Leap of faith

Suzanne and Ray Lilly know what it means to lay everything on the line and take a leap of faith.


To start their business, they sold their dream home and moved with their three children into a smaller house to reduce their living expenses. In addition, Mr. Lilly quit his job as a contractor.

Their dream: to start their own flooring business.

In 2005, the Lillys opened Hard-wood Floors & More Inc. in a small store on Washington Road in Evans. Last year, they built an 8,000-square-foot showroom nearby at 4696 Washington Road, and they're already outgrowing the new space. They recently got an estimate to build a new warehouse.

"We grew really fast in a slow market," Mrs. Lilly said. "Everybody talks about how bad the economy is, but there's still a lot of good things going on in Augusta. About five crews are going out every day. We're blessed. We had no way of knowing that everybody would receive us so well."

Her husband added: "We've probably doubled volume in the downturn. We don't stand still. We're continuing to move forward. We feel if we get complacent, we'll start going backwards."

Previously, they sold only flooring materials, but they now offer a full-service design center that includes lighting, tile, mirrors and area rugs. Flooring remains the core of the business, Mrs. Lilly said.

Many customers are Mr. Lilly's past clients. Others drive from as far as Aiken and Columbia .

"Last week, we were doing somebody's home that he did 15 years ago. We work with a lot of builders, and we do a ton of retail. We also do commercial. We're on a huge commercial job right now in North Augusta, so that part of the business is growing as well," Mrs. Lilly said. "June was our biggest month since we've been in business. First and foremost, I think it's Ray's reputation. I think having somebody local that people can trust."

Mrs. Lilly handles accounting and sales and visits homes to monitor progress. Mr. Lilly goes out on measuring jobs and runs the showroom and warehouse.

"Anything I don't want to do," Mrs. Lilly joked.

Mr. Lilly said he enjoys working alongside his family. His three children spend most of their time at the store, and his oldest daughter, Kay, is on the payroll this summer.

"We have a great time. We all get along fine," he said.

"I don't think most people could work together," Mrs. Lilly said. "I think it's amazing that we still work together, we're still married and when we have time off, we actually want to spend it together. Hopefully, it will always be that way."

Betsi Baker, who handles builder and retail sales, joined the business about two years ago. She worked for one of their builders and became an employee when things slowed in the building market, she said.

"I had a great working relationship with Ray and Suzanne, a huge amount of respect. They're great business people to work for and work with. I wouldn't imagine going anywhere else," Ms. Baker said.

"Their knowledge base is just phenomenal. It's great to be able to learn so much from them. I can be like a sponge and just listen and absorb. They're extremely professional, but yet they're great friends. It's great to see a husband and wife working together so well as a team. It's an overall great atmosphere to work in," she said.

Vicki Blackburn, the owner of V. Black-burn Builders Inc., started working with Mr. Lilly when he was a subcontractor. She said the Lillys are successful because they're "down-to-earth, approachable and go beyond the call of duty" to satisfy customers. They hire good workers because Mr. Lilly knows what it takes to do a quality job, she said.

"They're just good people," Ms. Blackburn said. "They're such good business people. Great integrity. I love doing business with someone that you can respect, and they do what they say they're going to do. They pay a lot of attention to the detail of their business, which is so important."

Getting started

Mrs. Lilly grew up in Augusta as the youngest of three sisters. Her father, Bobby Bryant, was a superintendent at Augusta Newsprint Co., where he worked for almost 40 years. Her mother, Kay Bryant, was a homemaker.

Mrs. Lilly was the quintessential American girl - she swam and was a high school cheerleader. Her parents taught her a good work ethic, which included always being on time, she said.

Mr. Lilly and his older brother, Mike, came to Augusta when they were adopted by Betty and Stewart Lilly. The boys were 6 and 7 years old at the time. Their father worked at Federal Paper, and their mother worked in the library at Westside High School. The same month they joined the family, their mother became pregnant with their sister, Hallie.

