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National Floorcovering Alliance: Spirited discussions on thorny issues set the tone

October 23/30, 2017: Volume 32, Issue 10

By Steven Feldman

 

Screen Shot 2017-10-27 at 12.01.40 PMNewport, R.I.—The National Floorcovering Alliance (NFA) is 42 retailers and 256 storefronts strong, representing a collective $1.1 billion in annual sales. But the issues these dealers face every day are no different than every other flooring retailer; in fact, it can be argued that their sheer size creates an even greater depth of challenge than most.

The key topics discussed at the group’s fall meeting were diverse, ranging from ways to find quality installers and sales associates to dealing with manufacturers who want to eliminate discounts for paying invoices within a certain time frame and dealers who encroach upon fellow members’ territories—legal by bylaw but challenging the spirit of the group.

Dave Snedeker, division merchandise manager, Nebraska Furniture Mart and president of the NFA, called this one of the best meetings in a long time. “I feel we heard the voice of everyone—just a lot of participation.”

Participation is often fueled by issues that can affect the bottom line, and that was unequivocally the case when Shaw and Mohawk announced they were doing away with “terms”—percentage discounts for paying bills within a certain time frame (see related story on this page). Eventually the NFA and the two major mills reached an accord, but not before members weighed in vociferously.

“For a lot of people terms are a sacred cow,” Snedeker stated. “You have little control over price increases, but terms is a part of the business we believe is earned for being a good steward of your financial responsibilities. It’s not necessarily part of the price; it’s about paying your bills on time. So to have that taken away would be a negative for a lot of stores.” (There is no group terms rate as NFA members negotiate their own deals, just as they do on pricing. However, the power of the NFA is such that this one voice speaks at exceptionally high decibel levels.)

Screen Shot 2017-10-27 at 12.01.33 PM“[The elimination of term discounts] would seem to penalize the better customers who pay their bills,” said Phil Koufidakis, president of Phoenix-based Baker Bros. “They would seem to be taking away an incentive for people to pay their bills on time. I don’t know why the mills are doing it. They never communicated that to the group nor myself.”

Sam Roberts, president of Roberts Carpets and Fine Floors in Houston, said terms are very important in the specialty dealer community. “I think most quality specialty retailers are opposed to the removal of terms, specifically going to zero discounts in their terms, and I think the vendors need to think very carefully about what’s in everyone’s best interests.”

While the terms issue may have been resolved, another controversial subject lingered. That involved one member’s recent new store opening. But it was not your typical expansion. That’s because the store encroached upon another member’s turf, something not illegal by bylaw but a questionable decision in the eyes of some.

“Expansion into the territory of another member is not disallowed,” Snedeker stressed. “The NFA’s position is there are no bylaws that preclude it. In the case of a prospective member, anyone can protect their turf, but once they are established it gets a lot grayer.”

While not necessarily a common practice, it is certainly not unprecedented. For instance: Nebraska Furniture Mart expanded into Dallas, where Carpet Exchange is a member; and Star Lumber expanded into Oklahoma City, where Akin Bros. does business.

The prevailing issue is that one of the major benefits of NFA membership is the sharing of information and best practices. The fear is two competing members may be uncomfortable giving away secrets of their stores, which can be detrimental to the group at large.

Screen Shot 2017-10-27 at 12.01.20 PMMembers are divided on the matter. “I did it, so I understand the issue,” said Roger Voge, division president, Star Flooring, Wichita, Kan. “I let the NFA board know I was coming to Oklahoma. I was working on an acquisition and had a non-disclosure, so I couldn’t call the competitor in town. At a certain point you need to go to another market for growth. I understand this could hurt the sharing of information within the group, but a lot more of that occurs in informal settings.”

Stuart Perque, president, Perque Flooring, New Orleans, has a different take. “I’m not too comfortable with that unless it is discussed prior. We were the eighth member of the NFA. There was pretty much a gentleman’s agreement when we were 10 people in the room that we would not expand into another member’s territory without bringing it up first.”

Steve Brannen, COO, Carpet King, Minneapolis, may not be opposed to the idea of expansion into another member’s area, but he agrees with Perque in that communication is key. “If you are up front with people and tell them what you are going to do, that’s OK. When you do it stealth it’s not the right thing to do. This group is based on openness and sharing.”

