Cousins mend 20-year rift, combine competing C-U firms
CHAMPAIGN — A family feud that spawned a fierce rivalry between two Champaign-Urbana floor covering installers has ended.
Cousins Marty Smith of Tile Specialists Inc. and Rob Smith of Commercial Floor Covering not only made up with each other, but also combined their businesses.
The resulting firm, TSI Commercial Floor Covering, now operates from Commercial Floor Covering's space at 3611 N. Staley Road, C.
The rift between the two dated from 1992, when Rob Smith — who had been working for Tile Specialists — started Commercial Floor Covering.
For the next two decades, "we were the fiercest of competitors," said Marty Smith, chairman and CEO of the combined company. "Contractors used that against us. We spoke rarely during those 20 years."
Both men — grandsons of TSI founder Ernie Smith — say they had fun together as kids. Both were close to their grandfather, and both came up through the firm.
But Marty, now 53, was eight years older than Rob.
Marty's father, Karl Smith, succeeded Ernie in being in charge of the business, and Marty appeared next in line to head the company.
"I was in my early 20s, and I didn't want to be in his shadow," said Rob Smith. "I was cocky. I wasn't going to take second in the company."
Marty Smith said the two firms — which installed ceramic tile, vinyl tile and carpeting for hospitals, schools, universities and other institutional and commercial customers — ended up being "the two largest players in central Illinois" in that line of work.
"Between the two of us, we really controlled the market," he said.
But the companies were constantly played against each other by contractors and suppliers. Employees sometimes jumped from one company to the other.
The thaw in relations between the cousins was triggered last June by the death of Rob Smith's mother, Judy Bensyl.
"I picked up the phone to offer condolences," Marty Smith said. During the conversation, he said maybe some day they should sit down and talk.
Rob concurred, and 15 minutes later, the cousins met at the Champaign Starbucks on North Prospect Avenue.
"Three hours later, we had cleared the air," Marty Smith said. "Both of us admitted shortcomings. We're embarrassed to think this could go on so long. It would be a huge disappointment to our grandfather if he were still here."
Ernie Smith founded Smith's Linoleum in Urbana in 1950 and formed Tile Specialists Inc. in 1955. He died in 1992, and his employees commissioned a memorial for him. That memorial, originally at Tile Specialists Inc.'s office on West Bradley Avenue, is now near the entrance of the current office.
The cousins continued to meet from June to August, getting together in hotel lobbies at 6 a.m. and restaurants at 3 p.m. "so we would never be seen together," Marty Smith said.
Gradually, they worked out a business plan.
"By late August, we had patched the bad blood," he said. "We planned to start bringing the companies together in October, and in January we were fully operational as TSI Commercial Floor Covering."
"Once we started talking, we were quickly on the same page," Rob Smith said. "We wondered, why didn't we do this sooner?"
He said his wife and father-in-law had encouraged him to patch things up.
Both TSI and Commercial Floor Covering had moved into new facilities not many years before the reconciliation.
Commercial Floor Covering, which had been in Urbana, moved to the Staley Road location — formerly a Colwell Systems/Patterson Cos. facility — in 2009.
Also making the move was Rob's father-in-law's business, Advanced Wayne Cain & Sons Roofing & Sheet Metal.
In 2010, Tile Specialists Inc. moved from North Country Fair Drive to a 45,000-square-foot facility at 3104 Farber Drive in Champaign's Interstate Research Park. That building was formerly occupied by Hamburg Distributing.
To determine where the combined company should go, the cousins toured both facilities at 7 a.m. July 4 — when they knew no employees would be around.
It was clear the 87,000-square-foot Staley Road facility could better accommodate the needs of the combined company.
Marty Smith said that in merging the companies, he and Rob decided they would be "50-50 partners."
That was "against the advice and counsel" they received from others, who suggested one control at least 51 percent, he said.
But they figured if anything critical arose, they would work through the issues.
Dividing up responsibilities was fairly clear-cut, they said.
"We're two completely different people," Marty Smith said. "Rob's strengths are my weaknesses."
Rob has a good handle on operations, production and productivity, Marty said, while his own strengths are sales, finance and client relations.
Marty is chairman and chief executive officer of the company, and Rob is president and chief operations officer. They say they talk regularly.
"Rob has no hesitation in closing the door and giving me his two cents," Marty said.
Merging the cultures was probably the most difficult part of bringing the companies together, the cousins said.
At Commercial Floor Covering, Rob Smith was known for hard bidding, striving to submit the low bid, while TSI had a reputation for negotiating design bid work, Marty Smith said.
The combined company employs about 80 installers and just under 40 people in the Champaign office and warehouse and at a small sales office in Tinley Park.
Marty Smith said TSI had close to $18 million in annual revenues while Commercial Floor Covering's revenues were close to $10 million.
He said the combined company's revenues will likely be between $25 million and $35 million.
Marty Smith chalked the 1992 falling-out to "Rob and I both being young, cocky, abrasive guys" and called the feud "stupid and childish."
He said the feud wasn't the fault of the second generation — Marty's father, Karl, who at 73, remains a top producer for the firm, and Rob's father, Bob, now retired.
"The problem was ours," said Marty Smith, a former Champaign City Council member who ran for mayor in 1999 and lost to Jerry Schweighart.
Today, Marty Smith is a board member and treasurer of the Marajen Stevick Foundation, which owns The News-Gazette.
Both Rob and Marty Smith say they accept responsibility for their 20-year rift.
"I was more the instigator," Rob Smith said. "I was going to be second fiddle."
"But at the end of the day, it takes two to feud," Marty Smith said.
The competition between the companies was "line-in-the-sand" fierce, he added.
"We never did anything malicious, but if there was an opportunity, we were going to take it," he said. "We did our share of recruiting employees back and forth."
The cousins said the last seven months in business together have gone smoothly. Combining the businesses has given them more leverage with suppliers, and the combined workforce gives them greater capacity.
The renewed relationship extends beyond the workplace.
"We actually had Easter dinner together, and the kids had an egg hunt," Marty Smith said.