August 19/26, 2019: Volume 35, Issue 5
By Reginald Tucker
The announcement of a territory manager retiring normally doesn’t make the headlines in the flooring trade press. But when that individual is Jon Sterling, the first person to hold that title for industry disrupter USFloors, it’s definitely worth mentioning.
Sterling began his 15-year career in flooring at USFloors in 2004 during a time when the company primarily sold cork and bamboo flooring products. (It would be nine more years before COREtec was officially introduced to the U.S. market.)
Formerly the principal of a middle school in New York, he was coaxed out of retirement as an educator by none other than flooring industry journeyman Bruce Graye, whose résumé includes stints with Amorim/Wicanders, Natural Cork and Norman Clifton, to name a few.
“Bruce, who is a very good friend of mine, was the first regional manager at USFloors,” Sterling recalled. “He told me about a wonderful opportunity to become the first territory manager with a new company. I said, ‘Why not?’”
The fact that Sterling didn’t have any sales experience didn’t dissuade him from giving it the old college try. “It was a tremendous opportunity,” he told FCNews. “For me, it was about learning the different products, gathering information and then delivering it to residential salesforces and stores. I looked at sales as teaching, which played to my strengths. It also helps to be enthusiastic about what you’re selling—to me that’s what makes a good teacher.”
Working for a start-up company and helping to build brand awareness from the ground up also required—in sales parlance—a fair amount of “pounding the pavement.” Sterling and Graye— who occasionally ran marathons together—were responsible for a broad territory covering all of Long Island, New York City and New Jersey.
“We worked day and night,” Sterling said. “At the time we only had one cork rack and a couple of bamboo sample boards. Our territories were huge; you couldn’t make a living unless you had a large territory. We started out at six ‘o clock in the morning and made as many sales calls as we could. But I’m not complaining—it was a lot of fun. We wanted to make a success of it.”
Sterling was also driven by another motivating factor—namely the fear of failure. “I was very close to Bruce, and I wanted to do a great job for him,” he said. “Being new to sales, I also put a lot of pressure on myself. It was hard work on the part of everyone in the company.”
Fast-forward to 2013, when USFloors founder Piet Dossche officially unveiled COREtec—the industry’s first WPC product—to the U.S. market. For Sterling, it was the height of product innovation. “We had a great new product with COREtec,” he recalled. “Just seeing the damage that water can do to floors, the product offered homeowners a great solution. Even in situations where you had flooding—just watching it click back together after the planks dried was incredible. It wasn’t a sales pitch; it was proof that it worked.”
A culture of encouragement
USFloors management, led by Dossche (currently executive vice president of Shaw Hard Surfaces) provided the ideal atmosphere for support and growth, according to Sterling. “We had amazing leadership in Piet Dossche. The company grew from about $10 million when I started to what it is today. And there are more and more products coming on every year. It’s a tremendous success story.”
Beyond the sheer innovation on display at the company, Sterling also admired how USFloors handled its successes while weathering tough times such as the Great Recession that began in late 2007. “It was the most frightening thing for me because I had never experienced anything like that at the business level,” he noted. “I saw many good people I knew and liked go out of business through no fault of their own. The economy almost died. But I saw how a company like USFloors coped with it in a very compassionate and reasonable way.”
Dossche, likewise, cited Sterling’s role in the company’s progress during his tenure with the company. “Jon has been with us since the early days of USFloors and is an integral part of our family and contributor to the success we achieved. His dedication, flexibility and innovative mindset made him a top performer in the field. Jon’s remarkable work ethic has led to formidable growth in his territory, and he is loved and respected by his entire customer base. It was my personal pleasure to work with him, and our entire team will miss him.”
Looking back on it all, Sterling considers himself extremely fortunate to have worked for USFloors all those years. “Every now and then you get lucky and get in on the ground floor with something truly amazing,” he said.