January 19/26, 2015; Volume 28/Number 15
By Ken Ryan
Somerset 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.”
Somerset 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
Several 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.”
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.”