It’s time to introduce Virtu, the first American-made, custom-crafted, wide plank wood floor to feature three-layer, true balanced construction! After years devoted to research and testing, Virtu wide planks are now being manufactured for projects large and small.
True balanced construction is the key to achieving a level of stability in a wide plank that is unattainable in solid plank flooring. The three-layer design features top and bottom layers that share the same thickness, wood species, wood cut and grain orientation, so both layers respond in exactly the same manner when changes in ambient humidity promote expansion and contraction across the width dimension. Sandwiched between these two perfectly balanced outer layers is a cross-banded solid wood core with the wood grain oriented at 90° to the top and bottom layers. The core adds stiffness and resistance to the forces of expansion and contraction acting on the top and bottom layers, providing the necessary counter-force to the natural inclination of the wood face to undergo dimensional changes and distortion. The three layers are bonded together with a special elastomeric adhesive that flexes, reducing the stresses between the layers.
Virtu planks can be manufactured in widths up to 12 inches and lengths up to 16 feet, or even longer! At 4.4mm (0.17”), Virtu’s wear layer is nearly the same dimension as that of a solid wood floor. This means Virtu planks can sustain several sanding and refinishing cycles, increasing the longevity of the floor. Virtu planks are custom fabricated for each project, so the client has great flexibility in selection of wood species, plank width and plank lengths. Virtu floors are manufactured to be site finished, allowing any custom finishing treatments to the applied on site to meet project appearance needs.
Not only does American-made mean you’re supporting American workers, but the close proximity to manufacturing means quicker turnaround times in response to customer needs.
For more information on Virtu Floors, please call us at 212-627-1818.
Multi-unit residential buildings often have very strict sound attenuation requirements for flooring installations to help isolate residents from sounds originating in the apartments of their upstairs neighbors. The requirements may originate from municipal ordinances or directly from the building’s own rules.
Specifying a high quality wood flooring installation under these conditions can be challenging. Since these sound isolation requirements often prohibit direct mechanical fastening of a subfloor to the concrete substrate, it is necessary to develop a totally isolated flooring system. For those seeking a solid plank floor installation, one popular solution is to incorporate a gravity-loaded floor system into the apartment. This type of system is also referred to as a “floating floor”, because it is simply sitting on top of the concrete without any fasteners or adhesive tying it to the larger structure. It is held in place by its weight alone.
Typically this subfloor system consists of a sound isolation mat rolled out over the concrete substrate, upon which two layers of subflooring panels are placed. The panels are typically 3/4” thick plywood sheeting that are glued and mechanically fastened to one another. Unfortunately, plywood sheeting that is not hard fastened to any substrate can start to resemble a potato chip!
Not surprisingly, what in theory was to be a flat subfloor ends up undulating, lifting and bouncing… I’m getting queasy just thinking about it!
Fortunately, there is a domestically manufactured OSB (Oriented Strand Board) subfloor sheeting product called AdvanTech manufactured by Huber Engineered Woods that outperforms plywood and other competitor’s OSB products in testing. AdvanTech has superior bending stiffness, bending strength, resistance to water absorption, and lower water induced edge swell than its competition. All these characteristics allow a gravity-loaded AdvanTech subfloor system to remain incredibly flat while other trades are working in the space, and provide a superior underlayment for a high quality wood floor installation.
For more information on AdvanTech, please contact us at 212-627-1818.
There is no doubt that wide plank floors can be an effective way to introduce visual drama to a space. Unfortunately, if the flooring system is not properly designed and installed, wide planks can also introduce emotional drama to your project!
It is important to understand the special requirements of wide plank floors prior to specifying them on a project. While solid wide planks have all the same physical characteristics as narrower solid planks of the same species, their greater breadth may make some of the characteristics become problematic.
For instance, all wood species expand and contract with changes in ambient humidity. If a 2” wide plank expands to 2.02” when exposed to high humidity, a 10” wide plank of the same species would be expected expand to 10.1” under the same conditions. When less humid conditions return and the flooring contracts once more, some gaps will likely remain between the planks. The 10” wide planks will have gaps averaging 0.1”, but since gaps are not presented uniformly across a floor, some gaps may be up to 1/4” wide!
Other wood characteristics such as shape deformation and appearance defects (knots, grain deviation, sapwood, mineral streaks, etc.) are also more prevalent in solid wide planks. Shape deformation is normally controlled by setting the planks in a full bed of adhesive, followed by face fastening – screwing down the planks, then concealing the screw heads with wooden pegs.
Use of high quality engineered flooring can eliminate the need for face fastening, and alleviate some of the problems associated with solid wide planks. But be forewarned, the vast majority of engineered wood flooring products are poorly designed and utilize low quality materials. There are only a few engineered flooring manufacturers offering durable, high quality, well designed products, so product selection must be made carefully. While there may be some high quality products from over-seas manufacturers available, there are great advantages to choosing a domestically produced product. Not only can we assure the quality of the production, but turn-around time for custom orders can be much faster, AND you will be supporting U.S. manufacturing!
Please contact us at 212-627-1818 for further information and guidance.
Control of the interior environment before, during, and after wood flooring installation is always stressed by reputable flooring contractors. Failure to control atmospheric conditions is among the worst culprits in bringing about wood flooring movement and gapping. When gaps develop, the flooring contractor is generally the primary suspect; however he is not always the responsible party. Evaluation by an experienced wood flooring consultant may be helpful, though there are steps that can be taken to help avoid the problem in the first place.
Of course, before any wood floor is installed, the moisture contentment of the subfloor and planks should be measured to assure that they are within acceptable range, and acclimation of the wood flooring prior to installation is recommended in certain circumstances (though not always… but that’s a topic for a future blog post). If the wood floor is also installed in the right atmospheric conditions, then the floor will never develop any gaps, right? W R O N G ! Sure, it means you’re off on the right foot, but this is by no means the end of the story! Maintenance of temperature and relative humidity within an acceptable range is necessary to control future movement of the flooring.
Optimally, solid wood floors should live in an environment that is between 60°F and 80°F, with relative humidity between 30% and 50%. Trouble is, it has always been difficult to determine when and if the conditions strayed outside the acceptable range, especially after the contractor has left the job site. Fortunately there are now relatively inexpensive atmospheric data logging devices available on the market. They offer a wide range of features including: storage of tens of thousands of Temp/RH readings, alarm or autodial activations when conditions drift outside specified range, downloadable measurement histories, digital displays, etc.
As you can see, investing a small amount of money in one or more data logging devices for a space can help in maintaining atmospheric conditions, provide a history of conditions, and ultimately, can save a wood floor from excessive gapping.
We welcome your calls at 212-627-1818.
There are many situations where the expert advice of a wood flooring consultant can save money, time and aggravation. Janos P. Spitzer Flooring Consultants was founded on the notion that investing early in consultation on the wood flooring aspects of a project will reduce costs and improve outcomes.
Wood flooring systems are more complex than they appear. On top of this, new construction methods, changing business realities, and competitive and econominc pressures continually reshape the building industry. This level of complexity can make it difficult for any one architect or team of architects to thoroughly manage the details. Whether large or small, new or a restoration, more than ever a successful flooring project depends on both broad knowledge of current flooring trends and meticulous attention to detail throughout the various project phases. This is why an experienced wood flooring consultant is invaluable.
Whether you’re planning a new construction project, questioning decisions made on an ongoing project, or evaluating a flooring failure situation, engaging a wood flooring consultant can help to reach a successful end result.
It is a fact that wood flooring installations have become commonplace in kitchens. Such flooring installations are normally laid wall-to-wall before the installation of cabinets, countertops, and appliances. It is also true that most water-related disasters happen in the kitchen, mainly because it’s the most complex area of a dwelling – packed with appliances and plumbing that can malfunction and leak.
More often than not, repairing the damage requires total deconstruction, replacement of the ruined floor, and reconstruction of the cabinetry, stone counters, etc.
In order for such extensive work to be performed, the owner must often vacate the premises while restoration is underway, since they typically lose use of their kitchen.
Is there a better way? The answer is an emphatic YES! The consequences of a flood can be much less devistating.
The solution is to forgo wall-to-wall wood flooring and build concrete or stone platforms under the cabinetry, installed on the same plane as the eventual wood floor.
Indeed, precise plans are required to build the the platforms at the right elevation and perimeter dimensions. But the tolerances required are not out of the ordinary. Moreover, costs are not greatly divergent from the wall-to-wall flooring installation, and the the potential costs and inconvenience associated with a water situation are greatly diminished.
Disasters of this nature strike often enough to make this simple solution worthy of consideration for new construction and renovations alike.
Thomas Edison said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Try explaining a flooring failure to a client with those words and you’re liable to be escorted out the door, or more likely, given the bum’s rush.
Flooring failures take on a wide range of forms. From overall system failures and material failures, to installation failures, sanding failures and finishing failures. There are even many post-project protection failures, maintenance failures and collateral damage incidents that could be cast under the expansive failure umbrella!
Let’s see how many we can list before we collapse from exhaustion…cupping, crowning, buckling, water damage, plank separation, subfloor not stable, subfloor not flat, moisture content too high, moisture content too low, delaminated engineered planks, splitting, breakage over tongue and groove, squeaks, board movement, unsmooth surface, sanding gouges, edger marks, edger dishing, chatter, milling irregularities, snake marks, swirls, missed sanding spots, missed finishing spots, sanded surface not uniform, stain uneven, lap marks, color doesn’t match sample, color not dark enough, color changes over time, photosensitive wood species, inconsistent sheen, grain rise, finish lifts stain, debris in finish, hair in finish, alligator surface, finish not drying, finish pealing, hollow sounds, finish pooling, white spots in finish, finish stop marks, tape lifts finish, finish didn’t cure properly, finish soft, sisal strands in craft paper leave grid embossed in finish, checking, wood doesn’t meet spec, yellowed finish, furniture legs scratched floor, dents in surface, paint in wood grain or finish, worn finish, planks laid in same direction as subfloor sheeting, elevation not aligning properly with adjacent surfaces, finish or stain on adjacent surfaces, edger gouges along baseboards, mallet rubber marks on walls, stain rags ignite, foot prints in wet finish, protected too soon, etc., etc., etc., whew!
List too short for you? Let us know any we may have left out of the list!
