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Somerset expands distribution in Northeast territory

Somerset, Ky.—Somerset Hardwood Flooring will begin to have Belknap White Group distribute Somerset-branded flooring products throughout its distribution coverage areas, effective Oct. 1, 2018. This appointment adds a top-five distributor to Somerset’s already strong distribution base in the Northeastern U.S. 

Belknap White will serve in a dual-distribution capacity with Somerset Hardwood Flooring's longtime wholesale partner, NRF Distributors, in the northernmost part of its territory. In the southern part of Belknap White’s distribution area, it will overlap with Somerset's distributors, who are already in place there. These include: PC Hardwoods, Elias Wilf (New Jersey area), Olson Floor Supply and Michael Halebian & Co.

"Somerset is proud to add Belknap White to our already strong family of distributors in the Northeast," said Paul Stringer, vice president of sales and marketing, Somerset Hardwood Flooring.

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Wood: The secret to Somerset’s success

Jan 4/11; Volume 30/Number 14

By Reginald Tucker

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 3.36.29 PMIn a market sector where overall wood category sales are up just 2.5% year over year, Somerset Hardwood Flooring achieved growth approaching double digits—and that’s primarily in its prefinished lineup. While this feat might be more newsworthy for an upstart, it’s especially remarkable in Somerset’s case, given the fact that the company has been cranking out hardwood flooring products for more than 20 years.

“We’ve got great employees and exceptional distributor partners,” said Paul Stringer, vice president of sales and marketing of the Kentucky-based manufacturer. “It’s not that we’re the biggest or the best—we just focus on doing the right things.”

Some of those “right things” include collaborating regularly with its distributors. “We do a lot of problem solving with our distributors, and I take a lot of pride in knowing that our growth comes through distribution to retail,” Stringer explained. “We don’t sell any of our wood flooring to the big boxes and we’re not a member of any buying group. We’ve stayed loyal to the distribution channel and I think that channel has stayed loyal to us.”

Indeed, it has. In fact, among Somerset’s distributor partners are names consistently found on the industry’s lists of Top 20 wholesalers—names like NRF Distributors, Elias Wilf, Galleher Wood Floors and Denver Hardwood, just to name a few. But these entities are not just masters at moving product around their respective markets. According to Stringer, they serve another vital role.

“I don’t just see us as having all these top distributors, per se; I see them as advisors,” he said. “I spend a lot of time on the phone with distributors; they tell me what’s going on, what they need or what’s happening in the industry. Manufacturers forget that distributors can be a really great resource—if you listen closely.”

On that last point, Stringer said floor covering wholesalers can be particularly useful when it comes to developing products, merchandising and go-to marketing strategies for various regions of the country. “You’ll find it’s not always the same issue for every distributor. They might have different approaches.”

Elias Wilf is a classic case in point when it comes to the importance of product differentiation. The main characteristic of Somerset’s business that caught the attention of Jeff Striegel, president of the Owings Mills, Md.-based distributor, was the focus on the details—and its willingness to tailor products to meet Wilf’s local needs.

“A lot of manufacturers take the cookie-cutter approach, meaning they do things the same way on the East Coast vs. the West Coast and in the North vs. the South,” Striegel explained. “When we meet with the folks at Somerset, we talk about what works well in ‘Wilf land.’ Out on the West Coast or Southwest it’s different materials and colorations. Some [manufacturers] want to do one program nationwide; I want what I need in my backyard.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 3.36.45 PMThat personalized approach appeals to other distributors as well.

“The Somerset management team listens extremely well to a range of customers, including dealers, contractors and distributors, allowing them to offer a range of products targeted at the specific needs of the market today,” said Jeff Hamar, president of Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based Galleher—the industry’s fifth-largest wholesaler.

Customization is key, but it’s not the only determining factor in how a particular product line or brand will perform. In the flooring business—especially in the hardwood sector where competition with imports is rampant—retailers need a quality, stand-out product that is still accessible to the end-user.

