fourth generation to lead the company. Trent runs the solid surface operation and Taryn is project managing the tile side. She got her start at the company, working during summers in high school and college, then went on to work for Daltile. 

“I worked for Daltile for 10 years after college, and have now been with Fischer Tile for one year,” Taryn said. “Daltile gave me an excellent foundation for the tile business, and helped me show my dad Jay Fischer my economic value when I came to Fischer Tile.” She now brings this corporate experience to the family business. 

A true family business, Fischer Tile extends that family ethic and respect to its employees as well. This contributes to longevity among its employees – Taryn said the average employment duration in the office is 18 years. 

“We have an excellent team and do excellent work,” she said. “I will be the first woman owner (co-owner with my brother) and I am thrilled. I am empowered to be working in the construction industry and very proud of what we do.”

Fischer Tile is a commercial tile and stone subcontractor with a residential, granite and Corian business as well. This union shop – a member of the Northern California Tile Setters and Finishers Union – specializes in ceramic tile, stone/solid surface fabrication and installation. The company works on a wide range of projects: education (schools/universities); hospitality (hotels, casinos, arenas); government (military bases, offices); corporate (utilities, offices); and healthcare (hospitals, assisted living communities). The company has won numerous awards for its stunning projects. 

Though a union shop, Fischer Tile has had a long association with the NTCA – even before it was officially “NTCA,” Taryn said. 

“My dad was a member of the Southern Tile Terrazzo and Marble Contractors Association (STTMCA) in the late 1970s, which then became the American Tile Terrazzo & Marble Contractors Association (ATTMCA), which then became the NTCA,” she said. “He also served as President.”

“I was brought up to understand the importance of membership in trade organizations that create community and strengthen the industry with education/new technology training,” she said. “For me, being active in trade organizations is a great way to enrich my professional experience. The tile business is changing, improving and growing. Standards and best practice methods need to be created and met. My dad and his dad proved they understood the flux of industry and have helped our business to thrive by being agile, ready to adapt and progressive. I see the tile business as a community. Staying involved in the community makes us all better.”

This union shop has a certified apprentice program. “As an Architectural Sales Representative with Daltile, I would share the benefits of the programming and specifying qualified labor,” she said. “The more training, the better for the industry.”

Taryn gets a tremendous amount of joy and satisfaction from her work within the tile industry.  

“I think the tile business is the best business,” she said. “I am so proud to be part of a business that builds beautiful things. Tile is a lasting finish; our 50-year life cycle is only the beginning. I love knowing I will leave a sustainable and beautiful impact on the world. I am also empowered to be a female in the tile business.”

Fischer Tile Projects

Harrah’s Northern California Casino

This project entailed setting large-format tile over a steel pedestal plate floor system on the casino floor. Fischer Tile and Marble created a system to make sure tile would be supported and effectively transition from the pedestals to concrete slab. With great communication with pedestal suppliers, underlayment representatives and the general contractor, the company was able to devise and execute the installation. 

Allstate Commercial Flooring

“The team approach is simply better.”

According to Gary Sharpe, co-founder and VP of Sales, there’s a guiding principle at work at Allstate Commercial Flooring in Spring, Texas: “The world record 400-meter dash set by an individual is 43 seconds. The world record 400-meter relay set by four people is 37 seconds. The team approach is simply better.” 

The team approach informs all Allstate does, Sharpe says. In fact, one of the company’s cornerstone approaches is to diversify its staff. Estimators focus on estimating. Project managers focus on bringing projects in under budget and on time.

This strategy has helped fuel the company’s success with large commercial projects with an emphasis on new construction. K-12 education is an anchor market for the company, but higher education, hospitals, high-end hotels, assisted living, and high-rise commercial development are among the company’s favorites. Allstate embraces smaller projects too. For example, Allstate does most of the Rudy’s BBQ stores in Texas and the surrounding market ranging into Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

The company was born when Sharpe was an estimator for another company and was thinking Tommy Vu would be the perfect complement to his skill set. “Turns out he was thinking the same thing!” Sharpe said. “He actually asked me to partner with him in this new venture back in 2008.” 

