Early’s Carpet spreading joy for nearly fifty years

By Posted on Feb 02 2014 | By

 Amissville firm caught wall-to-wall trend early on 

In 1951, when the post-World War II housing explosion was beginning to surge, the carpet industry sold six million square yards of wall-to-wall. Seventeen years later, almost 400 million yards adorned homes nationwide.

Among the first businesses to spot the consumer trend from hardwood floors and area rugs to foot comfy wall-to-wall was John Early. Forty-seven years later, the thriving family business is an icon in Culpeper, Rappahannock and Fauquier counties.

In 1954, Early began his career as a flooring installer and commuted daily to jobs in Northern Virginia to make a living. Even back then, the traffic was bad. He eventually decided to work out of his home in Amissville and spend less time on the road. At the time, there were only two furniture stores and one lumber company in the tri-country area selling carpeting.

Early began working for them. But he soon realized those businesses did not see the rising popularity of wall-to-wall. He quit the job and opened Early’s Carpets. “When we started out, everyone thought we were crazy because there was nothing out here but those three firms,” recalls his wife, Lorraine, who provided a succinct history of the company. “John couldn’t make a living on that income and in less than two years on our own we had our building up and grew from there.”

Three years later, the store was expanded to include a warehouse. In 2014, there are plans to expand again with a 3,500 square foot facility dedicated to its rug cleaning business. Starting a business from scratch in the rural Piedmont region—and consider how rural it was forty-seven years ago—had its challenges.

“Back then, we hand addressed and mailed 42,000 flyers twice a year” to help build the business, says Lorraine Early. Hand cramps must have been a common aliment during those early marketing efforts. Today, the successful business generates $2.5 million in sales annually, employing twelve people, including five family members and a fleet of a dozen vehicles.  

Local touch
As the company grew, it became evident that John Early’s take on changing consumer demand was not his only ace on building the business. “Both John and I attended local high schools. We grew up with our customers. It was an asset to personally know a lot of them, including our teachers, friends and people in the banking business,” says Lorraine Early.

“It was a nice experience to go into the homes of these people. It was fun decorating and seeing the finished product. “When we started we didn’t have but seventeen dollars and some change in our savings. It was all done by hard work and faith in our local banks,” she says, explaining how bank financing worked in a gentler time.

As the business succeeded, carpet installation grew along with sales of oriental and area rugs, hardwood and ceramic flooring, window treatments, and carpet cleaning services. “Anything to do with flooring,” says Early. Trends tend to be cyclical, and today home decorating is moving back to hardwood floors and area rugs. Early’s is again well-positioned to capitalize on the shift.

Over time, it became obvious carpet cleaning could also generate additional income. For years, it was performed with small machines carried into the home. With the emphasis on today’s “Green Scene”, the Early’s purchased “mounted trucks”; a vehicle with high-power, environmentally friendly cleaning motors. Sucking up dirt and odors with these mechanical stallions made for happy homeowners. Remodeling does not readily come to mind with carpet installation, but when water damaged is encountered, Early’s will tear out and replace floors, walls, door jams and ceilings. However, getting homes dried quickly is critical to avoiding such expensive restoration work.

“Our technicians go to school in Georgia to learn how to completely dry out a home. During training, the company floods an entire house and the students learn how to dry it out. If you don’t get to it quick, mold will set in. We have even refinished guns that were water damaged,” she says.

When hiring a new employee, the Early’s emphasize they are embarking on a career, not just a job. “We tell them it’s like going to college, but longer. There is a lot of product knowledge and studying to do. A person needs to stay up with it. “John and I use to do all the training ourselves but now we depend on our daughter and son-in-law to do it. Once trained, we want our employees to stay in the business. It takes five years of on-the-job training to become proficient in the flooring business,” Early explains.

When the company was in its early years, it was typical to get just two or three customers a week. “We’d have customers push the buzzer on the store front door. My children were just a few months old and people would have to wait till I got there from our home out back,” she remembers. Today, those few of customers have grown to several hundred visits a week.

The clientele is still primarily local people, but increasingly the Early’s are seeing buyers from the Gainesville and Hay Market area. “While we do some commercial work—mostly local churches, banks and other businesses—the bulk of our business is still centered on residential.” The firm does not pursue track housing contracts.

One couple who are relatively new to Culpeper County heard about Early’s reputation and chose them to install hardwood flooring and carpeting. “Oh, we were very happy with them. The workmanship was great and we were very satisfied with the product,” the homeowner commented.

The Early’s could, no doubt, fill several volumes with similar testimonials. While the internet is changing how business is generated these days, Lorraine Early doesn’t see it as a growing force in the family shop. “Yes, we do have some online sales but in this business you still have to measure and touch things. For the most part, our customers want to see us,” before making a buying decision.

“This type of business requires a lot of personal attention. You need to stay on top of things. Everybody wants to do computers but our work is a little different. It’s hands on but rewarding. The personal touch is important to our success.”

What has also helped the small firm grow is its depth of inventory. The warehouse has over 75 large rolls of carpet, 400 area rugs, 100 rolls of vinyl, and selections of hardwood and ceramic flooring to chose from. “When customers are working on a project and want to complete it, they can come in and often find what they need without having to order it.”

Recession’s impact Money

In reflecting on the last six years, Lorraine Early says. “It’s been hard. There hasn’t been much improvement. I feel very fortunate our buildings are paid for but young people need to be trained and they need the jobs. Business comes in spurts and you get excited but then it drops back.

“We’ve had to do away with a lot of our employee benefits, except health insurance. We have kept it for all our employees. But paid holidays and vacations have had to go in order to afford the insurance.” While remodeling is often viewed as a bright side to a depressed economy, the Early’s don’t see it.

They do more advertising to keep their name in the market place. The benefits of growing a business when you are young and living in a rural area is the ability to attract customers you grew up with. Today, both the owners and their faithful customers are aging and younger newcomers moving into the area. “We need to keep our name our there so people know who we are.

There has been influx of new people and they don’t always know us.” One benchmark of the quality work provided by Early’s is repeat business. It’s not unusual for them to perform work on floorings that were installed thirty or forty years ago. “The quality of our work has really held up,” Lorraine Early says.

The family
At this stage of his career, one might call John Early, Installer Emeritus. He acts as the public face of the company, handling public relations and work site visitations, while monitoring customer satisfaction and quality control. At 79, is well positioned to know when a project needs a bit of fine tuning. His depth of experience also serves to train and mentor his younger employees.

Lorraine Early speaks with respect when she shares that her husband is a two time cancer survivor. “He’s had health issues that he shares it with people who are going through a lot of turmoil. He is still active and is a very determined man,” she says with pride.

Lorraine Early managed the sales force and the decorating side of the business for decades and still oversees it. However, back in 2000 she turned much of the daily in-store work over to her daughter, Sonja, who is the store manager and project scheduler.

Sonja’s husband, Solon Betts, is head installer. Son John handles in-home measuring assignments, and grandson, Ted, heads up cleaning and restoration. Grandson Cody, attends the itt Technical Institute in Chantilly, preparing for a career in computers. Meanwhile, he oversees the company’s computer applications. The Early’s have no plans to sell their business but if they ever did, the buyers would be family members. What they have built together will stay together as the family flagship.

For hours of operation and a full description of the company’s product line and services, visit http://earlyscarpetinc.com/    landscape   Published in the Winter 2014 edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.

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