With just 42 member companies, the National Floorcovering Alliance (NFA) might be small in size, but its members are mighty in the retail flooring business and their respective markets, each with individual annual sales of more than $10 million. These retail powerhouses are leading the independent retailer pack, while benefiting from the knowledge, expertise, comradery and overall combined strength of the close-knit collective.

“We were part of [a group] before that was a larger one, but then we realized that with the largeness you sometimes end up losing intimate time to just chat and build friendships,” said Jason McSwain of Cincinnati-based McSwain Flooring, and NFA board president.

McSwain says NFA’s member engagement is at the highest it’s been in a long time, and as a membership group led by the members for the benefit of the members, the NFA board is looking forward to fostering this recent level of engagement and capitalizing on member’s strengths, as more are coming forward eager to lend a hand at steering the alliance from a leadership standpoint.

“In a time in the past you might have seen a lot of work being done by a few people, but at our [spring conference], we confirmed with the broad group that we really have good engagement,” said McSwain. A benefit of this increased engagement will be an expansion of leadership within NFA committees, which are set to represent various categories of the floorcovering industry, including, but not limited to, carpet, hardwood, tile and stone, laminate and area rugs.

“Our committee head chairs are now tasked with creating understudies, sharing leadership and building the new leaders of our group, so that’s exciting,” McSwain said.

An emerging young leader of the group is Raffi Sarmazian of Sarmazian Bros. Named board secretary at the beginning of the year, as Sarmazian learns the inner workings of the board, he brings with him the perspective of both the next generation of flooring retailers as well as the Canadian market.

“I want to do whatever I can to get more participation from the membership so everyone feels like they are doing something for the group,” Sarmazian said.

With a particular interest in his industry peers, Sarmazian looks forward to promoting opportunities for younger members during his term. “There are younger people in this group, so I want to make sure we can get them engaged as much as possible so they feel like they are a part of it.”

Though industry challenges and concerns vary across markets—and in the case of NFA’s membership, across countries—members were able to come together to discuss issues that are universally impacting the independent flooring retailer, and the flooring industry as a whole, at the group’s spring conference held in Whistler, Canada.

“The one piece we shared as a group was the different ways that we develop talent; our sales people,” said McSwain. “With 42 different retailers, it’s something we all do uniquely different, but it’s a common responsibility that we have.”

Members came to the conference prepared to share methods and metrics used to take talent to the next level. “The value in our business is the people we have,” McSwain said. “Performance reviews help you align individuals with your company objectives, but if you do that year after year, sometimes it gets kind of stale. So to leave the conference with new ideas to think about as we work with developing our talent is super valuable.”

At the conference, representatives from member companies McSwain Flooring, The L&L Company and Flooring 101 shared best practices that are making them better retailers with the group.

“We have a couple [members] that are only 11 years old in the business, and one that is even younger than that,” said McSwain. “It’s exciting to pass on something to a member that you’ve been working on for 15 years with lumps and bruises and see them in four or five months put it in place. That’s the good part of our network; it’s always great to hear from other companies and get to know them a little bit deeper.”

Making talent development and retention especially valuable and pertinent information is today’s ultra-competitive job market, which McSwain says is tight. “It’s not easy to recruit, so you’d rather develop someone in your business that you’ve already committed to and has history with your company.”

The same can be said on the installation side as NFA members, like many others in the flooring industry, are feeling the impact of the shortage of qualified installers in one way or another.

Discussions among members like Eric Mondragon of Salt Lake City-based RC Willey Home Furnishings, indicated that not only is finding qualified installers and installation crews a challenge, retaining them with pay and enough work to keep them busy is proving to be an ongoing challenge as well. Mondragon says the lack of qualified installers is especially being felt when it comes to costly tile installations, as the tile segment of RC Willey Home Furnishings’ flooring division continues to lose market share to the luxury vinyl tile category.

Today’s political climate is also to blame for irregularities in business for some NFA members as the impact of things like immigration laws, tariffs and the longest U.S. government shutdown to date are being felt throughout various regions.

“The government shutdown impacted us temporarily,” said Jeff Sproles of The L& L Company. “It slowed things down. When people see indecision in the market, it creates indecision on major purchases. It has a collateral effect.”

On the bright side, NFA members say business is good overall and as they look to the remainder of 2019, they are staying positive and realistic.

“We expect to be up a little bit this year,” said Sproles. “We have controlled growth plans to keep it manageable and control our costs as a company. We’re not trying to explode and grow quickly.”

With an unusually strong January, things are off to a good start for McSwain Flooring. “It’s tough to budget for January because of things like weather and ‘holiday hangovers’,” McSwain said. “Our goal is really just to get into March so that we can get on with a more predictable year.”

An added value of NFA membership is members’ ability to work directly with vendor partners to maximize digital, merchandising and product strategies.

“Most beneficial are the relationships that we have with vendors,” Sproles said. “We are making decisions at a very high level and dealing with people at a level where they can make decisions. Instead of working from the bottom up, there is a top-down approach as far as supply chain management sources, and you can find out what’s going on with companies early on.”

One example is supplier AHF Products. Just a little over 60 days old, AHF Products was established following American Industrial Partners’ acquisition of the Armstrong Flooring wood division. “We are excited, we’re energized and our whole focus is wood,” said Steve Staikos, general sales manager of national strategic accounts for AHF Products. “We think in an industry that has been overwhelmed by imitation products, we need someone that is going to stand up and talk about authenticity, talk about originality and talk about what people aspire to and what everyone is chasing, and that is real wood.”

AHF Products has hit the ground running, breathing new life into leading hardwood brands, to the benefit of specialty retailers. Specialty retailers including NFA members are being given exclusive access to two AHF Product lines: a refreshed Bruce hardwood and a revitalized Hartco brand.

As members look forward to coming together again in the fall, McSwain says the board will work with members who are exceling in a particular area of the business ahead of time to effectively and efficiently bring more beneficial information to the collective when it reconvenes in Nashville, Tenn.

For more information, visit nationalflooringalliance.com.