Welcome to the Across the Grain wood flooring blog!
We encourage all our followers to post comments and questions. Hopefully, you will find the posts to be informative, interesting and provocative enough to warrent subscribing.
We’re looking forward to the interaction and the opportunity to spout off in the blogoshpere… it should be an improvement over our previous forum for impromptu pronouncements – perching on a wooden soap box yelling into a megaphone at the corner of 24th Street and 6th Avenue!
A respected construction consultant warned that the high-tech, million-dollar gym floor being built for the new Police Academy was doomed to buckle — but he was ignored, The Post has learned.
The revelation surfaced as the city prepares to rip up and replace the botched polyurethane floor at an extra cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I saw the story in The Post, and I said, ‘Holy moly! I consulted on this thing!’ ” said flooring expert Janos Spitzer, referring to the paper’s exclusive report on the floor fiasco earlier this month.
Sources had told The Post that the flooring at the new Queens facility was buckling because of the city’s “cost-saving” decision to forgo installing a protective vapor barrier under its plywood base.
In January, a sub-contractor hired Manhattan-based Janos P. Spitzer Flooring Consultants, Inc. to evaluate work on the 45,000-square-foot floor.
On Jan. 24, Spitzer inspected the in-progress construction and found
“subfloor assembly,” too springy and too damp for the polyurethane surface being planned, he wrote in a report.
The city Department of Design and Construction, which is overseeing the project, countered in a statement, “The subfloor is absolutely usable . . . Additionally, an analysis by DDC has found that the subfloor performed, and continues to perform, as designed.”
Where to Find It
By By Terry Trucco
Published: June 15, 1995
IT’S easy to ignore floors. People walk on them, scuff them and grind their heels into them. But like furniture, floors are a basic design element with the size and scope to be a room’s star attraction.
“I have always considered the floor to be the fifth wall of a room,” said Juan P. Molyneux, a Manhattan interior designer. He adapted elements from an inlaid wood floor in the Pavlovsk Palace in Russia on an intricately painted floor at the recent Kips Bay show house in Manhattan.
These days, wood — whether strip, parquet or inlaid — is the floor of choice in a growing number of homes. Wood floors can be as subtle as a sisal carpet or as complex as an Oriental rug. And with the move toward clean, architectural interiors, wood floors wearing only a satiny glow are no longer unusual. Though wood floors are oddly timeless, they still follow the whims of fashion. Pickled and bleached floors, underfoot throughout the 1980’s, have been supplanted by more natural-looking tones that range from honey to deep walnut.
“There is a tendency away from anything that might seem faddish,” said Basil Walter, a partner in the Manhattan architectural firm of Sweeny Walter, who has designed many wood floors.
High-gloss, basketball-court finishes have given way to the softer gleam of an old-fashioned waxed floor. And while laser cutters have brought detailed inlays to a wider market, a plain plank floor with a handsome border is still an appealing option. Homeowners in the market for new wood floors have more choices than ever, from prefinished planks to custom floors in classic herringbone patterns. Long-lasting water-base finishes are now available in addition to easy-care polyurethane and traditional waxing.
The National Wood Flooring Association offers installation and maintenance advice on its help line, (500) 443-9663. Calls cost 25 cents a minute. What’s Old Is In
Janos P. Spitzer bristles when he hears people say the workmanship found in beautiful old brownstone floors is no longer available. “We have better tools, better skills and better glues today,” he said. Before he and his artisans cut custom wood floors in their Manhattan workshop, they discuss the size and use of a room, then plot out a floor pattern. “You don’t want to end up with a little sliver of pattern at one end,” he said.
“The hottest designs are old,” he added, pointing to an elaborate Fontainebleau-style sample treated to look antique. Though Mr. Spitzer creates designs to client specifications, his Manhattan showroom is stocked with samples, from geometric fields to intricate borders. And though American white oak, found in many prewar New York apartments, remains popular, exotic woods from Africa and South America are easier than ever to find, he added. He does not use endangered woods. Custom floors cost $10 to $100 a square foot. Repairs and resanding are also available.
JANOS P. SPITZER FLOORING COMPANY , 133 West 24th Street, New York 10011; (212) 627-1818. The Art of Restoration
Peter Downs, owner of the New Wood Company, once created a new floor of walnut, oak and maple in the pattern of a Shaker quilt. But many of the floors he installs are made of old wood. Some use original floorboards removed from old houses. Others feature wide planks found on barn siding, a cheaper alternative. A third option is antique resawn beams harvested from Reconstruction-era buildings from the South. “Older wood has more patina and a denser grain,” said Mr. Downs, who also restores and resands wood floors. He recently replaced a portion of an elaborate wood border in an Upper West Side apartment, aging the new pieces to match the old. New oak floors start at $8 a square foot.
NEW WOOD COMPANY , 301 West 96th Street, New York 10025; (212) 222-9332. Samples to Sample
Dozens of samples from most of the top wood floor manufacturers in the United States and Europe are on display in the appointment-only showroom of Hoboken Wood Floors, a distributor. Hoboken offers floors in a wide range of prices and styles, from prefinished maple or birch ($10 to $12 a square foot without installation) to wood with marble inlays.
“Maple, which has less intense graining than oak, is hot right now,” said Denise Engedal, a Hoboken associate. At the elaborate end, Hoboken carries colorful inlaid designs by Dynamic Laser Applications, which has made inlaid floors to match patterned doors and stained-glass windows. Hoboken does not sell directly to the public, but will provide names of retail outlets.
HOBOKEN WOOD FLOORS , 979 Third Avenue, New York 10022; (212) 759-5917. Pick a Shade, Any Shade
Veva Crozer has been fascinated with color since art school and now specializes in wood floors stained every shade of the rainbow. Ms. Crozer’s custom floors, using her patented water-base stain, can be embellished with fish, flowers and birds. She also sells prefinished 9-inch parquet squares in 3,500 colors ($20 to $22 a square foot without installation) and, for do-it-yourselfers, stain in quart cans for $11.
LUKKEN COLOR CORPORATION , (203) 869-4679. High-Quality, High Price
William J. Erbe Company, a family business since 1908, is known for high-quality custom wood floors at high-end prices. Many of its clients usually want subdued floors in traditional French patterns. Erbe also imports antique floors from Europe. “The pre-1830 floors were cut by hand, are delicate and constantly break,” William Erb said. “But they’re an ego trip for some people.” They can cost around $400 a square foot.
WILLIAM J. ERBE COMPANY , 560 Barry Street, Bronx 10474; (212) 249-6400 or (718) 991-7281. It Just Looks Expensive
If an elaborate new inlaid floor is too costly, an alternative is a floor painted to appear inlaid. Juan P. Molyneux, who has designed several painted floors, often interprets Georgian and neo-classical style ceiling designs for floors. A floor similar to the one he created for the Kips Bay show house costs about $9,000.
J. P. MOLYNEUX STUDIO LTD. , 29 East 69th Street, New York 10021; (212) 628-0097.
Photos: Left and top, some samples of parquet designs from Janos P. Spitzer Flooring. (Photographs by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
- Rick Berg
- December 31st 1998
- Published as Sound Advice in February/March 1999 Issue
There was a time not that long ago when wood and other hard-surface flooring materials were prohibited in some condominiums and apartment complexes. People were not about to pay good money to live there, only to have their neighbors’ footsteps echo like a tap dance from the floor above.
At the same time, people who could afford to live in high-end condos and apartments wanted upscale interior finishes — including hardwood floors. Clearly, a compromise that would shield downstairs neighbors from the noise was in order.
In truth, sound-reduction systems have been used in South Florida, Los Angeles, New York City and other metropolitan areas for many years — sometimes demanded by building codes, more often by condo and co-op boards. But, as wood flooring has found its way into more multilevel residential and commercial locations, new solutions have evolved to solve the sound-transmission problem.
One of the oldest — and most complex — solutions involves installing sleepers in a bed of mastic, with sound-absorbent material installed in the spaces between the sleepers. The wood flooring is then installed over the sleepers.
Simpler solutions include rolls or sheets of foam, cork or other sound-absorbent material installed between the wood floor and the subfloor. In installations over concrete slabs, the sound-absorbent material is often installed above the slab, with a layer of plywood above the material, followed bythe finished floor.
Janos Spitzer of Janos Spitzer Flooring Co. inNew York City, who’s been doing high-end residential work for about 15 years, borrows something from the 20 previous years he spent installing gymnasium and dance floors. In those installations, resilience — not sound control — is the main concern, but the same methods seem to work.
“We’ve never had a problem with the condo or co-op boards with our system,” says Spitzer. “It seems to satisfy their needs.”
Spitzer attaches 3/8-inch rubber pads (the kind often used in gym floor installations) to the bottom of a layer of 1/2- or 3/4-inch plywood, which is then loose-laid over the concrete slab. A second layer of 1/2- or3/4-inch plywood is then laid over the first layer — at a right angle — then glued to and screwed into the first layer. The wood floor is nailed into the plywood subfloor.
Spitzer prefers to put down the thickest subfloor he can — “the more mass you have, the better it will absorb sound” — but notes that aesthetic concerns often dictate a thinner subfloor. “People don’t want to give up alot of vertical space,” he says.
A sound-reduction system like the one Spitzer uses will typically add $3 to$4 per square foot to an installation —and even more if a lot of material is required to level the concrete slab. “To have this work right, the slab has to be as level as you can get it,” he says.
A similar system utilizes a foam or cork pad, which is loose-laid over the subfloor. A double layer of plywood— glued and screwed together at right angles — is then laid over the pad, and the wood floor is nailed into the plywood. To maximize the sound absorption qualities of the system, no metal fastener should penetrate the foam or cork pad, so the fastener should be set to penetrate no farther than the depth of the plywood.
A common and relatively simple foam or cork pad system can be used for either glue-down or floating floors. For a glue-down floor, the pad should be glued to the subfloor, with the wood flooring glued to the pad. In many cases, the same adhesive can be used for both. Some adhesives also have good sound-absorption qualities, so the combination of adhesive and foam or cork can provide fairly significant noise reduction. Fora floating-floor system, the underlayment pad — foam or cork — is loose laid over the subfloor, and the wood flooring is floated above that.
