Pete Burgess, a former Navy officer who had built a career as a trader in corn and interest-rate futures, was in his 11th year of working “the wild life” of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange when he decided he needed a change. It was 1995 when he left his business partner and six employees and set out for North Carolina, a place he fondly remembered from his years at UNC Chapel Hill. At the university he took part in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, played on the freshman basketball team and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1967. He and wife Nancy moved to Boone, where the main drag, King Street, reminded him of Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street.
Nearly two decades later — after a period of tedious semiretirement, five years of work for a homebuilding contractor and a decade of developing his own home-improvement business — Burgess, 69, has settled into a different life. He owns Tar Heel Basement Systems LLC, a Winston-Salem-based company that installs and maintains vapor barriers — plastic seals that keep crawl spaces dry and free of mold and mildew. Jobs typically cost $5,500 to $6,000, including foundation repair work.
He discovered the system while preparing to build his own house in Boone in 2001, realizing that humidity makes the region susceptible to mold and mildew. “It just seemed like a very practical thing to put into dirt crawl spaces. I could see the benefit of it in terms of drying it out, keeping the underside of the floor system dry,” he says. “I started going out there and marketing it, and people called me, I put it in, and they were thrilled to death. The concept is sound. The whole thing just seemed to click and come together.” Last year, the company opened a second office in Winston-Salem, which now serves as its headquarters. From fewer than 20 employees and $2.3 million in revenue in 2012, the business has expanded to 52 full-time employees and projected revenue of $7.5 million in 2014. The Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce named the company its 2013 Business of the Year, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce cited it in February as one of the nation’s top 100 small businesses, based on its growth and community service.
Expansion hasn’t come without some stumbles. The company grew too fast in 2012 and 2013, generating more leads than it could handle and leading to canceled orders from customers tired of waiting for overwhelmed installers to show up. The company spent much of the last year recruiting sales representatives and installers, adding 29 employees from mid-2013 to mid-2014. To attract them, the company sweetened its benefits packages in an era when many small businesses are cutting back. Employees now receive company-paid health and life insurance, access to a wellness program and paid holidays and vacation time.
“It’s just the way I was brought up. I’d rather treat people well,” Burgess says. “Employees many times leave jobs not because of pay but because they’re not happy. If they’re happy, they’ll sound happy on the phone and serve customers better.” Giving back is also part of Tar Heel’s approach as it chooses a local nonprofit to support each month with labor or money. Employees are paid five hours per year for community-service time. “A lot of employees don’t realize how fulfilling volunteering can be. When they do, it can be really satisfying,” says Jackie Hoffman, the company’s marketing director. Futures traders back in Chicago might disagree, but Burgess believes a single-minded focus on profit can’t sustain a business, Burgess says. “We have a saying: Don’t do things right, do the right thing. I wish more businesses, more people, could afford to have the same attitude.”
— Greg Lacour