Contractor's Corner: E.E. Wilson Flooring Pieces Together Success
In 2013, my wife, Jennifer, and I were living in San Antonio, Texas, when we made a bold decision. Following successful individual careers and now blending our two families into one, we wanted to work together and build a business. We felt that our skills were complementary and we wanted to share a singular business focus to pave our futures.
Finding a New Future
To begin the process, we hired a business broker and asked him to concentrate on two geographic regions within the United States: the Northwest and the Carolinas. As for the type of business? We had no clue and we were open to anything. Our goal was to find a business which would capitalize on our strengths, give us the opportunity to learn a new industry and enjoy the gratification of growing a business.
Meanwhile, in the southern village of Lexington, N.C., a commercial flooring company called E.E. Wilson Floor Covering was also facing a transition. Efird Wilson, the second-generation owner of this business which purchased and installed flooring into commercial facilities, was contemplating selling E.E. Wilson Floor Covering in order to enjoy a happy retirement and relieve his family of worrying about the business going forward. Efird’s primary concern was to find a new owner who would love the business as he did and who would provide stability and long-term employment to his team of employees, many of whom had worked for him for many years. He also contacted a business broker and, eventually, our two brokers connected the dots between E.E. Wilson and us.
In May 2014, Jen and I met Efird for the first time and we knew immediately that his business was a perfect fit for us. First, we were excited to live in North Carolina, a beautiful state offering a lush green environment, lots of lakes and streams and the four seasons that we missed in Texas. We knew our new family would thrive there.
Also, we loved the potential we saw in E.E. Wilson Floor Covering. The company was a great size for us and it had an excellent reputation in the local market. Founded in 1954 by Efird’s father, Efird Wilson, Sr., the business offered a full-service flooring operation that managed all types of flooring products including carpet, vinyl and wood. Initially, the business had a residential focus; however, Efird, Jr., shifted the business towards the commercial market when he assumed control over 40 years ago. By the time Jen and I began to assess the business, it was 94% commercial and the remaining residential work was limited to friends and good customers. Overall, the business was healthy, just emerging from the difficult recessionary years (2008-2012) and starting to grow again. Efird purposely kept the business restricted to a small market area and he focused on his existing customer base, leveraging the excellent reputation his business enjoyed in that market. His approach kept the business small but healthy.
For Jen and me, this situation was ideal. Our goal was to find a business which was well positioned in the market and which was healthy overall. We were excited by the prospect of growing a business beyond its current scope and we were intrigued by the floor covering industry.
Tackling a New Industry
Looking back, the first year was very challenging. On the “plus” side, the E.E. Wilson team was very experienced and committed to the company. Also, Efird remained with the company for the first three months and his coaching was invaluable.
However, the E.E. Wilson team functioned with limited work processes. Estimates were still faxed into the company, for example; and, while the employees were talented and they did their jobs well, they were used to working in a low-tech fashion. As a result, the work was more laborious and time-consuming than it needed to be.
As you would expect, Jen and I brought change into the company and the adjustment to this change was not easy. Fortunately with one exception, all of the employees stayed with us throughout the transition. We formalized their employment policies and improved their compensation and benefits. I believe our employees knew how valued they were and that our efforts would only improve the company in the long run.
Meanwhile, Jen and I were learning on the job—literally. We knew that we brought a range of skills to the business, but every day we tackled new issues which challenged our experience base. We were aware that our efforts were overlapping at times, but we were in an “all hands on deck” mode with the business. We focused on the immediate problem at hand. Fortunately, we remained very excited about the challenge, going into work every day with enthusiasm and energy. And, every night, we went home exhausted!
Identifying Growth Opportunities
After the first early months in the business, Jen and I recognized several areas which offered growth opportunities for E.E. Wilson. First, the product base of the company was hard surface products and the carpet side of the business was underdeveloped. We recognized that we could secure new customers and develop new market segments with a focus on carpet. We have worked with the strong general contractors in our market to broaden our reach into the corporate, education and healthcare segments and we are seeing success in this area.
Secondly, in assessing our internal staff, we recognized that we needed to strengthen our infrastructure to support our growth. A major log jam area was estimating, and we coached our office manager, Tonia Pennington, to try moving into that role. Tonia worked for E.E. Wilson for 25 years and she was an excellent employee. However, we knew she had the ability to step into estimating. Today, after several months of training, Tonia is doing a terrific job and her contributions are truly supporting our growth. At the same time, she is developing her own career which is very gratifying for us.
Also, it became clear to us that we needed an additional project manager (bringing the total to three) and we were fortunate to identify an individual with extensive flooring experience. His skills are exactly what we needed for our company as he understands flooring and is a well-trained manager with growable skills. Already, we are seeing the impact of this addition.
Finding good installers is a high priority, but we have been fortunate in this area. First, we pay above the market rates and we stand by our commitments to the installation professionals. When a new installer contacts us, we start them on a small project, allowing us to assess their capability. Once each installer is proven, we are able to broaden their work scope.
Finally, we have been incredibly fortunate to become members of Starnet Commercial Flooring. Once our membership transfer was approved by the Starnet Board of Directors, we have tapped into every possible member benefit available from outstanding membership meetings, strong training in various aspects of business and tremendous networking opportunities with industry leaders. Our fellow Starnet members are always there to help us and we have been impressed that we can ask any question, no matter how naïve and we receive back consistent support. Starnet is a collective voice in the industry and our association with them has given us incredible confidence to move forward. Regardless of the size of the business, every Starnet member is brought forward by this group.
Poised for a Strong Future
Over the past six months, Jen and I feel that everything with our business is coming together. We are secure in our roles at the company and we each oversee our own turf. Jen runs the front end of the business including developing the work processes of the company, managing the operations and reviewing all work plans and bids. I work in the back end with a focus on the financials and contracts. We work together to be the face of the company, but our duplication of effort is minimal.
Of course, we have very clear plans for the future. We want to increase our capability in creating and driving specifications on projects, an area where we are seeing success already. We are exploring new customers who provide the potential for growth and who can bring us into new market segments. Finally, we are looking at business expansion areas such as floor care, large-format tile and demolition.
Throughout, our highest priority remains customer service and creating an excellent working environment for our employees. Jen and I recognize that our greatest achievement will come from developing a team at E.E. Wilson who is equally committed to our mutual success. We are striving to manage sustainable growth and have business objectives driven by goals.
Three years ago, Jen and I shared a dream. We were fortunate to find a great business and an outstanding team of employees to help us achieve that dream. Despite a tremendous amount of work and a very steep learning curve, we are very pleased with the progress we have made. Together, we are confident that our future plans are bright.