Some underlayment manufacturersalso recommend installation of a”perimeter isolation strip” at thewalls. The isolation strip is designedto prevent impact sounds on the floorfrom being transferred to the wall andinto other rooms.
The cost of these systems can vary,depending on the level of sound-absorption required and on labor costsin different regions. However, most will fall within a range of $1.50 to $3per square foot, installed.
In many locales, flooring contractors should be aware that sound-absorption is not merely a nice add-on, but rather a requirement. In California, for example, floors in multilevel buildings are required to meet Impact Insulation Class (IIC) and Sound Transmission Class (STC) codes, with a rating of at least 50. IIC codes refer tothe sound transmitted by impact on the floor — footsteps, for example. STC codes refer to airborne sounds,such as voices. Condo associations may set even higher rating requirements. In fact, says Ann Wicander, president of WE Cork Enterprises,”condo associations in most metropolitan areas are really the strongest force dictating ratings.”
Bob Galgano, director of sales and marketing for Badger Cork, notes that code requirements are more common in western states, while condo associations hold sway in Chicago and Florida.
Sound-reduction has long been a fact of life in places like Miami, NewYork and Los Angeles, according to Eric Buchanan, director of customer service for Natural Cork, “but we’re seeing it develop in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect — like smaller cities in the Midwest.”
There may be many installation solutions that will provide adequate sound-absorption, but building codes or condo association requirements may dictate that flooring contractors provide documentation that the installation meets code. Manufacturers of products specifically designed for flooring underlayment will typically provide that documentation. For example, a contractor who purchases cork that isn’t designed for flooring underlayment may not get the sound absorption he needs — and he certainly won’t get the documentation a condo association might demand.
Beyond the demands of building codes and condo boards, flooring contractors might also find that more one family homes are looking for sound absorption qualities in their floors. If a contractor knows how to provide that sound-absorption, he may find that second-story wood floors are a more attractive option for his customers. And that should remove yet one more place sometimes thought to be off-limits to wood flooring.
- Kim Wahlgren
- July 31st 2002
- Published as Specifier Specs in August/September 2002 Issue
The architect and interior designer each have a certain aura. Architects are notorious for being aloof and intellectual, while designers’ creative flair leaves them with a
reputation for being fussy and difficult to please. Unfortunately, those stereotypes scare some hardwood flooring professionals away, keeping them from making contact. When they do try, they are left frustrated, grumbling about how all those stereotypes are true. Occasionally, they’ll bid on a project and waste hours trying to interpret specifications that seem to call for outdated products in all the wrong places.
Yet, there are others in the hardwood flooring industry whose businesses flourish because of their connections to those two groups. Local architects and interior designers turn to them almost exclusively when they need help trying to write specifications for a project or are looking for design ideas. These wood flooring professionals notice that an increasing amount of wood is being sold and, as time goes by, they have fewer callbacks.
From high-end residential installations to large commercial projects, specifications increasingly call for wood floors. Just as demand has grown, so has the quality and variety of available products, and proactive contractors, distributors and manufacturers have made the effort to keep their architect and designer customers up to speed.
Without these wood flooring professionals’ efforts, the A&D community often is lost when it comes to wood floors, and their specifications may reflect this. Given the nature of what architects and designers do, it’s hardly surprising that they aren’t experts on wood flooring. “Most of them have to be experts on everything from the thermal dynamics of concrete as it cures to the tensile strength of steel; they have to know just about everything that goes into a house,”explains Kevin Evans, president at Denver, Colo.-based contractor Rock Solid Hardwoods, which does extensive high-end work for the A&D community. “The architects are more concerned with the structural and engineering aspects of what they’re putting together.”
Interior designers face much the same challenge. Although they receive extensive education on creating interior spaces, they can’t be experts on every material they use, either. “Being an interior designer myself, I can tell you it’s not like they have Wood 101 when you have a design degree,” says Susie Alderman, vice president of sales and design at contractor Palmer Hall Floors in Jacksonville, Fla., and an American Society of Interior Design (ASID) interior designer before her career in the wood flooring industry. “You get in the field and are trying to specify it, and you have no vocabulary about it; you don’t know thicknesses or the technical aspects of it at all.”
Unfortunately for the wood flooring contractors, this can result in some confusing or complicated situations. “We still have people writing old specifications for sanding and finishing a floor from 40 years ago,” says Jack Schroeder, secretary/treasurer at Romeoville, Ill.-based distributor The Bahr Company. Similar stories are echoed by hardwood flooring professionals across the country. “One of the biggest problems we have in the hardwood flooring industry in dealing with architects is there is a lot of misinformation out there, whether it be from Web sites or misinformation perpetuated by old specs they pull off the shelf and use time and time again,” says David Rowe, general manager of distributor Denver Hardwood Co. Although architects and specifiers increasingly turn to updated Web-based sources, experts say the most common resource used when writing a new specification is an old one. This results in specifications still calling for wax finishes burnished by steel wool and other products uncommon today.
Another issue is spec writers who simply don’t understand wood flooring products. “It has always been a struggle to educate architects and specifiers,” Alderman says. “You’ll get a bid with these specs in it, and you’re like, ‘What? They’ve got some ridiculous amount of poly specified.'” Or the product chosen might be wrong for the below-grade installation, or the spec might say “clear select No. 1 common red oak,” leaving the contractor in total confusion as to what he should door what products he should bid on.
“The hole when you look atspecs is that the architect has not gotten any education from the industry per se,” says Woody Hilscher, Atlanta-based commercial business manager for finishing products manufacturer BonaKemi USA, and a former Construction Specifications Institute member. “I don’t put the blame on anybody, but the architects are starving for information on what to do, so they usually throw everything in the book and let the contractors determine what they do in the end.”
Ambiguous or wrong specifications can create a host of problems for the wood flooring contractor. Specifying an inappropriate product could result in a floor failure, which leaves a black eye both for the wood flooring contractor and for wood flooring in general.
Confusing specs also make the whole process more complicated. “From a contractor’s perspective…the more precisely and accurately the spec is written, the easier it is for them to bid properly and have a high degree of confidence that the people reviewing the bid are doing an apples-to-apples comparison,” Rowe says. At Denver Hardwood, they makea concerted effort to review specs with their contractors, ensuring that the appropriate products are specified, and asking for exceptions when necessary, he says.
At high-end contractor Janos P. Spitzer Flooring Co. in New York City, a majority of the company’s projects involve working with architects. President Janos Spitzer explains how a lack of good specifications frequently leaves his company, like many others, caught in the middle. “We have an eternal problem with architects. As subcontractors, we’re always between the contractor and the architect … the general contractor does not want to do anything that is not in the specifications, so it leaves a guy like me in between. It’s always a conundrum how to navigate between these two entities.” He points to subfloor preparationas a typical problem. The fact that wood flooring installations aren’t as cut-and-dried as something like electrical work, with its rigid codes, makes it even more difficult, he explains.
Rather than simply complain about it, Spitzer decided to take a proactive approach. He became an American Institute of Architects approved continuing education provider, and now regularly holds seminars for architects at his shop to educate them about wood flooring. At the same time, they fulfill requirements from the state and the AIA to maintain their licenses.
“I thought it would be very beneficial to once and for all familiarize architects with what the wood flooring industry is and how we work. What’s interesting is they are all too eager to admit they really don’t know anything about specifying floors,” he says.
Once he has his captive audience, one of the first things Spitzer does is try to emphasize the importance of wood flooring in the job’s final appearance. At the outset of a project, the wood flooring may be only 5 to 7 percent of the budget, but when the job is complete, it is largely what is noticed, he says, adding that it also causes a disproportionate number of lawsuits. That’s a “powerful message,” he adds.
Spitzer’s seminars cover everything from product overviews to subfloor preparation to sound deadening products. Spitzer says architects are eager to learn and amazed to discover how easy working with wood floors can be. “They are surprised how simple it would be to avoid failures, because they don’t understand where failures come from—bad specifications,” he says.
Architects also are uneducated about basic wood flooring products, he explains. “It’s a revelation, because some people say, ‘I don’t like oak.’ I say, ‘Well, what kind of oak don’t you like?’ It turns out they don’t like plainsawn oak; they didn’t know they could specify quartersawn. It’s amazing how little they know.” They also frequently ask why they have so many sanding and finishing problems, and for more information on building using “green” wood flooring products.
Overall, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive, Spitzer says, adding that the seminars provide another means to “remind architects that we are here,” he says.
Creating A&D Rapport
At Rock Solid, Evans has built such a good rapport with some of his architect and design customers that they sometimes ask him to write the hardwood flooring specs for them. On a recent potential project, Evans was asked to write the specs for a huge condominium development involving 120,000 square feet of hardwood flooring. “They want someone like us to show them exactly what needs to be done, be done best and most economical,” Evans says.
Being the go-to hardwood flooring professional for the area’s A&Dcommunity is an enviable status. Such a relationship involves having the right skills, an impeccablereputation, and trust built overtime as an expert resource. Suchstatus can be lucrative to hardwood flooring contractors and distributors alike, but it is carefully earned. In large part, the business is built on word of mouth. One successful project leads to another.
Not every contractor is capable of jumping into the higher-end A&D business. “In order to do that, you need the kind of business that lends itself to doing that—I’m not sure that the small one-man operation or smaller companies have the ability to go out and meet with the designers and the architects who specify your product and material,” Evans says. “A lot of times you have to pound a lot of pavement. You have to meet with a lot of people, and you won’t see immediate results. It’s creating goodwill with the specifiers and getting them to be knowledgeable about your product.”
Today, Evans showcases Rock Solid’s extensive repertoire with an impressive showroom highlighting all the possibilities necessary to pursue the high-end A&D community. “In our industry, anybody can be a hardwood floor man, and a lot of guys only do what they know; they don’t try to break out and strengthen their repertoire by doing different types of species and installations,” Evans says.
For Chicago-area distributor The Bahr Co., focusing on products beyond the norm was the company’s impetus for hiring a rep specifically to pursue the A&D market. “Our original thinking was we wanted to specialize in unique products rather than just strip oak, because it was a commodity item,” Schroeder says. “In doing those specialty products, you need somebody to go out and work with the architect and design community to get the product name and our name onthe spec so the job comes back to us.”
