Twenty years ago, a group of 12 individuals—11 installers and one retailer—who were concerned with the way the installation profession was being viewed and treated decided it was time to band together and change the image of flooring installers.

That group became known as the International Certified Floorcovering Installers Association (CFI), and 20 years later, original and new members came together in Baltimore to celebrate and remember the past and prepare for the future as part of the organization’s 20th anniversary convention.

“Very few in the industry thought we would last this long,” said Alan Ellis, CFI’s president. “Through perseverance, dedication, tens of thousands of volunteer training hours and some of the best support from our CFI friends through the years, we are alive today and stronger than ever.”

In fact, he added, “The future is so bright we have to wear shades.”

Before looking ahead those gathered reminisced about their time at CFI—whether it had been the entire 20 years or just a few—and what it has meant to them and their careers, while others who represented dealers/contractors or manufacturers spoke about the positive impact the organization and the nearly 50,000 people who have been trained and certified by it have made on the industry.

When speaking about CFI, most people spoke about some or all of the components that were not only a part of the association’s original mission but still is: P-R-I-D-E—Professionalism, Respect, Integrity, Dependability and Education. To break it down, CFI’s mission is to “make a positive difference in the lives of installers and their families through sharing flooring installation training in a ‘hands-on’ atmosphere, providing business skills and increasing pride and professionalism.”

Fred Williamson, vice president of operations of the Starnet cooperative of flooring contractors, said he “always comes away from a CFI convention enthused and energized.” He told the group, “You’re not teenagers anymore, and the fact you can survive the ups and downs over the last 20 years is a testament to your strength.”

He added, “Starnet’s members need good installation, and the industry needs CFI and for you to continue to raise the bar for others. The fact is, no matter how much time and energy you put into a product it means nothing without a good installation.”

Don Styka director of technical services for Johnsonite, said while CFI is a “big family; a brotherhood,” what makes it special is “everyone in it is looking at installation as a skill set, not just a necessity. The installer spends the most time with the customer and in the most important aspect. Meeting, and exceeding customer expectations is what Johnsonite is all about and CFI is a major part in helping to make that happen—and not just in a person’s installation skills, but how that person presents himself.”

CFI brings more than hard skills to the table, he added, “it helps the installers with the soft skills so they can be an all-around better person and representative of the product they are installing.”

Styka recalled how many times CFI members helped the company on “good sized jobs” and how they handled them not just professionally but in dealing with any issues that came up. “With CFI, we know we are dealing with people who are trained and qualified. There is a lot less aggravation when you are dealing with a professional.”

Roland Thompson of Kehnes Carpet in Frederick, Md., and a certified Master II installer, told Floor Trendsbefore CFI he would “go to every training event I could in order to be the best,” and admitted it took him a little while before being convinced it wasn’t just another fly-by-night organization. But since joining, “it has opened a lot of doors for me. It gave me more training opportunities so my skills keep getting honed and improved.”

But, he added, it goes beyond just the learning his craft. “My overall presence in what I do has improved. CFI has helped show me the entire package.”

Plus, Thompson said, “When I call a manufacturer, especially the technical department, they know who you are if you are a CFI member.”

Dave Garden, operations manager at Installation Services in Sterling Heights, Mich., said he “was not part of the original or even the second group of installers who joined as I’ve been involved for only 10 years. But CFI helped create me—it gave me the confidence as a person. I already had good hand skills but these are leaders in the industry and they helped me to be successful.”

Bob Gillespie of Grain Valley, Mo., one of the founding members who is fondly referred to as No. 1 being that he drew the first certification from the original group of 11 installers, and also a past president of the organization, said at some point more than 20 years ago installing “quit being fun. I was losing my passion; I was still doing quality work but was just going through the motions. Then I attended a seminar given by Jim Walker (Editor’s note: CFI’s CEO and also one of its founders) and listening to his passion gave me a perk in my step as he made me realize there was someone else who was like-minded in his love for installation.