"She had three kids within nine months," Mrs. Lilly said.

Sports were a big part of the Lilly household. Mr. Lilly's father coached his Little League teams. His grandfather taught him how to fish. In college, he played on the baseball team.

He became interested in flooring through a friend. "I was looking for a trade to go into. I went to college for a year, and I didn't want to stay in college. Ever since I was 13 or so, I liked working with my hands, so it seemed like something I would enjoy," Mr. Lilly said.

He also enjoyed flooring because of the variety. "Every single day was a different job and a different person," he said.

When he took his first job, he earned minimum wage, which was $5.25 at the time. He earned this wage for two years until he started subcontracting.

The Lillys' relationship is the stuff of fairy tales. They met as children but their love connection came years later on Dan Street in National Hills.

"One night when I was a junior in high school, I was riding down the road and passed him. We stopped and started talking, and we went out ever since. We just hit it off," Mrs. Lilly said.

"We went and grabbed a burger that night, and literally from that moment on, we've seen each other every day pretty much since then," she said.

She was only 17 at the time.

"I was 19 when we got married, and we had our first child at 21," Mrs. Lilly said. They've been married for 21 years.

Mr. Lilly was working on floors when they started dating. "He's done thousands of houses in Augusta," Mrs. Lilly said.

Mrs. Lilly stayed home to assist her husband with his subcontracting business, which he ran for about 18 years. She handled the quarterly reports and payroll taxes.

Mr. Lilly urged his wife to get a degree so that she would have something to fall back on, in case anything happened to him.

"I went to school after I had the first two kids. Ray helped a lot," she said.

Her son was old enough to attend preschool, so she enrolled in classes at Augusta State University four or five hours a day.

At night, she returned to campus to work on lab projects while Mr. Lilly stayed home with the children. She earned a bachelor of science degree in biology.

"Had I known this business was going to be what it is, I probably would have majored in marketing or business," she said.

In 2005, they wrote a business plan and sold their home. They opened the business in a 900-square-foot rental space.

"That was a big leap of faith, especially with us having kids. He made a good living doing what he was doing, and I stayed at home with the kids, which was awfully nice. We put it all on the line," Mrs. Lilly said.

Hard work

These days, Mr. and Mrs. Lilly usually work 65 hours a week.

They arrive at their business by 6:30 or 7:30 a.m. and remain until 6 p.m. The store is open six days a week.

"I work Monday through Saturday here, and then Sundays I'm doing paperwork," Mrs. Lilly said.

On Sundays, they inspect the jobs their crews are on to make sure things are running smoothly, she said.

Mr. Lilly wants to expand the business, even if they have to take risks.

"I'm probably the more conservative one," Mrs. Lilly said. "I will question and analyze every move we make, and he always tells me if we're not doing anything, we're moving backwards. You have to always work to make the business better, not to get comfortable."

She said she learned it's important to appreciate customers by observing the way Pam Weinberger operated at Weinberger's Furniture Showcase.

"Even if somebody comes in and buys a knob, I'm so thankful. There's a thousand places they could choose to walk in, so ... appreciate them because they have a lot of choices. We close a large percentage of our sales, I think, because we do care," she said.

Hardwood Floors & More offers thousands of home design options, she said.

"There's so much people can do on a tight budget. They can replace a brass fan and completely update a room. I always want people to walk into their home and feel like it's special. That's where you spend all of your time," Mrs. Lilly said.

There are some new items on the market, Ms. Baker said.

"We have a lot of people come in and look at cork flooring and bamboo, which are some of our greener products in the industry," she said.

Ron Lewis, who owns LRP Investments, buys supplies at the business for his new home construction projects.

"They're very customer service oriented. Both Ray and Suzanne work in the business. They're there all the time. I think that makes a difference in the customer service. When I send a customer over there, I feel confident that there's going to be somebody that can help them with whatever it may be," Mr. Lewis said.

The owners also walk the homes, making measurements and determining the materials that need to be there soon. They ensure that crews won't have to wait on supplies, he said.