Making the Approach
Deciding to actively pursue the A&D community is one thing; taking the correct approach is another. Architects and designers carry a reputation for being difficult to approach, and the worst thing to do would be to go after them with a typical sales call.
“Architects don’t want to be sold, they want to be educated, so they protect themselves with lots of people in front of them,” Hilscher says. “They’re busy people; they don’t want to see salesmen come in every day who will tie them up. They can’t see somebody for every item bought on the job they’re working on.”
Rowe agrees. “It takes quite a bit of time to build a rapport with someone in that community, and the wrong approach would be to go in there with your elbows up trying to get someone to specify your product right out of the gate,” he says. “The correct approach would be to work from an educational standpoint, a consultation standpoint, to educate the architect and designer as to what products are suitable for what installation.” For the last four years, Rowe’s company has taken the educational approach with box lunches and other training sessions; and the result has been fewer problems with specs, he says.
From an architect’s perspective, the problem withmost salespeople is clear. “When calling on architects, specifiers and designers, most of the people who make the calls are in the business of selling materials or floors; they understand the sales model,” explains Michael Chambers, FAIA, FCSI, of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Michael Chambers Associates Specifications, who has been in the specification business for about 30 years and speaks professionally on how to present to architects and specifiers. “What gets them frustrated about calling on architects is they don’t understand the sales model won’t work with architects—we don’t buy products. We specify, we design with product; product is important to us, but we don’t buy product.” Instead, Chambers suggests working off of a marketing model based on education about the industry, its products, and solutions based on those products.
Architects want a broad-based, factual education about the industry, he explains. “What are the industry issues, what are the competitive issues, who are the competitors and what, if any, are the real differences? Most of the time they’re about features and benefits, not real performance issues.” Focusing on marketing ploys instead of actual factual data, such as Taber test results, earns reps a quick exit, he says. “I find so often that the manufacturers will pick something that’s different than the competition, make a huge deal out of it and literally package their whole marketing program around it—I’m thinking, ‘I don’t care about this—give me the real industry issues or get out of my office.'”
On the other hand, reps who offer honest information oftentimes earn a healthy working relationship with the A&D community. If they can understand specifications and offer their product information in a standard specification format instead of in a “marketing fluff format,” they’re a step ahead of the competition.
Reps also need to respect the fact that most architects are working under tight timeframes. “Their time is very critical. If you waste their time, you’ve lost any benefit,” Hilscher says. “You have to be brief, and have short and direct answers. They focus on what you’re talking about right then and there, so you need to have your act together when you go to talk to them.” It helps if you’re there at the right time, he adds. “If you can hit them at the moment when they’re focused on a floor, then your timing is right. If you hit them when they’re doing structural design stuff, you probably won’t have their attention.”
One method to compel architects’ and designers’ attention is to take Spitzer’s approach with the lure of continuing education. Requirements vary from state to state and among the different associations, but most architects and designers are required to complete a certain number of continuing education hours. Wood flooring education is especially desirable for both groups because it fits into the sought-after category of “Health/Safety/Welfare” education.
“Architects are not going to be experts on every material they use, but what we’re trying to do is make architects a little more aware of these products and how they relate,” says Thom Lowther, director, AIA/CES. Until recently, most people would try to bribe their way into architecture firms with food, buying five or 10 minutes of the firm’s time, he says. With the continuing education requirements, that’s begun to change. “Now we say people can still do their sales part before or after, but for one hour, we want them to talk about materials and how they work in the generic sense—not to make the architects experts, but to make them more familiar with what works or doesn’t work.” That information helps turn salespeople into consultants. (For more information, see “Resources” sidebar.)
It’s also helpful that architects’ attitudes gradually have changed about education, Lowther says. They’re changing how they look at it. Instead of just seeing who knocks on the door with food, many of the firms now are saying, ‘Here are the projects we’re working on, and here are five providers who can talk about wood floors,'” he says. The result is that the projects and the education match, making it easier on everyone involved.
Continuing education is an appealing option ,but it isn’t the only way to avoid the dreaded cold call. Architects and designers suggest that networking at industry functions is one of the most effective ways to meet them and their peers. “Networking is absolutely your best way,” Chambers says. “If you want to get serious about talking to architects and designers, you’ve got to go where they go and be where they are.”
Alene Workman, ASID, president of Hollywood, Fla.based Alene Workman Interior Design, agrees that meeting architects and designers in their own environment can be one of the best ways to make contact in an unobtrusive way. “Go to places where designers and architects would be; you get to socialize and speak to designers and architects out of the office. It takes time to develop,” she says.
Where are A&D professionals found when they’re out of the office? Many are active in their professional associations and local business groups. Associations such as ASID and AIA even offer special memberships for those related to their industries. Such memberships can be the vital foot-in-the-door if members take full advantage of them.
“ASID has industry partnerships, but that means nothing if people just pay their dues,” Workman says. “What they must do is go to designer shows where they will meet designers, or better still, get on a committee somewhere in a chapter and work next to a designer.”
Some people in the wood flooring industry who ignore the designer segment or even avoid it because of designers’ fussy reputations are missing out on valuable contacts, Palmer Hall’s Alderman says. “Why don’t you take the opposite approach and try to educate them about what they don’t know,” she says. “If you want to educate designers and work with those who have the bigwig clients, call up the ASID and say, ‘Can I have a meeting in my showroom?’ You can be an industry partner, too—there are all sorts of things you can do with ASID in order to make yourself known to the design community.”
Whether it’s at a product show, a committee meeting or a chapter event, the personal contact in a nonsales environment is crucial. “They’ve got to make a connection,” Workman says. “Most designers don’t have the time; it’s not that we’re being rude.”
Building a Base
Once the connection is made, it must be solidified over time. If all goes well, architects and designers build trust that the hardwood flooring professional is going to provide whatever information they need—without coercing them into using the most expensive product.
As a designer, Workman says she is looking for a long-term partner in the industry who constantly will feed her only the information suitable for her needs, such as unique product applications or a new finish look, not every single new product in the industry. When you’re educated on the latest information in the industry, “you can be brilliant to your client,” she says. Because designers oftentimes are working the closest with the client on a project, they also are particularly interested in practical issues such as finishes and long-term maintenance, she says.
At Palmer Hall, much of the company’s business is done with professional designers who earn a commission for bringing their clients. Those relationships are carefully protected, Alderman says, by helping direct clients to products suitable for what the designer envisioned. “You have to develop a trust with designers that they can send their client, knowing that I’m helping their client on behalf of the designer. She may have called me and said, ‘I want to steer them toward something like this’—we respect the relationships they have with their clients.”
Sampling is another crucial and timely piece of the relationship. High-end designers and architects typically pull projects together under a tight time frame. “One thing a supplier for a design or architectural firm has to be is time-conscious, realizing that designers typically need things for presentations 24 to 48 hours after they call,” Workman says. “Most of us are pushed to the last minute to get certain things together, and from what I’ve seen in every firm, it’s pretty much the same.”
Evans cautions that making free samples for everyone can be a money pit. At Rock Solid, a design fee is charged for samples if the project ends up going elsewhere. “Lots of times designers and architects will say, ‘I never pay for samples,’ and I say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but here you do.’ You have to do that, because if you don’t, you’ll be making lots of samples for people who will never give you the work.”
Evans spends time with his architect and designer clients trying to get them to understand how the application will work, sometimes steering them away from something that’s inappropriate. “You have to work with the designers; they can be very picky, and they won’t always think about the application. They’ll say, ‘Well, we want to do this—a log cabin matchingup perfectly in corners and we want it in an octagon room … They just want it to look a certain way, and you have to know what you’re doing.”
Coming to an Understanding
Sometimes, resisting a designer who wants you to do something that’s risky by industry standards can be difficult. “You’ve got a designer on one hand saying, ‘We’ll pay you whatever you want if you can just do this for us’—that’s a big trap and you have to know how to navigate it,” Evans says. He tells the story of a client who wanted wood floors around the swimming pool. Instead of simply saying no, Evans bid the job with an elaborate drainage system and other precautions. When the clients saw how complicated it would be, they abandoned the idea, and Evans wisely settled for a much smaller part ofthe job installing floors only where they belonged.
Making architects and designers understand why they have to do the things they do with wood floors is part of the continual education in the ongoing relationship, and it doesn’t always lead to using the most expensive product. On the contrary, sometimes the wood flooring professional has to help a specifier find what’s less expensive but suitable.
“What we’re doing is not necessarily an upsell as much as an appropriate sale,” Rowe says. “A lot of times, there are value engineering concerns that come into play. People know what they want, or how they want the products to perform, but when they seek those products, they realize they are beyond the scope of the project or budget. That’s where value engineering comes in, and the distributor can be very helpful with regard to options and alternatives.”
Back in Chicago, those at The Bahr Company have spent years encouraging their A&D clients to seek them out for information. “What we really want them to do is come back to us for information and say, ‘I’ve got a job; here’s my problem’— it isn’t really a problem, but they call it that. I say, ‘Here’s my solution.’ Then we can mold them into the right area, and try to get product in there that we sell without being a salesman,” Schroeder says. “We also make sure they get the right product down—the last thing you want is to get a product down that’s going to fail.”
In the end, a working relationship with A&D professionals benefits the entire wood flooring industry, as more specifiers realize that wood floors can be a trouble-free, versatile product. As wood flooring increases in popularity, these relationships are more vital than ever. When done right, the architects, designers, wood flooring professionals, clients and the product manufacturers all can be more successful and give the industry’s products a good name.
Selling Without Selling
Industry experts largely agree that the most important thing to do when making a sales call on an architect or designer is to avoid “selling.” Counterintuitive as that may be, it’s what works. Here are some key points to remember when working with the A&D community:• Ask how you can help. Never ask, “How can I get this product specified?”• Come up with a list of common problems with your product and the accompanying solutions.• Educate them on the industry as a whole, avoiding proprietary sales pitches.• Be direct and to the point—architects and designers are pressed for time and frequently barraged by salespeople.• A&D professionals are 3-D oriented—have large samples available, and be prepared to make them quickly when necessary.• Use continuing education opportunities to make contact in a non-biased environment.• Network in neutral territory, such as at ASID, CSI or AIA meetings or conventions.• Word of mouth is the best sales tool—be professional, on time, do quality work and offer a trustworthy,long-term relationship.
