By: Mallory Cruise-McGrath
Don Finkell, CEO of American OEM, an OEM supplier of domestically-made hardwood based here, hasn’t just witnessed the hardwood category transform, he has been in the front seat driving many of the most impactful changes in the industry. Nearly a decade ago, he championed enforcement of the Lacey Act to ensure the sustainable harvesting and procuring of natural resources. He fought for parity as imported products charted fast growth and has spent time in Washington with the Hardwood Federation, which followed his tenure at Anderson Hardwood Floors where he served as CEO for more than 30 years. Finkell sold Anderson to Shaw Industries in 2007 and retired from Shaw in 2013; however, his passion for manufacturing drove him to start American OEM in 2014. Here he talks with FCW about some of the more recent changes in the industry.
From rising consumer preference for wider and longer planks to increased domestic manufacturing and a shift from solid to engineered, the hardwood industry has seen a number of important developments over the past several years. Perhaps the most significant change influencing the market, Finkell told FCW, has been the move in consumer preference from shorter, narrow planks to wider and longer planks, which continue to take the hardwood industry by storm.
“The shift to wider and longer was a surprise to me but we spent two years doing research on what was selling and what consumers preferred and it’s wider and longer products,” he said.
Today, the majority of American OEM’s products fit into the longer and wider trend and American OEM’s executive vice president — and Don Finkell’s daughter — Allie Finkell said these products continue to gain traction because they look great in the open floor plans currently seen in home design.
“In a space where you can see from the kitchen to the living room, having less seams creates a more sophisticated and modern design. Another perk of this open floor plan trend is that it has led to an increase in the average job size, too,” she said. This consumer desire for wider planks has allowed for the majority of wood flooring sales to move from solid to engineered as the platform offers more design versatility than solid wood.
“Engineered has really taken over from solid and a lot of that is because you can’t go wide in solids — you can go long but you can’t go wide,” he said. And as consumers demand more options in textures and finishes than ever before, the wood industry has delivered through technological advancements, particularly for engineered products.
“We have skip sawn, wire-brushed and handscraped or a combination of textures that look reclaimed,” Finkell said, adding that the reclaimed trend is also showing no signs of stopping.
Focusing on sustainability
Driving the reclaimed hardwood trend is a consumer preference for more natural, authentic flooring products free from harmful chemicals and emissions. Lumber Liquidators’ formaldehyde scandal of 2015 led to an increased emphasis on sustainable manufacturing processes. It also helped fuel the move to more domestic manufacturing across the board including hardwood. A long-time champion of responsibly sourced hardwood, Finkell worked closely on the implementation of the Lacey Act and was instrumental in bringing the International Trade Commission (ITC) case against imported Chinese multilayered hardwood in 2010 as part of the Coalition for Hardwood Parity (CAHP).
Today, Finkell said all the major companies are much more concerned about their due diligence thereby ensuring products meet the health standards set here in the U.S. “That’s radically different from where the industry was five years ago,” he noted.
This, Finkell added, has also led to a movement toward supporting domestically-made products.
“There is a consumer trend for sourcing locally and there has been a resurgence over the past few years in wanting to buy American-made products; part of that is patriotism and trust in American-made products and part of it is quality,” he said, adding this American-made trend will only continue to grow.
Facing challenges, competition
But there has been no shortage of challenges facing the industry in the last five years from raw material shortages and subsequent price increases to continued pressure from low-priced imports. Competition has also increased in the category as new suppliers enter the market and other hard surface products boast increasingly realistic visuals.
“New LVT and digitally printed ceramics coming into the market have done a nice job of looking like hardwood. However, there is a limit to how big you can make a piece of ceramic tile and the tendency currently has been for wood planks to be bigger,” Finkell noted.
Keeping it in the family
After Don Finkell started American OEM in 2014, it didn’t take long before his daughter — Allie Finkell — joined the family business. Today, Allie Finkell serves as executive vice president.
“Working for my father in the hardwood industry is my way of taking advantage of an opportunity that I am so fortunate to have been given. My grandfather taught my dad the business, and it is really meaningful to have the chance to work with him and learn from him as the fourth generation. I am proud of our family’s legacy in the hardwood business and have a deep respect for the industry and the people in it — that is what makes my career so fulfilling,” she told FCW.