Mix three parts passion and four parts location with over a century of industry experience and you have Atlanta Flooring Design Centers, based in Suwanee, Ga.
What began as a small, one-man operation out of Duluth, Ga., in 1985 has evolved with the industry’s many changes, seeing both ups and downs. Today, the company employs close to 200 people working out of four locations in three states, and has combined annual sales well into eight figures, making it one of the biggest flooring operations in the nation.
Not content to simply serve their customers, the company’s principals—Donny Phillips, president and founder, with responsibility for commercial sales; Frank Winters, vice president and head of operations, and Riley Gazzaway, vice president, with responsibility for builder and retail sales—also actively work on behalf of the industry externally and from within.
Phillips first got the flooring bug when he worked alongside his father and uncle at East Side Carpet Outlet for a couple of years. Initially after college, though, he did what was supposed to be done and began working for a bank in Dalton. The heart of the carpet industry had something else in mind for the young entrepreneur.
“When I was around [Dalton],” he explains, “I saw how dedicated folks were to the north Georgia community. It inspired me to get into the floor covering business.” So in 1985, he founded Atlanta Flooring Design Centers in Duluth, and began a career of giving back that continues to this day.
Similarly a “Dalton boy,” Winters began his flooring career after college at Carpets of Dalton before taking an opportunity to represent the Karastan line in the Atlanta suburb of Cumming, Ga. Very active in his local community and a conscientious businessman, Winters joined forces with Phillips in 1998.
Gazzaway began his flooring career about 50 years ago as a carpet buyer for a chain of retail stores before taking on mill rep roles at Collins & Aikmen and later Columbus Mills. As with many in the flooring industry, his entrepreneurial side took over and around 1980 he opened The Floor Show and ran that business for 20 years before moving to Atlanta Flooring Design in 2000.
Both Phillips and Gazzaway have been active in industry associations throughout their careers, serving on various steering and leadership committees for both the Atlanta Floor Covering and World Floor Covering associations (AFCA and WFCA, respectively). As well, Gazzaway is a past president of both the Southern Floor Covering Association and AFCA; former chairman of the WFCA, and has served on various committees of the Carpet & Rug Institute, National Association of Floor Covering Distributors and the Floor Covering Industry Foundation.
Despite the long list of accomplishments by both him and his management team, Phillips remains grounded, pointing out, “I’m not big on titles. I’m just another employee that’s thankful to have a job and be able to provide for my family.”
Humility aside, the trio have built a strong commercial and residential business in large part by being active in their communities both inside and outside of flooring. Potential clients know the company and its principals long before doing business with them.
“One of the biggest marketing things we have going for us is word of mouth,” explains Michael Barrows, who handles much of the company’s marketing efforts.
That referral business helped the company weather the most recent recession as it retrenched and refocused to grow its homebuilder business to compensate for weakness in other areas. It also gave Phillips the opportunity to explore growth in related categories such as cabinets and countertops.
Because of strong growth in those areas—sales were significantly up in 2011, 2012 and 2013—Phillips warns it is important to manage that progression.
“We have been blessed enough to grow a lot the last five years,” he says. And much of the growth has come organically with existing customers. “We grew so fast at times we were a little reactive with things—like hiring—just to keep up with it.”
Similarly, Gazzaway notes, “We’ve been very fortunate to have the growth we’ve had. Thankfully we have the engine in place, but we need to refine how we increase our profit margins in all divisions. We would be very happy to not have any additional growth and stay where we are and trim out costs.”
Noting how it is easy to get a little complacent about pricing a job less to get it, Phillips says, “We can be more successful selling our service.”
That is one of the company’s key differentiators with its competitors, he explains. “The cornerstone of our business is to treat others like we like to be treated. As a company, we offer service and have the folks who can speak knowledgably and constantly work to meet the demands of customers.”
At the same time, he says the company is open to competition from big boxes, but balances its hours to allow for employees to have family time.
To ensure the sales team is up-to-date with training, Phillips says the company has strong relationships with vendors like Shaw and its Shaw Flooring Network; Mohawk, including its Dal-Tile division; Armstrong’s Bruce brand, and American Home Services Group, which essentially acts as Atlanta Flooring Design Center’s buying group.
Helping to grow customer relationships is the company’s use of the Internet. “The whole market has changed with the Internet and the way it lets you react as a company,” says Barrows.
“Social media and the Internet are probably two of the biggest factors affecting the industry over the last 20 years,” Phillips adds. “They directly impact consumer perceptions of both products and retailers.”
Thankfully, Gazzaway points out, “Over the decades, I have seen the value of floor covering increase dramatically in relation to other manufactured products. At the same time, fashion has come more into the business. Combined, those elements let consumers put floors down at prices they never could have even come close to 20 years ago, and now they have a reason to change products before they wear out.”
For the future, Phillips says he expects continued growth with existing customers.
“We will examine new markets based on the needs of our customers,” he notes, “but I don’t see us getting into other floor covering niche markets beyond the remodeling we have already entered.
“In the end,” he concludes, “our goal is to have a balanced store that can compete and survive the highs and lows in the economy that will inevitably occur.”