American Institute of Architects (AIA)www.aia.org The AIA has approximately 70,000 members, and non-architects can join with an Allied Membership. AIA architect members are required to take 18 hours of continuing education per year, eight of which must be in the health/safety/welfare category (into which wood flooring fits). In addition, many states require continuing education in order for architects to maintain their licenses.
American Society of Interior Design (ASID)www.asid.org ASID has 31,500 members related to the field of interior design. Non-designers related to the field may join with Affiliate Membership. Many states require that interior designers take continuing education in order to renew their professional license.
Construction Specifications Institute (CSI)www.csinet.org The CSI’s more than 18,000 members include architects, engineers, constructors, specifiers, building product suppliers, and other groups. It is widely known for organizing MasterFormat, the 16-division system widely used that categorizes building products in specifications. Certified CSI professionals must earn 24 hours of continuing education every three years.
American Institute of Building Design (AIBD)www.aibd.org This organization has 1,400 members who are high-end residential designers. Those in related industries can be Allied Members, and AIBD’s approved Continuing Education Providers pay for an Affiliate Membership.
Wood Flooring Jargon
Before clients can knowledgeably talk about what they want in a wood species, they first must understand some of the basics about wood floors. Here’s a quick primer to the jargon most of us use every day.
Wood Grain When ordering wood flooring, there may be great variation in the appearance of the boards, even in the same species. The type of cut used for wood flooring canaffect its grain appearance. Wood flooring typically isordered as plainsawn, quartersawn or riftsawn.
Wood Grades Some manufacturers’ products are graded by an independent association, guaranteeing that the wood flooring purchased conforms to certain guidelines. These grades usually apply to commodity-type strip flooring in the most common species. Grades describe the appearance of the floor and are not reflective of the structural quality of the wood flooring; i.e. a “higher” grade of wood flooring is not necessarily a “better” floor.
In the United States and Canada, wood flooring grade rules are determined by: NWFA/NOFMA, The Wood Flooring Manufacturers Association: www.nwfa.org, The Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association: www.maplefloors.org, The Canadian Lumbermen’s Association: www.cla-ca.ca
Sometimes manufacturers create their own proprietary “grade” names. These should not be confused with official grade names verified by an independent association. In addition, there is no standard grading system for the sizable amount of imported wood flooring available today.
Wood Flooring Types Wood flooring is either solid or engineered. A piece of solid flooring is created from one piece of wood. Engineered floors, on the other hand, have several layers—the number varies according to the manufacturer—that are laminated together.
Engineered floors previously were referred to as “laminated” wood flooring, terminology no longer used in order to avoid confusion with “laminate” flooring, such as Pergo, which contains no wood. Solid wood flooring may be installed on- or above-grade, but not below-grade. Most engineeredwood flooring may be installed in any application.
Wood flooring also is described as unfinished or factory-finished (also referred to as “prefinished”). Unfinished flooring must be sanded and finished at the jobsite, while factory-finished flooring requires only subfloor preparation and installation. Manufacturers today offer myriad finish types on their factory-finished floors, as well as myriad warranty offers. Acrylic-impregnated floors are a type of factory-finished floor in which acrylic actually enters the pores of the wood, making it very durable.
When choosing wood flooring, the options are strip, plank or parquet. Strip flooring still is prevalent, and it usually is considered flooring that is 3/4 inch thick and 2 1/4 inches wide. Plank is anything wider than strip. Plank flooring sometimes is sold as “random width,” meaning the floor has a range of widths, such as “3-4-5 inch” plank. Parquet flooring is any kind of patterned floor—some well-known parquets include herringbone and fingerblock.
- Kim Wahlgren
- March 31st 2002
- Published as Keeping the Faith: State of The Industry 2002 in April/May 2002 Issue
The year 2001 was an uncertain one by any account. The nation started the year with a new president and an economy that, after years of unstoppable growth, was shifting down a few gears. As the year continued, that became even more evident as tech companies crumbled and the stock market suffered. Speculation ran rampant that the boom times’ bubble was finally going to burst, and frontpage headlines ran around the world when the president dared utter the “R” word—recession.
The wood flooring industry is far from high-tech, but it enjoyed the boom years nearly as much as the darlings of the NASDAQ. Business was so good for so long that it seemed unfathomable it would end. Fortunately, as 2001 progressed and the tech companies fell, the wood flooring industry didn’t suffer the same fate. By late summer, however, it was evident to many that the booming years were over for now. The industry wasn’t stopping by any means, but for most companies, there was a perceptible slowdown.
Then, on the morning of September 11, life as Americans knew it came to a tragic standstill. The effects were felt thousands of miles away long after the terrorist attacks as the United States became a nation in mourning gripped with fear of the unknown. In that climate, business concerns seemed secondary to a national tragedy. (See “Post-9/11 in NYC” sidebar, page 26.) “You just saw the focus go away from day-to-day work. People were not focused on going out and selling floors, laying floors, talking about new products,” says Wade Verble, national sales manager for Brooklyn, N.Y.-based manufacturer DriTac Adhesive Group. “I can remember being down in Florida holding a meeting, and everybody’s wife was calling because the anthrax scare started in Miami. The wife of one of my customers called and didn’t know whether to get the mail or run.” Ever since, travel has been “absolutely brutal,” he adds.
Brutal or not, people quickly learned to function despite the specter of more attacks. They patiently endured hours of security at airports and cautiously felt safer with each day that passed without more tragedy. Gradually, daily life resumed, although it was widely acknowledged that American life would never be the same.
At Ferndale, Mich.-based distributor Erickson’s Flooring and Supply, Vice President of Sales and Marketing Greg Williams says he feared that after Sept. 11, he would have to write off the rest of the year. “The reality is people came to understand that after September 11, their lives had to go on,” Williams says. “It took about six weeks for them to figure that out, but once they did, a lot of business was conducted as usual. We had a tremendous backlog that accelerated in the fourth quarter.” In Boston,distributor Wood Pro experienced a similar phenomenon. General Manager Tony Benvenuti estimates that business for about three weeks after the attacks was “just destroyed,” but the company experienced a very strong October and November.
That was a relief to thousands of business people who feared the worst for the health of an already tenuous economy. “I was scared to death in September that it would just be a disaster, because the whole week after September 11 shutdown,” says Neil Poland, president of Johnson City, Tenn.-based Mullican Flooring. To his surprise, the company “pulled out a really good month in September, and then in October the momentum was tremendous … I really expected January, February and March to be the worst of this thing for us, and January was great, relatively speaking.”
Now, months into 2002, there is little consensus about what the economic state of the wood flooring industry truly is. Some companies are flourishing; others lament a truly difficult year. It may depend on a host of factors, from geographic region to which products are sold. Many companies are struggling to find any rhyme or reason to the seemingly unpredictable swings between sales and slumps. What is acknowledged is a general air of caution about the economy.
“I think it’s kind of an adjustment; we’re doing things kind of differently now,” says John Goss, president of Seattle-based Woodwise/Design Hardwood Products. “People are more careful about how they’re spending their money, more thoughtful about it.” Despite that, Goss is positive about the industry, and in January his company experienced its best month ever. “I’m not seeing a whole lot of negativity out there other than the negative conversation,” he says. “It’s almost like fear is causing more than anything else; the fears can become reality.”
In many regions, a slew of layoffs in high-tech and other well-paying jobs is a tangible factor in a more challenging wood flooring market. In Denver, “We lost jobs right in the heart of the buying power for the good-sized wood flooring jobs,” says Jim Duffey, vice president and general manager at distributor Palo Duro. “We lost jobs with the people who had the ability to buy homes and put 1,000 square feet of wood into them, as opposed to tract homes that may have wood flooring in just the entryway and kitchen,” he explains. Now, a shortage of buyers is combining with too much new home inventory. “Builders built like buyers were never going to stop coming, and never stop coming prequalified and dual-income,” he says. Despite new challenges, the market is still relatively healthy, he explains. “Wood is still a great growth market, but it’s changed. What to do and how to survive and grow now is a lot more demanding than it was three years ago.”
That may take adjustments for an industry somewhat spoiled by years of nearly unstoppable growth. From manufacturers down to contractors, the reality of economic cycles can be difficult to digest.
At Raleigh, N.C.-based Horizon Forest Products, “I just see this big spread between customers who are very busy and those who are searching for work,”says Vice President David Williams, who is also president of the National Wood Flooring Association. Williams sees no distinguishing factors between the two groups. “I think they’re a little bit confused about what’s going on; they’re used to being several weeks behind,” he says.
His customers aren’t the only ones left scratching their heads at the unpredictable swings in business. “It’s confusing even for us as a business,” Williams says, echoing a sentiment shared by many manufacturers and distributors alike as 2002 begins. “One month can be very good, the next slows down, the next takes off—it’s hard to manage a business like that. It’s hard to manage inventory and personnel when you don’t know what’s happening during the month.” Businesses are left with no choice but to ride the waves as best they can and “watch their cash flow very, very carefully,” he says.
Some regions of the country seem untouched by any economic turmoil. “Southern California seems to not be in a recession,” says Steve Taylor, division manager at the San Diego, Calif., branch of Wood Flooring Distributors. “There’s still money moving around and people can afford these things. There’s the desire to have it and the money to buy it.” Wood flooring is a hot item, he says,and the local wood flooring market demonstrates this fact: “It’s been good for all of us. There are more distributors in this town, all bigger than they used to be, and all seem to be doing well, and there are many, many more contractors with more workers,” he says.
Investing at Home
Amid a struggling economy during 2001 and the beginning of 2002, there has been one reliable shining star—the construction industry. Spurred on with help from Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve, interest rates are the lowest in decades, helping housing starts remain strong. (See charts on page 44.) That bodes well for an industry as closely tied to new construction as the wood flooring industry is.
“The building industry is probably the only one that hasn’t felt the real crash everybody else has,” says Benvenuti. “Housing starts have still been pretty good, and interest rates have been low. It’s almost free for people to do things for their house.”
General Manager Ron Domkowski at Lincolnshire, Ill.-based manufacturer Powernail Company also points to the housing industry as the key factor. “As far as we can tell, all the turmoil since Sept. 11 has had absolutely no impact,” Domkowski says. “We had the best January in seven years, and we attribute that to the housing industry.” Right now, putting money into a house can be one of the wisest money management decisions made, he points out. “If you look at investments, where can you get a good return on your money. Not even CDs. So what do you do. You invest it back in your home. You’ll get it back in spades when you go to sell your house, so real estate remains a very viable place to put your money while things settle down.”
