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Gilford-Johnson meeting ranked ‘best one yet’

March 19/26, 2018: Volume 33, Issue 20

By Ken Ryan

 

“Driving Performance Together in 2018” was the theme of Gilford-Johnson’s ninth annual Advantage Partners conference earlier this month. Judging by the robust turnout—100 flooring dealers, 19 vendors and 208 total attendees—the one-day meeting was a resounding success.

“More people, more customers and a great deal of optimism and energy—probably our best one yet,” said Dennis Cook, president and CEO of Gilford-Johnson, ranked No. 17 among FCNews’ top 20 distributors with $90 million in sales.

Cook, who returned to the helm of Gilford-Johnson to replace Scott Roy, said the event, which included a trade show and awards dinner, was refreshing because he was able to spend quality, one-on-one time with customers. “That was my primary objective—trying to understand some of their issues. I certainly went around to all of our vendors and thanked them for their participation. Most of the customers I spoke to had really good years in 2017, from 5% up to a 15% increase, and some even more than that. They were quite enthused about 2018. We are certainly excited about 2018 as well.”

Rob Purkins, senior vice president of sales for Gilford-Johnson, who has been at all of the conventions, concurred. “I believe this was the best Advantage Partner event we have hosted in the nine years of the program. We had a great turnout. Our dealers were optimistic about business, and every vendor at the show was swamped the entire day.”

The event was held at the Belterra Casino Resort & Spa in Florence, Ind., just over the Kentucky border. However, attendees traveled by automobile from as far away as Georgia. “We had people from Atlanta, east Tennessee, Nashville,” Cook explained. “We had some people drive from as far away as Atlanta and Dalton to come to the show.”

Many attendees were first-timers, which Cook saw as an encouraging sign for a distributor that boasts an impressive array of suppliers—among them Raskin Industries, Inhaus, Johnson Hardwood Floors, IVC, EarthWerks, Beauflor, Tarkett/Johnsonite and Somerset.

Jodie Doyle, vice president of product management for Gilford-Johnson, said the Advantage Partners event is an opportunity to showcase the latest and greatest products that will hit retail stores in the coming months. “We were really happy to show off the Johnson Premium Reservoir collection, which is our first entry into the waterproof wood segment. The response to that product and all of our new introductions was really gratifying.”

Bill Schollmeyer, CEO of Johnson Hardwood, called it a “great dealer function,” adding, “It’s been a while since I’ve attended a dealer function for a major distributor and it was fun to be part of it. You really get a feel for the relationships Gilford-Johnson has with their customers.”

Cook, who had retired to Alabama but remained a director at the company, was asked to return at the beginning of the year. He said he is happy to be back and will be there as long as needed. “I was asked the question of how long I will be staying a number of times during the meeting,” he recalled. “I have no time frame. My goal is to make this company flourish. We have a lot of opportunities that we can take advantage of.”

At the evening awards ceremony, Carpet Specialists of Louisville, Ky., was named Gilford-Johnson Dealer of the Year for 2017.

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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.”

 

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Manufacturers maintain positive outlook despite concerns

December 8/15, 2014; Volume 28/Number 12

Wood

By Ken Ryan

Supply issues and raw material price hikes have forced hardwood flooring manufacturers to up their game in what they do best: produce high quality, stylish products that exhibit the value consumers demand. These efforts are expected to help steady the wood business in the coming year.

Michael Martin President and CEO, National Wood Flooring Association

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 2.27.26 PMIndustry experts are predicting that the hardwood category will continue to grow at a slow and steady pace. Estimates for 2014 put sales at about $2.7 billion, and projections out to 2019 are about $3.5 billion.

A big issue we’re seeing right now is the concern about installation taking place before HVAC is turned on in new construction. This creates a problem for other trades as well, not just hardwood, and could ultimately lead to flooring failures. To address this we’re meeting with national building organizations to tackle the problem and have our guidelines included in national building codes.

Another big issue we’re experiencing, and is occurring in all flooring segments, is the lack of qualified installers. Fewer young people are entering the trades these days—flooring in particular—because the work is physically demanding and they can earn better wages sitting at a computer. We’re working with other flooring groups through the Floor Covering Leadership Council to address this issue and develop training programs for vocational technology schools and veterans’ groups.

We also recently participated in providing feedback to the EPA on formaldehyde regulations. This is an issue that will definitely impact our industry going forward.