"In today's time, time is money. So we're all trying to build these houses, particularly in this market, quicker, faster and at a lower cost. If we can cut two weeks off the building process, that's money. They're very supportive in that kind of way," Mr. Lewis said.

Family business

Hardwood Floors & More is a second home for the Lillys.

"We're not a normal family. We're never home," Mrs. Lilly said.

On any given day, their youngest daughter, Mason, rides her bicycle around the business. Each morning, she awakens at 5:30 a.m. to accompany her parents to work. She has a stash of toys in the back, and she has also become quite knowledgeable about knobs.

"She helps people pick them out. The customers will come in, and she'll go get the wood stain chart for them to pick out their stain. She's got little things that she does," her mother said.

Their oldest daughter, Kay, is working in the warehouse this summer, and their son, Jonathan, hangs out there when he isn't playing on the golf team.

"All the high schoolers come up here and wash their cars with my son," Mrs. Lilly said.

Mrs. Lilly wants her children to learn the value of hard work.

"My husband worked hard for 20 years. Floors are physical work. All of the kids, whether they're girls or boys, need to know the value of that physical work," she said.

The Lillys are busy trying to grow the business, but their kids understand.

This summer, Jonathan said, he stopped by to visit four or five times a day. He was in seventh grade when they opened the store. He was happy they were starting their own business.

"I thought it would be pretty cool to have our name out there," Jonathan said.

Now, he wants to follow in their footsteps.

"They've inspired me. Now that I see this, I want to be in business. Not necessarily owning my own business, but maybe international business," Jonathan said.

His parents are busy but they always make time for his golf tournaments, He's amazed at how hard they work, he said.

"They come up here hours before it opens and stay here hours after it's closed. They're two of the hardest working people I've ever seen. People come in here on Sundays, and they'll open the doors up for them to come in. This business is like their home. All the work they've done is for us," he said.

Kay, a student at Augusta State University, wants to become a teacher, but she enjoys working at her parents' business. She wanted to see what it was like and hopes to continue working there.

"I feel like I'm helping out. I can try to help alleviate some of the stress that they have. It's really helped to bring me closer to my parents, which I've really enjoyed," Kay said.

When they aren't working, the parents devote their time to their children.

"I love being a mom. I love my kids. We have fun together. We're strict. We try to enforce the rules and train them well, but we enjoy them, too," Mrs. Lilly said.

Mr. Lilly enjoys golf, but he said that he prefers watching his son play the game.

The business also treats its 20 employees like family. Their staff includes sales employees, installers and finishers.

"All of our employees are salary. Most people in lighting and flooring stores are commission-based. It promotes so much harmony. Everybody's happy," Mrs. Lilly said.

Most of their employees are people they already knew.

"We've never advertised for a position. Our retail guy, we've known him for 25 years. Even our installers, they've been with us for 15 years, which is really unusual in construction to have people with you that long. I'm just proud of our staff," Mrs. Lilly said.

Mrs. Lilly doesn't worry when she's out of town because she trusts her staff. But she admits that she does worry about the business in general.

"I still worry about every single job. I still want everything to go perfectly. So if something doesn't go perfect, I'll lay awake all night long and just worry about it. And I don't know if that will ever stop. I guess in a way it's good because it prompts us to always do our best," she said.

Reach LaTina Emerson at (706) 823-3227 or latina.emerson@augustachronicle.com.


Title: Owner of Hardwood Floors & More Inc.

Born: Nov. 22, 1968, in Augusta

Education: Augusta State University, bachelor of science degree in biology

Family: Husband, Ray; and children, Kay, 19, Jonathan, 16, and Mason, 8

Hobbies: Spending time with her children


Title: Owner of Hardwood Floors & More Inc.

Born: Sept. 22, 1965, in Augusta

Education: Attended University of South Carolina

Family: Wife, Suzanne; and children, Kay, 19, Jonathan, 16, and Mason, 8

Hobbies: Golf, fishing



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