Even in areas where business has been lackluster, distributors report that “word on the street” looks to see business pick up later in spring and into summer. Those forecasts hinge on some wild cards. One is increasing unemployment; another is the possibility of rising interest rates. Fortunately, it appears that interest rates should remain stable for the near future.
A Crowded Market
If the number of companies entering the market or increasing capacity is any indication of an industry’s health, then it would appear that the wood flooring industry is no less than vibrant. There is a seemingly endless supply of new manufacturers and new capacities at existing producers.
That constant influx can leave some segments of the industry less than vibrant, however. The unfinished strip market is encountering challenges now that the explosive growth of previous years has slowed. Shipment figures from Memphis, Tenn.-based NOFMA, The Wood Flooring Manufacturers Association, revealed that strip shipments for 2001 were up only 3 percent. “Production capacity was up, but the shipments were not up that much,” says Tommy Maxwell of Monticello, Ark.-based Maxwell Hardwood Flooring and also president of NOFMA. “It’s nowhere close to the potential. There’s a lot of untapped capacity out there.”
The increased capacity applies not only to domestic strip producers, but also many other categories of wood flooring. “Brazilian cherry and some of the South American products were really a proprietary product sold as a real upgrade a few years ago,” says Erickson’s Williams. “Now, because of all these manufacturers in the marketplace, they’ve devalued it; they’ve created a commodity product out of Brazilian cherry.”
At Memphis, Tenn.-based Global Market Partners, President Lanny Trottman imports longstrip flooring from Scandinavia. “The thing we’ve seen the most of is products coming in from the Far East, particularly in longstrip,” he says. “When I started this business in ’93, there were really only a handful—maybe five or six companies—bringing longstrip into the U.S. Now there’s maybe 30.” Although he sells his product on the merits of quality, competition is getting “very difficult,” and an influx of European manufacturers is also appearing.
At Surfaces 2002 in January, a walk through the show floor was concrete evidence of the plentitude of newcomers, especially Asian, to the industry. In particular, there seemed to be a new bamboo company around every corner, but companies offering all types of flooring were debuting as well.
“It’s too early to tell whether they’ll be fortunate enough to gain distribution and the confidence of the flooring trade. The biggest problem to entry in this country is gaining distribution,” Poland says. “If they cannot get the confidence of enough distributors, they’re not going to be successful. We’re watching it closely; I think it’s a concern.” It is typically easier for Asian manufacturers to first enter markets in Europe, he explains, where manufacturers have historically been more expensive.
John Pankratz Jr. at distributor Kelly-Goodwin Company based in Tukwila, Wash., agrees that distributors are cautious about taking on a lot of new products from foreign manufacturers. Every distributor has been burned at least once by a supplier that turned out to not be trustworthy, he says. “A lot of these foreign companies don’t offer some of the things the domestic manufacturers offer, like warranties, technical assistance, local representation… those are big selling points; it instills confidence in the product when you know that if you have a problem, it’s going to be taken care of. The foreign manufacturers have a long way to go in that respect,” he explains.
A multitude of manufacturers north of the border also are looking for markets for their products. “I probably get five calls a week from different Canadian manufacturers just trying to move unfinished and prefinished flooring. I don’t know how they all survive,” says distributor Benvenuti.
Faced with distributors who are already saturated with a bevy of manufacturers, new suppliers often try to bypass distribution entirely. That can be a difficult task in an industry traditionally reliant on a network of wood flooring distributors.
Of course, no distributor likes the idea of manufacturers selling direct. At Palo Duro, Duffey also sees the potential for greater harm to the wood flooring industry in general. “The education provided by the network of responsible manufacturers, distributors and good dealers is what keeps the consumer out of the hole and gives overall wood flooring a good name as a quality floor covering,” he says. “We’re an advocate of one thing and one thing only when we’re on a complaint or go in to advise people—all we want is to see a happy consumer. Nobody sells wood flooring more for this industry than a happy consumer.”
There is a perceived threat to quality across all products in the industry, not just wood flooring. There are new manufacturers entering the market for nearly every product category, from adhesives to nailers. Many companies don’t see it as a direct threat, however.
“There’s definitely increased competition, but competition makes you better and stronger,” says Jim Wallick, vice president of sales and marketing at Deer Park, N.Y.-based Mercer Abrasives. “The thing that is a little scary is that people are coming in with inferior products and marketing them as premium products.” With a slowdown in the industry, Wallick feels that buyers will turn to trusted, established companies.
The heightening competition covers all levels of the industry, as well, not just the manufacturing base. “There are many more people entering the industry, from floor installers to smaller distributors to larger distributors. In the recession, I think there will be consolidation at some point at all levels,” Wallick says. “Right now, I see a lot of people going into it, because it’s a growth industry. Then you go through these lean years, and it shakes out a little.”
Trottman agrees, guessing that at some point there will be a “tremendous amount of washout” in the unfinished strip business. Companies with more specialized products will find it easier to compete, he predicts.
Taylor also envisions a point where the industry shakes out to some degree. “The really smart ones are going to survive,” he says. “The big companies will survive, and the smaller companies that make it through will thrive and will have a market for their products, but a bunch won’t.”
Overall, the health of the industry still receives high marks. The question is simply how much it can support. “The hardwood flooring business is still a very good business. People see that in other parts of the industry, and everybody wants to get on and get a small piece of that,” Horizon’s Williams says. “But there’s only so much room on the train; everybody can’t get on at one time.”
The Price is Not Right
One factor where that’s become evident is in pricing. Whether it’s abrasives or longstrip, a flood of manufacturers combined with a general slowing of the industry yields predictable results on price tags. Hardest hit of all is the industry’s bread and butter—the unfinished strip market. Distributors refer to the current pricing on strip flooring with words such as “abysmal,” “a struggle” or just downright “scary.” Especially hard hit are those not carrying the industry’s biggest lines.
At Wood Pro, Benvenuti describes a typical situation: “Even if you sell it [unfinished strip] at 5 percent over your cost, that’s 30 percent too high,” he laments. “Even if you have much better quality products, when you’re talking 50or 75 cents, that’s a lot of money, whether it’s bad or not. People don’t care—on 1,000 feet, that’s maybe $700—the guy will bang it in.” Benvenuti also sees the same phenomenon right now with prefinished flooring. That’s an especially startling development, because prefinished flooring has traditionally been an area with the potential for higher profits.
Manufacturers are just as concerned as their distributors over the unfinished strip situation. “The market has not grown as fast over the last 12 months as it had in previous years; therefore, with all the new production capacities that have been added, the market is much more competitive,” Maxwell says. “Profit margins have been squeezed throughout the industry, especially at the manufacturing level.”
The current price squeeze serves to effectively add insult to injury, as unfinished strip was never a high-profit item to begin with. “One thing that concerns me is that looking at the price of unfinished hardwood flooring over the years, it really doesn’t follow inflation,” Pankratz says. “I look at the last 18 years I’ve been purchasing, and select red and common red aren’t too much higher than when I started in ’85. I was offered common red for under $1.60, and when I first started, it was maybe $1.20.”
At Erickson’s, Williams says pricing is about as low as it has been for about eight years. The competitiveness of the marketplace has increased while the quality of the materials is decreasing, with some manufacturers trying to pass them off as better-grade products. DriTac’s Verble thinks the price crunch will result in increased pressure on research and development to focus on creating products their companies can manufacture at more cost-competitive prices.
At a time of pricing challenges, companies need to think about where they are positioning themselves and which customers they are trying to attract. There will always be a group ready to jump ship for the latest, cheapest product. “There are those individuals who buy on price alone; they will be attracted to the newcomers, because the only way the newcomers can get market share is to buy it,” Powernail’s Domkowski says. “There will always be a market for these lower-cost items.”
At the distributor level, surviving in tough times comes down to one word over and over again. “You can get close to price, but it’s all about service,” says Benvenuti. “I think that’s what will help us with the downturn in the economy—we’re selling to contractors, and they need service.”
Schemes for Success
Through recent years, some companies could operate on near autopilot as the booming industry carried a lot of people along for the ride. With the current softened economy, businesses are having to step their efforts up a notch to even approach recent levels of sales or profits. It’s also giving companies a chance to go back to the drawing board and reexamine their businesses.
“In February, we’ll have one of the strongest months we ever had, but we worked harder at it, too, though,” Global Market’s Trottman says. “We put some promotions in place and did some different things to stimulate the business.” It’s also been an impetus for the company to focus on what lines it carries and why.
Distributors may take several different approaches. Some are choosing to focus on their core business, while others think that diversifying into more types of products will protect them when there’s a slowdown in one product category.
“We need to maintain our fundamental philosophy we’ve had for years, and that is to more or less work hard on doing what we’ve done better,” says Erickson’s Williams. He suggests going back to the grassroots fundamentals that created a successful company to begin with.
At Horizon, Williams says it’s given the company a chance to “regroup a little bit and redefine our role as a distributor; make some adjustments and actually take some new products on. We’ve taken this period to kind of go through our whole business with a fine-tooth comb and figure out what we do and don’t do well.”
A fundamental part of distributors’ success will be how well they partner with quality suppliers. It takes a longtime to establish a trusting relationship between a manufacturer and a distributor, and many companies aren’t willing to jeopardize the relationship by shopping around for the latest and greatest opportunity.
In much of the wood flooring industry today, those vital relationships continue right down from the distributor to the job site. In New York City, Bob Nygaard’s distributorship, Olson Flooring Supply Co., is still going strong despite all the challenges. The success comes down to one main reason. “We take personal pride in discussing things with our customers; we know all our customers personally,” Nygaard says. “It makes a difference. It could be a couple hundred; we know all of them. We make it our business to go visit them on the job sites.”
While companies such as Nygaard’s are continuing winning strategies as usual, others are fortifying their defensive positions, and yet others are looking to take advantage of a business climate that hasn’t been around for quite awhile.
