BY WENDY M. DODD | PHOTOS BY BOB THOMPSON, THOMPSON BRAND IMAGES
The dictionary defines metamorphosis as “a profound change in form from one stage to the next in the life history of an organism, as from the caterpillar to the pupa and from the pupa to the adult butterfly.” Oftentimes throughout the course of our lives, we humans must transform ourselves from the inside out to acclimate to a change in life circumstances. Like the caterpillar, we must go to a place of quiet reflection and spend time re-evaluating, shifting expectations and growing into what we become next. Although the change within us is not always evident to the outside world, we are, at least internally, forever altered. Dana Spears, owner and president of Cornerstone Pros has spent her life pushing past barriers, expectations, gender roles and challenges. Cornerstone Pros is an air-conditioning, plumbing and electrical company based out of Land O’ Lakes, Florida, serving most of the Tampa Bay area. Spears has risen to the top of an industry dominated by men and has come from being a single mom working part-time to becoming the owner and president of a local company that earns 7 million dollars in revenue each year.
Resident Magazine sat down with Spears to find out what that transformational journey has looked like for her.
RM (Resident Magazine): Tell us about your family and where you grew up.
DS (Dana Spears): I grew up in Lutz actually; I was born and raised right here. I went through the Hillsborough County School System and transferred to Land O’ Lakes High School in 11th grade, which is where I graduated. I was raised with one brother, David, and my parents Dale and Dolores Deckard.
I now have five children; Taylor (23), Morgan (21), Hannah (19), Joshua (19) and Justin (4) and pretty much everyone is involved in the business now [laughs].
RM: Where and when did the idea for Cornerstone Pros come about?
DS: My husband at the time had worked in air conditioning for a few years but eventually the employer he worked for was no longer a good fit for us. Basically, one day he came home and told me he was out of a job. We’d toyed with the idea of opening our own business, and had even started a small handyman service just a few months prior. We figured that this was without a doubt the best time to try to get our own business off the ground. Within a month, I secured our license with the state, created our branding and got commercial insurance. Sixty days later I’d put together the connections we needed and Cornerstone Pros was up and running. It helped that I worked in commercial insurance; I’d worked with contractors, painters and many others in the profession and I was intrigued by that industry. I understood it, I knew the different sides to it and was able to build on that.
During our first year he was working in the field, my mom was answering phones and I was still holding my part time position in insurance to keep us afloat. We had three little girls to care for, so that first year was pretty scary at times. Thankfully we had family and we knew they would support us if we had any problems along the way, so we jumped in and never looked back.
RM: How did you juggle being a mother and an owner of a new, uncertain business?
DS: My mom helped a lot in getting us started. She answered phones from home and helped schedule appointments. When we started Cornerstone Pros, we were raising three little girls. My youngest, Hannah, was 9, Morgan was 10 and my oldest, Taylor, was 12.
That time was pretty challenging; the girls are pretty close in age and of course kept me pretty busy. I remember the girls joking with me about doing work from our car. I’d be shushing them in the back seat every time a call came in, because I did about 90% of my work from my car those first few years. I was very fortunate that I could be home with my girls and still manage to expand and uphold my business.
Sometimes the kids would get discouraged that I was so busy with the business, but it was our livelihood… it was important to ensure it’s success. I did set parameters on myself though, boundaries. I would try to do most of my work while they were at school and then take time out for them when they got home. After dinner, homework and family time, I would get back to work.
RM: When you first took over the business, what was that like?
DS: The reason I ended up with Cornerstone was due to a divorce, and my business partner had different opinions on what direction to take the company; like whether it should stay open or close. I wanted it for my kids; to give them a future and to help send them to college. I knew that we had a good foundation with the customer base and we had a great staff. I was determined to keep it… and grow it for my family as well as for our customer base. Also, we had put in systems for customers that were under warranty and I wanted to honor that. In our industry, too many times a store opens up and in two years they’re gone, unable to back the warranties they’d given. I felt that I owed our customers that loyalty, and I needed to keep going.
When I got the paperwork that said Cornerstone was mine, my bank accounts were empty. After my divorce, I left with just a car and this business. I left every asset, every belonging, everything I’d ever owned and walked away, so it was truly a time of starting over. Fortunately I was able to keep the staff on that we had at the time and I was able to pull them all together.
We started out only with air conditioning. We built up our client base over those first few years, working out of our home in the beginning. We realized at a certain point that we needed warehouse space so we rented a 600 square foot building just down the road from our home. At that point we were able to hire one person to work in the office, two field employees and luckily, our business just continued to grow. With that growth, we moved a little further down the road to a new location and expanded to around 15 employees. In 2009, I bought full rights to the company, buying out my business partner and taking over the company fully. In 2011 we were able to purchase our current location and continue to expand, and it was 2012 that we expanded to add plumbing. Two years later we added electric as well.
