Growing a Business By Never Saying No to the Customer
I was born and raised in the flooring business. My father, W. Cecil Carpenter, started the business in 1968 as a wholesale flooring distributor. He sold rolls of carpet in Virginia, North and South Carolina. In 1973, he bought a piece of property in Virginia Beach, Va., and built a 30,000-sq.-ft. building, which is where we still operate the company from today.
In the mid to late 70s, more carpet manufacturers began opening, which caused our distribution business to decline as they were selling directly to our retail customers. The roots of our adaptability began here. Our distributor days were coming to an end and my father knew he had to change to survive. He leased the excess space in our warehouse to a carpet installation firm and changed the focus from distributing carpet to selling directly to residential builders, hotels, restaurants and small businesses.
Growing up, my sisters and I would often work with our father in the family business. We would sort incoming samples and visit job sites where my father taught us all about carpet and how to measure. My father taught me many things. The one that stuck with me above all else was “always take care of your customer.” This statement has always stayed with me and is a driving force for how I operate the business today.
A Difficult Time
After college, my sister, Jane Rinaca, and I began working full time with our father. In 1989, my father made me president of the company. He began taking more time off and spending the winter months in Florida.
There were many things that tested us around this time: the installation company which we had partnered with began to compete with us by selling their own carpet, the small independent hotels in our area were being replaced by larger chain hotels and the hospitality business slowly began slowing down for us. The residential builders we sold carpet to begun to use more wood, which also caused our builder business to decline.
In January of 1991, my Dad passed, and shortly thereafter, we unexpectedly lost our largest account. At the time, this account was 10% of our book of business. On top of all that, we were left out of the Yellow Pages, which was the best way to advertise back then. Everyone thought we had either closed or gone out of business.
To make things worse, the country was in a recession. We questioned how we would make it. We thought about our father and how years ago he had been tested and how he overcame the obstacles.
We remembered how he had to change and adapt to survive. We focused on expanding into the wood business, and hiring installers to install what we sold to our customers. With all the setbacks and obstacles, we knew we had to push hard to get our name out there to keep business going. We decided to get hundreds of Rolodex cards printed, and we went to every business, builder, architect and design firm in our area and left the cards on their Rolodexes. This worked!
As the economy started improving, the phones started ringing. The people who called mentioned our Rolodex card and it was such a great feeling knowing that the efforts we made during our darkest hours were paying off.
Starnet: An Invaluable Relationship
In 2008, W.C. Carpenter joined Starnet Commercial Flooring, a cooperative of commercial flooring contractors. This decision has really paid off for our business.
Through Starnet, we have gained training, shared best practices and most importantly have acquired tremendous inspiration. After every meeting we feel re-energized. We are in a smaller market but we never feel alone. Being a member of Starnet, we can always find an answer to any question or situation that may come up. We also have incredible relationships with the manufactures, such as Mannington, Tandus, J&J and Milliken, and enjoy the friendships that we have made with other members.
W.C. Carpenter Today
We are thrilled to be celebrating our 50th anniversary in 2018. I attribute our success to many things. These include our ability to adapt to our customers’ needs, excellent customer service, integrity and the relationships we have developed and continue to develop and grow.
In February of 2016, we made the decision that we would no longer bid work to the general contractors. The low margins, retainers and the billing process was not worth it to us financially. Since making this decision, we have had record sales increases along with higher profit margins. We have been able to focus on our end user customers, and this has also given us time to go and find new business.
Our customer requests drive our business. When our customers ask for support with office furniture, wall carpet, upholstery or paint, we always find a way to meet their needs. We want to be their go-to resource for floors and much more. We can do this because of our strong relationships with our installers, suppliers, contacts and our employees. We will do what it takes to get the job done and make things easy for our customers.
Other factors contributing to our success include our involvement in the community. We have strongly supported the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), and we continue to stay involved in fundraising efforts every year. JDRF’s mission is to cure Type 1 Diabetes. Along with our involvement with JDRF, we are also a member of the Chamber of Commerce, and we are very active in local functions in the community.
Still a Family Business
Both of my sisters have retired; however, my son, Cecil, recently joined the company as an account manager. My niece, Kate, also works for the company as an estimator. All our employees are like family. Our operations manager, Lisa Doyle, has strengthened our relationships with our customers as well as our reps. Our business developer, Nareina Keznor, has a background in design, which proves to be a tremendous asset to our customers and our business. And what team would be complete without a project manager? Scott Sutherland has been with us for 20 years. He has seen the ups and downs and has pulled us through some very tight deadlines.
Employees are the key to any good business and without them, we would not be successful. I am very thankful that we have such a great team in place and it is exciting to see what the future will bring.