Vinnie Virga

Vinnie Virga, president of Flooring America, wants to make something clear. Flooring America may be 20 years old, but there's still plenty of room to grow. To that end, the retailer is working on an initiative called "Vision 2008." Aimed at building the Flooring America and Flooring Canada brand and elevating the company's 575 member stores, Vision 2008 will include a set of blueprints for members including merchandising tips and other advice on operating an efficient, profitable businesses. Virga assures it will not be a cookie-cutter approach. It will include information on how small, medium and large stores can optimize their respective spaces, as well as suggestions on how to maximize ROI in daily business transactions. NFT recently met with Virga in his Manchester, N.H., office at Flooring America headquarters to talk Vision 2008, Flooring America's first 20 years and the role of retailing in the 21st century.

Q: First of all, congratulations on Flooring America's anniversary. What are some of the major changes the company has seen since it started?
A: The company has come a long way since its beginning. One of the most prominent changes came during the ‘90s. Back then, the company was known as CarpetMax, a franchise system owned by the Maxim Group. The members went through a lot of turmoil during the CarpetMax years. The group especially got into trouble when Maxim bought a number of retail stores from Shaw Industries. Maxim found out too late that it had bitten off more than it could chew, and wound up in bankruptcy.

Q: How did Flooring America come out of that?
A: The members went out and searched for possible suitors that would best help them have a long-term future and allow them to continue as a group. They decided to work with CCA Global Partners, and that is how we become affiliated together. That was back around 2000. Really since our affiliation the group has had tremendous growth, both in size and market share.

Q: Why should a retailer join Flooring America?
A: The bottom line is we want to make a compelling case for people to make positive changes to their businesses. We want to show members the benefits and spell out the ROI for them when possible. We give them all the information they need to make the right choices, and we work very hard to make sure we're out on the cutting edge.

We are completely and totally member-centric. We exist to help members. But we do our jobs with the members' best interests at heart, which means sometimes we don't always say things that they want to hear but we always say what will help them be the best.

Q: Is that where Vision 2008 comes in?
A: Vision 2008 is a major part of our brand-building efforts. In the last three years we've gone from less than 40 percent to over 80 percent of our members using the Flooring America or Flooring Canada brand in their name and in their stores. We want to make our brand synonymous with excellent customer experiences. Vision 2008 is our new version of what Flooring America and Flooring Canada will look like, and what the brand will mean.

Q: What are some of the ways that Vision 2008 will help build the Flooring America brand?
A: When I think of great brands, I think of Starbucks. No matter where you go in the country, when you pass a Starbucks, you know it's a Starbucks. The stores all have unique feels based on what's appropriate for that area, yet they still feel a part of that national brand. That's what we're creating.

With Vision 2008, we're trying to design the store from the ground up, from the outside of the building all the way through to the back warehouse. Additionally, we've identified best business operating practices that we call the common operating model, and that will also be a part of Vision 2008. It will help the members understand how to best utilize their staff, how to maximize their ROI and how to enhance customers' experiences. It's all being built to support that brand image that we're trying to create. As the name indicates, we're going to start rolling it out in 2008.

Q: What's an example of the support you offer to your members?
A: The Neighborhood Network program is probably one of the greatest examples of our support services. It has proven so successful that other divisions of CCA have copied it. It's really about getting members together in their regional area to share knowledge and be a support group for each other. We facilitate communications among the members, through a website and a bridge line, and we also host meetings at conventions where they can get together face-to-face.

Q: What is your background in retailing?
A: I've been a retailer all my life. My dad had a floor covering and furniture business, so I have it in my veins. As a teenager I used to be at my dad's store working in the warehouse and helping with deliveries. Even in college I worked for flooring retailers, and then I became a regional manager for Carpet Giant, one of the largest flooring retailers in New England. I had a lot of fun and I was hooked.

Eventually, I joined CCA Global Partners in their ProSource division. I was with them for just under three years. I then went to work for one of CCA's members in Connecticut whose retail stores were expanding and I helped build the infrastructure. Then I came back in 2003 and joined up with the Flooring America division as senior vice president. They were looking to grow, they needed some additional people on their staff, and they came to me. I was named president of Flooring America in 2004.

Q: How is Flooring America different from CCA company (and your competitor) Carpet One?
A: Our selection of brands is all about creating wonderful customer experiences. We have brands for what Ms. Consumer is looking for: fashion, performance and value. Carpet One carries more of the prestige brands, what I call the "larger than life" brands - Liz Claiborne and Lees. Our Downs Decade brand, for example, has a lot of history to it and looks great in the home, but it admittedly does not carry the same prestige as say Lees would.

Also, our customer-facing programs are completely different. We do not use the Selectafloor system. Our approach focuses on lifestyles. We want Ms. Consumer to know that we're here to understand her lifestyle, and to offer her some of the best warranties available.

Retailers have to look at their options and decide which group is right for them. Both Flooring America and Carpet One market themselves and their products very differently. It all comes down to which brand resonates the most for the retailer.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the relationship between Flooring America and Flooring Canada?
A: Flooring America and Flooring Canada are virtually the same business other than for some regional differences. Jim Duff, the president of Flooring Canada, and his staff are completely engaged in all our projects. They understand how to customize these projects for the Canadian market. Flooring Canada became a wholly owned subsidiary just a little over a year ago. Prior to that it was a franchise system. When we purchased the company, the entire team up in Canada became part of our staff, so we actually became one big staff rather than two separate offices. It's a very different dynamic.

Q: What trends do you see around retailing?
A: I see a day coming when consumers will be buying fully installed products online. They will be able to make their initial floor covering selections from home, and go to the store to finalize the purchase. However, even though consumers are more educated about the products than ever, they still need expert help. The retailer still needs to guide them and offer excellent customer service from the moment they enters the store to the moment the flooring is installed. That is still the best way we can differentiate ourselves from our competitors and the big boxes.

SIDEBAR: Five Big Years in Flooring America's History

CarpetMax, the precursor to Flooring America, is formed by the Maxim Group. Three years later, the company launches the Regional Management Group, a local support network for members.

The Maxim Group announces that it will change the CarpetMax name to Flooring America. The newly minted company opens with 100 member stores.

Flooring America joins with CCA Global Partners. Additionally America's Carpet Gallery merges with Flooring America. The company grows to 300 stores.

Flooring America launches the Neighborhood Network, aimed at offering specialized local support for members.

Flooring America purchases Flooring Canada, originally called CarpetMax Canada. The company now includes 575 member stores across North America.