Service and detail take stairs and floors past the finish line

Transparency, knowledge, perfection

Gregory Olszewski (left), Diana Pique and Sue Szymanksi of Grand Floors.

Wood cabinets, millwork and furniture all require craftsmanship and attention to detail to satisfy consumers, whether residential or commercial. But what about putting the icing on the cake with a gorgeous set of hardwood floors and staircases?

Enter Grand Floors of Barrie, Ont., a family business that specializes in remodelling staircases down to the trim, rails, spindles and treads, along with matching hardwood flooring. The finishing shop at the back of its retail showroom and warehouse testifies to the in-house skill it can offer to either new builds or to heritage home restorations.

Installation work on residential projects — the majority of the company’s business — does have its challenges, according to operations manager Diana Pique. “They might still be renovating upstairs or downstairs and trades are going to be walking up and down.

“So, my job is to plan the project properly with their subcontractors or whoever they have hired as well, so that people aren’t walking on what we spent four weeks working on.” Pique has learned the business on the job as one of four children of the Grand Floors founders and owners, Gregory Olszewski and his wife Teresa. Pique brings skills from a formal business school education to the company to provide project management, customer service, layout and design consulting. Her brother Simon has a role in web development, financing and accounting, along with a sister, Karina, who is engaged in customer retention and callbacks.

Gregory’s path to founding the business started in his home country Poland in 1979 after a back injury laid him up. While recovering, he worked as a driver for a construction contractor and learned the ins-and-outs of running a sanding and finishing business before starting one himself there with six employees.

Fast-forward to 1988 and Olszewski founded Grand Floors in Scarborough, Ont., this time with five employees sanding, finishing and installing floors. The next year he moved Grand Floors to a 1,200 square foot outlet in Barrie’s Cedar Point Plaza, along with three of the staff.

“In 1994 we moved to a 5,000-square-foot building at 110 Saunders Road,” says Olszewski. With five employees then and himself, “I simply replicated what I had in Poland.” At this point, the business started to offer prefinished hardwood and began specializing in custom mouldings, stairs, railings and trim.

Olszewski learned innumerable skills that he brought with him to Canada. One skill was the artistry of herringbone parquet flooring. Although herringbone parquet has died with time; Olszewski still prides himself on his abilities and the experience that has led to the mastery of the trade. He is also capable of installing, re-sanding and refinishing older floors — all of which stand in good stead when providing estimates to homeowners today.

The 110 Saunders Road location was soon outgrown by the business, so its current 15,000 square foot facility at neighbouring 74 Saunders Road was added in 2011. “Both locations faced Highway 400 because that is the best advertising you can get for commuters,” Olszewski says.

However, the smaller of the two facilities was closed due to the effects of the recession and cheap imports. “In 2009 we decided to close down because there was obviously mass production in China,” he says, “so we started to outsource a lot of things.

Sanding operations in the Grand Floors finishing shop.

The cheaper products were really in demand, and we decided to close a division and keep it more custom rather than mass producing.” Marketing the business goes far beyond expressway-visible signage, according to Pique. Whenever a client or prospect visits the website, a chat window opens up and is answered by Sue Szymanksi of customer service. “Our conversion rate with this strategy is about 60 percent — Sue responds right away.” The company employs online advertising, as well as a strong presence on the social media platforms Houzz and Pinterest, to drive traffic to its website.

Like many businesses, Grand Floors relies on word of mouth from its established clientele. “About 80% of our business is word of mouth because we have been here since 1988,” says Pique. “We are very well known.” When called on the phone, the company tries hard to get back to the customer within a couple of hours, if it can’t respond immediately. “Most people don’t talk on the phone anymore,” adds Pique. “Texting is so popular — I am texting more than I speak to contractors and customers.” Maria Van Den Elzen, a finisher at Grand Floors for 12 years, reflects the knowledge on display at the company.

According to Van Den Elzen, she works mainly with oak or maple species of wood, and occasionally walnut, for staircase finishing. “It just depends on what the customer prefers,” she says. “Usually the customer wants to match the flooring. If the floor is oak, they will choose an oak staircase.

