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Executive interview: Ed Duncan reflects on four decades in the flooring industry

January 7/14, 2019: Volume 34, Issue 16

 

Ed Duncan officially retired as president of Mannington Residential on Dec. 31, 2018, after 40 years in flooring, 31 of which were spent in Salem, N.J. FCNews publisher Steven Feldman sat down with Duncan to look back on a career that began at Wilsonart.

How it all began
I graduated from Baylor in 1978 and immediately went to work as a sales trainee for Wilsonart, then moved to Dallas where I had a sales territory. Within about two years, I moved back to their corporate headquarters in Temple and went into the marketing department. I was there for probably six years before I was recruited by a company named U.S. Brass, which made faucets and plumbing. It was up in Dallas. Within two months, I knew I had made a big mistake. I didn’t like the product. I didn’t like the organization. I didn’t like anything about it. I got ahold of a recruiter and he said he just started a search for Bigelow, which was this carpet company in South Carolina looking for a director of marketing. I interviewed with Tony Kelly and that’s how I got in the business. I didn’t know a thing about carpet. Bigelow was a really good company at that time; you had Tony Kelly as CEO, Steve Bordeaux was vice president of marketing, and Phil Haney was vice president of sales.

Hi… and bye
About a year later, out of the blue, they sold the company to Karastan, and now all of a sudden it was Karastan Bigelow. It was one of those deals where you walk into work in the morning and you see all your bosses and then at about 9 a.m. they stop by and say, ‘Bye, we’re leaving, we’ve sold the company.’ They literally flew to New York on a Fieldcrest Cannon private jet and the new management team flew back. We had dinner with all our new bosses that night. I was fortunate enough to be the survivor who took over the marketing for both Karastan and Bigelow.

Mannington: It just felt right
In 1987, I got a phone call from Mannington. I was happy where I was; I was a vice president at a very young age. But Mannington was persistent. I came up for an interview mainly out of courtesy. But after I spent a day here, by the time I went back to the Philadelphia airport I knew this was the spot. I met with Keith [Campbell], Johnny [Campbell] and Jack Hollinger. There were several other people I also met with.

I just had this very strong gut feeling that it was going to be a company where I would be happy for a very long time. I didn’t really know a whole lot about Mannington. I didn’t know much about the strength of the company financially, and I really had never known much about the family. But the people were all very consistent in terms of what they believed, their culture and what was important to them. They had a clear set of values they believed the company should live by. And the fact they were interviewing me more about my fit and personality as opposed to my technical knowledge said a lot to me.

It only takes two minutes
My first day of work for Mannington was at the Chicago market in 1988. I did a full week with Karastan Bigelow. I was at their showroom on the 12th floor. I finished getting the showroom ready for the market on Friday afternoon and then took the elevator up to the Mannington floor, which was maybe 17 or 18. And I officially started with Mannington. I literally left Karastan at 5 p.m. and started up with Mannington at 5:02 p.m., or however long it took the elevator to get up to their floor.

Tony Kelly: Less is more
Tony Kelly was a huge influence because of his dedication to a disciplined thought process relative to the marketplace, understanding the customer and communication, understanding the discipline of clearly defining your position in the market, defining what differentiates you as well as his approach to marketing yourself. If he taught me one thing, it’s fewer words are better than more words. The discipline of boiling down your thoughts to just the required number of words to communicate.

Keith Campbell: Do unto others…
Keith Campbell is all about the importance of people and the importance of how you treat people. Over the years Keith has been incredibly consistent and dedicated to treating people the right way, treating people the way you would want to be treated. And he does that throughout the organization.

Memorable customers
Ed Menefee was probably my first real close friend in the business. His store was Carpet Value Center in Virginia. He’s retired now down in Florida and his son is running the business. He's just one of the funniest guys I know. He taught me early on to not take this business too seriously and just laugh at the humor of this business.

Dave Snedeker is solid, always honest. And even when you didn’t want him to be honest he’d tell you the truth, but at the same time very tactful and consistent. Not an emotional buyer, very thoughtful and quiet sometimes. He and I connected from the very early days before he even went to Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Tom Splinter at Herregan is one of my favorite golfing buddies. And there’s Dan Riley at BPI, Jeff Striegel at Elias Wilf and Russ Berringer at Dealers Supply. Those are guys I grew up with in the business. When I first started with Mannington they were all sales managers. Today they’re all running their companies. Even though they didn’t work for Mannington, they were essentially part of the Mannington family.

Mannington Gold: Lessons learned
My greatest lesson from [Mannington Gold] is more around what not to do, which is outrunning your headlights. Being too aggressive in the pursuit of a goal, where you leave a lot of detail undone, ultimately becomes your Achilles heel. Ultimately, the rush to market with Mannington Gold became the core issue. Because of that, we implemented a disciplined staging process to help create an order that would assure we wouldn’t make those kinds of critical mistakes moving forward. You must make sure you have a process where you ask all the critical questions.

This was transformative not only for the company but also for me personally, and I wasn’t even involved in it from a management perspective. I was trying to start up the commercial side of the business. We were in the process of licensing inlaid technology from Japan and then building this plant and starting up a VCT facility here because we weren’t in commercial hard surface. I was in the right place at the right time when it happened because I didn’t get hit with any of the bullets.