Koufidakis, a former NFA president, sees it as an issue between the two members. “The group has no bylaws about people expanding into other areas. Obviously we can’t control how members expand their business, and we do from time to time run into that expansion. That’s for the members in question to deal with on a direct basis more so than the group getting in the middle.”

Roberts, another former president, agreed. “Once you are a member of the NFA, there is nothing in the NFA bylaws that precludes any dealer from expanding into any market they choose to expand into. The only time we can pay attention to geographic-protected areas is when somebody joins the group. My thoughts are if somebody wants to expand, they are totally welcome to do that wherever they want. And as far as the impact of sharing best practices with competitors in the room, is it potentially an issue? Yes. Is it potentially a major issue? No.”

Desperately seeking salespeople
Replacing an aging sales staff is somewhat surprisingly a key issue for many NFA members. And they all go about it in different ways. For example, networking is the secret to success for ICC Floors in Indianapolis, but not at the management level. “We get some young people and then the word spreads amongst their group of friends,” Cam Haughty, president, explained. “The first one came through a Daltile rep a couple of years ago, and then we tapped into his network. They are big on social media, and they talk about our good work environment and that we pay pretty well.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-27 at 12.01.10 PMCarpet King’s Brannen told FCNews finding good salespeople is a perennial problem. But he has a unique way of accumulating good ones. “Ads don’t really produce. It’s more about interactions with people in other industries. If you find someone who offers good service you have to approach them.”

An aging salesforce is a big issue at Perque’s. “I’m finding the older people are just staying around for the health insurance,” Perque said. “We’ve been trying to find new salespeople for the last two years. We are bringing in people who have never been in the flooring industry. We can’t find anyone who wants to go on 100% commission, so we do the training, put them on a salary and then evaluate them after a year. It’s a very expensive venture, but we can’t seem to find anyone who wants to work full commission.

“We found one interior designer, and one was a schoolteacher. I find those who go on full commission, after four or five years they are going to make a good income. But it’s a process, and very few people want to go through a four- or five-year process.”

Baker Bros. has had four or five people retire this year. “We are finding them predominately through job postings,” Koufidakis said. “We have expanded the range of people we look for. We don’t worry about just looking for ‘flooring people.’ We look for really good people who fit the company and our culture. That’s the big issue for us—fit. We can teach them the rest.”

 

In other NFA news…

  • NFA members as a whole are up about 5%-7% in 2017. “Hurricanes have hurt overall numbers for a few dealers,” Snedeker said.
  • There were two fewer suppliers at the vendor-member round-robin meeting with Royalty shutting its doors since the last meeting and Beaulieu choosing not to come. “The board is looking at all the options about what we will do going forward,” Snedeker said. “We can bring in new core vendors, or we can keep it at 24. We have a couple of people interested in taking a spot if we choose to go that way.”
  • Snedeker is excited about the NFA’s Specialty Vendor Showcase, held the day before Surfaces in Las Vegas. The 2018 version promises to be the biggest yet with nearly 60 vendors lined up, up from a record 42 in 2017. “It’s a great opportunity to see different things you might not spend a lot of time seeing at Surfaces. The list is very strong this year.”
  • Carpet Den Interiors in Nashville could potentially be the 43rd member of the NFA pending unanimous member approval. The $30 million retailer has been in business almost 40 years, has 55 full-time employees and more than 100 installation crews. The stocking dealer is a Stainmaster Flooring Center and has a nice blend of builder, residential and commercial business.
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Fuse Alliance: Group seeks greater interaction with A&D community

March 13/20, 2017: Volume 31, Issue 20

By Reginald Tucker

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 11.28.38 AMAustin, Texas—“We’ve done a good job growing membership and increasing sales, but we could be doing much better in terms of engaging the A&D community.” That was the gist of Geoff Gordon’s message to contractors in attendance at the annual Fuse Alliance conference held here recently. As executive director of the organization, he believes the group might be losing business by not casting a wider net when seeking new clients.

Gordon understands the inherent challenges in trying to develop better relationships with the A&D sector. “Just getting in to see designers can be difficult. Sometimes there’s a three-month wait. It’s not like the old days. Manufacturers have a lot of reps on the street calling on specifiers, but we are an unbiased group. We can help with budgets, specifications and even transitions. We are the go-to network.”

