Exclusive Q&A with Heads of FIANA and CFI
We had the chance to sit down with both Doug Ray, FIANA’s president and chairman, and Jim Walker, CFI’s CEO, to discuss how this partnership came about, what they felt about the show and where they think the industry is heading. Look for full coverage on both conventions in an upcoming next issue.
How did this partnership come about?
Ray: Both CFI and FIANA have been looking over the years for ways we could help one another. We have a lot of the same customers, but both organizations remain very unique. Because of CFI’s last-minute changes to its convention plan, they ended up in the same city. We were able to work with Jim and Jane Walker very closely and ask if there was something we could do. We concentrated on two things. One was a mutual tour of the USG facility in New Orleans. The second was the tradeshow. It was nice to be able to give our manufacturer members another audience. We gave CFI [a] morning on the show floor and just let them do their thing. When the CFI members walked through the door in their jackets, our exhibitors just lit up. They were very excited.
FIANA turned 20 this year. Is anything big planned for the anniversary, or is it business as usual?
Ray: I would say more business as usual. Yes, 20 years is a major mark, but what I wanted our members to do as we hit our 20th was take a look at where we were 20 years ago compared to now. Look back and see how fractured the installation supply industry was 20 years ago and see where it is today. A lot of that positive change has to do with FIANA bringing professionalism and unifying that corner of the industry nobody really looked at. That has been our primary mission, and it has been accomplished.
What we’re seeing now is a rise in acquisitions, both in distribution and manufacturing. The big guys are getting bigger. We’re also finding the original distributors of installation supplies are now selling more decorative products, and decorative products distributors are going into installation supplies. That singular distinction is now melding, and it takes the uniqueness a little bit out of the market.
What do you see for the coming generation of owners in this industry?
Ray: We’re in a generational change as we speak. We old guys are getting out of the way, retiring and moving on, and a whole new generation is coming in. There is a massive technology shift, and many more tools. How do you take that technology and apply it correctly?
When you have an installer in front of your counter, I used to say the strongest part of his body was either his back or his knees. Now I think it’s his thumbs—he’s on his phone all the time. So how do the distributor and manufacturer meet that new educational tool? The next generation is not doing things the way we did it, but people still need to walk on a floor and still need the tools to put it down. The end-user still needs to be satisfied—it’s how it’s going to be done that’s different and really exciting.
The role of a manufacturer and a distributor is to disseminate information to that installer. They’re taking a different route to that information, and we have to meet that. I remember when e-commerce scared everyone. These days, it’s a viable competitor and you learn how to deal with it. You might not be able to beat them on price, but you’ve got service. Social media is also there and it’s not going anywhere. All of these things are different.
Would you like to add anything else?
Ray: The attendance this year was about 160 people. That’s a little bit more than last year. We’re seeing more companies bringing more of their employees. I love this organization. It’s so tight-knit and it allows you time to build relationships. You’re not fighting a crowd in the aisle to visit a booth. You’re going there to make a friend. FIANA is informational. It’s about relationship building.
Those values have not changed.
How would you rate this year’s CFI convention?
Walker: It was like all the other conventions CFI has had. The camaraderie was great. It wasn’t as big as what we’ve normally had—this year was about 140 people—but the interest was great, and it was sincere. Overall the feedback I got was very positive.
The flooring industry is beginning to understand the problem it’s facing now, the lack of qualified installers. They say, “Jim, what are we going to do? Where are we going to get new installers?” That’s asked of me almost every time I’m on the road. The installation dilemma could be solved simply by manufacturers putting a note on the back of their product that states, “This product must be installed by a qualified installer.” If the mills required it, then the retailers would fall in line.
Do you think low pay is another problem keeping installers out of the market?
Walker: Absolutely. In 1961, my cost of labor—not including the removal of furniture, sweeping and everything else we expect installers to do now—was the same price we have today.
Most retailers put no value on installation. Not all, but most.
There is no requirement to become a carpet installer. All you need to do is walk vertically, own a knee kicker, an electric tacker and a utility knife. I’d love to see that change—for there to be some kind of credentials to identify those who are out there bettering themselves with training and education. That is what CFI is designed to do.
Are there any concrete ways installers can find better-paying jobs?
Walker: We don’t want to tell our members what to charge on a job, but we can tell them what it’s worth. It comes down to the soft skills—how you present yourself. I’ve walked onto a lot of mediocre carpet installations but the installer’s attitude had left the customer satisfied. Our job is to get the installers to a point where they’re going to be recognized, and feel that pride. We want them to be proud of that installation.
I’ve worked in private, million-dollar houses, and I’ll tell you, those are no more important to me than pre-manufactured homes. I’m using the same iron, the same tape and the same body shows up. The mental attitude has to be, “I want to satisfy that customer.” There is no one customer more important than another. I take a lot of pleasure of looking at a home after I’ve carpeted or tiled it. I made that happen.
Retailers, your installers when properly trained are the best sales representatives you will ever have. You put millions of dollars in marketing your store, you train your salespeople, but when it comes to installers the question is still: How cheap and how fast? I will never understand that.
Why is training and certification so important for installers?
Walker: Some of the guys will come to our association and say, “I’ve been in this industry 25 years, and I’ve never seen these techniques before.” All they know is “fuzzy side up.” Some guys who come to class will say, “We don’t power-stretch anything under 15 x 15-feet. We don’t seal seams for cut-pile carpet, only Berbers.”
There is a set of rules that installers cherry-pick from, rather than following to the letter. We need to change that and have uniformity across the country.
It’s almost like we’re still at an embryo state. The industry has a beautiful product, but we bastardize it by selling it to anyone—anyone can open a [flooring] store. And then they bastardize it by not properly training their salespeople. And then they bastardize it by hiring the cheapest installer. And then we have the audacity to ask whether the customer is going to be satisfied?
Are there any tips you can give installers on presenting themselves?
Walker: All I ask is that when you are in the home, treat it like a castle. Respect the customer and respect the customer’s home. That’s what we’re trying to teach along with hand skills. We’re trying to change the culture.
So many guys are just trying to make a living based on what they learned from the guy down the street. You’re going to get by, but life would be so much better if you just learn these skills the right way. Just come to a chapter meeting, see what’s going on. You will learn something before you leave. I guarantee it.
Any final thoughts on this year’s convention?
Walker: One thing CFI teaches is to buy from your local distributor. Support the people who support you. That has been our goal from day one. Over the years with FIANA we’ve talked about co-sponsoring a convention together, but it never came together. This year, on short notice, they invited us in.
When we were asked to do it this year, we said “We’ll only do it if we can get a hotel within our means that’s close.” It worked out. And our members love it. They got to see everything new before anybody else. They’re very proud of this, and very proud that FIANA invited us over. Nothing has been said about whether this will happen again, but the response to it this year was fantastic. Everyone has been so friendly.