Memorable products
NatureForm was a technology that provided a realism and texture that had never been seen before in sheet vinyl. It was combining mechanical and chemical embossing for the first time and truly made the product look like what we were trying to emulate.

In laminate, the Historic collection was different than what competitors were offering. You had Pergo and you had these European guys and it was all kind of the same. Nobody had really done anything that looked significantly different in design. We came up with the idea of recreating a reclaimed barn-wood look—these high-character visuals. That put us on the map in laminate.

In wood, we took a similar approach with Chesapeake. We did this mechanical distressing on it—the first time it had been done. It was a great looking product.

In LVT, I’ve never seen a product like AduraMax. I’ve never seen a product type like rigid core in my 40 years in business. I’ve never seen where a product has just taken off and dominated like it has. That product alone probably kept me from retiring a year earlier.

Ch ch changes
This industry has changed over these last 40 years in so many ways. When I first got into the industry it was the Wild West. There were hundreds of companies, and everybody did business on relationships and deal making. Very few competitors competed on program selling or longer-term account development—and without very clear plans. The salespeople were cowboys. You gave them a price and a car and they’d go out and just start knocking down roll deals. It was totally dominated by the specialty retailer. It was the Wild West in terms of new retailers popping up all the time and guys going out of business all the time.

As the industry matured, there was consolidation across the board and new channels emerging. Then you’ve got the home centers that have taken significant share, you’ve got the growth of national homebuilders that have their own power that they didn’t have to that extent 30 years ago. Everything 30 years ago was so much more fractured.

The customers have changed, too. They are more informed by a factor of 10 than they were. Thirty years ago their shopping process was almost solely left in the hands of that retail salesperson because they didn’t know anything about what they were buying. That’s no longer the case because of the Internet. That doesn’t mean the retail salesperson doesn’t still have a significant role in the decision making because even the Internet can be confusing. There are still a lot of consumers who still want the validation of somebody helping them at the moment of truth, when they’re making a decision.

Then you have the retailers, who are much more educated and sophisticated either because they’re a part of a buying group or because they are part of a consolidation where they become a large regional chain. The Darwin theory works in retail just like it does everywhere else. The survival of the fittest. They’re more professional now than they were 30 years ago. They’re better businesspeople in terms of how they merchandise, how they buy. Then you have the emergence of world-class, mega retailers like Home Depots and the Lowes that you didn’t have 30 years ago. So all of the forces: The consumers made them get better, the competitors have made them get better; they’ve evolved into a smarter, stronger breed of business people.

Distribution has changed, too. Thirty years ago, Mannington across our different divisions probably had 40 or 50 distributors. Now we have 13 or 14. So they’ve consolidated and become better, stronger, more sophisticated in their portion of the market.

The constants
Relationships and trust still matter—so does color and style because at the end of the day those are still what the consumer is buying.

The competitors
There are many people to respect in this industry. Randy Merritt is just a real gentleman, a strong leader. Another guy who is very consistent in his approach not only to business but to competitors.

Ralph Boe is a real gentleman and consistent. He is always dealt a tough hand, but somehow he ends up getting three of the kind. I always respected his ability to keep [Beaulieu] rolling.

Things I’ll miss the most
I’m going to miss the people, without a doubt. I’m going to miss the day-to-day interaction with my friends. The ability to laugh with those guys. And we laugh about the industry, we laugh about customers and we laugh about dumb mistakes we make. I don’t take myself too seriously and I enjoy people who laugh at me and enjoy me laughing at them.

Fore…
Favorite golf course: Pebble Beach
Hardest golf course: Pine Valley
Best golf course: Manele Bay

Three pieces of advice for retailers:
   1. Stay close to your customers.
2. Always follow through.
3. Be consistent.

Succeeding where others often fail
We have always embraced change and adapted to the change in the marketplace. When I started here 30 years ago, we were really only a sheet vinyl company. We had a tiny wood business, a tiny ceramic tile business. We had a commercial carpet line that sold through distribution. Now, sheet vinyl quite frankly is one of our smallest businesses and we have evolved into a company that is a strong force in the commercial market.

We are diversified across all categories. Where our legacy has been in sheet vinyl, you can’t describe that as being our business any longer. We are a flooring company. We adapt in our processes. Mannington Gold taught us you’ve got to continue to get better and better every day and embrace change, embrace a drive for continual improvement. And we have been over the years because we’ve been relatively consistent at the top of this company. Obviously Keith at the chairman level but our CEOs all tend to be very long tenured.

We’re consistent. When someone retires or moves on, we work hard at hiring really good people who fit into this culture of continuing to want to compete and learn new things and challenge themselves and move forward. A lot of companies in this industry tend to have sweeping changes in their upper management that just leaves things confused.

What’s next
I think step one is just going to be decompressing and learning how to enjoy the day without worrying about what my schedule is for the next day. I think I’m looking forward to Sunday nights not worried about what I’m going do the following week and what I have to do first thing Monday morning. I’m looking forward to being able to help out with the grandkids. I’m looking forward to hanging out with many of my friends who are retired other than on a short weekend schedule.

I plan to continue helping Mannington with projects and helping Zach. I’m too young and have too much energy to go sit in a rocking chair.