Almost 30 years ago, Janice Clifton was working as a public accountant and helping a local cash-and-carry flooring retailer exit the business. After finding a buyer for the client’s company, she thought her affiliation with the industry was pretty much done.
However, when the deal fell through, Clifton did some soul searching and realized it might be a sign to find a more fulfilling career path as she was tiring of public accounting. After working out the numbers and the business’ potential, she arranged to buy the 12,000-sq.-ft. operation for no money down.
One of the earliest decisions she made when taking over the business was to seek out help from throughout the flooring community. First, she joined a flooring group within two years of running the store to create Abbey Carpets Unlimited Design Center. Second, Clifton connected with retailers from all over the country by joining the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA).
“At that point,” she explains, “All I knew was books. [Abbey] helped lay the foundation and connected me with numerous close-by stores who taught me a lot.”
After a little bit of success, the business evolved beyond cash-and-carry to become full service, handling everything from special orders to installation. As well, Clifton decided to take on some more risk and purchase the building for no money down from the landlord and add 5,000 square feet of storage space to support the growing company.
Also, she has always been able to maintain a strong focus on training for herself and everyone on the team, whether it be through WFCA led educational sessions or through programs offered by Abbey.
One of the key motivational tactics she picked up has been to work with a commission-free business model. To ensure an equitable division of profits, everyone on her team, from warehouse to bookkeeper to sales, receives bonuses at the end of the year to supplement their base salaries.
With current annual sales hovering around $6 million, her staff is genuinely happy with the arrangement. And, even in some of the leaner years during the last recession, the arrangement worked to everyone’s benefit with a paycheck coming home every week even when customers were not spending. Even though her team did lose some income with less profits to share, “I didn’t lose employees,” Clifton proudly points out.
“[Clifton] really doesn’t care what the bottom line is and that separates us from a lot of competitors,” adds Victoria Calhoun, a sales agent with Clifton for the last quarter century. “She wants customers to be happy with the right products for their homes and is always very honest and up front about what we are selling.”
Clifton explains, “I don’t have to train people to like their customers. They genuinely want to help no matter the size of the sale.”
“It’s very unusual to work for somebody that always operates on honor and integrity,” Calhoun says. “You really get to serve the community.”
Of the Abbey brand, they both say customers get the confidence of buying from a national name while remaining true to supporting locally owned and operated businesses.
Another motivator for Clifton’s team is her focus on family. In her own experience when Calhoun’s children were young, she recounts Clifton saying, “’Whatever you have to do to be a good mother, we will work around it.’ She cares about you as a person and it makes you more attached to the person and company.”
That commitment to family carries through to Clifton’s own family. When she first took over the company, her father had come out of semi-retirement to lend his business acumen to the fledgling business for a few years. As well, her husband has been a part of the operation since he retired 20 years ago, complementing her weakness with his strengths.
“He is really good at what I am terrible at: Logistics, computers and the like” she says. “What I do well, he doesn’t want to deal with. It works great for us because we aren’t tripping on each other’s part of the business and, we hardly ever fight. People laugh at us, but it’s really true.”
In fact, most of Clifton’s staff has been with the store for more than 20 years. “I think keeping that consistent sales staff is helpful with customers,” she says.
Over the years, as the business evolved, her product offering expanded to include a full line of tile. The segment, which is primarily private labeled, accounts for 40% of Clifton’s sales—even though it only takes up 25% of the showroom floor.
One of the reasons she believes ceramic has been such a strong product for the company is, “we’re not competing against our own suppliers who are at least 30 minutes away. It’s hard when your supplier of tile is also your competition.”
The private labeling also helps avoid seeing customers take the job somewhere else after her team has put the effort in making the sale.
Clifton believes it’s best to do whatever is necessary to retain customers. Private labeling helps, but she has found keeping an eye on customer service before and after the sale has been the best way to ensure longevity.
With difficult or unhappy customers, she “takes it on as a challenge. While we don’t get them too often, when you have a customer who is difficult and you make her happy the referrals she gives are the best because her friends also know how difficult that person can be.”
The culture of helping customers is so paramount in the company, Calhoun notes, “If [Clifton] is out of the store and you have to make a decision for the customer, it doesn’t matter if the decision is profitable or not. As long as the customer is happy, you’ll never make a mistake.”
Another factor in Clifton’s success has been her affiliation with WFCA. While originally joining the organization to give back to the industry, she joined the board 13 years ago at the urging of Jay Kopelson, vice president for Mannington Mills.
“He told me the great things the organization did and how much it needed a woman store owner to be part of the board,” she says. “As I became more involved, I realized he was correct. The organization does so many things for our industry that no one else wants to tackle: Legislative, installation and marketing of flooring as a product category.”
Clifton’s involvement with WFCA grew from serving on the board for six years to joining the executive committee seven years ago. In addition, she is the organization’s immediate past chairwoman.
“I have been so fortunate to sit with an incredible group of men and women on our board,” she notes. “The people on the board are many of the top people in the industry and have such knowledge to share. As we share [in and out of meetings], I have learned so much about improving my business.”