- photos by Anthony Jinson
If you walked down the halls of any of our high schools and picked a teenager out at random to ask what he or she wanted to do with their life, you could bet a crazy amount of money that you wouldn’t hear “carpet installation and maintenance” as their answer.
You certainly wouldn’t have heard that answer from Eric Sappington. “I had no idea that the carpet cleaning industry even existed,” Sappington says. “I just knew I wasn’t ready for college right out of high school.”
So instead, Sappington started working at Hulett Heating & Air and was on his way to becoming a skilled tradesman. Sappington believes that life as a tradesman would have been a good living — especially today. “The builders I know cannot find enough tradesmen,” he says.
But the adventurous 19-year-old wanted to experience other things life had to offer, so he answered the call of duty, joined the U.S. Navy, and served as an aviation aircraft equipment specialist on the USS Constellation shortly after the first Gulf War.
STUMBLING UPON A CAREER
After four years of service, Sappington decided that college looked more appealing with the military being good enough to cover the cost. With the help of the GI Bill, Sappington went to school in Springfield. While in school, he worked for a property management company. One of the services they offered was carpet cleaning through Aero Dry Carpeting, for whom Sappington would moonlight to earn extra money. This is how Sappington was first exposed to the industry he has worked in for the past 20 years.
A lot of people used to believe there were health hazards associated with having your carpet cleaned. “It was probably true in the early days of the industry,” Sappington says, “because they were just cleaning with basic detergents and leaving a lot of residue.”
Today, “most companies use fiber rinses to neutralize the cleaning and spotting agents,” he says. In other words, people with kids and pets don’t have to be concerned about any harmful chemicals and are free to enjoy their clean carpets without worry.
Still in school and working two jobs, Sappington found himself needing to write a business plan for one of his classes and, wisely deciding to write what he knew, he decided to write a business plan for the carpet cleaning industry. “A home-based service industry business seemed like a better plan to write than trying to do a retail business or manufacturing,” he says.
Sappington’s boss at Aero Dry was happy to help him as he worked on his assignment (as long as he promised not to use it to start a competing company in Springfield). It turned out to be a good idea; it earned Sappington a B for the assignment, and he was able to use that very same business plan to secure a loan to start his own carpet cleaning business in his hometown of Ashland, also servicing Columbia and Jefferson City.
At first, Sappington thought this would be part-time work while he finished school, but the local economy responded very well and, to use Eric’s own words, “it took off.” Over the course of the next 10 years, through good times and bad, the business grew. “Actually, I had two businesses then,” Sappington explains, “one was carpet cleaning and the other was flooring. I combined them in 2005 into Sappington Carpet Care.”
ADAPTING TO SURVIVE
During the 2008 recession, the company had to adjust to make it through some lean years. They did it the same way that most companies did: They learned how to do more work with fewer workers. “We had a front desk person and sales people. All that went away.” Sappington bought out his partner and changed his customer interactions to “appointment only.” This is how he currently operates the business.
Sappington would tell you that this kind of flexibility has proven crucial in being able to run the business successfully. “You have to be able to bend and sway with customer needs and wants.”
Sappington says it’s also important to find a niche. While it’s important to be aware of what other similar companies are doing, you have to find a way to offer something that few other companies do. At Sappington’s, you pay by the square foot, as opposed to a lot of other carpet companies that charge by the room.
“You charge by the room and sometimes you win and sometimes the customer wins because, obviously, not all rooms are the same size.” Sappington says that charging by the foot gives the customers more choices in exactly how much carpeting they want done in their homes.
“You have to do right by your customers,” Sappington says. “If you do a good job, your customers might tell one or two people, but if you do a bad job, your customers will tell everybody.”
Sappington says this is especially true in Columbia. “Columbia is a big word-of-mouth town,” he says.
WHAT’S THE WORD?
In addition to his advertising in the Boone County Journal and having the endorsement of local radio celebrity Simon Rose, Sappington says that word-of-mouth is how he generates a lot of his business. And word-of-mouth reveals that Mid-Missouri is happy to have Sappington’s.
“Sappington’s Carpet Care has been cleaning our carpets for years,” says customer Mary Clark. “Eric provides excellent customer service and hires staff that always do a thorough job. It’s a pleasure to work with him.”
Gene Devore, a Columbia resident and repeat customer, would certainly agree. “They always make our carpets look like new,” he says. “That is not an easy job when you have two messy kids.”
A lot of the credit for this praise should certainly go to Sappington’s commitment to excellence, not only for himself, but also for anyone who works for him. Anyone who cleans carpet for Eric for the first time will have their work very closely inspected to make sure it’s up to the high standards Sappington’s customers have come to expect. “I use crews of the same three or four guys, and I’ve used them for years and years,” he says.
Sappington’s attitude toward his work certainly explains why his customers are pleased. “What really intrigues me about the service industry is that I like providing good service for people.”
Since this is exactly what you want to hear from someone you’re hiring to care for your home, it would certainly seem that local residents are standing on solid ground. Thanks to Sappington’s, that ground is also clean. CBT
Sappington’s Carpet Care
1215 Clinkscales Rd.