All Industries, Management

In His Own Words: Justin Tarr on Being Black in the Trades

Justin Tarr
February 25th, 2021
9 Min Read

African-American owned businesses in the United States numbered just more than two million in 2020.

Justin Tarr owns one of those businesses. His company, Daffy Ducts, does HVAC Duct Cleaning work in the Atlanta area and should top more than $1 million in business this year.

February is Black History Month, and ServiceTitan wants to recognize those minority owners who have taken the challenge of owning a business.

Tarr spent time recently with ServiceTitan, talking about his unique experiences as an African-American running his own company. We are proud to share his story, in his words:

I've always been very driven. While I do believe that there are a lot of situations where the playing field can be uneven or unfair for Black people, I don't think that I've found myself in that situation—or at least I'd like to think that I would have never allowed myself to be in that situation.

I guess I consider myself a person who knows how to open doors and build relationships. I'd like to think that everything we do at Daffy Ducts, we do well. Success comes because we're best in class and not because it's a Black or white thing.

I come from humble beginnings. I grew up bi-racial in Pittsburgh, Pa., as a part of a mixed family in a predominantly Black neighborhood. My mother was a blue collar worker in the Steel Mill and my father was a business owner in the trash hauling industry. So I was exposed to both hard work ethics and business ownership at a young age. 

Sure, I grew up in many situations where I felt like I was unfairly targeted by law enforcement. Now, I was no angel — but far from a hardened criminal as a youth and there were a lot of unfair situations. Those situations were based on where I was and what I looked like. 

I could have laid down, I could have complained, I could have blamed others or circumstances and situations. And, in some cases I did because it was what I knew and what I was exposed to in that environment. It was not until later that I was exposed to more positive outlooks and opportunities and I realized that I had to tap into the power within me and understand that I control my own destiny. 

Before we as a people begin to face real life tangible obstacles, we must overcome the biggest obstacle within ourselves, and that’s that many of us feed our minds to believe that we are inadequate and that we aren’t enough or we’re not ready for a certain thing. When we are what we believe we are.

As far as the duct cleaning trade and business goes, I kind of jumped straight into ownership, coming from a corporate role in sales and operations management in a different industry. So I can't really speak to what it feels like coming up through the trades and if there are any ceilings, for lack of a better word, for African-Americans.

My objective is to make Daffy Ducts a great place to work for everybody that comes here regardless of race, and to be able to create a worthy career path for anybody that puts the work in and wants to excel and help us grow and thrive.

Justin Tarr

I will tell you my observations. My first initial experience in duct cleaning was back in 2007. I went down to Grapevine, Texas, for hands-on classroom training and I was the only African-American in the entire class. There were women, white folks, and me.

Here in Metro Atlanta, we partner with quite a few heating and air companies. I see African-American team members at the technician level, installs I guess, and usually call center, customer service roles. I don't see a whole lot of African-Americans in sales or as comfort advisors. I definitely don’t see many African-Americans in executive management roles. Now, of course, I'm not popping my head into every HVAC company in the city. 

I personally don't feel like there are any barriers impeding me as an African-American from getting into any particular area in the business that I want to get in, or any particular area of the market that I want to get in. When you get to a point where you're dealing with indoor air quality and people's health, I think it really becomes a matter of experience, knowledge and just being a best-in-class provider of the service that you offer. And that's what I strive for.

I like to believe that I inspire the people who work for us. I think we have a huge amount of engagement and excitement within our organization. And I do have a predominantly African-American team. It's not by design or a part of our hiring practices, but it's what the makeup is and I'm very proud to be able to provide those opportunities.

As for who inspired me, first and foremost I have to say my Mom. She was never a business owner. She just always had a phenomenal work ethic. She also, no matter what, always believed in me and made me feel that I could do anything. In addition, and probably most important, my Mom Debbi Wargo genuinely cared about people and knew how to make anyone feel special. 

Twenty years ago, you could not ask me if I had the same kind of work ethic as my Mom. I would not have felt that way. She set a high bar. But now after owning Daffy Ducts and seeing what I’ve been able to achieve with my team, I think she has passed that on to me.

My Dad has always been an entrepreneur. He was in the waste business. He had garbage truck routes and still to this day he is a provider of compactors, augers and balers for university systems and hospitals in Pittsburgh. I think seeing that growing up helped instill a sense of leadership in me. 

I also have a mentor, sort of a big brother who I've watched over the years, who owns Atlanta Peach Movers — I believe one of the largest, if not the largest, moving companies here in Atlanta. We grew up in the same town back in Pittsburgh and Homestead, Pa. Watching him build his business into the large organization that it is now was very inspiring to me.

As for the big picture, I come from a business perspective, and I am a man of faith. I kind of gather inspiration from different people in in the church world. Steven Furtick (Elevation Church in North Carolina) is one of my favorites. Martin Luther King Jr. as well. One quote of his that I try to live by is: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy." 

I have learned that we don’t ask God to lighten our load but to give us a stronger back. I say that to say, I think that no matter the circumstances there will always be some level of an uneven playing field, whether related to race or not. 

So, my objective is to continue to strengthen my people and help to be able to deliver the tools that they need, help to continue to develop them as individuals to strengthen our community. I demand excellence from myself. I believe that allows me to shine despite any tough and difficult situation. I hope that light can be a beacon to all of those that I come in contact with.

Although I have dealt with some prejudice growing up, I would not say as an adult and as a professional that I’ve seen a lot, but I also wouldn’t say that it doesn’t exist. I think I've probably been fortunate. I see it. I see it all around me. But I like to feel like I just command a certain level of respect as a man. 

We all put our pants on one leg at a time. Sure I have some of the same fears that everybody else has in the current climate — I’m a Black man with Black children. But as a professional and as a person who can rub elbows and establish and nurture relationships, I think I have the same professional opportunities as most.

I think the fact that ServiceTitan is having this conversation and even considering the opinion of an African American business owner shows awareness and an effort to be a change agent. As far as what I think would be helpful to continue to create opportunities for African American or any other minority people it would be this — continue to help create exposure. 

One of the most impactful books that I have ever read was "The E-Myth" by Michael Gerber. It helped to set me on a path to understand what running a business is really about and that’s just one example. I think we have a lot of great talented technical people of color out there that don’t understand this. 

I know that there is an HVAC version of "The E-Myth" book out there that was offered as a giveaway a while back by a fellow ServiceTitan customer. I think being able to create content, courses and other tools around this type of concept would be a great start. At least people can be exposed and know what direction they want to go in. Once we know that, the rest is up to us.

As for Daffy Ducts, I like to think all of our people enjoy it here and feel a sense of accomplishment. I’m crazy about our team. I can't design my goals and my mission based on what I see somewhere else and what everybody else is doing. We have our vision. So, my objective and job is to make Daffy Ducts a great place to work for everybody that comes here regardless of race, and to be able to create a worthy career path for anybody that puts the work in and wants to excel and help us grow and thrive.

And that is what WE work toward every day.

Justin Tarr started his duct-cleaning business, Daffy Ducts, in late 2007. Read more about his story here.

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