“I thought it would be important to share an example of what if you don’t change, if you don’t evolve quickly enough,” said Michel Vermette, former CEO, Armstrong Flooring. “What can you learn? Sometimes to figure out what you want to do, you have to start with what you don’t want to do or what position you don’t want to be in.” 

Vermette opened his session for retailers at this year’s FloorCon trade show in Tucson, Arizona, by sharing his personal flooring industry journey of nearly 30 years. Vermette’s father was a general contractor and remodeler who worked in Canada for 15 years. Vermette graduated from the University of Quebec with a bachelor’s degree in management accounting and climbed the ladder for more than 17 years at Mohawk Industries. He spent the last three years of his career with Armstrong Flooring.

Vermette said his career presented the opportunity to travel the world working with retailers, contractors, distributors and other manufacturers.  

“I have really seen a lot of different models and different versions of what to do and what not do,” he said. “If you look at my past experiences with Daltile and Mohawk, I got there right at the merger of American Olean and Daltile which was a very challenging period. Most of my assignments were the ones people didn’t want.” 

For him, coming on board with a business during a challenging time is what he lives for. It’s where he feels he can make the most difference. 

He joined Armstrong Flooring just prior to the business filing for Chapter 11. 

 He remembers the Armstrong brand from his childhood, citing that it was his father’s favorite brand to install in his remodel projects, specifically kitchens and bathrooms. 

“Armstrong in the ’90s was the standard for excellence,” he said. “It was known as the IBM of flooring. It was what other companies tried to model. If anyone went through Armstrong’s training program, it was recognized as one of the best training programs in the industry.”

Vermette said Armstrong’s decline started in 1992—the firm was number two in sales but dropped to number nine by 2022. 

“What happened to Armstrong could’ve been avoided if different decisions had been made earlier,” he said. 

According to Vermette, Armstrong focused a great deal of its production efforts on resilient which continues to be the fastest growing category; however, the company did not experience growth for five years while others continued to grow. What led to this decline? 

For starters, the company was not in the right channels to be positioned for growth. He goes on to cite that it did not secure business with more than half of the major retailers in the country, and there was no strategy to participate in a variety of markets, including the hospitality market, one of the biggest segments in the industry where resilient is widely used.

“They had talented people,” Vermette said. “More PhDs, masters of chemistry—extremely talented people, and they had a lot of great innovation that you saw come out in the last three years on the Armstrong side and actually came out the last three years at AHF. Most of those innovations existed years back, but they didn’t go to market for whatever reason or were not presented as relevantly as they needed to be.”

In an effort to get back on track, Armstrong made the decision to reduce the complexity in its product offering. It cut half the product line which, according to Vermette, equaled 75% of the SKUs. 

“Less is more,” said Vermette. “More doesn’t equal more. Everything on your showroom floor should have a purpose or an intent. It has to be something that helps you drive business. Armstrong had way too much, and that drives cost and complexity across your business.”  

Not investing in one’s business to remain on point and relevant was another downfall of Armstrong, according to Vermette. As the most widely recognized brand in flooring, Armstrong “experienced very little investment in the last 10 years. It wasn’t fresh. It wasn’t on point style-wise, but it was known…[by] people who were 40 and above. It definitely needed a revamp.” 

The final piece cited is that Armstrong’s systems and infrastructure were more than 20 years old. Utilizing older systems and trying to pair them with newer technologies made things more complex. 

“If you want to scale your business and grow, you have to get your systems and processes right,” said Vermette. “That’s how you take it from a job to a business. Make technology work for you. Technology is cheaper now than ever.”

To avoid these pitfalls, Vermette advised flooring dealers to review their product offerings once a year and remove the products that are not selling or are simply not popular. Second, he advised each retailer to ensure that each of their locations operates exactly the same to maximize efficiency. Lastly, remove the barriers that prevent employees from being empowered to make decisions; establish trust through a decision framework. 

“Empowering is critical to scaling and growing,” said Vermette. “Employees will have great suggestions. When [Armstrong] started doing that, we got good input from folks to get to the next level, which is critical.”

Going into 2023, flooring dealers should be answering these questions in order to be more successful, according to Vermette. 

  • What should I do differently? 
  • Are you in the top 5 for flooring internet searches? 
  • Are you outperforming market growth and closing over 50% of your leads? 
  • Is your product offering competitive and straight forward? 
  • Have you eliminated all customer experience pain points? 
  • Are your systems integrated and work for you? Or do you work for them? 
  • Do you have the right relationships?
    • Suppliers
    • Installation 
    • Banks
    • Most importantly: your team