Larry Gibson, 61, is co-founder and president of Dartmouth, N.S.-based Install-A Floor Ltd, parent company of Floors Plus, Style 52 furniture and Dantra Specialty Products.
My father died when I was nine. He was a medic for National Defence. I still remember when I answered the phone. After the funeral, my uncles said, "You're the man of the house now." I was never the same, in and out of school. I ran away at 13.
I hitchhiked west. I couldn't get a ride, then a couple took me into Quebec City. They gave me a room, drove me to the highway the next morning – a real act of kindness to a little black guy hitchhiking. I wish I could show them what they did wasn't for naught. In Montreal, I was a busboy, staying at the Salvation Army. I looked older because I got jobs across the country. I got my pilot's licence in Alberta but in 1982's recession I came back to Halifax.
I worked for Eatons. They were closing its Halifax flooring division; I continued their projects [as the business wound down] while I started out but needed bonding and nobody would hire me. They gave me chairs and a desk – I was superstitious getting a new desk years ago – and vouched my bonding. [But still,] my premiums were double that year, 1988.
When we first started, I wanted to be on job sites but stay in touch [with the office] as sales is about communication. I'd be at sites until [wife] Patricia, in the office, left to get the kids from school. I bought a mobile phone for $2,000 – $15,000 in today's money. It paid off as she cold-called a university, and the guy asked if we could quote in 30 minutes. It weighed a ton, maybe eight pounds. It had its own case; using it was like a movie scene where some military guy runs into a field to set up base communications.
Sales were an old boys' club. I'd get a price from a supplier then call the rep in Calgary and get the same price. I (finally) told the Halifax rep I'd buy from Calgary and ship the product, or I could buy from him at a better price. That was a breakthrough. My first government contract I lost money, doing it below cost the first year just to get in the door and learn.
I didn't look up until 1993 – we had 633-per cent growth in five years. We eventually bought our own buildings with no debt, bringing the latest fashion and technology to customers, and now have a private room for architects and designers. Without government funding, we've done millions of dollars in business, and because I consider us a service company, we've paid a minimum 30 per cent in salaries, and currently have 44 crews working.
Bacteria love to thrive in cracks. After bacteria killed 18 babies at hospitals in Jamaica last year, we went in. We used anti-microbial panels, thermally moulded to walls without seams. It's even moulded around corners and to anti-slip floors. Before, our concentration was mostly hotels – we didn't realize what we offered was of such human importance. We're smarter now about the uses for products and we identified gaps – intensive care, operating and emergency rooms, blood collection – any health-care unit. There are 23 hospitals in Jamaica we're in line to do, and we train local workers, creating jobs wherever we work. International sales are growing – we sell to China, Iceland, the United States, the Caribbean.
I was diagnosed with cancer years ago. My doctor clipped my wings as I'd asked for a pill so I wouldn't have a knot in my stomach. He refused, saying I needed to delegate. Around that time Francis Chisholm, who'd started here after university and never gets enough recognition, took more responsibility off my shoulders – he's a partner, and opened the business to other opportunities.
Human interactions in manufacturing have sanitation requirements like clothing and masks, what's missing is the envelope, clean rooms in physical environments including food processing, laboratories – that's what we focus on. I used to feel good when I left a person's home, that I'd helped with their project. Now I help solve problems on a much larger scale, of a lot of lives, every day.