Magic carpet ride
How one company patriarch chased (and caught) the American dream.
The family behind T.C. Carpet Care, from left: Daughter Sandra Contreras, dad and founder Tomas, daughter Carmen, Tomas Jr., and mom, also named Carmen.
Photographs by M.O.D. Media Productions
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Sometimes a story just needs to be told, and that’s why this one about a hardworking family replaces the usual On The Job feature this month.
It all began with a chance encounter with Tomas “Tom” Contreras, 61, in April. IB had written an article about him decades earlier, he noted, and what began as a cordial discussion about a family business developed quickly into a fascinating tale about a Mexican-American man driven to provide for his family.
To be clear, Contreras, the owner and founder of T.C. Carpet Care on Fair Oaks Avenue, never asked for this story, but after revealing heartfelt tidbits of his past, it became clear we needed to tell it.
“I was born in Mexico, and in 1964, when I was five, my parents had documents and we crossed into the U.S. legally and went to Los Angeles,” Contreras explains. By the age of 13, he was working 13-hour days seven days a week picking crops in the fields with his parents and earning about $1.25 an hour.
“Back then, there were a lot of families doing this,” Contreras recounts. “We lied about our age so we could work to help out the family. It was normal for kids my age to be doing this.” They followed the work and the growing seasons, picking anything they could, from cherries and corn, to asparagus in the state of Washington, and grapes for the Gallo Winery in California.
It required uprooting the family — a lot — from school to school and town to town. “In 1980, we got contracted by the Oconomowoc Canning Company in Sun Prairie,” Contreras says, an opportunity that brought them to the Madison area. He worked double shifts, 18 hours a day until he and his brother found jobs as translators at Fort McCoy for recent Cuban refugees. “It was something different,” Contreras says, but this job, too, was short-lived. When it ended a few months later, Contreras headed to Texas for a construction job. This time though, he knew he’d return. “I liked Madison a lot,” he says. “It’s a beautiful city.”
True to his word, the family moved back in 1982. His eldest daughter, Carmen, was five years old and it was time to settle down. “I didn’t want my kids to jump from school to school like I did,” Contreras says. Every day, the young children were taxied across town to school while their father found jobs wherever he could. Eventually he’d be hired by a local business as a carpet cleaner.
Two years later he ventured out on his own, established his own clientele, and five years after that, he purchased his former company.
What motivated him? “All I could think of was that I wanted to send my kids to college,” Contreras says.
He’d later purchase Pro Carpet of Dane County, as well, which he still owns. The two companies now employ about 100 employees in the summers, their peak season, and support about 55 people year-round. Six years ago they started a painting division, AAA Painting LLC, and all are doing well, he reports.
What’s the secret? “Hard work,” Contreras says. “No magic. Get up and do it. Be reliable and honest. That’s it.”
Never in his wildest dreams did he think he could be successful as a business owner, Contreras relates, tearing up. “I had a chance, and my kids went to college. We’ve always been a tight family and all helped each other out. Now our grandkids are the next generation and they won’t have to go through what we went through,” he says, his voice cracking. “That’s good! I’m proud that we all contributed.”
He was driven by the American dream. “Buy a house, drive a nice car, have my kids well dressed, take vacations. All the things I would see in movies …” his voice trails off. “I’m just happy I was able to do it. I knew it would be hard work, but I didn’t care. I just wanted us to have money in the bank so we could help other family members, too.”
And so they did. Now his three grown kids run three family businesses with help from extended family members, and he helps when he’s in town. “They’re doing a great job,” Contreras says. Meanwhile, he travels back and forth from Mexico with his wife, spending most of the year in the home he was born in 20 minutes south of Laredo, Texas. It’s his grandparent’s house, he reports, and he’s proud that he could purchase it after they passed on.
Contreras admits that the real reason he and his wife stay is the cost of health insurance, although the weather doesn’t hurt. As a steady, cold rain falls outside, he smiles. “When I left yesterday it was 102 degrees!” His wife Carmen concurs. Her husband had some health issues a few years back and without insurance, the cost of his health care here could have wiped them out, forcing their hand.
Family, including extended family, is key to the company’s success. “We’re always together,” Contreras says. “When I was first interviewed by In Business magazine, I only had one machine and was asked what my goals were. I knew back then that I wanted to start more companies. That’s what I’ve done, and what my kids are now doing.”