This was all I had; I had to fight for it. I didn’t have anything to fall back on. I had and still have the mentality that Cornerstone is my baby; it’s my world. It has to survive.
RM: Have you found it challenging to be a woman in the A/C, plumbing and electrical industries?
DS: I think for the most part my employees have always respected me and I’ve been very lucky that way. When I was in commercial insurance, it was a more male driven industry as well. Sometimes, being a woman, people just assumed you didn’t have what it took to get it done, that you didn’t have the ‘know how’ or the ability. I’ve always tried to prove myself by learning, and if I didn’t know the answer you can bet I was going to find out.
That was one of the biggest challenges early on. Today, more women are taking on leadership roles even in our industry, so it’s not as uncommon as it once was to see a woman in this type of position. There is still that struggle to believe that a woman can run a business, understand the technicalities and be successful in this industry. Although on the flip side, there are customers that prefer a woman; I’ve had people tell me how thankful they are, that I’m the owner.
RM: What do you do on a daily basis?
DS: I handle most of the marketing along with my mom; it’s really the creative part that I handle. My brain moves like a hundred miles an hour, so I’m always looking at ways we can change, go in different directions and ways to set us apart from our competitors. I also handle most of our budgeting and accounting.
I speak with our managers on a daily basis, I’m very involved, and there isn’t a lot that happens here that I don’t know about. I would say I get about 500 emails a day [laughs]. Complaints, reviews from happy customers, employees, you name it; I deal with it daily. Even if I’m not here physically I’m still usually involved in what’s going on.
Staff and training is also something I’m involved with, in creating new processes and procedures. Our industry has a lot of change; therefore we need to be very fluid. If a problem arises we are on top of it. What can we do to make it better? How can we fix it now? Years past, the majority of this was all on me. Now I have great staff and the right people in the right places to help as our business has grown.
RM: What would you say has been your biggest challenge?
DS: I would say staffing has been our biggest challenge; finding the right people that were a good fit for our company. I wouldn’t say it held us back, but learning to balance that was a challenge. At times we didn’t have enough staff as we quickly grew, and then at other times we were overstaffed. Once we learned to balance, it evened out. Another challenge was gaining customers because our industry is very saturated.
RM: How many employees do you have currently?
DS: We have around 55 employees. Last year we crossed the 50-employee mark which meant we had to add health insurance benefits, but I’m not complaining- that’s a good problem to have. We could have waited another year to add health insurance but decided we wanted to do that to give back. We want to take care of our people, and we were glad to do that.
RM: What does it feel like to know you’ve grown from a two-man operation to 55 employees and that you’re able to provide them with health insurance?
DS: To be honest, I don’t really sit and think about it too much. I don’t know if humble is the right word. If I do sit and look back, I think about how I was married and had three kids by the time I was 23 and I think my determination to succeed was driven by my life early on. I could have done the ‘woe is me’ path. I was young, I had a baby and then got married young, but I didn’t choose the ‘woe is me’ path because I wanted to prove myself, for my daughters and for myself. When I stop and reflect on how far I’ve come, that is where I get the most satisfaction. I feel that what I’ve accomplished wasn’t easy, but I kept going. I did it. I’m proud of that.
RM: Tell us how your family is involved with the business.
DS: My husband, James, and I married in 2011 and he has been an intricate part of the company’s growth and success, both in the field and in the office. He has been my rock and has brought so much value to our company. His background of 25 years is in air conditioning, so he’s very technical and very skilled. We work together on the collaboration of protocol, how uniforms should look and he’s great with numbers so he’s always helping me there. James also has a background in plumbing, which was actually why we chose to add plumbing to our services.
My girls are now 23, 21 and 19, and my son Josh will be graduating this year. Taylor is actually the only one that doesn’t work here; she has a great career in banking, but her fiancé, Michael, is a service tech. They’ve been together since high school, so he came right out of high school and started working for us. Morgan and Hannah work in the office. Josh will be a parts runner when he graduates from high school this summer; he’s worked with us the last two summers as well.
Morgan is in training right now to take a management role in the future. In the last year she’s taken the lead and has begun having a much larger role in the company. She helps handle all of the incoming and outgoing calls, scheduling, paperwork and working with our technicians. Also Morgan’s boyfriend, Ronnie, is a service technician as well.
I sort of have a rule when it comes to my kids; I’ve made them each work at least one year for another company to see what else is out there. I wanted them to see what a boss is like and how the real world operates. Luckily we’ve never had any issues with family working together; they know that this is a business and we work hard to separate family and business.
Then my mom of course, she’s been with me since the beginning. I just can’t get her to stay home [laughs]. She works three days a week, but she’s always been by my side. We have a few other family members as well; some have come and gone over the years.
RM: What are your future plans for Cornerstone Pros?
