NFI Enterprises: Father and Son, Growing the Business Together
I am the president of NFI Enterprises, a commercial flooring business that is committed to an aggressive growth plan in the Seattle market. However, in reality, the foundation of NFI Enterprises began in 1977, when my father, Gary Brown, started working with his uncle in the industry. In 1989, he opened his own company, Newcastle Flooring Inc., in Renton, Wash. In the early days, the business was primarily residential and a small amount of light commercial. Newcastle Flooring started the commercial portfolio with a few general contractors and, at that time, our coverage was mainly carpet, ceramic tile and resilient flooring.
Like any kid whose father owned a flooring business, I grew up sitting on rolls of carpet in the warehouse and sweeping floors. As I got older, I began to work in the warehouse and, through my high school years, I helped in the field. Truthfully, it was not my intention to join the business as a career. However, after high school, I tried other avenues of work, none of which I really enjoyed. I was looking for a steady job offering stability and health insurance.
Finally, in 2004, I started full-time at Newcastle Flooring with the agreement that I would learn how to sell and, if we needed additional help in the field, I would help out wherever the work required. I learned how to estimate, manage a project and eventually how to sell.
Newcastle Flooring began doing grocery store remodels a few years earlier. One of my first accounts was managing a small repair service account for Safeway Grocery. Even though we grew this aspect of the business to multiple accounts and wide coverage of territory, our business was only approximately 50% in the commercial market and 75% of that business was concentrated with a few general contractors.
Newcastle Flooring Hits a Crisis
In 2010, following recession that started in 2008, our bank went bankrupt, taking a lot of the associated companies down with it. Our customer base was strong; however, between the slow paying customers and cash flow, Newcastle Flooring was a victim of the bank closure.
At that point, our situation was clear. My father did not want to see a 33-year career end in those unfortunate events. One of things he always lived by was being honest and owning up to the state of affair, good or bad. We split up a list of customers and vendors and called them personally to discuss our current situation and future. We asked for their continued support in the new undertaking in front of us. By this time, I was committed to the business and saw commercial flooring as my future. Together, we agreed that we were staying in business and would start again.
From there, NFI Enterprises was born. With the assets my father had in the company, I cashed out my retirement plan and we committed all of our personal assets to the new business. The first two years of business were our hardest years and we knew that we depended on the support of our vendors, our customers and, most importantly, our employees to succeed. Without a line of credit from a bank, we re-invested every dollar of profit back into the company.
Obviously, this process was financially difficult. I moved into my father’s basement and rented out my house. Later, I moved back into my house and my father moved in with me for a few months while he relocated. By year three of our new business, we were able to build a positive relationship with a commercial bank. From that point forward, we continued the plans and commitment to the flooring industry which we established back in 2010.
How We Succeeded
My father and I created a new vision for NFI Enterprises. First, we wanted to drive the business with commercial flooring. Today, our split is about 90% commercial and 10% residential. Secondly, we decided to increase the value we offered to our customers as a one-stop shop. With that goal in mind, we added several services and product offerings which have strengthened our revenues and improved our profitability.
With our strength in the retail and grocery store markets, we expanded our relationships with key general contractors and manufacturers in those arenas, focused on specifying and designing projects for key customers. With the combination of our contract labor force and trained in house labor, we meet the high demand of our customers and schedules. With our experience in the grocery and retail markets, mostly in open store remodels at night, we understand high demands, short notice changes, tight schedules and safety. Already doing moisture mitigation and contracting our equipment labor, we saw a place to expand our self-performing capabilities. Over the last four years, we have added demolition, polished concrete, self-leveling and specialty coatings to our in-house team. The result is that we offset our labor costs and increase our man power in the field.
In order to continue profitable growth, we decided to expand our portfolio even further. With the growing markets in medical, senior living and multifamily, we identified those customers and end users with whom we wanted to work. We started building those relationships. Over the last three years, we have done a variety of projects in senior living, multifamily new construction, small medical facilities and multi-family property management. We are tracking to grow by 15% in 2018, a 52% growth in the last five years.
Besides the increased customer base, much of this growth has been possible from the hard work and dedication of our employees. As we continue to grow, our team is our largest asset. We are committed to expanding our investments in our employees and we want to strengthen their benefits in order to stimulate growth.
Another approach to grow our business is a new product offering for NFI Enterprises: quartz and granite countertops. After struggling with sub-contractors and schedules, we decided to add a team of experts who have extensive experience in this area. Our plan is to build a support company who are experts in this area in order to manage the demand from the residential builder, commercial dealers and multi-family businesses. The new business carries an independent name and appeals to other retail/commercial dealers who seek out this company as a subcontractor. At this point, our plan is working! After year one (2017), we see steady growth for countertops and we are eager to see the expansion potential of our new company’s expansion.
Joining Starnet Commercial Flooring
By 2014, the NFI Enterprises business was on track with our goals and showing success. While I was confident that our growth plan was working, I attended a vendor appreciation event and met a few individuals whose companies were members of Starnet Commercial Flooring, a cooperative of independent commercial flooring companies. Included in this group was Cheryl Acierno of Acierno & Company in Denver.
About a year later, I received a phone call from Cheryl. She gave me additional information on the benefits of Starnet and I realized that this organization could significantly contribute to the future success of NFI Enterprises. Next, I spoke with Jeanne Matson, president and CEO of Starnet, and we began the membership process. In November 2015, NFI Enterprises officially joined Starnet.
Since that time, we have learned a tremendous amount from our association with Starnet. First, I joined the Next Generation Committee, a group of Starnet members who are being groomed to run their companies in the future. The Next Generation members, in many cases, are the second or third generation working in their family business. Or, in some cases, they are not family members, but instead are middle managers who are learning the business and grooming for increased responsibilities in the future.
The Next Generation group has been a tremendous asset to me personally, offering advice and insights into a wide range of business issues. For example, I have learned how to plan our growing staffing needs with a keener financial analysis. Specifically, we have created an estimating team to free up additional time for our sales staff to sell!
Beyond the Next Generation group, Starnet has provided stronger connections with their Preferred Vendor network. I have a greater sense of the future trends in the industry and can more readily get support when needed. Most importantly, these vendors have come to our facility and trained our employees in areas such as installation, selling and specifying.
Finally, we have gained a great deal of knowledge from the Starnet membership meetings. In part, we learn from the scheduled program; however, we also learn from the members and vendors we meet and the connections we have made. As a real plus, NFI Enterprises has acquired work from other Starnet members locally and from out-of-state. Conversely, we have partnered with Starnet members to accomplish remote work on our projects. We consider this collaboration as a real “win-win” for NFI Enterprises!
The Future for NFI Enterprises
Today, NFI Enterprises is a strong business and our team is growing stronger. My father and I are very pleased with our current revenue growth and staffing levels and we plan to increase the business by +50% over the next several years. We have a clear staffing expansion plan and are focused on investing in our employees. The critical issues such as installation labor are a definite challenge in the flooring industry. We also plan to expand our sales staff at the appropriate pace. We appreciate the good fortune we have had and are very grateful to our employees, customers and vendor partners for the support they gave to our company during the difficult times. Overall, we are very excited about the future!