Swiss-based Bauwerk Group expanded its presence in the North American wood flooring market last year with the acquisition of Somerset Hardwood Flooring, a manufacturer located in Kentucky. The group also owns the brands of Bauwerk Parkett and Boen. Paul Stringer, longtime VP of sales and marketing for Somerset Hardwood Flooring, was named the new CEO and president at the time of the acquisition. Now, after nearly 40 years in the wood flooring industry (24 of those with Somerset), Stringer has retired.
Though Stringer has a degree in psychology and planned initially to be a psychologist, he ended up at Hartco Flooring after college. That “job” became a decades-long career where he also spent time at Zickgraf before ultimately working with Steve Merrick, founder of Somerset Hardwood Flooring.
Adam McCombs succeeds Stringer as CEO of Somerset Hardwood Flooring. As this transition in leadership took place, Stringer reflected on his time in the industry, and McCombs shared thoughts on the wood flooring market, as well as the future of the company.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the wood flooring industry?
Stringer: I enjoyed the early years of my career selling to all the distributors and all the personalities, making deals for truckloads, and figuring out how to sell more and grow the market share. It was a lot of fun and great working with all my customers. It was a simpler time. But, it has changed a lot during the last 10 to 15 years. So many new products, the impact of plastics on the wood flooring market, imports, etc. Distributors are more sophisticated now, watching their inventories, spreading their inventory dollars across so many SKUs that those truckload sales are much more difficult, and inventory management controls the decision. I can’t argue with the improvements distributors have made, and it’s smart for their business, but it’s not as much fun as it was in the old days for me.
What are you seeing in terms of the market for wood flooring right now?
Stringer: The wood flooring industry is going through yet another transformation. We are seeing a current cycle of consolidation for both manufacturers and distributors. I think there will be fewer wood flooring manufacturers 10 years from now, and while the wood pie may be smaller, you will have fewer manufacturers with larger slices of the pie.
What has your experience at Somerset been like, and what do you hope for the company in the future?
Stringer: I had an outstanding team around me, and it was a great working environment. We had wonderful growth, built an excellent brand, and worked with the best distributors in the industry. What our company accomplished was very satisfying. I will miss that teamwork and camaraderie. I am excited about the people coming in, working with our existing team. We need people like Adam (McCombs) and Dan (Natkin, chief commercial officer of Bauwerk Group North America). They will bring Somerset into the future and do things that are not in my toolbox. I look forward to watching that much-needed transition and what these changes will do for our customers.
Is there a piece of advice you would offer to wood flooring professionals that you wish you had known in the early days of your career?
Stringer: As we go through the day-to-day hustle of working, selling, whatever the job is, we get so busy that all we do is try to make the next budget, get the next bonus, take market share, etc. What I recognize today is all the relationships that I made, and I had never stopped to appreciate how many and how strong they are. I have had the honor to work with some of the major players in the industry, who took the time to teach me, and they helped me immensely. Reflecting, this “county boy” walked into Hartco in 1986 knowing nothing about wood and knew no one in the industry. To leave the industry in 2023 with so many wonderful relationships with people that have helped provide for me and my family for almost 40 years is humbling. Cherish your working relationships, both customers and fellow employees. They are more precious than you might realize. It’s not just business. It’s lifelong relationships.
What are you looking forward to doing in retirement?
Stringer: Since my father put me to work in our small country store when I was 10, I have not had time, so I look forward to just having time. My wife retired as a teacher in May, and we can’t wait to go where we want when we want. Sitting on the deck, reading a good book, taking a swim, riding my motorcycle, and going hiking. I’ll be spending a lot of time with
my two granddaughters, who are three and four years old. This old man is going to relax.
The National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) has established an NWFA Named Scholarship for Paul Stringer. Named Scholarships honor those who make significant and lasting contributions to the hardwood flooring industry. Learn more about the program or contribute at nwfa.org/scholarships.
Insights from Adam McCombs
Can you share what Paul has meant to Somerset and the wood flooring industry?
McCombs: Paul has been a true innovator and leader, building the Somerset prefinished product lines from zero to one of the largest producers in the U.S. in less than 25 years. He’s known as a friend to all, and underneath his southern charm lies one of the smartest businessmen in this industry.
Since last year’s acquisition, how has Somerset grown/changed?
McCombs: The great thing about Somerset is its outstanding people. Everyone here sees the potential of what we have already established as a leader in solid hardwood flooring combined with the European leadership in engineered. Our parent company, Bauwerk, has made North American growth one of the key strategic initiatives over the next few years. Everyone is excited about the plans and opportunities and what that means for our customers, employees, and the industry.
What’s next for Somerset?
McCombs: There are so many “nexts” for Somerset. We are re-entering a cycle of annual, meaningful new product launches to refresh the line. We will invest in updated manufacturing technologies and continue improving our quality and service to our customers. All “nexts” will have an eye toward growth in wood flooring only.
What are the opportunities for the wood flooring market in the year ahead?
McCombs: Without a doubt, we are already seeing a return to wood flooring. Consumers who purchased some of the wood look-alikes are seeing that they truly do not last as long as the real thing. We want to be at the forefront of the wood flooring industry, be the best long-term partner for our customers, and be the safe harbor in a stormy sea of consolidation and change. As others try to find their footing in wood flooring or can’t decide where to play, we will lead.