Building a Business Through Relationships
Commercial flooring is truly one of the last relationship businesses. This belief has fueled Architectural Flooring Resource for more than 25 years and it is the core value of our company today.
Since I started the company in 1993, the industry has changed, moving faster and increasingly reliant on technology. However, even in a large market like New York City, the engine behind my business remains my professional affiliations with the design and architecture community, the end users and the manufacturing community. From the earliest days of my career, I cultivated the entire spectrum of these relationships, all of which were critical to our success.
In the beginning, I admit that commercial flooring was not my destiny. I was recruited at Cornell by Armstrong World Industries in 1986 as a marketing representative and was assigned to New York City. After a quick tour of the city by my regional manager, Lori Dowling, and some introductions to leading architecture and design firms, I was on my own. Approximately four years later, I accepted a position at a now defunct commercial flooring contractor and enjoyed being closer to the full scope of a project.
It wasn’t very long before I realized that I would be happier being my own boss. I learned a lot from my first two jobs and both experiences gave me a foundation in the business. I learned the right way to run a commercial flooring company and I also learned the wrong way. I decided to take the plunge.
So, with $10,000 in the bank, I rented a small office space at 89 Fifth Ave. on 18th St. in New York, signing the lease with shaky hands. I was all alone with no staff, so I filled my little office with sample books from floor to ceiling. I had a limited line of credit with the manufacturers, but it was enough to get started. I worked with architects, designers and end users, really honing my skills at cold calling and cultivating relationships. I did it all: selling, takeoffs, estimating, purchasing and project management. My early jobs were small, $50,000-$100,000, but they were large enough to begin establishing my reputation in the market. My biggest strength was that I knew the infrastructure from my previous job positions. I knew product and I knew New York.
Meeting a Unique Niche in the Market
New York City is a unique market, to say the least. We have several very large contractors, many smaller firms and a powerful union structure. As an entrepreneur, I wanted to be successful and earn the respect of my peers in the industry. More importantly, I realized that my mission should be to make the lives of my customers easier and to provide the level of service and support which accomplished that goal.
With that objective, I gradually began to build the business. My first big break was a retail shoe company called Nine West. I was working for them in New York, but they wanted me to handle their installations on a national basis. I didn’t have the staff to take on that project, so I hired an administrative assistant from my previous company. Right away, an estimator from the same company called me, wanting to move over. With their support, we committed to Nine West.
Building a Team
With the foundation of the Nine West business, plus a growing internal team, Architectural Flooring Resource was up and running. Early on, I was very fortunate to identify and hire outstanding people. I started by adding sales people with experience in commercial flooring sales and, for me, the characteristics of a good sales person were simple: know the industry, understand the product options, create relationships with the designers and architects in New York, pursue end user opportunities and work hard. All of these qualities matter equally, and they were critical for success.
As the business grew, we added the project management team. Rather than a cradle-to-grave model where sales managers run the projects, our sales managers hand off their projects to the project managers who oversee the installation teams and bring the job to completion. Both groups are vital to the success and profitability of our company. The sales managers must develop the project with either the designer/architect or the end user and their contract must be structured to deliver value to the client while returning profit to our company. The project managers must control all aspects of the project implementation to ensure that the project meets the contract specifications, fulfills the expectations of the clients and comes in on budget.
I am proud that several of the earliest employees continue to work at Architectural Flooring Resource and two of them, Jake Edelson and John Bonomolo, are partners in the business. Jake is a leader in our sales organization and John runs operations. Both are indispensable, and they set a strong example for the rest of our team. The balance of our team consists of committed, diverse, enthusiastic, professional flooring experts. We constantly challenge each other and help each other arrive at a higher level of expertise. The Architectural Flooring Resource family comradery is our single most valuable asset.
A Flooring Resource to Meet the Needs of our Clients
Again, our goal is to make the lives of our clients easier by providing services and products which anticipate their needs from both a design and financial perspective. We start by working early with the designer/architect to understand the strategy of the project. We know that these individuals are busy and are juggling multiple projects at a time, so we focus on the product and do the work of identifying options which we then present to them. Because of our relationships, we often ship samples to their offices vs. taking time to set up a meeting and interrupt their schedule.
Over the past decade, we have introduced a range of specialized products which carry an Architectural Flooring Resource private label. We started with a wood line because there is a strong demand for wood floors in New York and there is not a dominant brand in our market. We knew we could source a quality product line which offers the design and durability required by our clients at a competitive price point. We followed with both porcelain and luxury vinyl tile, both product lines which are in demand. We don’t manufacture or warehouse these products. Instead, we work with existing manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe. The result is a win-win for all parties. Architectural Flooring Resource can control the product selection, our designers/architects can source a unique product and the end user is confident that the selected product will perform.
In 2018, we expanded this concept by launching a concrete business through which we self-perform the concrete work for our clients. Again, by offering this service directly to our clients, we become a one-stop resource. The clients prefer this because they only work with one company to manage the project and our long standing relationship gives them confidence that we will do the job right. It is the proverbial “one throat to choke” and it works.
Benefitting from our Starnet Membership
When Architectural Flooring Resource was relatively small with revenues of around $3 million, I was approached by Fred Williamson to join DuPont Flooring Systems. Fred was a friend and I trusted him. Plus, I knew this affiliation would be an endorsement of our company which was a great asset as we were growing. Later, when DuPont merged with Starnet Commercial Flooring, I again took Fred’s advice and joined Starnet.
For our company, Starnet has been a plus. Through Starnet, we are exposed to new products and we have learned best practices from smart, experienced fellow members who operate throughout the U.S. We hope to take greater advantage of the training offered through Starnet in the future. I have found that bringing additional people from our company to the Starnet meetings is a smart move and I will continue to follow this practice.
Our Business Today
I consider our company to be a combination of a rep firm and an installer. We understand how to support the designer and architect and we don’t clog the system with unnecessary transactions. Our sales team knows what projects are developing in the New York market and, together, we track through the planning steps to bring our company into the loop. We know lots of people and, personally, I still make cold calls to either the designer/architects or general contractors if I hear that a new project is in the works. All I need is a contact name. While each employee of our company has a distinct role, we support each other and work together to open doors.
I believe in continual training and we focus on cross-training across our team. Most of this training is internal and we share best practices which are learned on the job. With our team structure and with the pace of our workload, we must be able to pull resources into priority projects when necessary. To develop more specific skills, we will tap into our vendor network or attend a trade show like World of Concrete to make connections and advance our technical knowledge. Each initiative develops in a unique way and we explore the options as a team.
While New York is a tough market, I believe it is the best place to run a commercial flooring business. With the volume of projects available and using our network, we have been able to ride the economic highs and lows. If major construction projects are put on hold, as happened back in the last recession, we keep busy with renovations and smaller jobs. Right now, with a very strong economy, our team is stretched, and I am planning to add additional Sales and Project Managers to manage the workload. I am confident that we will keep them busy!
We are excited about the future and, importantly, we enjoy our work. Our business is running well and we continue to grow our revenue and market share in the New York market. Importantly, we are staying true to our strategy to sustain strong relationships with our partners in the design and manufacturing community as this approach has worked for us.