Shaw Industries president Randy Merritt retired at the end of the year after nearly 42 years of service. When he stepped down in December, he left a role that established him as a celebrity in his own right (not that he would admit that) and a friend to many.
“I was telling a customer yesterday that I feel very confident that anywhere I go in the United States, in any city in the country, there is somebody I could call if I needed help and they would help,” Merritt said. “That’s a pretty good feeling.”
Shaw today is a full-service flooring company with more than $4 billion in annual sales and approximately 25,000 employees. The employees’ daily efforts illustrate their commitment and their determination to stay on top in an ever-changing and highly competitive marketplace. Going forward, their commitment will come under the guidance of Vance Bell as CEO.
“No one has been more dedicated to Shaw, our people, our customers, and our community than Randy Merritt,” said Bell. “He developed strong and personal relationships with hundreds of Shaw customers, our sales organization, and the Dalton community. With his relationships, contacts and presence in the marketplace, Randy has become one of the most admired people in our Industry. Randy and I have been partners for 41 years. He has been a valued advisor and a great friend, and I will miss him greatly.”
Merritt turns 65 this year, a birthday that many people anticipate as the marker for retirement. “I don’t know that anyone knows if it’s really the right time, but I’ve seen folks stay too long,” he said. “The future is what’s most important, and there are people coming along deserving a chance to make their mark and have their responsibility and worked hard to get here. The longer you stay, the less chance they have.”
Optimism and hope, which Merritt says many confuse, define his outlook for the employees who will lead Shaw into the future. “I really think for the industry and for Shaw, the next couple of years are going to be really good years,” he said. “Obviously, LVT has enjoyed tremendous growth and innovation and is doing better than other parts of the hard surface business, but I think for every segment in every opportunity when the economy is good, if you’re adding up pluses and minuses there are a lot more pluses than minuses.”
Merritt pointed out that when Warren Buffet acquired Shaw in 2001, he said that every building—be it a home, a hospital or a hotel—has a floor, and that bodes well for people in the flooring business.
“The challenge is how do we get people to want to change their floors, to remodel their homes, to make them more comfortable, to make them more beautiful, to make them safer, to make them cleaner?” Merritt asked. “How do we continue to make product that is forward looking in style and design that drives consumers and end users to upgrade and change what they have on the floor?”
One doesn’t have to look further than LVT to see how innovation happens. “Turn the clock back 10 or 15 years and the vinyl industry was not headed in a good direction,” Merritt noted. “Sheet vinyl was losing share to hardwood, to ceramic tile and to laminate. Look at the innovation we’ve seen in the vinyl business over the past 10 years and the evolution, which is continuing to happen today. What you will see in in 2018 in the category called LVT is going to be incredible. It’s those things that keep the flooring industry an exciting and viable industry for us all.”
What is also keeping the industry viable are the young people who want to get into flooring. Merritt, who has spent a lot of time speaking with up-and-coming talent, said young professionals should look for opportunities to work for companies that are focused on growth. “When you go through a recessionary period, which our industry went through in late ’06 through probably 2009, that’s a difficult time,” he said. “The industry and the economy was shrinking and you’re not as focused on creating new opportunities as you are getting through that period of time.”
His advice is simple: “It starts with the golden rule: treat people the way you like to be treated, and there’s no substitution for hard work. If you don’t improve your skills, you won’t reach your full potential.”
That hard work can turn into a long career. Walk through a Shaw plant and you will see employees who may have held their position for 20, 30 or 40 years. “Why do people stay as long as they do?” Merritt asked. “It takes two important ingredients: it takes a company who treats people fairly, who values the individual, but it also takes the right kind of person to understand that every day is not perfect, understands the definition of the word loyalty.”
Of course, like any industry, flooring has its challenges, such as labor. “As manufacturers, we are working to find products that are easier to install, that are faster to install, and our customers are working hard to find avenues to recruit and attract younger people into the labor force, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done there,” Merritt said. “As a manufacturer, retailer or flooring contractor, your worst nightmare is that your sales and your ability to generate revenue will be limited by your ability to install.”
There’s no simple answer, but Merritt said he sees labor issues as a mostly local issue: “You have to find labor in the local market. It’s different in Dallas, Texas, than it is in New Jersey or Oregon—different challenges in recruiting labor and the pool of people to recruit.”
He suggests that manufacturers can help provide training curriculums, tools and materials, but leaders in local markets need to find a place to hold the training and get the recruits: “You have to go out and have the willingness to do it.”
Merritt’s next step is doing retirement, heading first to Portland, Ore., with his wife Sharon for the birth of twin grandsons and then to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where the couple has two granddaughters and a third on the way.
“We’ve had three incredible children who have their own families now and I am proud and blessed by them and the fact that I am able to make a career and a home and help in some way to help Shaw Industries grow for almost 42 years,” Merritt said. “Those are the things I’m most proud of. In the world today, it takes a team. Whether it’s a family or building a successful business, it takes a village to get it done.”