“We continue to make a quality product at a good value, but we’re not the cheapest in the marketplace,” Stringer said, noting that Somerset avoids the price battles on the solid-strip commodity end of the market. “We’ve also expanded our line to include features such as high gloss, four-sided bevels and wire-brushing to maximize our [profit] potential. We’re not going to be the most expensive, but at the same time we’re not going to get involved in the down-and-dirty end of the business.”

It’s an approach that Somerset’s distributor partners recognize and appreciate. At Elias Wilf, for instance, distributor representatives like the fact that Somerset puts so much of its R&D efforts into products that it can readily differentiate from imports. “When Somerset moved its engineered production from China to the U.S., it was a fundamental change based on the quality of what they were getting there vs. what they make stateside,” Striegel explained. “Their whole engineered plant is like new.”

The factory—one of several in Somerset’s arsenal—puts out a sawn-face, high-end, ½-inch engineered product dubbed SolidPlus that features a Russian birch core with a 3mm wear layer. “This is just one of the ways that we’ve utilized capital investments to differentiate ourselves in the market,” Stringer added.

Selling the story

High-quality product standards and innovative manufacturing techniques go a long way in brand positioning. But ultimately, success in the hardwood flooring business requires effective translation of those high-tech features and benefits to the consumer. And that’s where Somerset’s retail flooring gallery display comes in. Rather than inundate the consumer with the nuances of solid construction vs. engineered, the display allows retail salespeople to emphasize pattern and design, and then choose a construction that meets her needs. Couple that with the various formats Somerset offers across a broad spectrum of color and style options, and it becomes an easy choice for the consumer.

Whether it’s builder, retail or a high-end shopper looking for a wide-width product, Somerset has the diversity and approach that allows the retail salesperson to engage all applications and end uses. As Galleher’s Hamar noted, “The combination of outstanding quality, a rich color and design product portfolio, strong execution within the supply chain and compelling value for the consumer has allowed Galleher to significantly grow Somerset in our region.”

As Somerset looks to extend its winning streak, Stringer said the focus will remain on doing the things that contributed to its recent achievements. High on the list: ongoing capital expenditures, including plant expansions and innovations designed to help increase capacity.

“We’re always investing back into the operation as we look for ways to be more efficient and improve quality.”

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Somerset: Hardwood supplier walks softly, carries big stick

January 19/26, 2015; Volume 28/Number 15

By Ken Ryan

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 4.07.52 PMSomerset Hardwood Flooring is a privately owned company with a rich, 20-plus year history in the hardwood industry. It has accomplished this feat while keeping a decidedly low profile, masking what its distribution partners say is one of the best-run, most impressive businesses in flooring.

Somerset (booth S-5725 at Surfaces) is the rare manufacturer that sells solely through distribution—no big boxes, no buying groups and no direct builders. Paul Stringer, vice president of sales and marketing, said there are many things the industry may not know about Somerset, and that’s by design. “We don’t make a lot of announcements, so people are usually surprised with our size and scope of operations when they visit us.”

Among its network of distributors are three top 20 wholesalers: NRF, Galleher and Elias Wilf. Galleher became a Somerset distributor in 2008 when it purchased Floor Service in San Jose, Calif. “Frankly we didn’t know how great the line was initially because Floor Service had really underperformed the market,” said Jeff Hamar, president and CEO of Galleher, Santa Fe Springs, Calif. “Over time we came to greatly admire the outstanding quality of the products, along with style and design features, and the talented management group running the company. Over the past few years our growth has been stunning because our customers have come to appreciate all that Somerset has to offer.”

Jeff Striegel, president of Elias Wilf, Owings Mills, Md., said good business partners are those people you genuinely like and enjoy doing business with; Somerset scores high in both areas. “These guys are good people—straight shooters, no fancy footwork—it’s like the way business was done in the ’80s, where a handshake mattered. There are only a handful of companies like that today. [Somerset is] a wonderful company to do business with.”

Deborah Giordano, vice president at NRF Distributors, Augusta, Maine, also expressed how Somerset stands out with a quality team. “You can pick up the phone and talk to management or the owner whenever you feel you need to.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 4.07.46 PMSomerset executives said they have always enjoyed strong relationships with distributors. In fact, part of the decision to enter the prefinished flooring market segment in 1999 was at the behest of distributors who were selling unfinished solid Appalachian strip and plank flooring. “Our unfinished customers appreciated the quality of our products, enjoyed working with us and were looking for an alternative supplier of prefinished flooring,” Stringer said.