Truth be told, some Fuse members already count designers among their client base. But by and large, according to Gordon, it’s a sector underserved by the vast majority of members. “There are some members in our group who don’t focus on A&D at all, and we feel it’s a missed opportunity. Our members have access to a variety of product lines, and we should be trying to leverage that.”

As it turns out, Fuse is in the prime position to meet the needs of the design community. According to Mike Hutton, head of Fuse Commercial—which manages the group’s national accounts program—Fuse Alliance members already have an advantage; they just have to learn the nuances of the business and work toward building a better base of specifiers. “You are the consultants,” he told the scores of commercial flooring contractors in attendance. “End users want turnkey suppliers who can provide everything from materials sourcing, installation services, project management and even product reclamation. Most of all, end users want transparency (i.e., line item bidding) and financial security in their vendor partners. Fuse Alliance members offer that single point of accountability, responsiveness, consistency and professionalism.”

It’s no accident that much of the educational programming offered at the Fuse Alliance conference this year was tailored toward showing contractors how they can better develop their A&D contact base. In her presentation to the group, Laurie Baatz, director of market development, Schönox, provided a few concrete examples of how contractors can achieve this objective. “Don’t leave it to the manufacturers to provide designers with an education. Build trust by becoming the design specifier. Don’t just compete on price. Also, develop case studies, which are important to specifiers, and take a strategic approach by following up.”

Fuse Alliance contractors had the rare opportunity to get feedback from designers and specifiers themselves, thanks to a special panel discussion focused on “What designers want.” The four-member panel included: Carol Reitter Elia, ASID, IIDA LEED AP, SAGE, owner of CR Design; Jeffrey Rausch, production executive, Bar Napkin Productions; Karen Hoffman, senior interior designer, GSR-Andrade; and Dean Maddalena, AIA, NCARB, IIDA, ASID, founder and president of StudioSix5. Following is some advice they had to offer attendees:

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 11.29.11 AMBuild your online presence. “A lot of designers go online right away when researching potential products for their projects,” Rausch said. “Link your account to Pinterest. You’re missing a big part of the audience if you don’t do this. Remember, the best project is the one that leads to another project.”

Offer solutions, not just a low bid. “We’re problem solvers, and we’re looking for solutions for various things,” Reitter Elia said. “Some clients are budget conscious; others are pressed for time. Demonstrate to designers that you are the experts and how you can offer real solutions.”

Be knowledgeable. “In most projects, 90% of the discussion is focused on flooring,” Hoffman said. “How is the flooring going to perform? Be prepared to answer those questions.”

It’s also important for commercial flooring contractors to gain a better understanding of not only how the design process works but also how architects and designers think. It’s also necessary for flooring contractors to better understand all the considerations that go into the design process. Cheryl Stubblefield Durst, CEO and executive director of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), delivered an informative and educational presentation that touched on everything from the impact of technology on the specification process as well as how architects are developing based on demographic changes. “Today’s designers are designing for engagement,” she explained. “Five generations will be working side by side in the year 2020, and 54% of the world’s population today is under age 30.”

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 11.29.19 AMDurst also poked holes in the myth that the “open-office” format is the wave of the future. In support of her belief, she pointed to human resource experts who say this format isn’t working. “The biggest complaint is noise interruptions, which is an impediment to worker efficiency.”

With respect to technology, Durst strongly encouraged contractors to embrace technology as a matter of course in their daily routines. She cited statistics showing 3 million social media accounts exist today and that there are 3.5 billion Internet users. Also, in just one hour, 1.8m blogs will be posted and 1.9 billion Google searches will be conducted in the same time frame. “You can’t deny the influence of technology on our lives,” she said.

Speaking of technology, that’s definitely an area where Fuse Alliance management wants to see members increase their proficiency. This is particularly true when it comes to utilizing social media. “It’s a great way for members to learn about what’s going on in the industry, i.e., projects that are breaking ground,” said Catherine Minervini, principal of Green Owl Studio, which helps Fuse members in their promotional and marketing efforts. “It’s also a good way to recruit talent. And you don’t have to utilize all the social media programs available—just pick one.”

Look for more on the 2017 Fuse Alliance conference in upcoming editions of FCNews.