Issue: February 11, 2013, Posted Date: 2/12/2013
Author(s): Janet Herlihy
Diablo Flooring: Determination makes it happen
Established in 2008 in the San Francisco Bay area, Diablo Flooring Inc. has succeeded against the odds — not only surviving, but thriving and growing to three locations in five years. Brian and his wife Aurora DeOliveira brought a willingness to take risks and work hard that, along with a healthy dose of good luck, enabled them to build a successful business even as others closed their doors.
Founder DeOliveira was about 15 years old when he started working at his stepfather’s flooring store in San Leandro, Calif. on weekends and vacations. “I started with cleaning carpet. Back then, I never would have imagined I’d someday open my own business during one of the worst economical disasters in modern history,” DeOliveira recalled.
In December 2007, DeOliveira’s stepfather died and the store, which had been struggling, was closed. He said, “I lost my stepfather to cancer, lost my job and had a wife and two small children at home. I needed to make a decision. Do I go out to find a job and hope someone hires me, or take everything that I learned from my stepfather and open a flooring store?”
The DeOliveiras decided to take a leap of faith and start their own store. “I did a lot of research and read about why small businesses often fail to avoid problems,” he said.
They chose Pleasanton, Calif. for their store because it seemed a place of opportunity. The Census Bureau ranked it as the wealthiest middle-sized city in the U.S. in 2005 and 2007.
“We rented a space on a busy street and were able to get the name Diablo Flooring. Mount Diablo is a local mountain peak and many well-established businesses use the name,” DeOliveira explained. “There was a Diablo Floors but that business wasn’t incorporated. By incorporating and opening a store, we were able to get the name. I also got a contractor’s license and insurance,” he stressed.
When it came to furnishing his store and finding customers, DeOliveira got creative. He called industry reps he knew and asked for product displays that were being pulled from defunct flooring stores and many gave him free samples and displays. He called old accounts from the San Leandro business and enough agreed to give the young entrepreneur a chance for the first Diablo flooring store to open in January 2008.
“We also found opportunity in taking over the business (phone) numbers of flooring stores that went out of business. At one time, we had as many as 10 numbers being transferred to our new number. The phone was ringing. Not all the calls were great job leads, but some were,” he reported.
“At first, I was by myself in the office but then Aurora quit her job and came into the business. It was just the two of us for another nine months and then we hired our first estimator,” he added. “We were using sub-contractors for installation. We still use subs for carpet, but now have four staff installers for hardwood projects.”
Pleasanton is a small town and word of mouth worked well for Diablo. “A man came in and asked for a carpet remnant, so I just gave him one. A few months later, he asked me to measure and install wool carpet in his house. Then he came back again and had us install hardwood throughout,” DeOliveira said. “I was handing out cards everywhere. We used social media like Twitter and Facebook because that was free.”
“After 18 months, a friend who was working at another carpet store, decided to join us. We used all our savings to open our second location in Walnut Creek,” he said.
DeOliveira soon learned two hard lessons — hiring friends is not always a good idea and out-of-the-way locations aren’t good for retail. When the Walnut Creek lease expired in 2010, DeOliveira found a better location and Roy Sanger, a flooring veteran, to manage the new store. “Roy had been laid off during the recession and eventually came to work for us. He’s a key person and the Walnut Creek store has been successful ever since.”
He wasn’t looking for another store, but in late 2011, DeOliveira heard from a floor storeowner who was looking to sell his operation in Danville, another affluent Bay Area suburb. “I declined his offer, but I saw opportunity,” he said. “Danville is a tight knit community with a lot of interior designers and only a few stores. We set it up as a designer showroom. It’s a good size. Big enough to have everything we need but not overwhelming. It’s been the easiest store to get started because clientele just walked in and word of mouth has worked as well.”
Diablo is a lean organization, with only nine full-time staff covering all the stores, including the installers. It’s been essential to find the right people, according to DeOliveira. He handles management and motivation out of the Danville store where Jeff Ernst is the scheduler for all three locations. Aurora DeOliveira is in charge of all the bookkeeping from the Pleasanton location, where she also helps Cliff McClurley, the store manager, on the showroom floor. Roy Sander manages the Walnut Creek store with a part time sales associate.
“We model our customer service on Nordstrom’s,” DeOliveira said. “Our goal is to provide clients the best experience they have ever had from any flooring company.”
Diablo can now afford advertising in local home magazines as well as the Internet, where it also has an active Facebook page.
Serving affluent communities from small, boutique flooring showrooms was inspired. A majority, 60 to 70 percent of sales, are hard surface orders, mostly hardwood. Diablo has built a reputation for sand and finish services through high profile projects such as the Lesher Art Center in Walnut Creek.”
A veteran retailer now at 38, DeOliveira is ready to focus on nurturing his three stores. “I never would have wanted more than one store, except I watched a friend, who owned a single dealership, open three more during the recession. Now, I just want all of my stores to run well and grow.”
But he still has big dreams. “My goal this year is to get on the Inc. 5000 (www.inc.com) list for the fastest growing small companies in America. I’m on track to do it,” he promised.