Art of Retail Management: Friendly Floors
June 9, 2006
Business was booming. Marjorie Benson felt excited, as she anticipated opening her new store. For nearly a year, she and her husband, Eric, had worked nights and weekends to remodel the building they purchased. It was her chance to build on the success and hard work of her parents. She was ready. The grand opening lay just two weeks away. Then, the unexpected happened.
Friendly Floors has served Charlotte County, Fla. for two decades as the premier flooring dealer. Marjorie's parents, Walter and Marge Behrmann, opened it on a shoestring budget. Marge sold the flooring and Walter installed it. Marjorie eventually took over the business. In her mind, she saw her ideal store and the customers she wanted to serve. Friendly Floors was growing, but she felt this new store would enable her to bring her vision to fruition. She believed, as Peter Drucker, business management guru, had written, "The best way to predict the future is to create it." She was creating a store that would blow away her customers.
It was the strength of Marjorie's vision that led her to believe she could beat the odds. We all know that odds are against any new business succeeding. (In America, most fail, and only the fittest survive.) Even large companies fail in droves. Example: Tom Peters investigated some of the best-run companies in America and reported their successes in his book, "In Search of Excellence." Yet, just two years later, more than half of them were struggling. No business is invincible against competition, internal degeneration, or even-as Marjorie learned-the forces of nature.
It was Friday the 13th, August 2004, when Hurricane Charley roared up the Florida Gulf Coast. Unexpectedly, it veered from its path toward Tampa and headed straight for Port Charlotte. Marjorie's husband Eric, a Port Charlotte firefighter, had been called in a day earlier to help people in Tampa, about 100 miles north. Alone and with only 90 minutes' notice, Marjorie shut the store and scrambled to get home. She gathered her three dogs and her pet kinkajou, Bobo, and went to her neighbor's house to ride out the storm. She spent seven hours huddled under a blanket with her pets in her neighbor's bathroom.
Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm at land-fall, inflicted $15 billion in damages (NHC's estimate), then the second costliest storm in the nation's history. It prompted the largest FEMA mobilization since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Once the hurricane had passed, Marjorie ventured out to examine the damage. What she saw was devastating. Many local business owners had lost a store. She had lost two! The storm wiped out the existing store and severely damaged the nearly finished one. "It was a double whammy," recalls Marjorie. The storm destroyed all of her inventory, including some ready for installation. In addition, her home was damaged, though she could still live in part of it.
Marjorie barely remembers the first three or four days. She lived in shock. (Who wouldn't?) Like other storm victims, she felt helpless, immobilized. The devastation blocked her vision, her hope, even her business.
The author William Feather once famously said "Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go." This was not lost on Marjorie. Not long after Charley hit, an employee called Marjorie to ask, "Do I still have a job? Or should I file for unemployment?" The question brought her back to reality. Did her dream still reside in her heart? She listened ... and heard Yes!!! What did that mean? To Marjorie, it meant she was down, but not out. Armed with her vision, she hit "restart!" "I had customers and jobs in progress at the time. I didn't want people to suppose I had disappeared because we were demolished."
She told her employee to report to work the next day. After she hung up, she paused. How can I rebuild the store? She had no building, no samples, no inventory, and no records. Remarkably, this didn't deter her. She concluded she wasn't limited by the things she didn't have. Only lack of will could limit her. As she revived her vision in full color, she regained her will. Thus, we re-learn that the power of personal vision rises not out of its contents, but its influence on the will. Or as that other old sage, Babe Ruth, once said "You just can't beat the person who never gives up."
Armed with vision and an unrelenting will, Marjorie acted like the resilient carpet she sold. She sprang back. She sprang back with more power and more smarts. "Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently." (Henry Ford)
"We purchased a camper trailer and pitched tents for a showroom." She recalled. "We opened for business." There was no electricity or phone service; she rented generators and bought cell phones."
Marjorie's business was underinsured, but that didn't defeat her. The insurance money she did get went to the re-start. She also took out a loan from the Small Business Administration. And then, of course, there were those in the flooring industry who pitched in. Vendors came by to help; including one rep who helped put a new roof on the store. She specially recognizes Michael Porter from Mohawk for his crucial role. It was he who arranged for a trailer that would serve as a warehouse for sold inventory that were awaiting installation.
Although money was tight, Marjorie was a savvy enough business woman to know that she had to get the word out. The store advertised heavily in the local media using the line, "Friendly Floors, Open for Business. We're down, but we are not out!"
Marjorie can be seen as a model for others subjected to nature's fury or any other disaster or unwise choice that set us back. Setbacks are inevitable. In life, stuff happens! Naturally, your first instinct after the hit is anger and frustration. You may even lose hope for a while. Then we remember how fortunate are we when friends and colleagues offer their support. It can range from sympathy to someone climbing up on the roof to patch it up. Ultimately the decision is clear: Eventually do you rebuild ... or do you languish in self-pity.
At some point, it's simply counterproductive to point blame when things go wrong. Even those whose businesses falter without the help of a devastating hurricane often persist in pointing fingers. They shame themselves by saying, "Well, that's just the way I am." I call this the "Blame, Shame and Justify" game. Ultimately, it serves only to dissolve our will to act. It garners for us no sympathy. Blame, shame and justify are the modus operandi of the also-rans. Action is what separates performers from also-rans.
Marjorie's action inspires me. When I think of how she bounced back, it gives me the kick in the butt I occasionally need. Yes, she was down, but never out. Her resilience confirms that. Notice that Marjorie never allowed Hurricane Charley to define her or even reform her; instead, she created her own circumstance out of it. I love to read the biographies of people, like Marjorie, who lift themselves up and out of oppressive conditions that would be the undoing of many other people.
Marjorie's story has not ended; she carries on. Just 18 months after the hurricane virtually destroyed her business, she was named "Mohawk ColorCenter Dealer of the Year." Asked how she felt about being honored by Mohawk her response was apropos. "I was blown away!" she said.