Vu himself had a long and luminous history as a tile installer, dating back to 1986 with well-known firms before he started his own, and has been key installer on high profile projects such as the Houston Astros Minute Maid Ballpark, Houston Rockets Toyota Center and Houston Texans NRG Stadium. Sharpe added, “His attention to detail, ability to coordinate with other trades and improve on the overall schedule of a project has won him favor with many customers over the years. In spite of his experience he believes there is always something new to learn.” In 2013, Charlie Adams purchased the company, and is now CEO; Rusty Dennison came on board that same year as VP of operations. 

The passion for learning something new is part of the reason that from day one Allstate was a NTCA member. “Tommy and I knew that the NTCA was the standard setter and bearer for the tile portion of our business,” Sharpe said. “We wanted to stay connected with the latest industry developments. Our budget was small back then but we carved out funds for NTCA membership. 

“Staying up to date on the latest installation trends is a big benefit,” Sharpe said. “Tommy is a stickler for ‘doing it right the first time,’ and the NTCA Five-Star Contractor program provides proof to our customers that we do it right. Going through the process to become one proves to yourself that you are doing it right. We were happy to do that because as it is said, ‘Truth has nothing to hide from inspection.’ There is no shame in finding out you need to tweak something you have done for 20 years when there is a better way to do it.”

Continually credentialing its staff is important to Allstate, which currently has three CTEF Certified Tile Installers (CTIs). Vu was certified in May of 2018. Robert Vasquez and Bill Nguyen were certified in February of 2019.

“We are working with our team to schedule certifying four more before the end of this year,” Sharpe said. “We are proud to include this certification on our proposals and believe – especially in an era where skilled labor is scant around the industry – this is helping our customers and potential customers in their decision-making process about which subcontractor is the best value.”

His company’s work is an ongoing source of pride and joy for Sharpe. “It is a science but it is also an art,” he said. “When you take a project through to completion and get rave reviews from a GC or his customer, there is a lot of satisfaction in that and knowing you didn’t cut corners to get the job or build it – and knowing it will last and your team’s effort is a large part of the reason why. For me personally I felt called to start this business as I was praying about my career.”

See more of Allstate’s work in the February 2019 issue of TileLetter cover story on the University of Houston’s Fertitta Center sports arena.

Allstate projects

Allstate came up with the unique way to lay the restroom wall tile in a pattern that was appealing to the eye yet still achieved the quarter-turn rotation of every three tiles as desired by the architect. Particular attention was given to providing a flat installation to the polished finish large-format tile in the lobby.

Katy Tompkins High School has over 100,000 sq. ft. of tile on it, and – as most schools do – had a tight schedule to work with. Allstate approached this job with utmost efficiency in terms of staging materials and scheduling. Each piece of the 32’ diameter waterjet logo was laid out in a separate location before installing it to make sure it was cut right, then numbered. Each large piece of tile around the logo is trimmed on all four sides in order to provide a clean radial look from the second floor balcony. “There is a reason we have done the last three Katy high schools over the past 10 years,” Sharpe said.

At the Hobby Doubletree, the work Allstate did has stood the test of time. There was a lot of detail to be worked out on the three fountains that incorporated mosaics, thick stone and stack stone. Specific details were needed for waterproofing, level waterfall edge work etc. Allstate also did the granite tops on this project.

The Klein Cain High School project was an over $2,000,000 tile project and included more than 120,000 sf. of tile. Allstate used a combination of in-house employees and subcontractors to get the job done. The project manager, Cecil Zachary of Satterfield & Pontikes, had not worked with Allstate before. Now, because of his experience with Tommy Vu’s attention to detail, Allstate has done four more projects in the last two years with Satterfield & Pontikes.

Doing things right the first time pays off for Omaha installer

Swoboda Tile & Stone melds family tradition, industry training into successful business

This shower is part of a bathroom renovation with all natural stone. “A challenge that I faced with this install was squaring up the walls and making sure my substrate underneath was super flat,” Swoboda said. “Being able to wet shim behind the foam board really helped speed up this part of the project.”

Six years ago near Omaha, Neb., budding tile setter Jake Swoboda ( was learning how to “always do things right, the first time,” as his uncle taught him the basics of the trade. Swoboda now specializes in residential renovation and new construction, specifically tiled showers and bathrooms. To achieve the excellence he sought, he supplemented the foundation laid down by his uncle with manufacturers’ trainings, online resources and interaction with other installers in the Omaha area.

