Many of you know Robert O’Connell as the eight-time champ of our annual Fastest Nailer competition, but his achievements extend far beyond that. He is also the visionary owner of O’Connell’s Custom Concept, a contracting business based in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, which is widely acclaimed for producing breathtakingly beautiful work.
We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Robert to have a conversation about his business. In this Contractor Spotlight, we take a deep dive into his journey, his beginnings in the industry, and a few unique memories he’s accumulated over his impressive years in the field. Join us as we dig into Robert’s story.
How long have you been in the industry and how did you first get started?
I started out in the industry in the summer of ‘94 after my high school graduation working with Steve Eichman of Eichman Hardwood Floors. What started out as a summer job, turned into a full-time job. Years later I decided to start up my own business and worked with Doug Lindsey of D&L Hardwood Floors. I have greatly benefited from my time with both of them, and I am grateful for their willingness to teach me.
Steve came to me after my high school graduation and asked me what I was doing for the summer. And I said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I will probably go back to the orchard I had worked at the previous summer.
So he asked me if I wanted to do hardwood floors and whether I could start the following week on Monday morning, and I agreed.
My friends and I went down to the beach for Senior Week, and I was supposed to start working for him the following Monday. I was on my way home from the beach Sunday night/Monday morning at 2 AM, and ended up getting in a little bit of an accident with my car.
So I was up all night, drove to the Eichman’s house, and had to work all day.
That was my first day on the job with Steve, who unfortunately had a slipped disc at the time. He grabbed ahold of an edger, showed me how to set it up, turn it on and use it; then set me loose with it. So basically, my first day, I ended up in a crash course of how to sand a floor.
It was one of the hardest days of my life–I hadn’t slept in two days, started a new job and did things I had never done before. So my start in the flooring industry is so memorable. He really threw me on a bike for the first time with no training wheels.
Were you always drawn to hardwood floors or did you start out doing something else?
After working with Eichman for a year I went to college, I continued to work weekends and days off but unfortunately I ended up getting sick and had to drop out of college. As I was recovering, I took a job where I was sitting at computer, racking my brain for 10 hours a day, doing what I was going to college for as a CIS major/computer programmer.
I did that for about 3 months as I rebuilt my strength, in which time I realized that I felt like I couldn’t sit a desk the rest of my life and I missed working with my hands. There is a certain satisfaction in being a part of the restoration of hardwood floors. I went back to working with Eichman Hardwood Floors for a couple of years.
Most of the work I did with Eichman was re-finishing. Every job felt like a challenge but by the end of the day when we left, we had totally transformed it into something new. The beauty of wood is amazing, that hooked me a little bit. I enjoyed doing the work and seeing the results, I ended up loving it.
After a few years of working with Eichman, I was dating my now wife and she encouraged me to branch out on my own so that was the beginning of O’Connell’s Custom Concept.
Considering the name of your business–O’Connell’s Custom Concept–is your main focus custom inlays, border work, etc.?
In the beginning that was the goal. I wanted to specialize in only custom floors, borders, inlays, etc. I continued to work with D&L Flooring as a subcontractor, working mainly on the custom work he would get such as borders, herringbone floors, etc.
Before we were married, my wife was my designer. She would meet with some of the clients and actually come up with designs for their floors if they were looking for something custom, and do renderings for the clients.
My main focus was to do custom inlaid floors, custom designed. That’s the dream but dreams don’t pay the bills all the time. Those jobs can be few and far between.
Describe your favorite job that you’ve ever completed and why you liked it so much.
The Hummel Job – Red Oak and Walnut, Grecian Key Border, Croch Walnut Inlay. The customer liked the Greek key border but wanted everything hand cut out of solid wood. I had to design and create the border/inlay out of solid 3/4” solid material. He also did not want the corner blocks that were customary for that border. He liked my presentation so much that he decided to have me do the foyer in the same pattern. This added the challenge of dealing with the patterns, dimensional constraints, and multiple inside/outside corners while keeping everything continuous.
At the time, something like this only existed in a pre-cut ready made engineered product, so I had to figure everything out. I spent hours at the drawing board and countless hours cutting I don’t even know how many thousands of pieces for that border, all by hand with a chop saw.
But the thing that makes that job so memorable was when I finished that job and I got the check, and I turned around and bought my Clarke American 8” inch drum sander. That job paid for it and that sander is still in my shop and will never leave. (I bought it from City Floor Supply, which was Philadelphia Floor Store at the time).
What is one must-have piece of equipment that you always keep in your van/truck/arsenal?
The Clarke Epoch HD, hands down. In my opinion, Hydrasanding and or multidiscing is the next progression in the industry. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with the traditional methods i used in the past but it basically produces a better finished product. If you’re not using it, you’re working too hard to get amazing results.
Personally, it costs me more money in sundries to sand with the Epoch than it did the old way. I use a little more sandpaper compared to the traditional system, but in the end I spend less time, work is easier, and the finished product is better. To the average person, the job may look just as good as any other, but when I have other professional floors guys saying things like: “How do you do that? Oh, my God, I don’t see any flaws at all,” I think that is proof enough.
It’s changing everything. If you’re not doing it in the next 10 years, you’re going to get left behind.
About a year and a half ago, I wanted to do a small refinishing job for an elderly couple and the power was an issue. So I decided to do it the old-school way. You know, drum sander, edger, hand rub in the edges and square buff it–I didn’t even get the Epoch out.
By the end of the day, I was kicking myself. I was in there all day. If I had taken the Epoch in there, I would have been in there for just half a day and it would have looked better. I mean, it still looks good. It’’s completely acceptable, there weren’t swirl marks or anything like that. But the amount of effort that went into it was enormous. The amount of edger time that you spend on a traditional sand job, on 1000 square feet on a new floor if it’s halfway decent, you’re spending 45 to 50 minutes running an edger to fine out your edges. With the HydraSand system, I spend literally less than 10 minutes on 1500 – 2000 feet, because all you’re doing is sanding a little bit around the edge. And you’re using two or three edger discs at most.
The HydraSand gets 90% of everything. That right there saves so much time and effort and the results are amazing. It’s kind of hard to believe it can be that easy, but it is.
Just to say, I am a Clarke Guy, I was just brought up that way and i like their products, I have nothing against the others, they all have great machines.
Describe your ideal job site scenario––a job that you’d be excited to show up to. Is it a sand and finish or an install? Residential or commercial? What are the clients like?
My ideal job site scenario would be: New Residential Custom Install (parquet, pattern, border, etc.)
Install: Something new and challenging, preferably something I haven’t done yet.
Client: Knows what they want, isn’t afraid to try something new, appreciates the beauty of the wood and understands the importance of craftsmanship.
You meet someone who expresses interest in getting started in the flooring industry and asks for advice. What do you tell them?
Do every job to the best of your ability, never cut a corner regardless of what it costs you, always be honest with the client and all these will benefit your reputation, which is the most important thing you have when you own your own business. Also, don’t ever be afraid to reach out and ask questions, there is always another way or a better way to do things.
To this day, if i walk onto a new job site for a new contractor and they are working on trim or hanging doors. I’ll ask, “Hey, will show me how you hang a door?” even though I’ve been hanging doors for 20 years there might me a better way. I also don’t have a problem asking other flooring guys things either, some will share, some won’t. I always try to help, my ways may not always be the best but they have worked for me.