If the decision is financial, they will choose maple or, if they like the look of maple staircase more, we will accommodate that of course.

“For instance, it is very unusual to have a maple floor with an oak staircase.” Paints, stains and coatings have changed quite a bit over the years, she notes. “They obviously shift with whatever colours are featured from year to year. Right now, it is natural looks and greys that are very, very big.” All over the wood industry, there is more and more emphasis on the use of eco-friendly products, including stains. “The ones we have from Bona are derived from pine trees since they are a bit better for the environment,” says Van Den Elzen. “Coatings have changed to become more water-based and more friendly to the environment as well, compared to say a polyurethane- or a lacquer-based product.” On a floor or stair tread surface, for example, one stain layer and four coats of a water-based coating might be applied in the Grand Floors finishing shop, for a total of five layers.

“However, because the colours are changing so much sometimes we have to do a double stain application,” says Van Den Elzen. “That means there will be two stains and four coats on the stairs. On the floor, there will usually be five coats.” The client sometimes asks for changes during a project, so that if there is a dog in the home, an extra protective coat might be requested.

“There is absolutely nothing out there when it comes to dog-scratch proofing for hardwood,” she cautions. “But overall, we try to accommodate for younger children and for pets. We keep that in mind.” When floor treads, spindles, railings or mouldings simply can’t be worked on in the shop, the company has skilled people to do finishing and refinishing on-site, she adds.

Veteran finisher Sue Szymanksi adds a stain to a staircase component.

The importance of having the finishing shop is ultimately to convenience the customer, in addition to quality control. Olszewski notes, “the majority of our competitors produce staircases unfinished. Then you would have to provide a separate stainer and finisher to come into your house to complete the staircase. In which case the customer has no access to the staircase for a week’s time for it to cure. Our way they can also use their staircase right away. By having greater curing times we are able to apply four coats of finish where traditionally on site we would only be able to apply maybe two.

“What Maria is doing in the back is we are conveniencing the customer by prestaining everything. The customer can come in and select the colour or sometimes we will match the colour.” By the early 2000s, the latest trends in the flooring industry affecting Grand Floors were engineered hardwood and laminate. These new options opened up a new price point to the client as well as more user-friendly options when it comes to DIY home renovations, the company says. In the early 2010s, the business introduced high-quality vinyl, cork, and ceramic tiles to its offerings. So, if hardwood isn’t an option because the homeowner’s dog is too big, the company can provide alternatives.

Treating all customers with the same high level of service is important to the company. According to Pique, “any small repair we service the same way as the big projects in Muskoka or other monster houses we have worked on over the years.” Grand Floors projects typically run between $500 and $50,000. If a custom home builder is involved, the company will do one building project at a time.

With that philosophy, it has found that builders are comfortable with referring their customers to Grand Floors.

“We look after the builder,” says Pique. “Picking the product with the client and making sure it is the right product fit for the specification of what the builder is building. “Maybe they have radiant heat, or it is only a three-season area. Then we quote it and we work under the builder. The builder is trusting that we are going to host the client in our showroom and give them the service and information they need to make a decision. I don’t feel that our services are needed in a full-blown subdivision.” Olszewski has been in the industry long enough to have watched building trends and identify areas of growth for his family’s business. “The trend is to cater to the convenience of the customer — especially with the area we are located in. All of those subdivision homes that have already gone up.

“Now we are approaching that 20- year cycle where people are refurbishing their homes.” Pique points out that there aren’t a lot of trades who can do sanding and finishing, skills at the core of the Grand Floors business that have been imparted to contractors and staff by her father.

She uses the example of a customer frustrated by shoddy workmanship, where a builder “messed up” on her home, then hired a third party to “clean the mess up for the builders.” Whoever was hired didn’t have experience, according to Pique. “It was like they hired a shoemaker to change an engine.” Pique walked the customer through what Grand Floors could do to rectify her situation after she had already spent several thousand dollars. “I spoke to her and showed her what we were going to do step-by-step. She said, ‘now I understand.’ The other people had simply rushed and made mistake after mistake.

“The first visit and talking to the customer is the most important part of their decision. Transparency, knowledge, perfection — that is what we try to achieve.”