“Foundation” can mean several different things to wood flooring professionals. For many reading this article, the first place your head will go is straight to the subfloor, as its success or failure plays a starring role in the destiny of a beautiful wood floor. Knowing the products, the technical components, and proper maintenance are crucial for making the day-to-day magic happen. However, there are plenty of business skills that can take you to the next level of your career.
Here, we delve into the foundational elements that have shaped the wood flooring industry and explore how professionals have built a solid groundwork for success. From understanding the products and technical components to mastering essential business skills, laying a strong foundation is key to achieving long-term growth and prosperity in this ever-evolving field.
PILLARS OF THE INDUSTRY
Let’s first go back a few decades to see how the wood flooring industry got to where it is today. Neil Moss recalls how few jobs there were when he started in the 1970s because everyone was covering wood floors with wall-to-wall carpet.
Over the years, Moss had some very good sources to go to for finding footing in the industry, both in his father, Vincent and one of his father’s best friends, Virgil Hendricks, the first president of the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) and owner of Mid-West Floor Company in St. Louis, Missouri. Among the many key learnings, says Moss, “One of the most important things they taught me as an installer was how to be a good businessman about it and not take a job just so you had a cash flow; take a job when you’re making money on it.”
The primary driver of NWFA’s founding in 1985 was to educate the industry. Moss says the organization’s founding fathers wanted an installation guidebook that would pave the way for certifying and training wood flooring specialists.
“I was responsible for writing the guidelines, and once we had the guidelines, we’ll call that the industry Bible, everybody went by those guidelines. It allowed you the opportunity to train in accordance with the guidelines, which then allowed you to test in accordance with the guidelines, creating the certification program,” recalls Moss. He says the guidelines, training, and certification programs were developed with Don Conner, and together, they co-chaired the education committees involved in that process.
The National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association (NOFMA) and NWFA merged in 2008. Tommy Maxwell, chairman and CEO of Maxwell Hardwood Flooring Inc. in Monticello, Arkansas, was instrumental in that union. “The NWFA changed things for the better,” says Maxwell. “They assured our industry had more education and training, and they merged with NOFMA to increase credibility and consumer confidence.”
Maxwell says the industry is linear now, but “In the early days, we mostly manufactured parquet in 6-by-6, 5/16” and 9-by-9, 1/2” engineered laminated block.”
Of the limited nature of product choices in years past, Rick Holden, retired CEO of Derr Flooring Co. in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, adds that it was very simple when his career began in 1980.
“The vast majority of what we sold was unfinished solid red oak wood flooring,” explains Holden. “There were very few choices in prefinished and what was produced were offered in two stain colors with a wax topcoat. You could only buy oil-modified polyurethane (gloss or satin) to apply over the unfinished floors, and those solid wood floors had to be installed using a Powernail L-45 manual nailer.”
Since then, he cites staggering growth in product options combined with incredible technological advances in manufacturing as dynamically changing the industry. Looking to the future, Holden, Maxwell, and Moss all see educating the consumer about the many advantages of real wood as a critical way to drive buying habits and take back market share from other flooring categories.
INVESTING IN YOURSELF AND YOUR TEAM
To build a career in the wood flooring industry, the first step is education. It’s not a one-time thing, though. Whether someone is a rookie or has decades of experience, there are always new products and skills to learn.
“Never stop learning,” says Holden. “Continue attending schools, seminars, and conventions throughout your career. Not only educate yourself about products you manufacture, buy, or use, but also learn about your competitors’ offerings.”
Owen Bailey of Bailey Hardwoods in Chapmanville, West Virginia, attended his first NWFA installation class in the 1990s, where Daniel Boone was the instructor. Bailey says he learned so much from that experience and later became an NWFA Certified Professional. He co-owns the company with his wife, Cindy, and it is a family affair. Their daughter, Laura, worked in the office while attending school to become a nurse anesthetist. Both of their sons are thriving on the job, as Chris is an NWFA Certified Sand and Finish Professional, and Levi is an NWFA Certified Installation Professional.
“It gives the guys so much confidence. They come back from the class excited about what they’ve learned,” shares Owen Bailey. “Watching them learn and improve the quality of work by attending NWFA classes has been amazing.”
Cindy Bailey adds that investing in your team leads to greater customer satisfaction. “It increases your ability to speak with your customers, and it increases your profit in the long term. We let the customer know they have been trained by the best and know what they’re doing.”
