Former Vogtle employee finds second career as home inspector

Remington CEO Victor Kiam rose to TV fame in the 1970s by using this line to sell electric razors: “I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company.”

 

That’s the very short version of Dallas Gardner’s story. He liked a home inspection so much, he bought a franchise in a home inspection business.

The real story is a bit longer than that.

Gardner, who lives in Martinez, spent 16 years in the nuclear construction business. But just a few weeks ago he became one of the newest franchisees for Pillar To Post, with more than 550 locations throughout North America.

Home inspections often are conducted during the process of buying a house. An inspector will look at a home’s exterior, interior, utilities, appliances and safety features to report to an owner or potential buyer if there are repair or maintenance issues that need to be addressed.

Gardner likens his new job to being a doctor for a house.

“We’re the M.D.s who takes the ‘pulse’ of the house and the status of the house at the time it’s being sold or transferred, to give any kind of recommendation if there’s any follow-up that may be needed,” he said.

Gardner grew up in Greeneville, Tenn., and after high school enrolled at nearby Maryville College as a chemistry major. But he finished college as a business management major in his hometown, at Tusculum College.

He stayed in Greeneville to run quality control in the lab at Minco Inc., a company that makes silica mainly for computer chips.

Though he wanted to teach and coach football – he played in college – Gardner “floated for a couple years, taking masters class and working.”

Another job he had was as a production assistant for the now-defunct Americas Collectible Network shopping channel, which began in Greeneville but later was bought by Jewelry Television. While working there, he met Marla, the woman he would marry.

As the wedding date approached, Gardner said, “that’s the point where I started to look heavily for a career, and ended up as a health and safety inspector for a kitchen and bathroom cabinet and flooring manufacturer, Triangle Pacific.”

As the company’s environmental coordinator, Gardner helped assure federal regulatory compliance under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Basically my job was to go around and inspect and keep us out trouble for when the inspectors came in, because we had a lot of hazardous waste with the paints and varnishes and things like that,” he said.

It also set Gardner on a career path that developed, and relied on, his already keen eye for detail.

His career in the nuclear industry began in 2001 at Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, Tenn., which makes nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy.

“They did a lot of things back in the ‘60s that were acceptable practices,” he said. “That’s just what you did. You buried a lot of things over in a corner of your property, and they had buried a lot of stuff.”

His job first was helping supervise the remediation of contaminated soil. Then he became a lab supervisor, and later he oversaw the federal licensing of the facility.

Other licensing jobs followed. He accepted a contract to work at Honeywell Metropolis in southern Illinois, then across the Ohio River to the United States Enrichment Corporation in Paducah, Ky. Both companies produced enriched uranium that’s used as fuel in nuclear power plants.

But Honeywell became embroiled in a labor dispute that cast the future of the company into doubt, and U.S. Enrichment gradually stopped its uranium enrichment on its way to filing for bankruptcy.

That’s what brought Gardner and his family to Georgia – to help build Plant Vogtle’s units 3 and 4 in Burke County.

“I was brought down in 2012 to their licensing department, and I’ve held several jobs, but most recently I’ve been a construction manager for processes,” he said. That’s the manager who makes sure what’s being built meets federal nuclear regulatory requirements.

Many area residents might know what happened next.

In late 2015, Westinghouse Electric Co. bought the nuclear construction subsidiary of Gardner’s employer, Chicago Bridge &Iron. That deal made Westinghouse sole project manager at Vogtle.

Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy last March, but by that time Gardner was again looking around for something else.

“That whole last year we were getting indications that things were not going as good as it should be,” he said. “So I began looking.”

For years he had wanted to run his own business. He had a couple of part-time businesses on the side in his nuclear days, but not as his main job.

As the source for his small-business inspiration, Gardner cited his hard-working father, who was a barber in his hometown for 57 years. His father died in February.

“And that was somewhat of the catalyst. With everything that was going on, it was time to do something – and a little bit to honor his memory,” Gardner said.

So he began scouring newspaper ads for franchise business opportunities, and he was leaning toward getting into the commercial cleaning business. Then one day he picked up an entrepreneurial magazine that ranked the top franchises with a startup cost of less than $50,000. Near the top was Pillar To Post.

“That’s probably the funniest piece of this whole story,” Gardner said. “It just so happened that my wife and I had a home inspection done in western Kentucky, when we purchased a home there, done by Pillar to Post. We had no clue it was a franchise. We just thought it was a local guy who came out.”

That inspector impressed the Gardners with his professionalism.

“They had a really good ‘brand experience,’” he said. “That’s what we call it now. I didn’t know that at the time.”

So when he showed the magazine article to his wife, Marla said, “You know, you’d be really good at that.”

“It goes a lot with my background,” Gardner said. “In nuclear, you’re drilled into an eye for detail. T’s have to be crossed, I’s have to be dotted. Everything has to be done to the letter of the law. For over 15 years that’s been the way I operated.”

Weeks of hesitation and doubt followed. But in April, “we made the decision after a lot of prayer and a lot of discussion,” he said.

The timing seemed right. His third son had graduated high school. Their youngest child still is at home. They didn’t want to leave Augusta. The nuclear industry in the area is, in Gardner’s words, “stagnant.” And for the past two years he worked largely in Charlotte, N.C. With his own business, he would be at home more.

“We just really love Augusta and the CSRA, and this gave us the means for us to stay and for me to set up a legacy for my sons and have something that they can either continue or sell, whatever might be the case,” Gardner said.

After two weeks of intensive training in Toronto, he officially launched his franchise July 25.

As a home inspector, being a trained observer has a drawback. Once you see something slightly wrong, you can’t unsee it.

“We made a joke about that in training,” Gardner said. “We would go around on the weekend looking at homes, and joked that you just can’t turn it off. ‘It’s missing this.’ ‘It’s missing that.’ You get to where you’re trained and something the homeowner probably has been walking over for years draws your attention.”

It’s Gardner’s job to tell a homeowner whatever is wrong with a house – and there’s always something. It’s all about interpreting how significant a problem is.

“I feel like I’ve got a good eye for detail, sometimes to a fault,” he said. “The entire Pillar To Post experience is to educate the homeowner: No house is perfect. Even a new house is going to have something. Nothing’s perfect in this world. That’s the hard part to get homebuyers to understand.”

Gardner said he enjoys meeting people, sharing his findings and putting homeowners at ease when deciding their next step forward.

“I enjoy the interaction with individuals and educating them, if they don’t have a lot of background on the systems of the house,” he said. “It’s enjoyable to walk them through, see if they have any questions and address any concerns they have. The purchase of your home is the single largest purchase you’re ever going to make.”

Reach Joe Hotchkiss at (706) 823-3543 or joe.hotchkiss@augustachronicle.com.

 

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