On his way to a law career more than 40 years ago, Jeff Katz established what would become the multimillion-dollar flooring empire of Dolphin Carpet & Tile.
Although the Portsmouth, N.H., native had worked in his father’s successful floor-covering business as a youth, he enrolled in the University of Miami School of Law. In his final year at UM, however, he became engaged and needed money to buy a home. And so he created a side business by buying and installing carpets — something he says he always enjoyed doing — for a couple of clients.
But Katz really committed himself to the carpet business when he was forced to choose between it and the law. He was a first-year lawyer at Ser & Keyfetz in Miami at the time — where, ironically, he had completed his first “floor-cover job’’ the year before while still a student clerking at the firm.
The request came as he received an end-of-the-year bonus in 1975. “I had one customer who was giving me a lot of business and financially, it made no sense,” Katz says. He earned seven times more from his carpet gig than he did from the law. So in deciding where his true passions lay, he chose the business he had known nearly all his life.
When he started Jeff Katz Carpet, Katz saw about $750,000 in sales the first year. Fast-forward to 2015, when the Doral-based company saw more than $25 million in sales from its 10 stores in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The company now has about a million feet of inventory and niche items in its warehouses. “In terms of independent retailers, we’re one of the biggest in the country and one of the most successful, which I’m proud of,” he says.
Along the way, flooring, not just carpets, became the focus. “In the 1970s and 1980s, carpet was king,” he says. Today, wood and its variants, tile, laminates and other hard surfaces dominate the market, although the company still sells carpet, too.
Flooring products now are far more varied and creative than they were, he says. For example, the carpets sold by the company are now “much softer, very durable and they stand up to heavy foot traffic. Stains are very easy to remove.”
And tiles: There are now some that look like wood. “Tiles can also mimic marble,” Katz says. “And they’re a little easier to take care of than marble,” although you can also get marble floors from Dolphin Tile. Mosaics and medallions, too, can also resemble pebble stone and other nature-inspired designs.
Laminates also can look like a nearly endless number of beautiful wood surfaces. And engineered wood floors are a big seller.
“Today, engineered wood is 90 percent of what’s sold in South Florida when it comes to wood,” Katz says. Made out of the same hardwoods and softwoods used to manufacture lumber, it performs well in tropical climates, resisting bending and twisting even in humidity. The two- to four-millimeter-deep planks are also coated with aluminum oxide finishes for strength: “You can never wear it out.”
It’s a big improvement over what once was widely used in South Florida, Katz says. “Back in the 1970s and 1980s, you had 3/4-wood” — that is, 3/8 of an inch above and 3/8 of an inch below the tongue-and-groove — “that is also used a lot up North. But in South Florida, if you have 3/4 wood and your electrical goes out for two weeks, it’s all going to warp.” During Hurricane Andrew, for instance, homes with engineered wood “really stood up and didn’t have any problems.”
As the company and its products have evolved, so have the company’s employees, who’ve become more skilled and knowledgeable, Katz says. And Dolphin Carpet & Tile has become a familiar name in South Florida.
“It took a lot of hard work,” Katz says of his company’s success. “I think part of it was that growing up in a small New England town, I realized that if you don’t satisfy customers, you are out of business. From the time I started the business, I always tried to satisfy customers and do the job right at a fair price. If a customer has a legitimate complaint, I take care of it as soon as possible.”
Company name: Dolphin Carpet and Tile. It began in 1974 as Jeff Katz Carpet, changing first to Dolphin Carpet in 1976, and then changing to its current name in the early 1990s.
How did Katz pick the company’s name? “I had a friend who was a huge Dolphins fan. When I was going to floor covering full time, he said, ‘You should call it Dolphin Carpet. Think about it. They just won two Super Bowls. It will give you instant name recognition.’ Being from New England, I was a Patriots fan. But then I thought about it and changed loyalties overnight.” He has been a Dolphins fan since, although he remains loyal to the Red Sox.