Hardwood Floors magazine’s 2024 NWFA Industry Outlook survey found that filling critical positions remains challenging for more than 60 percent of respondents. Heather Barbour, owner of Hultman Flooring in Porter, Indiana, believes that focusing on retaining your existing workforce is essential.
“Invest in continued training so you are working on upskilling current employees to take on more responsibilities,” she recommends. “Recruitment needs to be a part of the plan. The learning curve in our industry is not easy and requires time and hands-on learning. Implement an apprenticeship program to help attract young talent to the industry.”
Chris Zizza, president of C&R Flooring Inc. in Westwood, Massachusetts, has been in business for 35 years and has employees who have been there for more than 25 years. He says the bottom line is to create a success story with your employees.
“Build a company that has an environment people want to be a part of long-term,” shares Zizza. “Sifting through employees and discarding them at-will over the years is no way to run a company. Your employees need to be able to have a career and raise a family while working for you. Employee retention is paramount to a successful company.”
“It’s called hardwood. H-A-R-D. It’s hard for a reason and that applies to every facet of the business – sales, marketing, the labor, and finding people to do the work. It’s persistence. You can’t give up. Push through those hard times.”
— Luis Perez, Hero Flooring LLC
BEGINNING A BUSINESS AND POSITIONING FOR GROWTH
You have to start somewhere. For Cindy and Owen Bailey, the starting point was under a shed in 1993, where they began sawing, drying, and manufacturing flooring. As wood flooring regained popularity in the late 1990s, the Baileys say they could not keep up with the demand, so they began purchasing flooring to sell. Today, they have three locations in West Virginia and 14 employees. In addition to being a distributor, they also install and sand and finish wood floors.
Of that journey, Cindy Bailey shares her biggest lesson: “Patience. You have to have patience. Don’t want everything and don’t think you’re going to get rich overnight.”
While the roots of Lambright Flooring, located in Charlotte, Michigan, were in installation, the company branched out into distribution and even expanded the business model to include manufacturing stair treads and custom wood flooring. Reid Lambright, president of the company, says a key to their shift was transitioning slowly and rowing the boat close enough to the dock so that they could jump and not fall in.
“I think the key was having a long-term view, having something we were shooting for, and knowing what we wanted,” explains Lambright. “It comes down to having a great product that solves customers’ problems and having the main points of business dialed in regarding the whole customer experience. The way you communicate, your accounting system being customer friendly, the way you can provide samples; all of the basics. When you do that, your clients will start telling their friends, and you’ll start growing organically.”
Word-of-mouth referrals have been fundamental to Hultman Flooring’s business for more than 30 years. Dean Hultman, the company’s original owner, is well-known in the industry and sold to Barbour a few years ago. Barbour says exceeding customer expectations is always the goal. If a company can take on one marketing initiative, though, she suggests establishing a strong online presence.
“In today’s digital age, online marketing strategies will enhance customer engagement. Our products and services are visual, therefore, showcase your expertise through high quality images,” advises Barbour. “Spend time positioning yourself as an industry expert. Use social media, share customer reviews and testimonials to help influence potential customer’s decisions.”
What is your best advice for building the foundation for a successful career in the wood flooring industry?
Charles Peterson Signature Flooring:
“Every business requires the same thing to be successful…study business first. If you are going to work for someone for all your life, then increase your trade knowledge base and continue to make yourself more valuable.”
Scheller Hardwood Floors Inc.:
“There are four major things that I’ve done and continue to do that have contributed to my success and good reputation.
1. Educate myself about flooring, finishing, construction techniques, tools, including CAD, and elevate my skill as a carpenter and wood finisher. The NWFA has been instrumental with that directly through their instructional tools and, probably more importantly, through
the network of professionals I’ve met through the association. Because of my extensive knowledge and knowing where to get answers for the things I don’t know (pro tip: it’s not YouTube), I’ve established myself as someone who can solve problems when others can’t.
2. I can always do better. That’s how you grow. In my mind, it’s not a leap to go from 80 percent (good enough) to 95 percent, but the last 5 percent to perfection is a target that will always be out of reach because the bar always goes higher. I like the watchmaker Piaget’s take on this: Always do better than you have to.
3. I’ve improved more by listening to clients’ complaints rather than their compliments.
4. When I’m on the site, I always make an effort to spend at least a few moments a day talking with the customer and explaining what I did and why, what’s next, finding out what the expectations are or setting expectations, and why it’s taking so long.”