Two years ago, Swoboda took his tile setting career up another notch, by joining the NTCA and successfully passing his Certified Tile Installer test, becoming CTI #1398. 

“I joined the NTCA to help further my own knowledge and skills of the industry,” Swoboda said. “What really makes it worth it, for a younger installer like myself, to join the NTCA is the online resources and amazing technical support that is available to every member. Any tile question I have on the job, I know I can call the NTCA for an answer and solution.”

His CTI status adds another boon to his business. “Being certified has helped me and my business immensely,” he said. “I explain the certification to my customers, and I think it puts a lot of minds at ease that I know what I am doing. It shows them that it’s not just me saying that I know how to install tile properly, but that I have been tested and certified to install tile to industry standards.”

The biggest challenge on this project was the large-format tile on the walls. It is a 32”x48” tile. Proper substrate prep and the appropriate thinset helped Swoboda deliver a rock solid install for this customer.





Swoboda Tile & Stone projects

Swoboda has a passion for the artistry and technical excellence in his work. “The greatest joy that I get from being a tile contractor is working with customers to make their vision for their projects come to life, and knowing that the prep work underneath the tile will be rock solid for many years to come,” he said.

This kitchen renovation had many challenges that Swoboda had to overcome. The floor tile is a 8”x48” plank tile with electric heat underneath. Swoboda had to pour self leveler over the cable to get the floor flat enough for such a long tile.

This tub surround, completed early in Swoboda’s tile career, posed unique challenges. He had to frame in and tile the arched ceiling. Swoboda said, “The customer was ecstatic with how it turned out.”

Cutting Edge Tile meets client needs in a “Flash!”

Carl “The Flash” Leonard, owner, Cutting Edge Tile

Carl “The Flash” Leonard is a third generation tile setter, and owner of Cutting Edge Tile
( in Florence, N.J. Leonard explains that he got his nickname because “I’m primarily known for my speed and quick turnaround of projects.”

Leonard has done commercial, residential, remodel work, new construction and custom work including gauged porcelain tile panels (GPTP), exterior pedestal tile installation and bonded large-format tile on exteriors. 

Cutting Edge Tile prides itself on attention to details and offering new and exciting ideas helps it stay ahead of its competition and set the company apart. “I pride myself on being a well-rounded installer in my field of expertise,” Leonard said. “Listening to the client and understanding their needs is very important! I am also certified to install and use a variety of products to aid in providing the best installation available.” The company motto is “Quality YOU can afford.”

Carl “The Flash” Leonard poses with a group of fellow Global Tile Posse members in the module used for the CTI tile setting competition in the Installation Experience during Coverings ’18 in Atlanta.

Leonard joined NTCA in 2015, primarily for the education membership offered. “I love to learn new installation techniques and correct practices,” he said. “Also joining allowed me to be in contact with a network of tile professionals that I can reach out to for help or just advice.

Walk-in shower – in process: “This walk-in shower project posed many challenges,” Leonard said. The shower pan had a linear drain with large-format tile, so prep was the biggest challenge. The shower floor was recessed to allow the foam shower pan to be flush with heated flooring in the main floor area. To get the main floor level flush with the pan, self leveler was poured over the loosely strung heat cables. Once this was done, waterproofing could be completed and tile installation could start.


“The greatest reward of being an NTCA member would be all the knowledge I’ve gained through educational programs and events,” The Flash added. “This has helped me and my business to grow tremendously. The education and knowledge gave me the confidence to do tile installations properly. It also puts my clients at ease knowing that I’ve invested in my company to ensure proper installation on their projects.”

Leonard took his Certified Tile Installer (CTI) test in Cherry Hill, N.J., in 2017 with nine other installers, and successfully passed to become CTI #1393. He makes it a point to tell potential clients all about his certification. “It is the determining factor in them choosing me over others in most cases,” he said.

Leonard said, “being a professional tile installer brings a lot of satisfaction, knowing that my clients will be using something that I built and will last a lifetime!”

White bathroom – In this project, Leonard used a recessed foam walk-in shower pan with a heated floor and underlayment on main floor. This was an old farmhouse, where nothing was level or plumb. “We sistered new 2 x 4s to all the wall studs and poured self leveler on the floors,” Leonard explained. “This was key to the success of this project. Prep is essential!”

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