For Martin R. Smith, president of Rockerz Inc., running a successful business is all about the people on your team. “I’m really driven, myself,” he says, “and I like to hire people who rise to the challenge. Personality, to me, is what sets certain people apart.”
Take, for example, Smith’s operations manager, Charlie Daniels. “He grew up on a farm, has a strong work ethic, very honest character,” says Smith. “He’s the kind of guy who when you talk to him, he’s staring you in the eyes.”
Together, Smith, 57, and Daniels, 47, are the driving force behind Rockerz Inc., a decorative concrete firm specializing primarily in polished concrete, with a little bit of acid staining and overlays to round things out. Daniels also credits the company’s success to the quality of their team, which includes project manager Brian Cerilli, office manager Natalie Smith, and marketing and business development director Chuck Belonzi.
The vast majority of Rockerz’s clientele are major national retail chains. In fact, although the company is based in Warrendale, a small town in western Pennsylvania, they’ve done projects in locations from Puerto Rico to Hawaii and just about everywhere in between. During the 24 years that Rockerz has been around, they’ve worked in around 40 different states, not to mention a few jobs north of the border in Canada.
So how did a small company outside Pittsburgh end up as national go-to guys for polished solutions for retail spaces? So glad you asked.
Smith has been in the construction business since 1978, working as a general contractor and managing retail projects for national chains like Levi’s, Gap, Puma, Fossil, Reebok, Adidas and Walgreens. While working all over the country, Smith again and again ran into trouble finding reliable subcontractors to do flooring and interiors. The simplest expedient, it seemed to him, would be to just start a second company and sub the work out to himself.
The company focused on interiors as a whole — framing, drywall, flooring, painting and so on — until about six years ago.
Smith was doing a project in Harlem when the contractor he’d hired to do the polished concrete floors flaked out on him. In order to keep to his schedule, he had to find a polishing contractor that could get the job done in four days, over a long weekend. Smith reached out to a polishing contractor in Connecticut with a good reputation and asked if he could finish the job.
“He said, ‘“I’ll get the job done. This is my price, and I’d like to be paid right away,’” Smith says. “I told him, ‘If you can get it done by Monday, when you’re done I’ll pay you.’ He finished a day early.” This experience was proof not only that, with the right people, it was possible to run a reliable, high-quality polished concrete business, but also that there was money to be made in doing it well. So Rockerz slowly began to shift its focus to decorative concrete, in particular polished floors and overlays.
A partnership is born
About four years into that transition, Rockerz found themselves with a client who wanted acid staining — something that they, as a company, had never really done before. Smith spent some time browsing Monster.com, and found Daniels, a metallurgical engineer by training and decorative concrete installer by trade. Daniels put himself through school working for a concrete contractor, spent the decade after graduation working as an engineer in Texas, then returned to Pennsylvania. He took up with a friend who owned a decorative concrete business and quickly became an expert in stamping, staining and overlays.
When Smith called him up for that first acid staining project, Daniels came on board as a consultant. He worked with the Rockerz crews, training them on how to use stains and helping them deliver the look their client was after. Daniels’ intention was to consult on just the one project. Smith had other plans.
“One of the reasons Marty wanted me to come on,” says Daniels, “was they were having trouble making money at (their decorative concrete work). They were trying to grow, they had a client base, but they didn’t have the people who were able to do the work.” Smith talked Daniels into staying on for one more job, and another after that, and four years later Daniels is their operation manager.
Although polished concrete now makes up 70 percent to 80 percent of their work, Daniels wasn’t, originally, much of an advocate for the technique. He’d done some polishing work for industrial clients who needed high-build wear- and chemical-resistant floors, but he wasn’t sure how well those techniques would translate to retail applications.
Smith, on the other hand, had seen the potential for polished concrete in the realm of retail. Not only did it offer substantial per-square-foot savings compared to other flooring options, he says, but the ancillary savings were nothing to shake a stick at either. Light bounce from a high-gloss floor saves money on lighting and electricity. Reusing an existing concrete floor can mean not only LEED credits but also bragging rights for a client’s ecoconscious marketing campaign. “All these things are extremely beneficial to retailers’ bottom lines,” he says.
Despite his initial reluctance, says Daniels, “the more I learned about it, the more I liked it.” Today, Daniels is an accomplished polisher, and all nine Rockerz crews include polishing experts.
Retail work, says Daniels, “requires a higher grade of polishing and higher skill from the installer. There are higher standards for everything from color to gloss level to slip resistance.” Unlike most industrial installations, retail clients have standards for form that are just as stringent as those for function.
In addition to Rockerz’s craftsmanship, Daniels says their nationwide service is another reason that the company has grown 70 percent to 100 percent for the last three years. “One of the reasons our clients come back is that no matter whether they’re located, we offer the same service,” he says.
However, for both Daniels and Smith, the most essential ingredient to their success has been their passion for the work. “You’ve gotta have a love for the business,” says Daniels. “You can’t really sell or grow the thing if you don’t have love for what you’re doing.”
Smith, a proud veteran of the inaugural Woodstock back in the Summer of Love, couches the sentiment in more whimsical terms. “This is my band here,” he says. “I will continue to play as long as people want to listen to my music.”