by Steven Feldman
Orlando, Fla.—Just about a year into Michael Martin’s reign as CEO of the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA), the organization is embarking on more initiatives than it ever has, ironically with less staff. And it comes at a time when business is picking up. That fact was illustrated at the association’s recent convention here, which saw a 40% increase in attendance and 100 more booths than last year.
“We are getting a sense things are much better than what we’ve been seeing recently,” Martin said. “Everyone has had a good first quarter. Contractors are telling us they’re busy. It’s being driven by pent-up demand. Consumers are ready to spend. And flooring has been the one thing put on hold through the recession.”
While business is improving, wood flooring contractors are not without their challenges, competing on price being one of the biggest. “In this economy, it’s tough not to compete on price, but contractors have to remember to compete on their skill set and the craftsmanship they provide,” Martin said. “Much of that surrounds the types of jobs out there. “We are seeing fewer entries in our Wood Floor of the Year because they have not been doing the exquisite, complex, integrated, high-end projects. Rather, it’s been basic installations.”
Initiatives for 2012
1.Surfaces. NWFA is partnering with Surfaces on a pavilion that will showcase some of NWFA’s smaller members, those that may not have the resources to exhibit at the industry’s largest trade show. The pavilion will include an area for NWFA members to network and about 10 booths. “The idea is to gain some more exposure for the category by getting some of our member companies to the show for the first time and provide value through the association,” Martin said.
2.An increased focus on the A&D community. Martin believes this can be a real growth area because the NWFA has found many architects and designers are not specifying hardwood because they don’t know enough about the product to ensure they are making the right application choice. “Educating them on the species that perform best in commercial applications is something very important to us,” Martin said. The plan is to start by building a continuing education library and then have people to give these presentations on a local level. NWFA is looking at certifying its members to provide this education on the street and be seen as a source of expertise. “Designers like wood; they just need to know what to do with it,” Martin said.
3.Online training. Because the economy has made it hard for many people to travel to NWFA schools in St. Louis and Las Vegas, NWFA is starting an online university. “It’s very expensive to be away for a week,” Martin said. “So we are doing some distance learning.” The program will kick off with some soft skills training, like human resources, safety and sales tools. “General skills that everyone needs.” There will also be some technical and sales and management training before more industry-specific training is added.
But Martin was quick to note NWFA is not abandoning its traditional hands-on courses. In fact, he is anticipating attendance at the schools will increase as market conditions improve. “Wood flooring definitely needs a hands-on learning environment, but there are pieces that we can marry up in an online setting, such as species selection, that can prepare members for the hands-on training.”
4.Inspector certification. The big project for this year, Martin said, is re-launching NWFA’s inspector certification program. “This is an opportunity to make sure we have the best qualified inspectors as part of the program.” The program will become more stringent by raising the required level of wood flooring experience to gain certification.
5.Technology. NWFA is offering its members customized websites. Three options are available, with the high-end option offering SEO and customization. NWFA will feed members with content from its consumer site. “We found the sites out there are not often updated,” Martin said.
6.Hardwood Federation alliance. This organization, comprised of more than 20 associations and corporations, gives NWFA a voice in Washington. “Because hardwood is such a political issue from a forestry standpoint, this gives us an opportunity to talk about the benefits of wood flooring,” Martin said. “Our partnership has allowed us to make wood a more environmentally recognized product in the eyes of Washington.”
7.Hardwood flooring maintenance program. This partnership with IICRC, which deals with the proper ways to maintain a wood floor, is still in its early phases. The premise is: It’s better to partner on a maintenance certification program rather than each entity having its own. “We have the expertise on the wood side and they have the expertise on the certified maintenance side,” Martin said. “So it’s a good way to leverage our strengths.”