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Exclusive interview: De Cock sets sights on innovation, customer satisfaction

New president of Mohawk Flooring says it’s all about retailers, consumers

 

At 45 years old, Paul De Cock is among the youngest presidents in Mohawk Flooring’s history. But make no mistake: He steps into this role with a wealth of experience, both through his 13-plus years with Mohawk and seven with his family’s Unilin prior to the purchase. One thing becomes strikingly obvious in any dialogue with De Cock: He is customer-centric to the core—both Mohawk’s customer as well as the end user—and anything that happens under his auspices will center around that. FCNews publisher Steven Feldman was granted the first interview with the man charged with taking Mohawk Flooring to the next level.

Who is Paul De Cock?
From a business perspective, I have spent my entire career in flooring. I came to Mohawk through the Unilin acquisition, which was my family’s business founded in 1960. I’m second generation. I have 20 years in the flooring business, but you could say I have 40 years because flooring was what we got at the kitchen table. So flooring has always been a part of my business life and my personal life. This should give all flooring retailers some comfort, that I understand what is important to them.

What drives you?
What drives me is to make the best-looking products, have the best possible service, make that product with the best possible quality and then make our customers as happy as possible. You want to be the best in service, the best in product, the best in quality and the best in customer satisfaction. That satisfaction is the end result and what ultimately drives me.

Do you have a competitive nature?
I am a competitive person, but I would not say the heart is competitive. I like to make people happy. You want the consumers to be happy in their homes and you want the retailers to be happy with their relationship with Mohawk so we can help them grow their businesses. You want everybody to be happy throughout the chain.

What strengths do you bring to the position of president of Mohawk Flooring, North America? Where can you make the greatest contribution to these retailers?
First, I come from a hard surface background. I think that is critical, because it’s the fastest growing component of the industry. I understand that, and that should bring comfort to retailers.

Second, I am a very customer-focused executive who always thinks about what we need to do to be successful. Everything is going to be aligned to make sure we can bring success to our retailers, because success to our retailers and customers is success for us.

The third thing is what I would call complexity management. The business I was running in Europe was complicated, because we were in 100 countries with 100 languages with all kinds of distribution set-ups and customer set-ups. Product demands were very different from one geography to the next. Mohawk is also a complicated business, but it’s a different level of complexity. It’s geographically less complicated but, from a product point of view, complicated given the breadth of what we bring to market.

You've been on the job for a couple of months, but you're really starting in earnest now. Tell me some of the first things you plan to focus on.
We’re going to put the organization in place, an organization that offers accountability and good chain of command so we can deliver the service, the quality and the best possible product so we can [absolve] the retailer of all the different things he has to take care of.

Second is LVT, the fastest growing category in the industry. We are very well-positioned to participate in that, given we have the largest U.S. manufacturing footprint in LVT. We have a lot of product activity and product launches going on in that part of the business.

Third, we want growth. It always comes back to the customer. Take care of your retailers and the growth is automatic.

What do you believe Mohawk does better than every other company?
I believe it’s our commitment to innovation. If you look at what we have done over the last few years with products like RevWood and SmartStrand, we’re going to do exactly the same thing in LVT. Not only product but also digital marketing tools like Omnify, for example, which is the best in the industry. I do think we push the boundaries on innovation, not only product innovation but also in the way we go to market, the way we bring the package to the customer.

A second important one is we are a manufacturing company. We want to manufacture the best possible products in North America and control the whole value chain. It’s by controlling that chain where you can bring that satisfaction to the customer. You have the teams that know the innovation part. You have the teams that build the plants in sync with that innovation. You have all the manufacturing assets domestically, completely plugged into your distribution system. That gives the best possible guarantee to the customers in terms of quality, service and product innovation.

Being a high value-added manufacturer is also something that makes us different. Sourcing is not our core business. It might complement the business, but ultimately we are manufacturers.

The last one is our distribution network. We can get into every ZIP code in America within 48 hours, bring every possible product to anybody. We have one of the most efficient ways to do that. This brings not only service to our customers but also the value of doing that in a cost-competitive way. Distribution is very expensive. Due to the scale we have, we can offer that capability to be anywhere. I think that is valued by our customers.