“My strategy is to prepare for an open door or window,” says Woodwise’s Goss. As other companies back off in caution, perhaps dropping certain non-core products, Goss sees the chance to pick up the slack. “Rather than back off and try to just survive, we’re actually trying to grow at this time. If it doesn’t work, all we’re out is the preparation. If it works, we’re ready to step into a busier climate.”
The Big Picture
Despite the economic slowdown, a busier climate in the near future doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. There are many positive factors working in wood flooring’s favor. In fact, recession or not, most people still sound overwhelmingly positive about being in the wood flooring industry.
“There are so many things working for us that are larger than the little economic factors that have stirred things up for all of us in the last six to 12 months,” Duffey says, and most in the industry seem to agree.
One of those factors is the nesting phenomenon much discussed since the Sept. 11 tragedy. People’s tendency to stay at home helps the wood flooring market from several angles. First, as they postpone the hassles and lingering fears now associated with travel, they have more disposable income to put into their houses. Second, as they spend time at home, they’re more likely to consider ripping up old carpeting and upgrading to wood floors.
Wood flooring’s inherent high-end image and quality also work in its favor. As an upgrade-type floor covering, it will always be a product consumers aspire to, just as they would an expensive car or other classy product. As the floor covering market has evolved in recent years, wood flooring has become a standard in almost every home, even if it’s only in the foyer or kitchen. More often, it’s being used in other rooms as well.
“Wood flooring used to be in one room or a small area, but now it’s huge,” says Taylor. “People are doing their whole homes. Contractors are doing well now. When you go out in the morning, the parking lot is full of contractors’ trucks, and they’re nice, new trucks. I never expected to see the things I’m seeing now with hardwood flooring.”
At Sheoga Hardwood Flooring and Paneling in Middlefield, Ohio, Pete Miller echoes those sentiments. “This is our 20th year manufacturing flooring. There are very few years since ’82 that we didn’t exceed the previous year’s sales. We surely have a lot to be thankful for.”
Post-9/11 in NYC
New York City is legendary in the hardwood flooring business for being a tough place to do business.Cut-throat competition and pricing is the norm, and simple logistics of getting to and from job sitescan be frustratingly complicated. But last fall, New Yorkers in the industry had to deal with the most tragic challenge imaginable—Sept. 11, widely acknowledged as the worst day in American history.
Now, as 2002 has begun, the city is moving on, but vivid memories of the day remain. At Janos P. Spitzer Flooring Co., workers could see the tragedy unfold from the company’s location at 24th St. and 7th Ave. “We watched the whole thing from the corner; you can’t imagine. There were hundreds of people standing on the street and watching the whole thing happen,” says Janos Spitzer, president. “I’ve seen a couple of wars, so it wasn’t so bad for me, but for people who haven’t seen anything like it, it’s a pretty shocking experience; very surreal.”
The situation created some unimaginable scenarios. The morning of Sept. 11, Spitzer spoke on the phone with a fellow wood flooring contractor who was supposed to go to a job under the World Trade Center that morning. The contractor had a dispute with the general contractor and decided not to go to the job. “For days after that, he didn’t have the guts to call and see if the GC was still alive,” Spitzer says. As it turns out, the GC did make it out.
Carole Steinbach’s distributorship, New York Floor Supplies, is located a good distance north of the World Trade Center site, but she and her colleagues also saw the effects that day. “I will tell youit was a horror,” she says. “What you saw was thousands and thousands of people walking north on every avenue. Usually New York is a very lively, energy-filled place with lots of noise and talking,but it was silent except for the sound of the cars. From wherever you stood, you could see that smoke coming up.”
For a few days, business became immaterial. But with famous New York resiliency, life and business had to begin again. “After a couple days everything was back to seminormal,” Spitzer says. “You can’t just be paralyzed.”
In the weeks that followed, stringent travel restrictions made day-to-day business a lengthier process. Checkpoints at tunnels and bridges caused delays, but it was accepted. “It took us longerbeing inspected and whatnot, but everybody seemed to overcome it,” says Bob Nygaard, vice president at distributor Olson Floor Supply Co. “You just go with the flow.”
Today, some of those restrictions remain as a precaution, and those doing business in the city have adjusted. “What people have done is reorient how they do things as far as transportation,” Steinbach says. “They come in earlier. In order to come into the Lincoln or Holland tunnels or some bridges, you must have at least two people in the car, but not between 6 and 10, so people are changing when they come and leave.” In addition, trucks have special restrictions about how they can come into Manhattan, such as only being able to be on one level of the two-story bridges. Also, Brooklyn Battery is still closed, as it is used to remove debris from the World Trade Center site.
Are there lingering financial effects from the tragedy? Those in the wood flooring industry in the city are unsure. Most people say that business had slowed down before 9/11, and the attacks certainlyhaven’t caused a crash of any sort. “I don’t know how much the additional impact is, but it has to be there because of all the businesses and people that are no longer there,” Steinbach says. “How much is impact from that and how much is from the recession is really hard to say. I would say that things aren’t terrible; I’m doing okay.”
At Janos P. Spitzer Flooring Co., “The only thing I notice is that people don’t stand outside and form a line. We’ve been having fewer calls,” Spitzer says. “But I feel it doesn’t translate to less business.We’ve been working harder for making a sale and getting fewer calls.”
Nygaard says his business is still going strong, but that the attacks only served to exacerbate the existing problem of fly-by night contractors. “A lot of guys laid people off and got scared with 9/11, and that forced more guys to do it [go out on their own.]” New York is unusual, he says, in its familiarity. “It’s a different scenario than any place,” he says. “Everybody seems to know everybody; everybody knows what everybody’s doing. It’s like a small town.”
Contractor Peter Downs at New Wood Co., located in the Bronx, says he’s fortunate to deal with high-end clientele, and in New York, there’s plenty of them. They made tons of money in the ’90s, he says, and though they may have taken a hit in recent times, they are still filthy rich. “My contractor clients are not crying,” he says. “Most of them are busy at the high end; in that little niche market things are humming along well. Now, there may be a lag time, because a lot of projects now were conceived 18 months ago, but we’re bidding a lot of new stuff.”
Other contractors may not be so fortunate, he surmises. “I think if I were a flooring guy who made a living banging boards in for a buck a foot or doing working-class homes in Queens, I’d be hurtingright now. I imagine those people are not spending money on flooring products.”
Overall, wood flooring professionals in the city agree that business in the city is definitely far from being in a crisis. But as New York rebuilds physically and financially, the most difficult task may be struggling with memories that don’t go away. “It seems like it affected everybody; everybody knew somebody. I knew eight people [who died],” Nygaard says, “and it’s still really affecting a lot of lives.”
One-on-One with Armstrong
Hardwood Floors spoke with Michael Badar, vice president of Armstrong’s wood flooring division, which late last year was integrated with Dallas-based Armstrong Floor Products. Before joining Armstrong earlier this year, Badar was with ChoiceParts LLC, an Internet-based auto parts company in Chicago, Ill.
Q. How much has the recession affected the wood flooring industry? Was there a specific impactfrom Sept. 11?A. We haven’t seen it. Are there areas where we’re seeing some potential slowdown? In commercial building or what have you, yes. However, consumers make up such a big part of the market, and home building and housing starts are still going, so we’re not seeing that. In fact, we see an opportunity as people stay closer to their homes to increase some sales. As they spend some time there, they might want to look at a different floor covering at the same time. So, we think this industry is still pegged to grow. Depending on who you ask, it’s growing 4 to 8 percent a year; that’s not a recession by our definition.
Q. What has happened to availability of products?A. We are more and more focused on making sure we’re listening to what customers want and building that, versus making what we have and selling that. We’re really going from a sell-what-we-make company to a make-what-customers-want company. We’re finding that’s going to have a great impact on availability, and there are some basic things we’re doing here to make sure we can do that.
Q. How has Armstrong’s integration of wood flooring with the other floor coverings affected its wood flooring?A. We look at the integration as a way to really leverage all the resources of Armstrong. We love our brands; we love Hartco, Bruce and Robbins, and our customers love them, too. We want to make sure that as people look at a floor covering, they understand the breadth of the offerings Armstrong brings them. We want to make sure that market by market, customer by customer, we are approaching it how it best serves their needs. That hasn’t slowed us down at all; if anything, it’s created more opportunities for us.
Q. What are some of the synergies?A. One example is the commercial market; it’s a market that historically hasn’t had a lot of wood surfaces. We have more than 50 architecture and design reps who call on commercial contractors and architects who, until recently, haven’t been talking about wood flooring. That creates a whole new pipeline to talk to commercial contractors about how to get our product into buildings.
Q. What are the product trends you see?A. What we’re seeing right now are wider planks, and rustic and natural character. There are also more exotics. People are recognizing more and more that a flooring surface is more than something to walk on; it’s a true design element in their home. They’re looking for ways to make that unique and their own.
Q. Will the nesting trend last?A. No one knows for sure, but if you look at the size of the baby boomer generation, and the fact that it is aging a little bit, you see people are staying at home a little more. It’s a little harder to travel when you get older, or maybe you have two homes and you spend time between them. They want to be with family in an environment they want to be in. They also have the means to do it. Our consumers have gotten much wealthier in the last 20 to 30 years, so that’s helpful. We like the trend right now.
Q. What about the increased competition in the marketplace?A. The flooring market is from $15 to $20 billion dollars and wood flooring makes up less than $2 billion dollars; this is a huge market. I look at the introduction of new people in the market in a couple of ways. It forces innovation and it’s good for us, like the old sports analogy that when you play with good players, you actually all play better. It also proves that the market is growing. Will they be here if the market flattens? Do they have a 120-year-old brand backing them? We look at that and we say, we’re here to stay.
Q. Do the new manufacturers affect pricing?A. Competition in general is good for pricing. Really, what we need to make sure of is what are they actually buying? If they’re buying a piece of wood, it can quickly get down to a word we don’t like to use—“commodity” business. We’re not selling wood necessarily, we’re selling a floor covering, a design element of a home and the service that comes with it. Is someone going to be there when you call? Are we going to be there on time? Are we going to continue to innovate and introduce newproducts and services? That’s what we’re selling in addition to the wood flooring.
Q. Have the bankruptcy proceedings affected Armstrong’s wood flooring?A. I haven’t seen the effects. First of all, I did just join this company knowing it was bankrupt. We didn’t have an issue financially because of our core business; it’s the asbestos litigation. We continue to invest in this business, and in 2002 we’ll invest significantly as far as new products and quality.