NWFA continues to monitor issues like the long-eared bat through our involvement in the Hardwood Federation. We also continue to monitor lead paint regulations, which affect wood flooring refinishers, Lacey, etc. Each year we visit Capitol Hill in conjunction with the Hardwood Federation to meet face-to-face with our legislators who can have the most impact on these issues. These meetings provide education and also real-life stories about how their decisions and votes affect people in their districts.

Paul Stringer Vice president, sales and marketing, Somerset

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 2.27.47 PMI pay little attention to what I hear related to forecast. There are so many variables that I can and can’t control. If I work hard on the things I can control, that will affect my performance more than any forecast. Now, what I hear from others in the industry is a year much like 2014, maybe 6% to 7% growth, but what I am more concerned about is how I reduce back orders. How do I handle sales promos that have more of a percentage impact than the overall forecast?

Lumber availability and prices will be key factors. I think the hardwood market is going through some changes related to higher-priced product due to higher raw material cost, insurance and other inflationary costs, which allow for lower-cost alternatives to be considered by consumers. What this does, in my opinion, is put more pressure on hardwood manufacturers to produce high quality, stylish products that exhibit the value consumers demand. The manufacturers that deliver these key attributes will fare better in the long run than price cutters. That has been our formula for success and it has been fun to sell and market products this way.

Somerset—and our customers as well—invested a lot of money and production time in 2014 on samples, displays and introducing new products. We think that Somerset and our distributors and retailers are in a great position to take advantage of that investment. We experienced strong introduction sales numbers on our new collections that only really had half the year in the market. We have continued to invest in better machinery, more kilns and other capital projects that improve the quality and service that is part of our philosophy for continued improvement. We don’t announce new infrastructure projects or make a big splash in the press when we do these things, but it is key to our goal of adding more value to our product for those customers who are driving our growth.

Pierre Thabet Founder and owner, Boa-Franc/Mirage

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 2.28.16 PMThe U.S. economy is recovering but the housing forecasts are still shy for 2015. The industry shouldn’t have high expectations on the new construction side of the market but there should be nice opportunities in the remodeling business. Being able to keep market share in the overall floor covering industry will remain a challenge for hardwood flooring manufacturers as people have moved down in their flooring options from wood to other less expensive alternatives. But on a more positive note, consumers’ growing preference for renewable, natural and local products will make hardwood manufacturers like Mirage more attractive.

Lumber pricing has stabilized, but supply remains a challenge. As I mentioned previously, maintaining market share will be of key importance as the hardwood industry is being attacked by all other categories with products that try to look like wood. It is understandable since wood is what consumers want to have in their homes, but for various reasons—budget, installation constraints, high traffic—cannot always purchase it. But, on the other side, it is comforting to know that people’s desire for wood is not abating at all.

In terms of trends, floors presenting character and color variations are hot and will continue to be in 2015. Consumers don’t have time to worry about the upkeep of their floors; they want a floor that is trendy but, moreover, they want it to be forgiving and easy to maintain. Textured floors such as our Imagine Collection and time-worn looking floors with character marks and color variations such as our Sweet Memories fulfill all these needs and will continue to have consumer preference in 2015. Obviously, the larger the better, so wide widths of 5 inches and more will also be everywhere next year.

Neil Poland President, Mullican Flooring

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 2.28.21 PMMullican Flooring’s growth target for 2015 is 10%, and our ability to reach that goal will depend on the growth of the housing market. If housing market growth remains flat or grows only at a single-digit rate, we will need to readjust our goal. We are bullish on the housing market over the next several years and truly believe that pent-up demand, combined with continued low interest rates, will be catalysts for significant growth.

As for trends, obviously wider widths and alternate species have been the drivers of any recent growth. We believe, however, that the combination of species, surface treatments and colors will merge together to create a visual element that will be in demand by consumers, designers and specifiers. Hardwood flooring manufacturers that are open minded, flexible and totally focused on style and design will lead the charge over the next five years. We are in the fashion business, and I believe that introducing the most fashionable products will be more important than ever.

The domestic lumber supply remains a concern. Sawmills have increased their production volume to meet the excessive demands that were experienced in 2014. In spite of this increased production, we are concerned about future global market growth and the ability of hardwood lumber producers to stay ahead of any additional increases in demand.

