Real Wood Floors on a Mission
Real Wood Floors makes beautiful solid and engineered floors. In fact, the floors are so beautiful, they can be found in a home belonging to President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. While that is certainly something worth mentioning, if you ask anyone from the Real Wood’s team about the company, they are likely to start by telling you about the company’s mission. Since 2008, the Missouri-based company has made it its mission to work toward “the day when every orphan is home”. This mission was realized when the company installed walnut floors at the Shepherd’s Field Children’s Village, an orphanage just outside of Beijing.
It all began when Real Wood brought in the expertise of Brad Haynes, principal consultant with The Table Group, that it was able to uncover what truly drives the company. Founded by Patrick Lencioni, leadership and organizational health expert, The Table Group provides consulting services for leaders and teams who want to make their organizations healthier. Haynes encouraged Real Wood’s leadership to create clarity around several questions.
“When we talk to leadership teams about organizational health, there are four disciplines,” said Haynes. “The first discipline is around building a cohesive team. The second discipline is around creating clarity. The very first question is, why do we exist beyond making money? For [Real Wood Floors], it’s not about flooring, it’s about ‘until every child has a home’.”
Haynes says the next question is how do we behave? “When I think about those first two questions, rather than it being something we create, it’s really something that we uncover, like an archaeologist. Something already exists there, and your job is to uncover it. This servant’s heart was already there and already core to them.”
Sam Cobb, co-founder of Real Wood Floors, was a recent college graduate when he joined the company. He didn’t know much about flooring at the time, but what he did know was that whatever his father-in-law, Clyde Elbrecht, was involved in would be mission-based.
“He said, ‘All right, I’m going to put you in charge of this new venture,’” said Cobb. “He just basically said, ‘You’re in charge. We’re going to be mission-based. We tithe personally; we’re going to tithe corporately. But you have to pick what the mission is going to be’. There was a lot of freedom, but also a lot of responsibility.”
The answer to what that mission would be, though he didn’t realize it at the time, came to Cobb on a business trip to China in 2008, when he was invited by a friend to visit Shepherd’s Field Children’s Village, an orphanage just outside of Beijing. Gladly tacking on an extra day to make the visit, Cobb was pleasantly surprised to find two small houses warmly decorated and adequately staffed to care for and nurture roughly 30 orphaned children. But there was one thing that especially caught Cobb’s eye—the floors.
“They really tried hard to make it like a home,” he said. “They were these cute little houses and they had spent the money to have nice furniture and nice things and the only thing that stood out was they had these bamboo floors that someone had donated to them but they weren’t installed properly and so they were loose.”
In addition to being an eyesore, the loose and uneven floors proved to be a problem and safety hazard for the orphanage’s children, many of which were disabled and required crutches, wheelchairs and walkers for mobility. Instantly moved by what he saw, off the cuff, Cobb expressed that he would like to provide new floors for the orphanage. “I didn’t really think through all of the ramifications,” he said. “But I knew that my father-in-law would totally be on board.”
Returning to the U.S., and still not entirely sure of how he was going to fulfill the promise he’d made to the orphanage, Cobb remembered veneers that the company had on hand. Though they were considerably good quality, they were a size that did not sell. Cobb made the suggestion to his father-in-law that they be sent to China and put to good use at the orphanage.
“My father-in-law stopped me and said, yes, we’re going to make them a floor, but if we’re going to make them a floor, let’s make them the best floor we can make them.”
Elbrecht reminded Cobb about the floor the company made several years prior for President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. “You make them a floor out of the same thing we made the President’s floor out of,” he said.
It was that moment and statement that shaped the young CEO and forever changed the way he viewed mission work. “I learned a lot about charity that day,” Cobb said. “It’s not about a write-off. It’s so much more than that.”
With his father-in-law on board, Cobb tapped into Real Wood’s network of installers for their expertise and manpower. “A lot of our customers are flooring installers, so I picked up the phone and called one of our best customers in Oklahoma City, and I said, ‘Hey, what do you think about going to China and installing wood floors in an orphanage?’ The first thing he said was, ‘Yeah, that’s great, how much does it pay?’”
After breaking the news to the installer that the job pays nothing, and that he’d need to buy his own flight to China, Cobb braced himself for a decline to his invitation. “He said, ‘I’d love to.’ In fact, he said he was going to call two of his competitors and make them go with us. I was blown away.”
Before he knew it, Cobb and nine of Real Wood’s installation customers were in China installing 9,000 square feet of walnut flooring at the orphanage, a species of wood that was sure to add to the warm aesthetic of the homes.
“When we got done, the installers all turned to me and asked when we’d be coming back.”
A year later, the Real Wood team and industry friends returned to provide flooring for the expanding orphanage, which had added an on-site cafeteria and school.
“I told the installers, ‘I’ll keep making floors if you guys will keep installing them,’” said Cobb. Several trips to China later, they have installed roughly 56,000 square feet of flooring at Shepherd’s Field.
A mission and vision that started with leadership has trickled down and is shared at every level, and as a whole, Real Wood has incorporated the mission into every aspect of the company.
“Now these guys are coming to work for an organization that, whether you’re taking a customer complaint or you’re arranging shipment, or collecting a bill or whatever, there’s something that’s undergirding all that, that’s so much more important,” said Cobb.
From the leadership team to the sales and marketing departments, it is this mission that keeps Real Wood going. Cobb remembers when one of Real Wood’s sales reps told him about a day that wasn’t going so well.
“She told me one day that she’d made cold calls all day and doors were shut in her face all day long. She had two more calls to make and she thought, ‘I’m just going to go home.’ But she said the very next thought she had was there’s a kid somewhere in the world that needed her to make these two calls.”
While providing flooring was a start, Real Wood’s mission encompasses so much more than that.
“When you have a mission that’s kind of that large, ethereal and out there, you have to set some mile markers,” said Cobb. “Our first mile marker is a strategic initiative we call 10x10x10. We want to build or help build 10 orphan care facilities. And then we want to fund 100 adoptions for special needs kids. And we want to educate or train 1,000 orphans who are never going to be adopted because one of the great lessons in all this is, adoption is fantastic, but it is not the solution for orphan care. It’s a very, very small piece of the puzzle. There’s so many kids from so many parts of the world that there is no adoption. So we still have to figure out how to take care of those guys.”
Cobb says Real Wood hopes to complete 10x10x10 by the end of 2020. As of now, the company has participated in the building of six facilities, assisted with 34 adoptions and educated 652 kids either actively or in the past.
“We talk about it a lot. We read a lot about it. We’re studying different countries and strategies. We’re so into the weeds now.”
And they are living it. Since Real Wood began its mission work in China, several members of the company, Cobb included, along with a few of its customers, have gone on to adopt orphaned children from around the world.
As things in the industry continue to shift due to political and economic change, particularly for the hardwood category, Real Wood is staying the course and adjusting, while keeping its mission first.
The company’s main supplier in China moved to Cambodia, so Real Wood has extended its reach to a different set of kids and a different organization.
Cobb measures his success on the impact the company is making. “We never set out with profitability as a measure of success. My father-in-law said that’s a terrible way to run a business because profitability is just a byproduct of fulfilling your mission. If you’re taking care of people and you’re making them successful at what they do, you’ll be profitable. That will happen. But you can’t make it the focus.”