He explained the company’s commitment to the distribution channel has shaped its corporate culture for the past 16 years. “Distributors that do a good job for us are more aware of—and in touch with—trends and opportunities in their particular markets. We work to develop the right products and tailor programs that capitalize on those opportunities. Distributors and their retail partners have helped us grow and become successful, and hopefully we’ve done the same for them.”

Striegel also said Somerset is not afraid to overhaul an entire program if need be. As an illustration, the company recently did a retrofit for every sample in its display nationwide without passing the cost on to customers. “It had to run into the millions of dollars,” Striegel said. “I can’t remember the last time a supplier did that. Instead of Mickey Mousing around, they took an honest approach, enhanced their line and covered the costs.”

Somerset is well known for its mill tours, which take place at company locations in the Appalachian region near scenic Lake Cumberland. Visitors tour the different plants but are also treated to lake tours on the company houseboat. “Anyone who goes on a mill trip and sees the operation are typically blown away,” Striegel said. “It’s great to break bread with [members of the company], let your hair down and just enjoy yourself. Somerset is one of the most underestimated companies. It is easy to misjudge how deep and wide they are because they are not flamboyant.”

Hamar said walking through the Somerset mill gives visitors a sense of the company’s commitment to quality; from how it handles its rough lumber to the finished goods warehouse. “It’s easy to see why their products are essentially problem free. Everyone working for Somerset is committed to making the finest possible product, and the results prove this philosophy works.”

Made in the USA                 

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 4.07.40 PMSeveral years ago Somerset decided to import engineered flooring because in many areas of the country—especially the Sunbelt—it is the preferred construction. “Our customers wanted it, but we weren’t set up to make it at that time,” Stringer said. “We knew importing flooring would be a price-competitive solution. We hired someone specifically to oversee operations out of the country. Long story short, it didn’t work with our model of being vertically integrated, having control over quality and delivery, and being able to service our customers well.”

To meet engineered needs, in 2012 Somerset purchased a manufacturing facility in Crossville, Tenn., and since then has committed resources to manufacturing engineered flooring in the U.S. Stringer called it “one of the best recent decisions we’ve made. Not only are we price competitive, we offer domestically made SolidPlus engineered flooring with quality, appearance and performance advantages that translate to real value for our customers. Now our entire product line is truly a reflection of our values, Made in America initiatives and the commitment of our company.”

Today, Somerset proudly markets Made in the USA. “It is a big advantage for us,” Stringer said. “We get emails all the time to confirm that our products are made in the USA. We are proud to say that they are.”

Hamar said the Made in the USA movement is, in fact, working. “It plays well with many of our retailers.”

Product advantages

When Somerset made the investment in manufacturing engineered flooring in the U.S. it was determined to develop a different type of high-end hardwood. Today it produces ½-inch-thick engineered flooring with a solid, dry-sawn Appalachian hardwood wear layer and 8-ply cross-grained construction, all packaged in random lengths up to 6½ feet. “The result is a floor that looks identical to our ¾-inch-thick solid flooring when installed—and offers the advantages of installation versatility, dimensional stability and eco-responsibility,” Stringer noted.

“Since launching an engineered program several years ago [Somerset has] really identified a couple of dynamic niches,” Hamar said. “The products work well in California because of the sawn-face construction, wider widths, excellent color choices and really good value to the consumer compared to some similar products. By not going after the low end of the market and focusing on traditional type floors, Somerset products appeal to a significant group of homeowners looking for wood floors.”

Somerset is a one-stop shop for NRF, allowing it to choose from an array of engineered and solid collections running the gamut from red and white oak strip prefinished to specialty items like the Ultra Wide collection in oak, hickory and maple. “[Somerset] also has a rack that sells the product, which is very easy for a dealer or a consumer to understand,” Giordano said. “The easier we can make it for the retailer, the more sales Somerset gets.”