DS: We plan to build here on this property a 6,000 square foot office and training facility. We were planning to break ground this year, however, the way permitting worked it pushed us into summer. So we’ll be beginning either this winter or next. We would eventually like to grow our electrical department and expand that. I think our future growth will be to take the three trades that we have and make them the best that they can be. I don’t see myself opening another location or expanding past that. We need to stick to what we know and what we’re good at, and expand there.
RM: What advice would you give to our readers in regards to what your company does?
DS: Maintenance. Many people do not call until there is a problem. Just like with a car, if you wait until it breaks down to change the oil, you’re going to have a bigger problem. I understand why customers are skeptical of maintenance. Maybe they think they’ll get a sales pitch, or that there may be a bigger problem that’s discovered. The truth is though, if you’re working with the right contractor and keeping up with all of your home’s maintenances, we’re going to find the problems when they’re smaller instead of bigger. The right contractor will extend the life of your home and it’ll increase your resale value. It gives longevity to your investment. On air conditioning, we recommend every six months with the changing season and that maintenance will increase efficiency. We also recommend plumbing and electrical maintenance once a year.
RM: Tell me about any community projects or charities that Cornerstone Pros is involved with.
DS: We like helping the local schools; many of the athletics programs are low on funds so we’ve been trying to give back to the kids there. We also give to non-profit companies; especially the smaller ones in the area that are really trying to make a difference. One of my favorites is Tighten the Drag; they help with spinal cord injury victims. I’ve also worked with Oasis Pregnancy Center and we’ve done Operation Stand Down for homeless vets. We love being part of the Wesley Chapel, New Tampa and Land O Lakes communities and try to help whenever we can.
RM: What advice would you give to other business owners who are looking to grow?
DS: I would say the best way is to look at your competitors and take a look at where they are marketing. Use what you have available to you; social media and networking groups are a great way to get your name out there. Involvement in the community is another great way, get out locally and meet your customers. Once you get those customers, treat them right; referrals are a huge part of any business.
RM: Readers are always interested in what makes a successful person tick, so tell us; what is the most influential book that you’ve read?
DS: I absolutely love Joel Osteen; several of his books have carried me through some rough times in life. I love anything motivational or ‘conquering’, I also read a lot of business books and inspirational content. I always want to build up my brain; make sure I’m not missing something.
RM: What’s your favorite way to unwind and decompress?
DS: Honestly, I don’t think I do [laughs]. I would say spending time with family, just relaxing at home or the beach. We have a weekend home up in Sumter, about an hour away. We go up there, relax, read and spend time with the kids.
RM: Do you have any rituals or habits that get you going in the morning?
DS: I’m not an early riser, I’m a night owl. Typically, I get up and spend time with my son Justin in the morning. I like to workout every day while listening to a motivational sermon or a podcast for a half hour or so and then I head to work. Typically, I’ve found that if I don’t take time out in the morning for just myself, I’m not as focused or driven at work as I should be. I have to stop and take care of myself at least a little bit; squeezing that in is pretty important.
RM: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
DS: Don’t quit and never give up. There will always be bumps in the road or something holding you up at some point on your path; don’t get discouraged. You can’t look back or hesitate, just keep pushing forward. There will always be something more encouraging around the corner, and tomorrow is always a new day.
RM: Do you have a favorite quote?
DS: I have a favorite scripture. It’s Proverbs 16:3, “commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.” Another would be Jeremiah 29:11, “for I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” That one is kind of my lifeline. I do have a future and I have a hope, and I always will.
RM: When you think of success, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?
DS: I feel that success is overcoming obstacles and challenges. Being able to watch others grow, to give a person that maybe wasn’t always dealt the best hand in life an opportunity to grow. I think of success more as a self satisfaction of doing the right thing, knowing you’re helping others and treating people right while providing for yourself and your family.
RM: What are any regrets you may have?
DS: I used to think my regret was not going to college. That was one thing that I carried for many years and made me wonder, ‘what other path might I have taken’? There was a part of me that always wanted to be a lawyer so, I did think about that. But now, I think I’d much rather be doing what I’m doing. Now, I’m glad I didn’t go to college because I think because of that, I’ve worked much harder in order to prove myself. I really don’t have any regrets. The mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned have made me who I am. I think to be regretful would be to not take your past and make something of it.
RM: If you could put up a billboard anywhere, where would you put it and what would it say?
DS: It would say, “find a way to do it differently; work around it.” I think too many people get stumped, and stop there. Instead, find out why it didn’t work out. Find a way to get around that. You can still make it happen, just take a different route.
A metamorphosis at this level doesn’t happen overnight. It requires years of consistent, diligent work with the focus of being better than you were the day before. For Dana Spears, she had to push through the darkness to get to the light at the end of the tunnel. She has chosen every day to become the version of herself that she knew she could be: a mother, wife, business leader and community supporter; all roles that she holds now and intends to continue growing in.