You don’t have to be born into the family business to be good at it, but in Emil Gera’s case, it sure helped. Gera’s father, also named Emil, was a union concrete finisher who would take his son along with him to help on weekend projects. Some of young Emil’s earliest memories involve concrete and a trowel.
“I’ve been working with concrete as long as I can remember,” says Gera, 38. “I can still remember being maybe 9 or 10 years old and being out on Saturdays running the power trowel.” Gera’s father took his business full time in 1989, calling it Emil J. Gera Concrete.
When Gera graduated from high school in 1994, he went straight to work at the family business. Back then they were doing mainly residential flatwork and some commercial floors. “I can remember seeing stamped concrete and thinking, ‘I need to be doing this,’” he says. “My father had his hands full with the work they were already doing. He told me, ‘If this is something you want to pursue, you will have to put the time into it yourself.’”
For the first 10 years or so the Geras did only a small amount of decorative work. “We were learning as we went along,” Gera says. About 10 years ago, he took his first training class. “I thought if I am going to take this further, I need to learn more and from the best.”
Learning from the pros
Gera credits learning from and working with Bart Sacco of Kingdom Products, located not far from the Geras in Northeast Pennsylvania. He also has attended many training classes, acquiring knowledge from experts such as Troy Lemon, Tommy Cook and Rick Lobdell through classes at World of Concrete, the Concrete Decor Show and at the Kingdom Products Training Center. He credits this training in helping take his work to the next level.
The Geras are seeing their work shifting from traditional broom-finished concrete to stamping, stenciling, staining and now vertical stamping. “Every year the amount of decorative work we are doing is increasing,” Gera says. “More people are seeing the TV shows of backyards with fire pits and seating walls, so that is getting to be a really big thing. We are in a small market, and word about our decorative work has gotten around. People often call and tell me, ‘This is what we are looking for and they say you are the guy to call.’”
Gera took a course from Lobdell at last year’s Concrete Decor Show that helped him prepare for a request for an engraved and stained sunflower on the floor of a new indoor sunroom. The sunflower is 10 feet wide from petal point to petal point. “I was a little unsure if I could pull it off,” Gera says. “But the training I got from Rick gave me the edge I needed.”
Can’t keep a good man down
Earlier this year while getting something off a shelf in his shop, Gera had a ladder slide out from under him. He landed on a rebar cutter, completely mangling his ankle. “My leg bone came out through the side of my foot,” he recalls. “It was April 15 and we were just getting the season started after a very long winter. For a while I thought it was the end of the world.”
Less than 5 weeks later he was out on jobsites, crawling around on his hands and knees to get things done. “Stamping takes on a whole new level of difficulty when you cannot stand on two feet,” he points out.
One of the first jobs he tackled after the accident involved a set of 10 stairs, designed to look like wooden timbers that stretched over 36 feet, leading to a 28-by-50-foot patio. The day before the job was to begin, Gera received a late-night text from the homeowner explaining the husband didn’t like what the wife had planned. Working from a tiny cell phone picture of stacked railroad ties and stone, Gera was thankful for his decorative training.
“Through techniques I had learned in a vertical stamping workshop with Greg Hensley of Flex-C-Ment, I knew I could stamp the sides to look like timbers,” Gera says. “The landscapers were right behind us standing on the steps. The sides of the steps are finished with end grain and knots, and he didn’t know he was standing on concrete. That told me we did a pretty good job.” And the homeowners thought so, too.
Despite the physical limitations of trying to navigate a steep worksite on crutches and the last-minute changes to the design, everything went off without a hitch. “I am particularly proud of that job,” he says.
Setting the table
Another job Gera is proud of involves a 16-foot-long, 42-inch-wide concrete table built for a family of second-generation butchers who wanted a table decorated to look as if it was always set with placemats and dishes to match their mom’s old plates and silverware. “Every Thursday they have a big get-together with their friends and they wanted to tell their friends, ‘The table is always set, you’re always welcome,’” Gera says.
While showing samples to the family on a cold January day, one of the brothers remarked about the concrete feeling cold. He asked if there was any way it could be heated. Gera initially thought this was a crazy request, but he wanted to please the customers.
He ended up outfitting the table with heating mats and a programmable thermostat. “Every Thursday when they have their get-together, by the time 6 in the evening rolls around, the table’s up to 80 degrees,” he says.
Winning TV time
Gera’s local TV station, WNEP, features a program about home and backyard projects, but the station itself had a lackluster outdoor wooden patio. The staff invited Gera and two other contractors to offer improvement ideas to make the patio a nicer backdrop for on-air segments while also creating an inviting place for the employees.
Gera’s idea won, and WNEP filmed the patio’s transformation in two episodes for its program. The existing patio was torn out and a new slab poured. Gera stamped the border and in the middle placed the WNEP logo, which was created with a custom-made stencil and custom-blended colors.
“It’s one thing to do your job,” Gera says with a laugh. “It’s another thing to have a guy with a video camera over your shoulder and a mic recording everything you say and do!”
Loving his job
Gera’s 5-year-old daughter, Katelyn, already knows her decorative concrete techniques. “She absolutely loves horses,” Gera says. “I was in Bart’s (Sacco) store with her looking at the carousel with stamps and she finds the horse stamp. She says, ‘Daddy, we have to get this so we can put horses in the concrete!’”
The next generation of decorative concrete finishers in Northeastern Pennsylvania is still growing up, but in the meantime, Gera will be there to take the phone calls.
“I really enjoy what I do,” he says. “I can honestly say I go to work every day doing something I love. And when a project is complete I can stand back and look at it and say, ‘I did that.’ There’s a lot of pride involved.”