The flooring contractor’s role in the construction chain has become more important than ever before, and Fuse Alliance is helping its members prepare for their ever-increasing responsibility.

“We feel this is a time of the rise of the contractor,” said Geoff Gordon, executive director of Fuse Alliance, speaking at the organization’s spring conference in New Orleans. “There was a time maybe 10 years ago where some manufacturers were like, ‘Contractors aren’t going to be that important—anybody can install carpet tile,’ but that certainly is not true today. If anything, our role in that chain has gotten bigger, because without us, it’s not flooring until it’s installed.”

Fuse numbers are echoing this sentiment with membership rising to 99 companies—nine new in the past year—and total members doing business in 150 locations. Those members carry clout— generating $1.7 billion in sales, or approximately $1 billion in purchasing power, according to Gordon. Fuse member sales rose about 9% over the last year in comparison to the 3% industry average. In addition, the group added 15 new suppliers over the past year.

“It’s become very sophisticated from an installation point of view, and this is where our network is really thriving,” Gordon said. “We view ourselves as the fair and impartial network of flooring experts, and we think we have somewhat of an advantage in that we speak the language of a lot of different products.”

The conference theme, “Never Miss a Beat,” was designed to help contractors deftly handle the plethora of materials on the market today by nurturing connections with suppliers, enhancing contractors’ ability to problem solve with facilities managers, and addressing installation challenges by sharing best practices. A candid roundtable discussion at the event encouraged members to share pain points and potential solutions.

“Every time I meet with the Fuse group, I take away tremendous positive energy,” said Larry Woodland, executive vice president, Commercial Flooring Solutions, a multi-store, full-service commercial and retail flooring provider in Nova Scotia, Canada. “It’s neat to share real business experiences with dealers…dealers often separated by thousands of miles, borders and often even cultural or political differences but bonded by similar successes and challenges.”

A shortage of qualified labor is a perennial problem, with installers retiring and too few young people entering the trade to replace them.

“People—skilled labor—shortages are common with almost all of us,” Woodland said. “Motivated younger installers are in great shortage seemingly in most every market. National and international installer certification and training is an important step in preparing for the future.”

Fuse recently announced a joint task force with Starnet Worldwide Commercial Flooring to address the issue, with leaders and members from both groups teleconferencing quarterly to develop a plan of action.

“In 40 years in the business, I’ve never seen anything like the pickle we’re in now, but I’ve also never seen more opportunities,” said Robert Varden, vice president of the World Floor Covering Association’s (WFCA) International Certified Floorcovering Installers Association (CFI). He presented Fuse members with an update of CFI’s movement on the issue.

As Floor Covering Installer and Floor Trends have previously reported, CFI continues to host installation trainings at its facility in Forney, Texas, and the organization is working with contractors and manufacturers to develop a network of other training locations across the country and around the world, such as in China, Canada and Brazil. Varden is encouraging companies to host job fairs at high schools and to be open about the salary and job growth prospects.

“Kids are not aware of the job opportunities afforded by the flooring industry or how much money they can make as an installer,” he said.

Direct selling by mills is another issue emphasized by Fuse contractors. “I think we are missing the elephant in the room—the proliferation of direct selling,” said a member during the roundtable. “It is open, it is out there, they use the same estimating software as we do and they are preparing the same diagrams. Until collectively we, meaning flooring contractors, stand up and say, ‘no more,’ it’s just going to get worse.”

More manufacturers are developing turnkey services and using traveling labor crews to do the installation work, so Mike Hutton, senior vice president of Fuse, is advocating for members by calling on major suppliers to cultivate accounts. “Individual companies don’t always have the manpower to do all the work on an account…so we have to do that as a group collectively,” he said.

Moisture mitigation is another major issue among contractors. Too often, responsible flooring contractors are being undercut by competitors who are willing to quote projects without mitigation systems or solutions that do not offer the same level of protection against moisture.

Looking ahead, Gordon said he wants Fuse to be the “go-to network”: “We look at our customers not just as the end user—which is the designer, architect, general contractor—but also the supplier. At the end of the day, we want to provide impartial consultation to make sure we are protecting our customers and giving them what they expect and at the same time protecting our suppliers.”