When the news broke earlier this year that industry veteran and Hall of Famer, Peter Spirer had purchased Max Windsor Floors it was greeted with surprise by many, and wonder by some. Why would this 82-year-old senior statesman of the flooring industry take on the stress of a business in a highly competitive industry sector, when the economy is still nothing to write home about and at a time in life when golf, shuffleboard and gin rummy are more popular pastimes for men his age?
Being an old friend of Spirer, and somewhat mystified myself, I recently tracked him down as he was preparing to leave for Max Windsor’s new West Coast operation in Commerce, Calif.
“Anything special going on out there?”I ask.
“Yeah, pretty special,”he replied. “We have new leadership out West, a new location for the warehouse, new policies to introduce to the staff and a lot of learning about one another.”
Product preferences and business cultures aren’t the same throughout the country, he pointed out. “Customers have different expectations. I like to experience these things first hand.”
I question him as to why he decided to take the plunge at this late stage of life—especially when he technically has nothing to prove based on his already stellar industry track record.
“Because I can,” he says with a hint of self-satisfaction.
Spirer is a happy man. He tells me, “This is the first time since 1992, the year we sold Horizon to Mohawk, that I’m running my own company, and I’m loving it. I didn’t realize how much I missed leading the band.”
Having known Peter for a long time, I understood. He is the industry’s quintessential risk taker, an action figure who seems to thrive on stress.
During the two decades after he founded Horizon Carpets in 1972, he took it from last in size among some 300 carpet mills in busienss at the time, to one of the largest manufacturers in the world.
In part, this was accomplished by introducing fashion to carpets in the form of designs, colors and textures, most of which had never before been seen. Any bookmaker would have given long odds against achieving success by selling fashion in an industry where carpet was sold by ounces per square yard.
Instead, Horizon thrived selling animal prints (Safari), tufted plaids (Le Plaid), an embossed cut pile with letters spelling “love,” and an over-the-top collection of opulent white carpets (Creme de la Creme), to mention a few.
Creative marketing supported Horizon’s unique product platform. For Safari, Spirer dispatched a team to the Zulu country in South Africa, to interview and photograph the tribesmen as they reacted to the faithfully reproduced animal skin designs. The resultant campaign put the Safari Collection on the map overnight, even catching the attention of The New York Times, which gave the promotionits 1976 “Hype Of The Year”award.
Such things weren’t done by others in the 1970s and ’80s. By 1983, Horizon Industries was the 6th largest carpet mill in the nation, and made a public offering of its shares. The next 10 years saw Horizon become one of the most prestigious brands in America. Knowing he needed an effective chief operating officer, in 1984 Spirer reached out to Ralph Boe, at that time the vice president of DuPont’s polyester business.
“That was the best decision I ever made,” says Spirer. “Ralph was and is the best in the business. I can’t overstate what he did for Horizon.”
The bonus was in freeing Spirer’s time to focus on product styling and marketing. “Boe was the perfect fit for the company,” he says. “I’m OK at startups, but don’t ask me to manage a large, complex organization.”
Throughout the 1980s, Horizon was the feature attraction at semi-annual carpet and rug markets. Its spectacular trade ads featuring gorgeous models were re-created in Horizon’s Atlanta showroom windows.
Talk about show stoppers! While buyers gathered in the Horizon showroom taking in the latest carpet fashions, crowds three and four deep stood in the halls staring at the models in the windows. It wasn’t rare to see wives of dealers navigating their husbands through the crowds, whispering admonitions to the effect of “Don’t look.”
Horizon window gazing became one of the features that lured buyers to the Atlanta Market—similar to Macy’s in New York during the Christmas holidays.
Then, in 1992, Spirer surprised the industry by selling his beloved Horizon to Mohawk, the latter company’s first acquisition after going public some months earlier. Observers sensed the fashion, fun and glamour would soon disappear. That event helped trigger a buyout binge mostly by Mohawk and Shaw, as they scooped up competitors and market share.
Restricted by a non-compete contract, Spirer opened a company in China and began a new chapter in his career—home furnishings retailing. His stores in Atlanta, called Horizon Pacific Home, gave him an excuse to travel the world buying handmade rugs, exotic one-of-a-kind furnishings and handcrafted furniture.
“That was a wonderful business if you enjoy losing lots of money,” he quips. But the observers were right. Spirer never returned to the carpet industry. In a 1993 letter to him, Marv Berlin, owner of the famous New York Carpet World, stated, “When you sold Horizon, it was the end of an era, and I doubt the industry will ever be the same.”
Out of Retirement
In 2008, Bob Rawlins, a colleague from the Horizon days, lured Spirer out of a brief retirement and back to the flooring industry when he introduced him to a California importer selling hardwood in the Western states.
The company was Max Windsor Floors, and he became executive consultant to the CEO, with an assignment to establish national distribution. No sooner did he take on that task the economy fell off the cliff.
Reflecting on the situation, Spirer compares it to “pushing water up a hill. Business was so slow that store owners couldn’t claim they were too busy to look over the line. We had 44 states without a customer. So, as lousy as things were, we still managed to get their attention and their business. The products were great as were the values. Every dealer we opened was given a sizeable, exclusive trading area. By 2013, Max had 800 dealers outside the West, its sales had more than doubled, and the brand had become well established in the wood sector.”
During the last two years, Spirer turned his attention to the product side, becoming convinced that wood can be milled and color-enhanced to create exciting new styling effects.
“The consumer we serve will consider unique products, as long as they have a natural look,” the old master explains. “These don’t always become volume sellers, but they enliven dealer showrooms and give flooring specialists an edge on the big boxes who aren’t good at selling anything out of the ordinary.”