Business: Selling and installing new flooring.
Website: www.dolphincarpet.com. The site includes an online product catalog, design tools and a virtual room designer.
Number of employees: About 50. There are also installation companies who contract with Dolphin.
Offices/showrooms: Based at 3550 NW 77th Court in Doral. Has locations: in Pinecrest/Palmetto Bay, North Miami, Davie, Coral Springs, West Kendall, Pembroke Pines, Fort Lauderdale, Deerfield Beach, West Broward.
Owners, management: Katz, founder and president; Cary Cass, general manager; Jeff Stephens, assistant general manager.
Clients: Residential homes, primarily. But Dolphin has worked on a variety of projects, including businesses in the Brickell Avenue area of Miami. One in progress: installing about 2,000 yards of carpet for the offices of EisnerAmper, an accounting firm.
Competitors: Home Depot, Lowe’s are big-box competitors; smaller competitors like Miami Carpet & Tile based in Fort Lauderdale (which also does flooring jobs for yachts), Martinez Wood Floors and Laminate Flooring in Miami, are often more specialized.
The difference: The company’s expertise and customer service make it a standout, says Cary Cass, the company’s general manager. “We are focused on floor covering. We are floor experts and we take care of the customers. We discuss needs with customers.”
Another big advantage is that Dolphin has a more efficient installation system, Cass says. “The installers work more closely with customers and develop relationships with them. This allows the installers to more effectively meet the needs of customers. The big-box stores offer installation but have a more complex operation and more people to coordinate.”
Sales: $25 million in sales in 2015, and sales were up about 7 percent over that in 2016. Sales were about $20 million in 2010.
Outside view: Helene Hollub, executive vice president, principal of Hollub Homes, has worked with Dolphin Carpet and Tile for many years. She has been pleased with their work. “They are responsible and produce a good product,” she said.
Challenges and headwinds: Katz says the company does everything it can to please its high volume of customers and is usually successful. At times, there have been situations where “they will see a sample of a floor covering in a store but have difficulty envisioning it in their home. Sometimes the customer will decide they want something else after it has been installed.” Dolphin offers a satisfaction guarantee on many items, allowing the customer to have the installed product replaced.
Katz also says that there have been staffing challenges over the years and that the company has worked hard to address them: “It can be difficult to find the right employees. And we have had difficulties with installers over the years. ... We recruit the best installers out there and train our staff extensively.” It helps that the floor-covering products themselves are better now, so that has reduced complaints as well: “The business is always evolving.”
Several negative reviews about the company are found on online sites that purport to be from former customers who’ve experienced shoddy work, an inability to get complaints answered, or other issues. Katz responds by saying that the “thousands” of positive reviews dwarf the number of complaints, and he emails links to hundreds of glowing comments from happy customers to support his point.
In a volume business such as his, Katz says, complaints are inevitable, but Dolphin makes every attempt to get it right: “When you do 12,000 jobs a year and you do 60,000 jobs over five years, can you ever satisfy every single person? No. You try to do the best you can. We probably satisfy 99.9 percent of the people.
“There are very few businesses that stay around 43 years that aren’t doing somethings right.”
Worst mistake ever: Katz said that about a decade ago, he made errors in negotiations to buy a building that would’ve been good for his business because he “lost sight” of what the objective was. He didn’t get the building.
Best decision ever: After he went to a tile trade show in Miami Beach in the 1990s, he decided to begin importing materials from abroad. His tiles and other products now come from Europe, South America and Asia. “If you’re in a competitive market like South Florida, you need to import product,” he says.
Strategy, looking forward: “We grew this business by offering value and service and we will continue to strive delivering the same for years to come,” Katz says. Dolphin Carpet & Tile figures out how the customer will use the flooring and tells the customer what products they should use, he says. “Our strategy which I don’t think has changed is, the right product at a fair price. And if you have a legitimate complaint, we take care of it for you.”
Business Monday Editor Rory Clarke contributed to this report.