“It gives the guys so much confidence. They come back from the class excited about what they’ve learned. Watching them learn and improve the quality of work by attending NWFA classes has been amazing.”
— Owen Bailey, Bailey Hardwoods
Luis Perez, owner of Hero Flooring LLC in Cincinnati, Ohio, focuses his marketing efforts on Instagram. He says it’s imperative to be on the internet since most people’s lives are now done from the phone in the palm of their hand.
“Technology is growing every day, and you’re only hindering yourself by not being up with the times,” shares Perez. “I use Instagram as a photo library of my projects. I probably have more than 25,000 photos of gym floors and things I’ve done during the last 10 years of my career. I can push that to a client; they can see it’s cool, interactive, and modern. It’s a good, quick way to give people a brief legitimization about you and what you have going on.”
Part of Cindy Bailey’s tasks include payroll, purchase orders, and estimates. Simply put, she says understanding the financial part of the business is critical because if your business doesn’t profit, you’re going to go under.
“If you don’t know your incoming and outgoing, you’re not going to make it,” she explains. “First, they have to know what availability they have to work with. Then, you have to be able to prioritize what equipment you need, what tools you need, and what you can do now and maybe do later.”
Zizza suggests a very detailed approach to costs. “You must know every incidental cost, including the things you cannot see and touch like insurance, the tires on your truck, and the scraper blade that lasts a month, has a deteriorating cost, and you need to account for these things. Once you understand your cost, then you can add your profit. If you buy right, add your profit, and sell right, you will always stay out of financial trouble.”
Moss says it’s important to learn how much money can be made and how to keep it. “If I’m a contractor and I bid the job for $2,000 and in my mind, I’ve got $500 profit built into that, the average new person in our business is not going to anticipate that the $500 is not profit. You need to reduce that by the taxes you will have to pay on it and benefits, and everything else needs to be included in your price because you’ll have to pay for it later,” explains Moss. “You won’t make money by lowballing everyone in the market either.” He also notes the importance of investigating the subfloor before quoting a price because it is easy to lose money with callbacks.
As much as you love what you do, you may not want to work forever. Start thinking ahead for retirement. Zizza employs the theory of “profit first for prosperity.”
“I suggest that small companies put 5 percent and larger companies can do 3 percent. With every single dollar that comes into the company, you take 3 percent to 5 percent and place it into a money market account and don’t touch it,” he explains. “You’re going to be in business for a long time, and a self-funding account will grow substantially over time. After it does, you can make decisions like buying your own showroom or warehouse facility and then become your own landlord. Keep saving 3 to 5 percent, and now your bank account is growing in value along with your real estate.”
Zizza says this type of long-range planning can ensure a better retirement down the road. If it is later in someone’s career and they need to catch up, he might still suggest doing a self-funding account, but take 7 percent instead of 3 to 5 percent. This may hurt cash flow, so Zizza says consider raising prices to help with that burden.
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
Having a firm foundation can be easier when surrounded by a community. That might mean other wood flooring professionals, but it also could be loyal customers or others involved in a charitable cause you care about.
Lambright says listening to and learning from others has impacted his business. He’s been blown away by how generous people in the wood industry have been with their time.
What is your best advice for building the foundation for a successful career in the wood flooring industry?
retired from Derr Flooring Co.:
“Be informed of issues affecting you and your company, such as changing government policies, economic conditions, or design trends. And, build a network of people that you can speak with regarding your business or the industry as a whole. It is important to hear different points of view so that you may have a more well-rounded perspective.”
High Desert Hardwood:
“The best advice I can think to give anyone wanting to start a business in the wood flooring industry is to focus on your own skills. Invest yourself in quality work. That, along with a good attitude and strong communication with clients, will help your business grow naturally.”
Maxwell Hardwood Flooring:
“Never be afraid of hard work, always stay honest, and maintain the highest integrity in your personal and business life.”
“Building a foundation for a successful career in the wood flooring industry requires experience and a proactive approach to education, training, and development of technical skills. Being current on industry trends, techniques, and innovations is important. Continually focus on customer service. Be responsive, communicate clearly, and exceed your customers’ expectations. Word-of-mouth recommendations go a long way. Commit to lifelong learning. The wood flooring industry is complex and constantly evolving. This is hard work, and it requires dedication to be successful.”
