Bob Wagner behind his desk at Fishman Flooring Solutions. Photos courtesy of Fishman Flooring Solutions.

Fishman Flooring Solutions recently announced that its employees had purchased 100 percent of the firm’s stock, giving them ownership of a distribution business with 26 branches serving customers in 12 states and the District of Columbia. Orchestrating the transaction was the company’s president, Bob Wagner.FCIspoke with Wagner about the direction of the company and trends in the installation industry.

How would you describe the state of the flooring installation industry?

The flooring installation industry today is good and getting better, and there are opportunities to make it even stronger if we all work together. We have an opportunity to bring a new generation of installers on board with so many people looking for work in the United States.

I recognize that many younger people in today’s job market are less interested in physical labor, but there are plenty who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. As an industry, we need to get traction with them by promoting flooring installation as a great trade, where they can make a decent living. If we don’t, we’ll continue to lose them to other industries.

We also have the opportunity to improve the level of training in the installation community. Organizations like CFI do a wonderful job with training and certification, and our company and others emphasize training, but more is needed. Installers are getting lost in new technologies and things are moving so fast that it’s hard for them to keep up to date without more and better training.

What are the challenges you face in running your company in a difficult economy? How do you overcome them?

The first step is to understand that the keys to addressing the obstacles of a slow-growth economy are to work smarter and harder. Thankfully, I’m surrounded by talented and hard-working people who share in the success of our business because we now own the company. One of our biggest challenges is keeping our name and the names of our supplier partners in front of flooring contractors and the architecture and design communities. We work very hard to do this with a sales force of more than 20 people.

What is your strategy for growing your business in a difficult economic climate?

Our strategy is pretty straightforward. Simply put, we refuse to participate in the economic downturn and we remind ourselves of that every day. We realize we can’t control the size of the flooring installation market. What we can control is our share of that market. How? By continuously improving how we serve and delight our customers. …And our customer-centric strategy works. We’ve grown every year through the downturn. If it works for us, it can work for flooring installers and others, too.

We’ve also been able to grow our business by acquiring companies that we can make better as part of our organization. I’m always interested in talking with owners of businesses who can see value in joining our team and finding new ways to do business.

How would you characterize the level of new product development in the flooring installation business?

The issue isn’t whether flooring installers have access to new products. There are always new products being developed. What’s far more important is the development of products that specifically address the emerging needs of our customers.

One area where there has been impressive new product development over the past 12 months is moisture mitigation. Moisture on slabs creates very significant problems, so finding ways to prevent it from attacking adhesives is very important. Our supplier partners are doing a very good job in developing solutions to this problem.

On the other hand, I don’t find ‘me too’ products very exciting. When a number of new products address a single problem, it creates confusion among installers. The supermarket mentality simply doesn’t work when we have so little time to educate our customers and we can’t waste that valuable time promoting overlapping products.

In May, employees purchased 100 percent of the company’s stock, giving them direct ownership of the business.

Are flooring installers taking advantage of technology advances to improve their businesses?

I believe the best flooring installers want to be more efficient and effective. But learning about and taking advantage of new technology advances takes time, and that is something many flooring installers just don’t have. Their focus is always on solving today’s on-the-job problem and not frequently enough on looking at strengthening their business for the long term. Our company can hold an educational clinic that may be of interest to hundreds of our customers, and yet only 20 or 30 will participate. It’s not that the others don’t want to learn; it’s just that they can’t be in two places at the same time.

What separates the best installers from the rest of the pack is the discipline to keep a balance between their day-to-day focus on the job site and improving their knowledge base to strengthen their business for the long haul. When they accomplish this balance, one thing leads to another. The more efficient and effective their operations are, the more time they have to focus on day-to-day job site issues and growing their business.

Do you think the business management skills of flooring installers have kept pace with their technical skills?

No, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to close the gap. I’d be happy to sit down with any of our customers who ask for help in managing their businesses. I’m also working with the University of Pennsylvania and the leaders of several flooring trade associations to develop an online business management program for small business owners across the flooring industry. The courses will be taught by faculty from Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences and the Wharton School, which is one of the best business schools in the world. This is very exciting and we’ll be announcing details soon.

Do you see a need for greater cooperation among the flooring trade associations?

Last year, I was president of the North American Association of Floor Covering Distributors. My main focus was on finding ways for the various flooring trade associations, like CFI, NAFCD, FIANA, NWFA, and others, to work more closely with each other because fragmentation and lack of unity undermine the strength of the entire industry.

Education is critical to the success of our industry, and trade associations are vehicles for creating and offering educational opportunities that will strengthen every aspect of it. I absolutely believe that a rising tide lifts all ships. I’m not worried about my competitors. If they get stronger and more proficient at running their businesses, they’ll push Fishman Flooring Solutions to be stronger and more proficient, too.

What do you see for the flooring industry, looking ahead?

I’m very optimistic. We’re starting to see signs of slow, but predictable, improvement in the economy and that’s good for everyone.

A fact of life over the next three to five years will be consolidation in the distribution and supplier segments. As I said earlier, I’m always looking for merger and acquisition opportunities and others are doing the same thing. As a result, there will be fewer players. But they will be more powerful players who can commit time, energy and resources to develop new and better products and educate the installers about them. That will have a very positive impact on the flooring installation industry.

Bob Wagner’s installation experience dates back to the mid-1970s, when he was trained as a floor covering installer while in high school and worked in his family’s flooring installation supply business. He has been employed continuously in the industry since graduating in 1979 from Drexel University, where he majored in management and marketing, with a minor in psychology. He joined Fishman Flooring Solutions in 1997 and was named president of the company in October 2003. He is the immediate past president of the North American Association of Floor Covering Distributors.