By Megan Salzano Birch— Crystal Sims began her career in the flooring industry nearly 10 years ago when she was asked by her brothers—Jose and Daniel Gonzales, owners of Preferred Flooring in Grand Rapids, Mich.—to join the business during a particularly busy season.
What began as a pit-stop has become a passion-fueled career with Sims boasting impressive trade skills—namely, flooring installation. In fact, today Sims is a finalist in the 2022 National Installer of the Year competition, which held its finale at TISE 2022 in Las Vegas.
What makes Sims stand out is not only that she is a woman and mother of three in an otherwise male-dominated industry, but that she has embraced her installation prowess while continuing to learn and teach those around her. “I think part of success is to never stop learning,” she said. “It took me a while to learn that. For a while, I was more in it because of loyalty to my brothers. It wasn’t until the birth of my last son that I had to make a choice—come back or find another job. I decided that I’d already been in this business for so long and I needed to put forth all of my effort or it wasn’t going to be worth it. Since then, I’ve been learning as much as I can.”
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Sims joined the business as a self-proclaimed “grunt man,” who couldn’t even read a tape measure. “My first week I was carrying rolls of carpet up four flights of stairs. I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ But it was my brothers, so I decided to stick it out. I didn’t actually start installing until probably a year and a half in; however, going out on jobs where they could actually trust me to cut in a piece of carpet and not mess it all up was probably into my second year.”
Sims noted that, in the beginning, the idea of making a mistake could be frightening, especially when her family’s business and reputation were on the line. However, over the years her perspective changed. “In hindsight, now that I’m training others, I feel that it’s so good to mess things up,” she explained. “The things I learned, how I got so good with my hands, is learning how to fix my own mistakes. I think that’s really an important part of the process, part of learning flooring. You’re going to make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect. When you make mistakes, being able to fix them is really big. And owning it is really big, too.”
Sims’ success also comes from determination, willingness to learn and strong leadership skills. She said she leans on each of these qualities to forge ahead and find success in her business. “In the beginning, I got really good at organizing and learning the processes—being able to think three steps ahead and planning from start to finish. Now, I’m very particular about how things are going to look in the end—I’m not afraid to tell someone that it doesn’t look good enough and we need to fix it, even if it means staying an extra hour at the end of the day. I think that has really helped me continue to be successful because I hold myself to a certain standard and that keeps the work coming.”
For many women in the industry, being a newcomer—and a female—can be daunting. Sims said she experienced some hesitance from male building managers or owners but has since learned to let her skill speak for itself. “The first time I realized being a woman in this industry was significant was when Jose sent me to do some [wall] base at a dry cleaner. I showed up and the guy called Jose and said, ‘You really sent a woman here to do this?’ He said, ‘Yeah, what’s wrong with that? You know what? Just see what she can do.’ When I finished, he called Jose and said it was the best job he’d ever seen. I still brag about that job to this day.”
For Sims, being a woman in a male-dominated industry is not a hindrance but an advantage and something to be proud of. She encourages other women to enter the industry as well. “Being a woman is a superpower, and being a woman in an industry you don’t see very many women in is an added superpower. I feel like a total badass most of the time. I can walk into a job as a female and people won’t expect much out of me, but I give them my best work and they are just floored by it. Never feel discouraged. And don’t ever let anyone tell you that your work is ‘less than’ because you’re a woman.”
Sims also recognizes the need for growth in the installation side of the business. She said she encourages not only women but younger people in general to join the flooring industry as there are many benefits to the job. “We’re definitely in an ‘installation crisis.’ We’re looking for younger generations to replace the people who are aging out. My best advice is that it’s such a rewarding job. Is it hard work? Yes. But once you see your finished product—and especially when the customer sees your finished product and you know you’ve done your very best and they love it—it’s super rewarding. To know for the next 10, 15, 20 years, they’re going to look at it and love it, that is really rewarding. There is also a lot of money to be made for someone who can learn and progress in this industry.”
The industry has begun to take steps to add to its ranks, and Sims said she’s looking forward to more forward momentum. “We’re looking for our industry to grow. We’ve got a lot of things that are in the works—a lot of certifications, a lot of training across categories and we even have five-week courses that can train you on one specific flooring type. The FCEF is offering scholarships to people who are willing to join the industry. There’s a lot of ways that you could get help started in this industry. And I’m really excited to be a part of that.”