At Vortex Commercial Flooring, it is all about relationships: relationships with our customers, our designers, our suppliers and our employees. This philosophy has been the foundation of the growth and success of our company. In fact, the mutual respect between my original partner, Del Church, and me was the start of our company. We both worked in the commercial flooring industry in Chicago and Del had a strong reputation as an excellent sales person with the most integrity of any individual in our market.
Del and I have similar backgrounds in that we both grew up on a farm and we shared a desire to run our own company. For me, this opportunity fulfilled a life-long dream which started when I watched my own father, who was both a farmer and a roofing contractor. I admired his independence and his ability to call the shots in his businesses. As I grew up, I wanted a career just like my father’s career.
With this goal in mind, both Del and I joined Vortex Commercial Flooring in the mid-90s. At that time, Vortex was primarily a workroom performing labor-only projects and generating $5 million in revenue annually. It was owned by a husband and wife team who knew installation techniques very well but lacked product knowledge with the complexity of new manufacturing technologies that were coming into the market.
From the start, Del and I knew that future growth depended on expanding into product sales, so we quickly recruited top talent from a local competitor. Along with those future partners, Bob Patrey and Ken Smith, we became the sales engine of the company. Our goal was to drive the company towards a full-service model. In 1999, Del, Bob, Ken and I purchased the company from the original owners. At that time, Vortex had grown to more than $10 million in revenue as a result of our new vision of product specification-driven sales.
A Vision for Growth and Leadership
In the very early years, Del and I agreed on a leadership philosophy. We had observed many successful companies that went into a downturn when the next generation, typically the son or daughter of the founders, took over the business. We decided to take a different route for our company. Our goal was to develop top employees into owners over time to increase the shareholders of our company and ensure future leadership. Not only would this model broaden the ownership and revenue source of our company, but also it is a mechanism to identify and reward outstanding and contributing employees. Further, we carved out stock for all employees to share in our success by committing to a partial Employee Stock Ownership Plan.
We continue to recruit and hire younger people who have the energy to grow Vortex and to increase our share in the market. Consistent with our original goal, we hope to leave the business to this next generation when the time comes.
Vortex Organization Today
In total, we have 50 internal (non-installation) employees in the Vortex organization. Also, we have five partners. Besides Del, Bob, Ken and me, we promoted Kristy Burlingame to partner and shareholder status in 2016. Kristy joined Vortex in 1997 and she has followed the steps necessary to work her way up to ownership in the company. Like the other partners, she has built her own clientele and she directs the work to her own project management team within Vortex. We were proud to offer a partnership and shares in Vortex to Kristy, as she earned the title of managing director of our Chicago showroom.
Each partner heads up a team of salespeople and project managers who are knowledgeable and dedicated to the success of their projects. I handle the overall company financial and marketing planning and Del runs the operations side of our business. We have centralized teams for accounting and estimating, populated with a pool of individuals who are highly skilled in these areas. As a team, we believe in our ability to drive market share to Vortex by creating specs and becoming an extension of the sales operations of our suppliers.
Vortex is a union shop and, year-round, we maintain 60 to 70 core installers who are employees of Vortex. Vortex is one of a handful of companies who have premier status with the INSTALL Warranty Contractor Program, the union training initiative. As a result, we have an excellent working relationship with the union and its training people. We depend on the union to assist in training outstanding installers to support our customers, and to that end, we offer superior warranties that our competition cannot.
During the peak summer months, we increase our installation team to well over 100 installers. We rely on the union for assistance in supplying workers and this is a point of stress for us each year. The union offers excellent training for these additional installers, as well as training for our union subcontractors, but we far prefer having our own employees on the job as we know their work and trust their craftsmanship. We have excellent field management, of course, and that is a significant advantage when managing new installers working under time constraints.
Growing Our Segments through Strong Customer Relationships
In the beginning, the segment focus of Vortex was education (primarily K-12), corporate and healthcare. For many years, the product of choice in the education segment has been Powerbond from Tandus (a Starnet Preferred Vendor Partner) and we leveraged that product into the other two segments. As time went on, we realized that continued growth came from calling on the end users in our market and specifying product. While working with other Starnet vendors like Milliken, Mannington and J&J, we developed additional product programs and different strategies for market segments. On the corporate side, we connect with real estate brokers along with construction managers and designers. In healthcare, we work with facility managers and hospital administration. And in education, we focus on the building facility engineers and school administrators.
Our goal at the beginning of the project development process is to first understand the needs of the space, and our client’s use of it. The Vortex team goes it alone with our customers in order to maintain a neutral and unbiased position. Our next step is to align the client’s needs with the proper key supplier to develop the project and secure the specification with one of our partner vendors. It is critical to be certain that the product we choose fits the project perfectly, from performance, quality, design aesthetic, and, of course, pricing.
Starnet: A Plus for the Business
Vortex joined Starnet Worldwide Commercial Flooring in 2005 as part of the DuPont Flooring Systems group (called the Invironmentalists.) I was active in the DuPont group and I saw Starnet as an excellent fit for our company. As I learned more about Starnet, I realized that the members were smart and effective business people. They have passion for the industry and I knew that we could learn a great deal by associating with them.
For Vortex, the benefits of Starnet membership have been beyond expectations. Most importantly, we enjoy the exchange of industry knowledge and the best practice sharing which strengthens our capabilities as a company. We depend on the range of training programs offered by Starnet (e.g. specifier training, product webinars hosted by our Preferred Vendor Partners, financial seminars) and this training has provided valuable support to our employees when they ask, “How do I do this?” As a smaller company, Starnet fills in the training void that is beyond our scope.
Challenges of the Future
While Vortex is doing well and enjoying an incredible year in 2017, there are several challenges facing our industry, which inevitably will impact our company. Most specifically, we are concerned about the future installation labor pool and our ability to attract young people who are interested in our business. We are competing with technology, phone app development and other distractions which seem more exciting and appealing to young people than flooring installation. However, we offer a stable and lucrative career to the right individuals who are willing to work hard and commit to our industry. We are partnering with the union to help attract these individuals, but the pace is slower than we expected.
The second major threat is direct selling by flooring manufacturers transacting business with end users or facility managers. This activity turns our manufacturing suppliers and partners into competitors, and this is a huge problem for Vortex, and other similar companies. Flooring contractors like us offer expertise that manufacturers simply cannot, as they sell only their line of products, while we offer everything the flooring industry has available. We are resources to our end user community and the service we provide is very important for an outstanding result.
The partners of Vortex Commercial Flooring believe in enduring business relationships and we work every day to strengthen our connection with our customers, our vendor partners and our fellow employees. We are growing our business and believe that our strategy is correct for us. The future is bright!