Lukasz Piatek Key accounts manager, Elegance Exotic Wood Flooring

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 2.28.28 PMWe see the overall market continuing to grow. As it does, our largest customers continue to open new locations, so we’re seeing their businesses expand as well. These customers are paying attention to things like the Lacey Act and CARB (a California regulation that restricts the use of formaldehyde in all wood products). For us that is an advantage because we are getting all of our raw materials from legitimate suppliers.

In 2015 we’re looking to increase our line with the mindset of quality vs. quantity. Our introductions will have a narrow focus aiming to be the products that move through the channel. We are coming out with some click products that we are excited about. While we have seen growth in solid and engineered, in the last two years we have seen the biggest spike in click products.

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Made in the USA: The advantages of domestic manufacturing

Volume 27/Number 26; April 28/May 5, 2014

By Ken Ryan

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 3.18.57 PMWhen Mannington holds its next shareholders meeting—a gathering of 25 key executives—it will not be held in its hometown of Salem, N.J., or New York or Las Vegas, or some swanky venue. Rather, it will be held in Madison, Ga., home to the company’s new commercial LVT facility.

The choice is synonymous with the company’s Made in the USA message: Madison was built from the ground up, and the click installation system that will be made there represents a first for a U.S. flooring company. Continue reading Made in the USA: The advantages of domestic manufacturing

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Environment, safety at head of domestic production

Volume 26/Number 25; April 29/May 6, 2013

By Matthew Spieler

Flooring manufacturers such as HomerWood have been honored for their environmental activities.

Few countries, if any, have as many laws as the U.S. regarding the protection of the health and safety of its people and the environment, from the federal level to local municipalities. In addition, green building rating systems have put a greater emphasis on how far a product travels, rationalizing the closer it is to the jobsite, the less energy required to get it there.

While some may complain about the abundance of regulations, the flooring industry, in many ways, has deemed these rules advantageous to producing products in the U.S.

Randy Merritt, president of Shaw Industries, said the company’s commitment to safety, health and the environment spans past compliance. “Our sustainability practices go beyond basic federal or state requirements. We aim to be an innovation leader, producing products that minimize waste, utilize renewable energy in production when possible and safeguard our natural resources. Shaw has recycled more than 600 million pounds of post-consumer carpet from 2006 through 2011, a major milestone for the growth of carpet reclamation.” Continue reading Environment, safety at head of domestic production

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NWFA members partner to help homeless veterans

ST. LOUIS—National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) members have come together for a unique community service project, spearheaded by John Lessick, NWFA vice chairman. “NWFA is partnering with the non-profit EdgeAlliance, to help respond to the needs of homeless veterans.”

EdgeAlliance assists individuals and families by providing affordable housing and progressive services to homeless veterans and also to children, women and men who have been impacted by HIV/AIDS, noted Lessick.

NWFA members Apex Wood Floors, WD Flooring, Shaw and Somerset collectively donated labor and 3,000 square feet of wood flooring for the project.

For more information, call 800.422.4556 or visit nwfa.org.

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Salesmaster teams with Lefkowitz for new venture

DEER PARK, N.Y.—Salesmaster Flooring Solutions, one of the country’s leading distributors of commercial flooring products and installation supplies, is expanding into the wood business by partnering with Joel Lefkowitz, former president of Hoboken Wood Floors, at one time the industry’s largest wholesaler. Lefkowitz will serve as the president of the aptly named HW Flooring, which is being billed as an affiliate of Salesmaster. He has put together an experienced team of wood flooring veterans that includes Marty Ackerman, who was Lefkowitz’ vice president of sales at Hoboken; Ken Reilly, who most recently served as hardwood sales manager at Apollo. Continue reading Salesmaster teams with Lefkowitz for new venture

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Wood mills form alliance, file petition on Chinese imports; aims to level the domestic hardwood playing field

WASHINGTON—The Coalition for American Hardwood Parity (CAHP), an association of U.S. manufacturers of engineered wood flooring, filed an unfair trade petition on Oct. 21 regarding imports of multi-layered wood products from China.

The petition, filed with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission (ITC), asserts that imports of the product are sold in the United States at dumped prices, and that Chinese manufacturers have gained an unfair competitive advantage. Continue reading Wood mills form alliance, file petition on Chinese imports; aims to level the domestic hardwood playing field