Clay Trader

Finding a niche ... made of tile

by Heleigh Bostwick

artisan_tileMark Parent started his Richmond business Artisan Tileworks in 2000, happily leaving behind earlier ambitions of Wall Street success to work with his hands. He’s pictured with DJ, a rescue dog.

In 1988, Wall Street, the movie, was playing in theaters across the country and Richmond native Mark Parent had just graduated with a degree in finance from the University of Vermont. He dreamed of making it big on Wall Street as a stockbroker.

After successfully interviewing at a number of firms in Boston and New York, he realized it wasn’t the job for him. “It was too impersonal and too big,” says Parent.

Jobless, he moved back in with his parents. “They paid for college and I owed them money. We agreed that I would build a garage mudroom to pay off debt.” Pretty soon a neighbor asked him if he could do a small remodeling job. He said yes.

“I had always gravitated to the trades, working as a painter and carpenter, and in excavating during high school and college, so it seemed like a good fit.” As the word spread, he picked up more work. At first the jobs were small, but later he was doing bigger kitchen remodels. “I always did the tile work because I really enjoyed it.”

In 2000, Parent decided to focus exclusively on tile and founded Artisan Tileworks. “When I decided to just do tile I met with an old friend from high school who is a graphic designer,” he recalls. “She knew me and the direction I wanted to move — high-end residential — and we came up with the name and logo, which she created.”

About 80 percent of his work is for residential contractors and builders such as Sweeney Design Build, Cedar Ledge Builders, and Brian Vorse of Vorse Construction, mainly around Chittenden County, the Champlain Islands, and nearby ski areas where people have vacation homes.

“I have a loyal group of contractors in the area that I do work for, but I do get the odd homeowner job now and then and some commercial work,” says Parent, whose tile work graces the bathrooms at Barnes & Noble as well as several local restaurants, for which he is more than happy to barter for meals.

“I like to do master suites with big walk-in showers and whirlpool tubs,” he says of his favorite type of residential work, adding that most of what he does is interior work as opposed to outside work such as tiling pools, which is not much in demand in a northern climate. “Clients usually have folders full of pictures from magazines and strong ideas of what they want,” he says. “To be able to tailor the work to their vision is very satisfying to me.”

He says there’s never been a situation where he’s had to say, “No, it can’t be done,” and he often attends seminars put on by tile manufacturers to keep up with current trends and materials. “I can always figure out a solution and do what they want.”

Parent works out of his home in Richmond — the same house where his grandparents lived when he was growing up right across the road. “After my grandmother died, we bought it and remodeled it,” he explains. The “we” includes his wife, Susanne, a para-educator at Richmond Elementary. The couple, who met at the wedding of a mutual friend 24 years ago and married in 1996, have two teenage daughters, Lindsey, 13, and 15-year-old Emma, who has just recently expressed an interest in working in the business.

Because Parent works so closely with local tile suppliers such as North Country Tile, Dal Tile, and Best Tile, there’s no need to store inventory at his house. “I rarely use the same tile twice and they have everything I need as far as supplies,” says Parent who likes keeping his business simple and does all the bookkeeping, billing, estimating, and bids for every job himself.

As a sole proprietor, he’s resisted the urge to grow and have 10 employees because “more employees means less hands-on. I’ve had as many as three employees in the past, but when I hire younger people and train them, after they learn the trade, they want to strike out on their own.”

“I have two vehicles,” he says, “the Artisan Tile van and a pickup truck that I use when the weather is bad or the roads are mud.” His finance degree has come in handy over the years, but Parent says that running a tile business is not too complicated because prices of materials don’t change much from year to year and the estimating and bid process is similar on every job. “There’s a process from the time a potential job comes in the door,” he explains. “I do the estimate, submit the proposal, and then I either get or don’t get the job.”

As for the workday, it’s definitely not your typical 9 to 5. “I work a lot on Saturdays and during the months preceding the winter holidays,” he says. When he does have some down time, he might go skiing, but because his job is physically demanding, he prefers less active hobbies like reading. “Just about every Sunday while Susanne is at church, I go to Barnes & Noble, grab a coffee, and read magazines.”

Parent aspires to learn piano one day, and confesses that he’s a closet singer. “When I’m in the van or in the shower I’m singing my heart out to Sinatra,” he says with a chuckle.

Most days find him on the job by 6 a.m. It’s not uncommon for him to have multiple jobs in process, he says. “I might be prepping the floor for one job, then go to another and grout the tile.”

Meetings with clients, designers, and architects to discuss the details of design elements like built-in shower niches or decorative elements on the walls are typically held early or late in the day. “Most of my work is for high-end residential and my clients are fairly affluent. There might be a lot of tile work with intricate detail in the design so I always meet with them to make sure I understand exactly what they envision,” he says. “You have to make it work and deal with all of the different personalities involved because once it’s done it’s hard to change.”

“Mark has a real eye for what the concept is and how to make it work,” says Candy Weston, the owner of Weston Design in Underhill. An interior designer and decorative artist, she hired Parent to do the tile work for a 15,000-square-foot home she was working on in South Hero.

They worked together for several months, she says. “The marble floor in the bathroom of the master suite was like putting together puzzle pieces, but he did an outstanding job with it. There’s never been a time when I thought there was something he couldn’t do.”

Weston recounts the day she heard Parent’s singing voice in action. “Our first project together was in 2006, and he was setting a limestone mantel that had been imported from France into place before tiling the inset of the fireplace,” she recalls with a laugh. “I heard Mark singing the song, “You Are So Beautiful” at the top of his lungs and went over to see what was going on. He replied that the mantel was giving him such a hard time he just had to start singing.”

Doug Maynes, regional manager at Best Tile in Williston, supplied the tile and materials for the South Hero job, one of their largest ever. “We put out a lot of tile into the marketplace, but don’t do installation ourselves so we depend on contractors like Mark,” he says. “We’ve heard so many good things from our customers about Artisan Tileworks. He’s one of our favorite installers and a pleasure to do business with.”

At 47, Parent doesn’t see an early retirement in his future. “I’ve always been a worker, starting when I was 12 or 13 years old baling hay. It’s tough for me to think about the idea of not getting up and going to work,” he says. “My plan is to continue the business, working with most of the same contractors.”

“One thing I really enjoy about my business is being on friendly terms with my suppliers,” says Parent. “I am vested in these business relationships and because of that, they do recommend me for jobs because they know me.”

Parent also clearly enjoys his relationships with his clients. “I might deal with 30 or 40 customers per year and it’s a small enough community here that I run into them on occasion,” he says. “I like being able to chit-chat-chit about work and their personal lives.”

He pauses for a minute and reflects that this life is a far cry from how his life would have been as a stockbroker. “I don’t make the money I would have made as a Wall Street broker, but I am comfortable. I’m in a good place now.” •

Mark Parent’s life is a far cry from how it would have been as a Wall Street trader. “I don’t make the money I would have,” he says, “but I am comfortable. I’m in a good place now.”