Floor, interior firm capitalizes on housing rebound

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MEET DEAN HOWELL

Job: Owner of MODA Floors and Interiors

Age: 50

Education: Bachelor's degree from Iowa State University

Lives: Vinings

Family: Married with two children

Reading: "The Noticer," by Andy Andrews

Many homeowners are staying in their houses longer and remodeling them, partly because prices fell so much during the Great Recession that they still haven’t fully recovered.

That’s where MODA Floors & Interiors comes in, says company president Dean Howell. The flooring and window coverings firm, established in 2003, can help homeowners select colors and styles, as well as assist with design.

New home construction of late is giving MODA a fresh boost, enough so that the firm plans to open a new showroom in the Brookhaven area later this year to go with its current one in the fast-growing west Midtown area near Howell Mill Road and Chattahoochee Avenue.

Q: You spent 16 years working for the Trane Co. in Amsterdam, Shanghai and Brussels, and then Home Depot for two years in Atlanta. What made you switch from a steady income to the iffy life of an entrepreneur?

A: I was spending a great deal of time on the road and away from my family. I wanted to be home for our young family and I had the desire to settle down and actually become a part of a community, which was difficult when we moved every two to three years.

I also wanted to be an entrepreneur. So I dropped my oldest child off on his first day of kindergarten and went to work at The Home Depot and resigned my job to start a flooring and window coverings company.

It was frightening. But we had a good business idea. My wife Janice is an engineer and runs the operations side of the business. My wife and I have been able to be home most evenings for the last 10 years.

Q: What does your company focus on?

A: We are what's called a "high touch point" service company, specializing in flooring and window coverings. We sell materials and offer installation services for hardwoods, tile and stone, carpet, luxury vinyl, laminate and area rugs.

We consider ourselves to be in the home fashion business. Along with consumers, we work with designers and other trade professionals to support their flooring and window covering projects.

Q: How many employees do you have?

A: Twelve full-time and 10 contract crews that work for us on a regular basis.

Q: Who are your main customers?

A: In a traditional sense, it's a very female-oriented decision — decorating and design. So we have to understand and make sure our showroom is good for the female client because when it comes to men and women, it's the women who make most of the decisions.

Q: Who are your professional clients?

A: We work with a number of the top residential remodelers, custom home builders and designers, and that accounts for about 45 percent of our business.

Another 20 percent arises from the insurance business. Fifteen percent derives from light commercial projects and 20 percent is working directly with consumers.

Q: Insurance?

A: Insurance is a fantastic segment for us, a nice steady business. We participate through insurance contractors that specialize in this work.

Q: What is your annual revenue?

A: We had $3.7 million in revenues in 2012 and are on track for $4.5 million this year. We did $3 million in 2011.

We did not hitch our wagon to the new construction market and we do a lot of work with remodelers. We are diversified, which has been a key to our success.

Q: Is the housing market really turning around?

A: Most definitely. The increase in new home construction and the significant increase in the sale of existing homes has been a big driver.

We are also seeing a number of existing homeowners coming into our showroom who have sat on the sidelines the last several years and want to start updating again.

Q: So consumers have changed their buying habits?

A: Yes. Most of our clients are living in their homes longer. Thus, they are taking a long-term view on their home improvement purchases.

This is actually very good for us as many folks want to make sure they get it right. They are making the product selections they really want versus staying more neutral with the thought they may be selling their home in a few years. We see more clients being more bold with their selections and adding more color.

Q. What did you learn from your prior experience in the corporate world?

A: I was fortunate to work for two great companies and had a number of excellent mentors. The most import skills learned were in the areas of process and people. I learned to break work flow down into basic processes, with clearly defined starting and stopping points. The business processes should be designed to support the business model and client needs.

In terms of people, I learned to develop and retain team players to support our clients and business practices. These skills have been invaluable even in our relatively small business.

Q: What does MODA mean?

A: MODA is the Italian word for fashion. We wanted to express cutting-edge style and European flair. We drew inspiration from European design, architecture and materials.

Q: How do you compete against a department store?

A: We offer a highly engaged customer experience. Our clients want to enjoy the process or at least have it be more hassle-free. Our clients can utilize a showroom that will inspire their creativity and thought process, and work with a trained professional to help them select materials and assist with design.

We have a separate dedicated production team that orders materials, schedules and manages the installation. At the end of the day, if our clients have any problems, they know where to find me.

Q: What does your showroom contain?

A: It is full of displays designed to inform and inspire our clients. We have not fully tapped into the retail market potential. Our existing store is in a more trade-oriented shopping area.

Our second store will be in a shopping center in the Brookhaven area located near grocery stores, restaurants and a movie theater. Thus, we will be more visible to retail clients.

Q: How many projects do you handle per year?

A: We will handle 1,250 to 1,300 projects this year. The sizes can be wildly varying. We have rugs for sale for as little as a few hundred dollars. We also have trade clients that hire us for work involving several flooring projects at a time. These can be valued up to $100,000. Our average sale is $3,500.