Greg Andrews at his home, September 28, 2015.
Jonathan Alcorn Greg Andrews at his home, September 28, 2015.

I was faced with several challenges in 2012 that affected the course of my life. Not that I was faced with imminent death or anything like that, but in one year, I was handed a multitude of changes to deal with. It’s taken a while, but now I feel like I’ve got a whole new lease on life.

Before then, I had already been examining my life. I love being a glass-tile installer, but it’s hard these days to charge what’s necessary for the level of quality I’m used to. You can’t really run a small business with two or three exceptional installers and make a good living because so many costs eat up the profits. Plus, there’s an influx of cheap labor taking the lion’s share of the work. While there’s plenty of talent out there, it seems like what the general public perceives as quality has reached a new low.

So the jobs are getting tougher and tougher to get. The only way to compete is with a high-volume company, but I don’t believe you can have the same quality as when you’re focused on just a few projects.

I also was looking for something different to do as I get older, so I’d been gravitating toward consulting.

Even so, I was still in the game, fighting the good fight, still positive.

Then in January 2012, I was finishing up an all-glass-tile mosaic pool, getting ready to fill it, when I slipped, fell back on my shoulder and ripped my rotator cuff. To repair it, I needed orthoscopic surgery. They put four pins in my shoulder bone, then kind of laced up the tendons like a football and sutured them together. When I came out of surgery I could barely blink from the pain. The recovery was excruciating as well.

It benched me for a while. Fortunately, I could still manage my crews. I couldn’t install, but I was on the site with one arm, helping with layout and things like that.

Then that September, after five years trying to get a diagnosis for some symptoms I had been experiencing, I was told I had a brain tumor. It was an acoustic neuroma, which is nonmalignant and associated with the hearing nerve.

Once I was diagnosed, all hell broke loose. The doctors said, “We’re not just going to monitor it. We have to get in there. It has to come out.” Though a slow-growing tumor, it was starting to press against my brain stem, which could kill you. So I went into surgery in November. Fortunately, it was very successful. The only permanent effect is that I lost the hearing in one ear.

But as you can imagine, coming just eight months after rotator-cuff surgery, it was like a double whammy.

When I came out of brain surgery, the left side of my head and face were numb. You know when you get a hefty shot of novocaine and it’s tingling a little so your face feels big? That was the next year for me.

Though much less painful than shoulder surgery, the tumor was more devastating psychologically. It didn’t affect my thought processes at all. But you can imagine, I’ve got all these things at once — a big ol’ numb face, deaf ear and some balance issues. It took a year to work through all that.

It really took a toll on my work, too. I’ve always prided myself on training and keeping a very talented crew, but I worked alongside them, helping negotiate some of the creative challenges unique to each project. This separated us from the masses, and our clients appreciated that. I couldn’t do that for a while.

And when you’re contracting, it’s like log rolling. You’ve got to keep that log rolling — keeping clients happy and staff employed, staying in touch with contacts. When you’re taken out for a couple of years, you lose that momentum. I thought, “Wow, Greg, you didn’t set yourself up very well. You take one component off the job site, yourself, and you’re not very effective.”

When you go through things like this, you really start to look back on your life. At least I did. I was even wondering: “Did I blow it? Did I pick the wrong career path?” But I really have a passion for what I do. I mean, this is what I want to do until I either retire or die! I just had to accept the changes in my life and go along with them.

I could have gotten the contracting work back easily, but I don’t want to be a high-volume person. I want to create and teach people to create. I want to be around people with the same passion. I want to stay at the top level of what I do.

I found my way slowly. I stayed in touch with people who love their work as much as I do. I spent time with some talented installers and designers whom I had mentored for several years so I could start to really hone in on training the younger generation.

Now I’m at 100 percent physically. I feel great. I mountain bike, ski, surf. I could ride a unicycle if I wanted. It took 2½ years, but I can do anything.

And I feel like I’ve turned my ship and headed in a good direction. I still have Greg Andrews Tile, but I’m not actively contracting. I’m working with another tile contractor, Greg Bennett, who specializes in pools and waterfeatures. I’m helping groom his crews for specialty, high-end work. We have a few projects going that are really something to behold.

To me, it’s exciting to work with these younger mechanics and show them the tricks of the trade. I’ve been an installer for 42 years; I’ve worked with the best of the best and learned so much from them along the way. I feel obligated to pass that along.

I’ve also joined forces with a tile and stone consultant named Gil Chotam on something that’s been important to me for years. We’ve founded an association called the National Tile and Stone Authority. We provide a wide range of consulting services for the tile and stone industry, but we’ve also started a technical committee to study various issues. Gil and I met several years ago in the Ceramic Institute of America Technical Committee, and we have talked about joining forces for quite some time. Unfortunately, that committee disbanded about three years ago. It was always a pleasure meeting with other contractors and manufacturers to keep a pulse on our industry from the ground level. That’s something we hope to recreate.

Currently, we have a pool tile committee, a group that’s generated a lot of interest from both the tile and pool industries.

We have felt for a long time that there’s a disconnect between labor and manufacturing. A lot of training and information is available, but in certain areas it doesn’t seems as relevant to installers as it should be. We’re hoping to bring a higher focus onto labor when we provide training and examine some of the new installation methods and materials out there.

I believe if these incidents didn’t happen to me, I’d still be out there making the best of things. I was forced to make the move I had been considering for a long time. It’s like crossing the Jordan, right?

But I see some of the projects I’ve worked on recently, the crews I’ve trained and the work they do and think, “You know what? It’s working. I’m being more effective now.” I just turned 60, and I feel like my best work is ahead.

I look back and think, “This is OK.”