Spirer has a beef with the large mills that cater to home store chains. “The major mills have painted themselves into a corner by selling to the big boxes at rock bottom prices against which flooring specialists can’t compete. The playing field is no longer level. The next big question is ‘Who will they abandon at the end of the day, when they may be forced to choose between the independent retailer and the big box? It’s coming down to that. My hope is that some visionary will figure it out and back away from the home centers.”
Curious at where he’s going, I ask, “Suppose there isn’t such a visionary, what will retail look like in 10 years?”
The question puzzles Spirer and he pauses for a few seconds, then replies, “The retail flooring specialist is my hero. He gets up every day facing increasingly difficult odds. He knows the numbers, he accepts reality, and he becomes more and more resourceful in managing his business. He will survive and prosper despite the pressures. He doesn’t like having so few suppliers and so little leverage, but he is learning to handle the competition from home centers. He’s figuring out that by the time the boxes get done with their charges and add-ons, he can beat just about any deal they come up with. Ten or more years from now, we’re betting that, in the end, he will win.”
Building a Brand
OK, I say to myself, and then ask, “What will Max Windsor do to help?”
“For openers,” he quickly says, anticipating the question, “we won’t sell to home centers. They do nothing to enhance the brand, and building the brand is the centerpiece of our marketing strategy. Next, we will set in motion our selling systems, which will produce more sales at higher margins for our partner stores. We do not sell to Internet pirates. We know that flooring knowledge is the retailer’s major weapon, but store owners are so busy with running the business, they seldom have the time to effectively train sales staff.
“In a way that’s good,” he continues, “because it provides an opening for dialogue and training between our sales staff and his. No matter what, training is the supplier’s responsibility, and we take it very seriously. We believe our approach will change the way hardwood is sold.”
As a friend, I know I can say to him: “That’s a pretty bold statement. Max Windsor’s a relatively small player. Do you really think you have that kind of clout?”
“We have as much clout as we think we have,” Spirer replies. “Being a small company doesn’t mean we have to think like a small company. I learned a long time ago that size is a temporary phenomenon. The world is changing, and the industry is changing right along with it. We expect to be a catalyst for change and we expect to grow quickly by doing what we do best.”
I question, “What would that be?”
“Thinking like our retailer partners,” says Spirer. “We will walk in his shoes and work with him to help him become the best wood source in his community.”
Playing devil’s advocate, now, I prod, “I’ve heard many companies make statements like that. How likely is it that the retailer will select you to partner with him?”
A pragmatist, Spirer says many retailers won’t be interested for one reason or the other. “We’re not looking for a vast number of stores to partner with. Right now, there are some merchants around the country who will understand what we’re doing and want to participate. Their success will influence others, so that over the course of time we will grow the base of dedicated Max Windsor dealers. We have a winning program and it will breed success.”
Selling wood, he adds, doesn’t require a high level of assortment. “What it does require is a commitment to learning the business, consistent training of store staff, and the good sense to commit floor space to floors—not fixtures. Shoppers are impressed with floors when they shop. These beautiful products are best evaluated where they will ultimately be installed: On the floor.”
What about the actual product, I wonder. So I ask him, “What will you be doing product-wise?”
Spirer immediately responds, “This kind of expanding market seeks rational answers. In these circumstances, dealers turn to their suppliers for leadership and direction. Max Windsor helps dealers by carefully researching market trends in the various geographies to determine what sells best where. We offer these regional favorites, encouraging dealers to stock some or all of our Magic 12, a dozen SKUs which are not a set package, but rather, an assortment of the best sellers in that store’s region. Correctly chosen, the Magic 12 should produce more than two-thirds of the dealer’s entire wood sales: Fast turning inventory, immediate satisfaction for the shopper, and good margins for the sellers.”
Beyond that, he adds, “We have some surprises waiting in the wings. We will launch products as they are perfected, and they will be in stock before we launch. I have no interest in waiting for trade shows to introduce products. From our standpoint, those days are gone—and good riddance to them.”
I then ask Spirer to once again look into his crystal ball by asking, “How do you see the landscape changing; what major shifts do you expect?
He responds, “We believe history will repeat, and the wood sector will see consolidation on a major scale by 2020. I expect manufacturers in China to acquire supply and distribution in this country, whether that means acquiring American manufacturers, importers, retailers or even distributors. Some of those U.S. dollars they have in their banks will be deployed to establish roots in industries like ours, which they are already supplying. It’s inevitable. They know hardwood, and they will be a huge force to contend with.”
Would he care to speculate on the future of wood flooring as one product among many in the sector?
“With pleasure. Wood flooring is one of those materials that isn’t going anywhere. Residential vinyl products have allowed consumers to capture the look of stone and hardwood, and laminate has done the same by looking wood-like. But stone and wood are always the first choice for those who can afford them, and for a very good reason: They’re real. People have loved wood flooring for centuries, and still do.
“Demand is directly tied to affordability,” he adds, “so if you see a growing economy in the future, wood will follow right along with the creation of wealth. Despite those who ring their hands over the economic woes of this country, and they are troublesome, America has never been richer. Politics aside, rich consumers in the population want real things—real stone, real hardwood floors and real wool carpet. I doubt theses will ever be driven off the market by synthetic materials.”
With that, I close our discussion by asking, “You really are bullish about the prospects for Max Windsor?”
To which he replies: “I’m bullish about every aspect of what goes on in my life. You can’t establish much of anything if you don’t believe down deep it will succeed. On the strength of keen marketing, Max Windsor will come close to doubling its sales each year for the next three years. We have a practical game plan, a powerful product offering, and an unwavering commitment to be one of the sector’s Top 10 businesses. We are lucky as can be to work in one of the most fascinating and rewarding industries in America. I’ve loved it for over 50 years, and I’m planning to love it for many more.”