“I was never ashamed to be an installer,” he continued, “but I realized I had quit learning. I was teaching my guys, but no one was teaching me. There was nothing really happening in the industry to help installers improve—in all levels, from their technical skills to their business skills to their people skills.”

Through CFI, Gillespie added, “I have been able to sharpen my business skills. I know how to make money but I didn’t market myself. The ultimate goal is to still satisfy the customer, but there is so much more to running a business than just installing a product right.”

Jim Walker, said hearing stories like those above are some of the “proudest” aspects of helping to form the association 20 years ago. “When someone unrelated to me comes up and says, ‘Walker, you made a difference in my life; before getting into CFI I was thinking of getting out of the business, now I’m happy and making a profit,’ or when a mill executive or retailer says they ‘appreciate what you are doing,’ those are the things that make me the proudest in what we’ve accomplished so far.”

During an exclusive interview with Floor Trends, he noted how when the organization was formed, “we didn’t even contemplate 20 years down the road. We just wanted to recognize and identify installers who wanted and needed information. We thought if we could have just one meeting that would be a success.”

Walker added, “There was no business plan, no set agenda. Twenty years ago when we set out on a journey to change the image of the flooring installers we didn’t know how we would tackle this monstrous task, but we all knew that it had to be done for a trade that is dear to our hearts.”

Actually, he prefers to look at flooring installation as “something above just a trade; it’s an art. Yes its physically demanding work, but it is so rewarding. People aren’t smiling when you first come in but after you enhanced their place and they see it come alive like a photo being developed, they are elated. To see them happy that we made their home, their office, their property a nicer, more beautiful place is what makes this profession so rewarding.”

Looking ahead

While there was plenty of reminiscing taking place at the convention, people were also looking to the future and the next 20 years. Robert Varden, CFI’s executive director, who also shared memories of his 15 years with the association, said, “it is time for us to evolve. We want to nurture our relationships with partners that make sense as well as with anyone who believes in quality installation and training. These are the groups and people we want to be associated with,” such as at Surfaces where the organization will, for the second straight year conduct a training and certification session during the show. “Last year we did carpet and this year we are doing wood, laminate and tile, and we’re working with other organizations such as the National Wood Flooring Association, to make it happen.”

He noted doing training and certification events around the country—and world, for that matter—is expensive, “and we need to be able to do it better and faster. We need to duplicate to what is going on at a higher level so that it can be done in more places and at the same time.”

But, Varden cautioned, it has to be done “without taking away from the quality of the program.”

By that he means the education and training, and when it comes to CFI conventions, while there is a the feel of a “family reunion,” as Varden put it, there was certainly no lack of quality education taking place.

From the vendor presentations in which manufacturers not only showcased their newest tools and products, some were showing them for the first time here or, in some cases, showing prototypes to get input from the “experts,” to hand-on workshops, to an informative session on the employee/independent contractor issue, there was plenty of education to be had at convention.

Dave Cima, Mid-Atlantic regional sales manager for DriTac, said he was “very impressed with the knowledge of the attendees. These are the kind of people we like to be associated with—professionals.”

Scott Faulknor of Southern Home Flooring Specialists in Dalton and the most recent recipient of CFI’s Charles R. Gress Award, the organization’s highest honor to an installer who goes above and beyond to help the association succeed, was there not just to learn but was representing Armor Lock. And he wasn’t there to sell the product, rather he wanted attendees “to use it, test it and give us your feedback. We’ve done our testing and believe in the product but we want real-life evaluations and input before we begin marketing it.”

Even the folks at Armstrong were on hand showcasing a yet-to-be released LVT product, Tony Pastrana, of the mill’s installation training and services team, said, “This is a prototype we’re testing and showing here because the CFI installer is important to our business and why we wanted to get your input before introducing it. Without you, we couldn’t sell it.”

Rick Herr, Armstrong’s manager of installation services, added, “We wanted to make the installation as easy as possible but wanted to be sure installers would think that way as well. The people here are the best of the best, and that’s why we’re demonstrating here in order to get their feedback.”