Why do you feel Mohawk is the best partner for retailers? How can Mohawk enhance that partnership under your leadership?
Floor covering retail is a very complicated job. The reason is consumers want the best possible product, but they also want it to be installed in the best possible way. Every home, every commercial project is different, which means it’s complicated. Every project has something special. Our retailers are the best at handling that complexity on site with the customer and helping that customer select the right product.

We need to be complementary to that role. Our role is to [lighten the retailer’s load] and flawlessly execute on that product, quality and service promise so they can focus on all the complicated things they need to take care of with the customer, which is selection and installation. The result is a happy retailer and a happy customer. That, ultimately, is why we are in business.

What are you most excited about heading into 2019?
I am most excited about all our product launches. We have new introductions in RevWood, which has been doing phenomenally well. We are relaunching two product lines in LVT: Pergo and SolidTech. SolidTech is going to be made in America. We’re bringing Pergo, the strongest product brand in the industry, back to the specialty retailer with a fantastic Pergo Extreme rigid LVT offering. It’s the best brand and best product. We’ve also brought some new introductions under TecWood. In every category we’re cutting edge with the best brands in the industry combined with innovation and service. On the soft surface side, in our SmartStrand franchise, we’ve brought in Silk Reserve. We put in four new ColorMax styles, which is the innovative new dying process to provide beautifully blended colorations and superior color clarity.

I’m also very excited about the landscape for retailers from a communication, go-to-market, branding and advertising point of view, which is changing dramatically with Google search and the online presence. I’m also absolutely proud of the fact we have an absolute leadership position in bringing digital to the retailers’ stores. We help our retailers bring the consumers in their stores, so they ask the right questions in the store. We partner with our retailers in the whole digitalization of their storefronts so they can capture more people to their stores. That’s also been something we’ve done phenomenally well.

Greatest opportunities for Mohawk in 2019?
It’s about bringing the connection and happiness to the consumer. Have the right products and the right brands in front of them with the right technical features that solve the problems they have in their homes. At the same level, it’s also about doing a better job of making sure we bring our retailers a completely seamless experience.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for 2019?
We have a relatively good economy right now. We might see a little bit of slowdown in 2019 from a very good 2018. All economic indicators are still in the green. Still, the floor covering industry is kind of slow. That is a little disconnected. We have a good economic environment, but we have a slower environment within the floor covering industry compared to what the economy is producing.

The question is why is there a disconnect? I think they were going to raise interest rates. The Fed is reevaluating that now because they see in the building-related part of the industry there is some slowdown. They obviously don’t want that. That’s an interesting part of the challenges we have ahead of us. Also, the whole tariff situation uncertainty has an impact on the business.

We’re seeing uncertainty on several levels—from the Federal Reserve on interest rates to the part of the consumer about the economy next year to the tariffs creating a climate where people are not confident about the future and where people want to spend money on their homes. The consumer may be taking a bit of a conservative approach on capital goods, like buying new cars or new floors or updating their homes.

I think the consumption is still going well. But I think we need to make sure we keep that positive vibe with the consumer and the confidence with the consumer so she can have confidence to spend the money on the renovation of her house and the capital goods that are associated with that.

What about labor? Do you see labor still remaining a big challenge for this industry?
Yes. Installation labor is a challenge. We are working on some innovative solutions to make installation quicker and easier so you need fewer hours per square foot to be installed. That’s definitely one of our focuses. As I said before, we’re a manufacturer. Finding the talent to run the plants is not easy. And, you know we have a big distribution network; it’s not easy to find the drivers for all the trucks. There is more or less full employment in North America. It’s not easy to find people in any of these sectors.

With the industry going more toward hard surface, obviously the replacement cycle becomes longer. Do you see that as a challenge for dealers?
I don’t. Yes, the replacement cycle becomes longer, but you have a whole different opportunity given the ticket for hard surface is larger than it is for carpet. So, the counterpart of the longer cycle is the ticket is bigger. It’s not about changing your carpet every five years anymore; it’s about changing your hard surface floor maybe every 10 or 20 years. But remember, that hard surface is costing two, three, four times as much as carpet. It’s difficult to say what the impact of this changing dynamic will be on the total floor covering industry.