Fishman Flooring Solutions, a mainstay of the flooring distribution business, is celebrating 10 decades of business success this year. Bob Wagner, Fishman’s president and CEO, recently shared his thoughts with Floor Trends on what that means for his company and how he sees the flooring distribution industry evolving in the years ahead.

FT: How important to your company is achieving the 100-year milestone?

Wagner: It’s very important, because it validates the way Fishman’s business has been run since 1919. Successful companies today have an average life span of approximately 15 years, so reaching the hundred-year mark sets us apart. We’re forever grateful to our employees, customers and vendor partners past and present who helped us to get to where we are today.

Fishman may be 100 years old, but we don’t feel old. In fact, it’s just the opposite. This is an exciting and invigorating time for us. Throughout the company, there’s great anticipation for the future and finding new ways to create value in the marketplace, delight our customers and grow our business for decades to come.

FT: Are there some lessons learned by Fishman over the past 100 years that help guide it today? 

Wagner: Absolutely! Here are some that helped shape our culture that come immediately to mind.  

First and foremost, we learned that customers have a choice as to where to do business and it’s the customer experience with a distributor that will keep him or her coming back. It’s part of our culture to delight customers with every transaction because we want Fishman to be their distributor of choice. 

We’ve also learned that employee ownership – Fishman is 100 percent employee-owned – is win-win. Employees win because, as the company increasingly prospers, the value of their shares and their financial security grow. At the same time, our company wins because statistics show that employee-owned businesses produce more, grow faster, are more profitable and have lower turnover than privately-held businesses.

Another thing we learned that became part of our culture is to treat employees as our most valuable assets, because they are. We pay competitive wages, provide superior benefits, such as the stock ownership plan and matching 401k, and ensure that employees have the opportunity to grow within the company and become its future leaders. We want employees to have careers at Fishman, not just jobs.

FT: You mentioned that Fishman is 100 percent employee-owned and companies like yours outpace privately-held businesses. Why is employee ownership such a difference maker?

Wagner:  It’s a tremendous advantage to have employees who are empowered to behave like owners. Most owners go the extra mile to ensure the success of their business.  At Fishman, everyone goes the extra mile because everyone is an owner. 

Let me use an example to explain. One of our truck drivers has been making deliveries in a specific market for a long time. He knows which flooring contractors do business with Fishman and those who don’t. So, on his own, he decided to hand out our product announcements to all the flooring contractors in the area during his delivery runs, not just our customers, to generate new business. That defines an empowered employee owner and we have about 240 more just like him who drive our business success.

FT: You’re only the fourth person in 100 years to serve as president and CEO of Fishman. What advantages does that leadership continuity give to Fishman?

Wagner: The most important advantage of management stability is that there’s never a question at Fishman about who we are and where we’re headed, because our culture and our direction have been fine tuned for the past century. We don’t have to invest time in trying to figure those things out, which frees us up to focus on delighting the customer and growing our business.

Importantly, management stability at Fishman goes beyond me. Our top five people have a combined 111 years with the company. So, there’s little that surprises us over time, or at least we’d like to think so.

FT: From where you sit, what do you think the flooring distribution marketplace will look like in 10 years or so?  

Wagner: I wish I could tell you. Changes are happening so fast that it’s hard to look out two weeks, let alone 10 years. I do know that distribution companies that hang on to their traditional ways of doing business will likely not be in this business in 10 years.  

FT: Do you foresee any game changers for distributors of flooring products on the horizon?

Wagner: I think we’re seeing a potential game changer right now as some companies in the flooring industry integrate vertically. A company that once manufactured soft goods, for example, now offers a wide variety of hard surface products and has a distribution arm to sell directly to flooring contractors and others. That type of vertical integration can significantly muddle the traditional selling channel and change the game for distributors. 

FT: Will vertical integration impact the flooring dealers, contractors, retailers, architects and designers who read Floor Trends?

Wagner:  That depends on how widespread it becomes. Vertically-integrated companies could become jacks of all trades and masters of none. 

That could have important implications for architects, designers and others over time, particularly when it comes to flooring installation. Why? Because a company like Fishman, which focuses solely on distribution, has extensive experience with every conceivable type of flooring installation project and in-depth knowledge of the best products to address virtually any installation problem. So, down the road, your readers may have to depend even more on the best distributors because installation experience and product knowledge will trump a vertically-integrated company with little or no flooring installation experience or product knowledge every time.

FT: How can architects and designers and others capture the value that a distributor like Fishman brings to the marketplace. 

Wagner: Distributors bring value to architects, designers and others in three areas – information, education and experience.

From a Fishman perspective, information is the easiest area to unlock value. People can simply get on the Fishman website or call us for information on the best way to solve an installation problem. We willingly share that information because we want to be known as the best solutions provider in the industry. 

To me, education means training and we do a lot of it at Fishman – primarily our employees – but we’d be delighted to provide continuing education training to members of the architect and design community in our footprint, which is primarily in the Mid-Atlantic area and into the Midwest. 

Finally, our five-member Architect, Designer and Facility team offers great value to the marketplace.  They have the experience to evaluate virtually any flooring project in its entirety and identify and troubleshoot technical and logistical problems before they occur. And most of the time we don’t charge for their service. 

FT: Fishman is widely regarded as a well-managed company in the flooring marketplace. As the company’s CEO, is there one challenge you face that stands out?

Wagner: Making sure we’re hiring and retaining the best people possible is my biggest challenge. That’s difficult in today’s business environment.  We’re looking for people who are knowledgeable about the flooring industry or are willing to learn about it. Above all else, we’re looking for people who are a good fit with our culture, so they’ll stay with us for the long-term and have rewarding careers.

FT: The focus of Fishman’s business has been primarily on commercial flooring?  Do you see a shift to doing more business with the residential community over time?

Wagner: As I said earlier, part of our culture is to provide customers with the best possible experience when dealing with us. An important part of that is listening to customers and taking our lead from them. So, if our customers make a case for us to be more focused on the residential side, that’s what we’ll do.