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Manufacturer to distributor: Communication, trust and commitment are the keys

Paul Murfin, vice president of sales at Armstrong, posed this question to a panel of distributors at a trade show last fall: Does the distributor come to work each day with the goal of executing the manufacturer’s plan or does he come to work each day with the goal of executing the distributor’s plan?

PartnershipMurfin, who once ran one of the largest distributors in the U.S., knows where he stood on the issue. “My personal rule was that if I didn’t deliver the market for our largest vendors, then at some point there was going to be a problem,” he said. “The very best relationships you have are where the distributors are focused on delivering the market for their customers.”

The foundations to a successful long-term partnership between vendors and distributors are built on communication, trust and commitment, and Murfin said Armstrong is “blessed to work with the best distributors in North America.”

FlorStar Sales in Romeoville, Ill., has worked with Armstrong from its inception in 1988. “The ideal manufacturer-distributor relationship is grounded in constant communication and mutual trust,” said Scott Rozmus, president of FlorStar. “Each party in the relationship ultimately must profit from the relationship.”

Rozmus noted that the manufacturer must provide a consistent stream of well-designed, strong-performing products that offer value to the consumer while the distributor “must build upon the manufacturer’s brand and product positioning and deliver the market through cost-effective logistics and professional, relationship-driven sales professionals.”

For 64 years, Lee’s Summit, Mo.-based W.C. Tingle Co. has been a flooring distributor for Armstrong, a relationship that dates to the mid-1940s. Chip Moxley, the current president, said the bond with Armstrong was forged by founder Bill Tingle and furthered by his father, Bud Moxley. “Like a marriage or any meaningful relationship, our partnership with Armstrong has continually evolved, including tough challenges as well as great rewards,” he said. “But taken as a whole, I believe our partnership has mutually been very beneficial.”

Murfin, who has the perspective of working on both sides, said it’s important to focus on each other’s goals, to understand what they are, and then to align your businesses to achieve those goals. “Given the size of our company and the size of our portfolio, we believe strongly that focus and having the expertise in our product line is very important to success,” he said.

Cain & Bultman, Jacksonville, Fla., has been a trusted and valued distributor of Armstrong flooring products for 75 years. Buddy Faircloth, executive vice president, Armstrong division, has serviced the mill for 33 of those years. “Our company motto is ‘partners in business,’” Faircloth said. “We feel a good partnership is one that allows you to work together to increase customer satisfaction with quality performance for continued growth while making a return on our investment. We have three partners that we serve: our dealers, our suppliers and our employees.”

The manufacturer-distributor relationship begins with great product and ends with a good return on the investment for both parties. Murfin points to recent launches of Armstrong hardwood into the independent retail channel, and Alterna and Luxe Plank as examples where the partnership worked to perfection. “It started with great product and then it moved to an effective plan in taking a product to market,” he said. “Then it was flawless execution on the part of the distributor, which meant taking it to the customer base, having the product appropriately merchandised, and followed up with the retail sales team so they understood how to sell the product as well as its features and benefits.”

Rozmus, who noted that “Good numbers help make good relationships,” said it will be interesting to see how recent changes in Armstrong’s ownership and leadership impact the company’s historical direction and model. “Change isn’t always bad, but usually is very interesting and generally provides opportunity for somebody willing to take risk,” he said.

“Regarding the future,” Moxley said, “both parties are likely nearing a crossroads where these longstanding relationships have to once again be redefined, communicated, then supported by both parties. Armstrong has been a great business partner. We expect that to continue.”

-Ken Ryan