Q. Do you see any further consolidation in the future?A. The market is a big market, and big markets with a lot of players tend to have consolidation in any industry, so there might be opportunities for us or for others to do that as this progresses.
Q. What do you forecast for 2002?A. We expect a strong year. This is a growing market, and we’re really focused on executing and executing what our customers are telling us they want—delivering quality products and deliveringthem on time. When we talk about quality, we want the floor surface to be high quality and also want to do it in a way that makes the customers feel the quality. Are we getting it there on time? Are we dealing with issues that may arise appropriately and with the right demeanor? That’s all part of making 2002 a great year.
One-on-One with Harris-Tarkett
Hardwood Floors spoke with Jim Morando, president of Johnson City, Tenn.-based Harris-Tarkett.
Q. Is the wood flooring industry in a recession?A. We had a record year last year. Our sales are up almost 20 percent. We understand that there is a definite recession out there, but I think by upgrading our product line and upgrading our distribution we were able to still produce double digit increases. We introduced our largest collection of new products in the history of the company in the fall of last year… We had more than 30 new items that represented incremental sales opportunities for our distributors, and they really embraced them. Although they got out into the marketplace very late in the third quarter, they helped us finish the year strong and overcome the Sept. 11 effect.
Q. How much did Sept. 11 really affect business?A. I definitely think that people were losing confidence before that happened, but it received so much press and play that it weakened confidence even further. For our business as a whole, the predominant end user of our product is the new home construction market, and those foundations were already poured by the time Sept. 11 came around. I would say maybe the smaller part of our end user market—the remodelers— said “Maybe I don’t need to remodel,” but the lion’s share of the market was already committed to wood flooring. I think that if the truth be known, it probably had a little bigger impact in January and February. Some people who were planning to go ahead and do some spec building or aggressively build out some new developments decided to take a littlemore low-key approach to the market. Everything we’re starting to see is January was soft, February a little better, and we think March is going to be strong.
Q. What are the product trends right now?A. We see a couple different trends. Exotics are definitely gaining strength, and distressed is gaining momentum. We see that the character species, whether cherry or hickory, is gaining popularity. People have been buying red oak for so long that they want something different. Finally, I think that people like the wider boards, though the 21⁄4 and 3 inch is still the lion’s share of the volume.
Q. Are there particular regions where certain trends are strongest?A. We see that obviously the distressed is strongest on the West Coast and the Southwest right now. Exotics seem to be a mainstream movement, and hickory has universal appeal. It used to be that something would start out on the West Coast or both coasts and migrate, but it seems like a lot of these products are getting play wherever they are.
Q. How does the influx of wood flooring manufacturers affect the industry?A. I think that there are an awful lot of people out there who are selling non-differentiated products; there are probably too many of those folks right now in the market. But I think the demand for wood flooring variety seems to be alive and well, and the people who can have a quality fashion floor offering like what Harris-Tarkett offers will always be able to justify their existence. I see a lot of these people coming in and coming in on 3⁄4-inch prefinished red oak. That’s a tough way tobreak into a marketplace that’s already saturated with that product.
Q. What has happened to prices?A. Our average unit selling price actually increased in 2001. I think there was an awful lot of discounting going on, but we were able to hold our prices because of our selection and quality, and actually increase prices.
Q. Do you see more consolidation coming ?A. I don’t know how much. A lot of these companies are privately run, and the fact that they are privately run says that a lot of them would probably prefer to stay that way. Consolidation is a general business trend across all industries, so I imagine there will be more consolidation as we go forward… I don’t know if there are a lot of good strategic synergies out there right now that people are taking a hard look at. What I see is people who are doing a good job are expanding theircapacities internally. We bought the Brookneal plant [from bankrupt Burruss Company] last year. There is some consolidation going on, but I’d say the pace of it isn’t going to gain a lot of momentum.
Q. What is the forecast for 2002?A. Shipments were basically flat last year if you listen to most people, but this year we think the industry should get back on track and have high single-digit increases. What we’re going to do is continue to upgrade distribution and continue to upgrade our product line and get into some additional market areas we’re not in today. We think we can grow our business in double-digit terms again this year, even if the market only experiences single-digit growth.
Preparing for the Future
Early this year, the National Wood Flooring Association in conjunction with the National Association of Floor Covering Distributors and Indian River Consulting Group released the first phase of their joint research project, “The Floor Covering Industry White Paper.” The research was gathered through member surveys and focus groups. Here are some of the highlights of the findings relevant to the wood flooring industry (members can access the White Paper in its entirety online at www.nwfa.org).
A Few Floor-Covering Facts• Strong market opportunities during the ’90s fueled growth in smaller distributors, particularly those that are specialty focused, such as wood and ceramic.• Hard-surface products have yet to be profitably moved directly from the manufacturer to the retailer/end user. Advances in logistical technology favor direct selling, this is challenged by costly realities such as small orders and job-site deliveries. In addition, the contractor/installer market is comfortable buying from wholesale distribution.• The proliferation of new products and manufacturers has fostered the establishment of new, smaller distributors.• Both Lowe’s and Home Depot are developing programs that appeal to small contractors. They have been unsuccessful in the past, but it is too early to tell whether these new programs will be successful.• NWFA’s most recent profit report indicates that the average NWFA distributor has seen a decline in average gross margin from 22 percent in 1995 to 19.8 percent today.• It is estimated that less than 35 percent of the world’s floor covering manufacturing capacity is in the United States. Lower manufacturing costs and dramatically improved quality have made foreign-made products viable. Imports accounted for approximately 17 percent of the total U.S. market in 2000, up from 13 percent in 1997.• With a few top manufacturers driving the business, it is increasingly important that distributors choose the right manufacturer partner.
Looking Ahead• In 2005, floor covering sales will exceed $24 billion (in wholesale dollars). For the year 2000, wood flooring was estimated to be about $1.7 billion, or 8 percent of the market. The White Paper projections are that in 2005, wood flooring will reach $2.3 billion, or 10 percent of the market. The remaining market shares will be 60 percent carpeting, 14 percent ceramic, 8 percent resilient, 4 percent rubber and 4 percent laminate.• Manufacturing consolidation will continue and will be fueled by the emergence of low-cost producers in every category.• Distributors’ sales will increase 13 percent over the next five years, however, distributors will lose overall market share. Over the next five years, the distributor ranks will thin with an estimated 20 percent reduction in the number of independent distributor companies. The market will include the big and efficient, such as Armstrong’s approximately dozen distributors, and smaller players with less than $25 million in annual sales. Smaller players may have a single focus, such as wood. Middle-sized distributors will struggle.• Distributors will rely more on products and services other than flooring. For example, many wood flooring distributors generate approximately 20 percent of sales from installation and accessory products. New and expanded services, such as design, installation and training, will prove to be a boost to profitability.• Alliances between top builders and large manufacturers will shift power away from distributors and retailers, with distributors providing local servicing at a predetermined, lower margin.• The role of the installer will continue to be vital, with no major change anticipated in the percentage of product going DIY. Distributors that maintain and cultivate relationships with installers will achieve advantages and alternate sales channels that will produce increasing sales and margins. Wood-Specific Issues• The green movement will take a sizeable hold of the market as certification becomes a reality for portions of the wood flooring industry. The growth of wood flooring will begin to slow as these additional costs make wood flooring more expensive.• If just 3 percent of the wood flooring is refinished every year,the value of abrasives, finish and accessory items is about $100 million wholesale.• Wood flooring is shifting toward a larger, broader distributor. In 1996, wood distributors controlled about 60 percent of the wood flooring sold through distribution. This dropped to 52 percent in 2000. This trend will continue.• Wood flooring distributors benefit from floor covering distributors’ lack of contractor understanding. Many floor covering distributors consider contractors competition to their main customer—the retail floor covering store. Floor covering distributors may acquire wood flooring distributors to gain thecustomer base.• Solid wood flooring sales growth since 1996 has been 41 percent, slightly outpacing engineered growth of 38 percent. The wholesale price of engineered products has increased during that time, while solid flooring is roughly the same price • The typical NWFA wood-only distributor still has a product line that is predominantly unfinished (unfinished flooring: 59.4 percent, prefinished flooring: 18.1 percent, accessory products: 22.5 percent), due to contractor preferences. As contractors recognize prefinished flooring’s benefits of profitability and warranty responsibility, full-line distributors will benefit.
AdvanTech® Panels Integral Part of Floating Floor Systems in High-Rise Residential Projects For more information on AdvanTech panels visit http://www.AdvanTechPerforms.com or call 800.933.9220 For over 50 years, Janos Spitzer has been renowned in the New York tri-state area for the finest custom hardwood flooring. He invests the time to understand each project’s unique needs, evaluating everything from flooring system construction and material characteristics to pattern design and color palette. Spitzer is currently advising clients on several high-rise residential projects in New York City, and he has turned to AdvanTech® panels to complete subfloor assemblies built with an ear on sound – or a lack thereof. “In residential projects in New York City, there’s a demand for limiting sound transmission, so we need a subfloor assembly which is sound attenuated,” said Spitzer, the owner and founder of Janos P. Spitzer Flooring Company Inc. “This is achieved by having the subfloor assembly independently floating over the concrete slab without any mechanical connection. “The assembly consists of two layers of 4′ x 8′ panels and an acoustical barrier,” Spitzer continued. “The system’s performance depends on its dimensional stability and, in this respect, AdvanTech panels outperform plywood that was traditionally used in the past. Unlike plywood, AdvanTech panels do not need the weight of the finish flooring to stabilize the assembly, since it is heavier than plywood, stays flat and is moisture resistant.” Due to these characteristics, Spitzer said, builders can install the subfloor system throughout the project far ahead of the finish floor installation. As a result, finish flooring can be installed when all other trades completed their work, which greatly limits potential damage to finish flooring. “The use of AdvanTech panels instead of plywood in the installation of sound attenuated wood flooring system gives us a great advantage in achieving superior quality and stability,” Spitzer said. ▪ CASE STUDY © 2015 Huber Engineered Woods LLC. AdvanTech, and the accompanying AdvanTech logo and design are trademarks of Huber Engineered Woods LLC.