As the story goes, Ray Syverson Sr. arrived in Sioux Falls with not much more than a bucket of tools.
He’d learned the tile business from family in Wisconsin and then saved up enough train fare to get as far west as Sioux Falls.
It was the early 1930s, the Great Depression, and Ray Sr. would walk around town with his tools to job sites saying, “If you need some tile, I can do the job,” his grandson, Dave, said.
“He was setting tile and doing fine and kind of getting established when one day his arms swelled.”
A doctor determined Ray Sr. was allergic to the very thing needed to build his business: portland cement.
“He couldn’t install anymore, so he enlisted all his in-laws to help in the business,” Dave’s brother, Steve, said.
Ray’s wife, Ruth, handled the bookkeeping, he took over sales, and with the help of Ruth’s brother and a couple of other workers, Syverson Tile & Stone began to take shape.
“We call 1932 the start, and by the end of World War II, they had a crew of 15 and were probably the biggest tile contractor between Minneapolis and Denver,” Dave said.
As the family-owned business marks 90 years and its third generation, it has grown to 67 employees in four locations and offers a wide variety of tile products, including glass, metals, ceramic and natural stone in many colors and patterns. Its countertop fabrication includes natural and man-made stone such as granite, quartz, marble and slate.
“We still have one employee who has worked for all three generations and remembers my grandma hiring him off the farm,” Dave said. “We’re lucky to have found and kept great employees who can take the ball and run with it.”
After transitioning leadership from their father, Ray Jr., Steve now serves as president and general manager, and Dave serves as vice president and manager of the fabrication division.
“Syverson Tile & Stone is a wonderful example of a family business that has grown with the communities it serves and evolved its offerings to reflect changing markets,” said Stephanie Larscheid, executive director of the Prairie Family Business Association.
“Along the way, they’ve helped us build a community of family businesses as one of our founding members from nearly 30 years ago. Dave and Steve join us every year for the family business conference. Their spirit of continuously learning and working on their business is a big reason why they have remained a successful family business for 90 years.”
Steve and Dave grew up in the business, starting as kids playing on the sand piles created by the material needed to lay tile. As teenagers, they helped out mowing the lawn and working at the warehouse.
By the time Steve was a senior in high school, he had enough credits to work at Syverson’s in the afternoon, and he continued part time when he went to college – later realizing “I was going to get more out of working beside my grandma learning the business,” he said.
Dave graduated with a business degree and worked multiple places in Nebraska, including as supervisor of a telemarketing team, before returning home in 1993.
“My dad never pushed me into the business, but he always said if I wanted to come on I could do it like everyone else and start at the bottom,” he said.
Both brothers held a variety of roles within the business as they grew into leadership.
The family became involved in the Prairie Family Business Association proactively, looking ahead to an eventual transition.
“We’d had a bit of a rough transition from our first to our second generation, so I wanted to make sure we were planning for it and had some structure,” Steve said.
By the early 2000s, Ray Jr. was beginning to figure out his exit strategy, assuming the role of CEO with his sons taking on their current titles and other staff who were elevated to the board of directors.
“When Dad ran it, everything revolved around him, so we put together a more formal business structure with job descriptions, which has given us the framework we need to operate more effectively,” Steve said.
“We found many of our trusted advisers through the Prairie Family Business Association over the years and have found a lot of value in meeting and hearing stories of how other families have approached things, what struggles they’ve had and what they’ve done right and not done right. It’s always helpful to have that perspective from other owners, and it’s been fun to see some of the businesses that have grown up with us become big entities over the years.”
90 and counting
Syverson Tile & Stone today is comprised of three divisions: distribution, fabrication and installation.
“We’re all wholesale to the trades, so we do not sell retail, but we’re selling to dealers, designers, independent tile contractors, with hundreds of active accounts,” Dave said.
“Our fabrication began as a two-man shop and eventually grew 10 times over the course of a decade. The shop is operated behind our main building in Sioux Falls. And on the installation side, we work with a number of builders and contractors throughout the area.”
Syverson Tile & Stone has achieved a global reach in sourcing, working with multiple U.S. plants but also purchasing from as far away as Italy, Spain, Brazil, Turkey and India.
Not surprisingly, the past two years have been “a bit of a roller coaster,” Dave said. “With construction, you have a lot of demand on all three divisions.”
Combine that with supply chain challenges, the pandemic and even a cyberattack, and it’s clear Syverson Tile & Stone has had to lean on the lessons learned from nine decades in business.
“I think part of our strength is being in the Dakotas and Montana, we’re a little off the radar in our industry,” Steve said. “We’ve tested other markets but haven’t had a good next fit yet. Many tile companies are set up in very big markets, so we’ve been fortunate from a distribution standpoint to be here and to have the ability to carry a lot of very high-quality lines.”
New products on the market are exciting, Dave added.
“Tile and stone are almost merging together in the form of porcelain slabs,” he said. “So there’s opportunity to bring that to the marketplace. And a lot of things have changed in engineered quartz. The pandemic caused us to focus more on domestic suppliers versus importing, so there definitely are still avenues for growth.”
Syverson Tile & Stone plans to host an open house to celebrate its milestone anniversary this spring in combination with a vendor product demonstration, so customers can look to the future while honoring the company’s history.
“Ninety is a big number,” Steve said. “As you look out from here, the odds are good we can make that 100.”
As for a fourth generation, Steve’s children currently have chosen other career paths, and Dave’s are still in school.
“Like my dad did, I’ve tried not to push them or promise them anything with the business,” Dave said. “I’m going to encourage them to go wherever their hearts take them, and if one of them decides they want to come into the company, we can make that happen as long as they understand they have to start at the bottom too.”