Namba Services Inc.:
“Merriam-Webster defines foundation as ‘an underlying base or support.’ If you look at a home foundation what do you typically have? Four walls that interconnect and support the structure. Let’s look at the sections of your foundation.
You have people skills; you’re likable, passionate, and self-motivated; that’s one section of the foundation. You have the proper tools/equipment. That’s the second section. Now, you need the other two parts of the foundation. Do you know how to manage your money? Do you know what a profit and loss statement is and how to understand it? You’ll want a business plan; that’s your third section. For your fourth section, I highly advise seeking an accountant to help direct and assist you in managing the money part. Now you have a foundation and from there you can now build up with marketing your business and hiring employees, being able to invest more into your company, and seeing the sky as the limit.
Don’t forget to take time out to also enjoy what you’ve built. Take time for yourself, play, and spend time with family/friends, which will help keep that foundation rock solid.”
retired industry veteran:
“Start with good communication skills, and that’s at every level. If you’re going to be late, call your customer and tell them you will be late. If you don’t want the job, you don’t ignore the customer; you call the customer and tell them that you are
not interested in the job and give them a realistic reason. Set realistic goals for the performance and installation of the flooring you are selling.”
Start to Finish Hardwood Floors:
“Number one is being a people person. You have to be successful at being a people person and being nice. Know your products, know your craft, know how to negotiate. Put a star on this one: be on time. Customers hate it when they’re hanging around waiting for you. My father-in-law grounded into me – return your calls. If someone goes to the trouble of calling you, return the call. It could be a good lead; it might be one you don’t want. If it’s one you don’t want to engage with, tell them so. Kindly tell them you’re too busy or it’s not the right fit. In the long run, you’ve got to know your wood science. If you don’t understand it, you’ll have some bummer jobs along the way.”
“People say there’s an overnight success in business, but we all know there is no true overnight success. It’s years in the making of going through challenges, learning from them, and gaining experience. That allows you to make good decisions that help your business grow rapidly,” says Lambright. “When you have a great mentor to whom you humbly listen and ask questions, you draw from their life experience. I didn’t have to learn certain things myself because my mentors learned that, and if I listen to their good advice and try to figure out how to apply it to my situation, it’s the closest thing to a shortcut there is in business.”
Networking has long been a great way of getting business done. Owen Bailey recalls his experience: “We have become friends with people from all over that we met in classes and at the NWFA conventions. In 2003, I went to the NWFA Expo in St. Louis. I was introduced to many people in the industry, including Don Conner. From there, we began distributing for Mullican, and they are still our biggest flooring supplier today.”
According to Perez, it’s all about being genuine. His advice on building a network via social media is to pick whichever platform you have the most reception and interaction with and use that as the place to focus and maximize yourself.
“I don’t have a crazy amount of followers on Instagram, but I have an authentic following. My followers are real people, floor guys, athletes, and trainers. It’s people that are focused on my environment, and they tie in with what I’ve got going on,” explains Perez. “You need to realize where your market lies.”
Perez found his passion for gym floors while partnering with Project Backboard, a non-profit with a mission to renovate public basketball courts. “The community essence – there’s just no greater feeling than knowing what you’re doing is appreciated, and it’s all about the next generation. The goal is to leave the world better than it was when we came into it, and I feel that’s my marquee way to do that. You have to give back in some way, shape, or form. You can’t keep it all to yourself,” he notes.
Zizza also is a big proponent of service. “ʻHelp Ever Hurt Never’ is my motto; I even have it inscribed in my wallet. Being adopted and knowing this since I was a child, I had charity instilled in me. I do it because it feels great, but having a company that cares about the community always brings us clients that believe they can trust us and feel confident in allowing us to work in their home.”
When building the foundation for a successful career, Perez says you only get out what you put in.
“It’s called hardwood. H-A-R-D. It’s hard for a reason and that applies to every facet of the business – sales, marketing, the labor, and finding people to do the work,” he advises. “It’s persistence. You can’t give up. Push through those hard times.”
For more foundational business tips, listen to the “Running a Wood Flooring Business” series of the NWFA Real Answers podcast, which is hosted by Michael Martin, president and CEO of NWFA, and Chris Zizza and features in-depth interviews with seasoned industry veterans about everything from balancing marriage with running a business to optimizing cash flow.
Libby White Johnston is the publisher of Hardwood Floors magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.