Paul Johnson worked hard to grow his business. In the 20 years since he took over the Carpet One Floor & Home in Tulsa, Okla., he has built the company into a local powerhouse with six locations, raised a family, and become an integral part of his community. He is the American Dream.
Throughout the years, Paul devoted a huge part of his life to building this company from one store and a warehouse outlet into what it is today, said his son Palmer Johnson, director of merchandising, who together with his twin sister, Christina Smith, director of outside sales, is being groomed to lead one of the area’s largest independent flooring companies.
As Paul Johnson approaches the time when he will be eligible for senior discounts at the local pharmacy, he is still attentive to the finer details that have kept his company at the top of its game. It is why he has begun succession planning now to ensure a smooth transition for his company and customers when he decides to step back a little.
“I think what he wants to do as he exits the business over the next eight to 10 years is be more removed from the day to day where he is currently addressing things in a very hands-on way,” said Palmer. “Christina and I will continue to take on more and more responsibilities as we take the opportunity to increase our equity in the business.”
For Christina, that means running the outside sales department, which serves the company’s builder clients. The family said the builder business segment is like running another store. For Palmer Johnson, it means handling the retail side of the business. All told, the combined businesses see annual revenues well into eight figures.
“Our intention and goal is to have equal ownership in the business,” Palmer said. “We each have different strengths and it makes it easier for us to focus on the parts of the business in which we’ll take an active role.”
It was a major paradigm shift for the young entrepreneur to follow in his father’s footsteps. After finishing law school and working with a large local firm for four years, Paul convinced his son of the value of having more autonomy with his day-to-day activities. Although he had played a variety of roles in the company growing up and before graduating law school, Palmer realized, “It’s almost easier to work harder when it is completely for you.”
“While you have all the stress that goes along with knowing you have all these people relying on you for their livelihood, you also get the benefits when the business does well,” Palmer said. “I saw an opportunity to continue to grow the business, as well as the quality of life considerations. The whole idea of being an entrepreneur is still appealing to me.”
A key element to the succession plan is Carpet One’s NEX<40 initiative, Palmer said.
Aimed at the cooperative’s millennial and under-40 managers and owners across the chain, “Our goal is that this group will continue to grow and engage with each other to share ideas and best practices,” said Frank Santaniello, senior director of member services and operations for Carpet One Floor & Home. “We will provide them opportunities to meet and network.”
“Carpet One developed the program because of the current demographics of Carpet One owners,” Palmer said. “The average age has increased. A lot of people can find themselves surprised when their companies can be difficult to sell and they haven’t done anything to cultivate their succession.”
“I believe there is a general sense the cooperative as a whole needs to make sure it is inclusive of the younger people who are likely to be important stakeholders in the future; to make sure the overall direction of the cooperative is inclusive about what needs to be done to move forward, and to make sure independent retailers remain important in the market for floor covering,” he said.
In preparation for the future, Palmer notes his father has been “very disciplined in allowing us the opportunity to make decisions.” “Christina and I each have different strengths and [our father has] been very careful to make sure we have the autonomy to run the different areas for which we are responsible,” he said. “It makes it easier for us to do what we’re good at and focus on the parts of the business where we will take a more active role.”
As such, Christina’s segment is comprised of eight people: six in sales, including their mother, Ronda, and two people for support, while Johnson is focused on merchandising, pricing, and analyzing and placing products for the sub markets serviced by the firm’s six locations in Oklahoma and in Joplin, Mo.
“I’m involved in a little bit of everything and it seems like I do something different every day,” he said. “Just yesterday, we went through each store looking at personnel and looking at needs for hiring. A lot of the things I deal with are at a high-level overview. And, of course, I take care of any legal matters when they do arise, not that it happens very often.”
Johnson notes one of the best learning opportunities he has had to date was when setting up the showroom in Joplin.
“I learned a lot from managing that,” he said. “It starkly contrasted with what I did in the law firm where you worked with another attorney or skilled assistant and did not need to follow up as much. When managing all levels of employees you have to figure out how to manage people and accomplish goals. I am continually amazed with how crystal clear I think a decision to be made is, without guidance a lot of people don’t make what I think is the common sense decision.”
To remove barriers between departments, Johnson notes regular product training sessions “give everyone from sales to office to warehouse a chance to interact. It is an opportunity to share ideas and best practices, and what is successful in their stores. Regular management meetings also keeps communications open and provides additional opportunities to interact.”
Communications and planning are also important with the communities served by the company. Johnson notes the business’ marketing strategy is set a year in advance with a multimedia approach. In addition to print and television ads, the company has refocused its energies on internet marketing.
“My father is very results driven and at different times [in the past] invested money in internet programs and was discouraged,” he remembered. “I pushed him to try again with a concentrated campaign using Facebook, search engine optimization and all that, and we were very pleasantly surprised by the results. It was reaffirming. The more directed and targeted something can be the more effective it is. For now, TV by far still seems to be the big winner for us.”
A less invasive approach to being remembered is also utilized with community involvement. However Johnson notes the principals’ charitable activities are mostly done independent of the company.
“Everybody in the family is involved in our own charitable pursuits, with some done in the business name and some personally,” Palmer said. “We believe being active in your community is important. Be out there, do things and be involved in whatever it is you are passionate about.”
He emphasizes the volunteerism needs to be for its own sake, not as a marketing endeavor. While some business has come from his family and company’s charitable activities it has never been the goal of those activities.
Looking forward to when he and Smith take the reins, Johnson said he doesn’t see significant changes in the overall direction of the business. “We will continue to adapt to changing consumer trends and look for ways to differentiate ourselves, but my father has been a strong leader in our company and through his vision we have experienced continued growth,” he said. “I think [our father] will always be around in at least an advisory position as long as he is healthy and able. He would be bored if he completely retired.”