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Interview with Robert A. Hill
Founder and Chairman of Floor Covering Associates
-Interview gathered from various trade publications…
You are a busy guy! You were just appointed to the position of Chairman of the WFCA (World Floor Covering Association). You also own Floor Covering Associates and FCA Network, and are on the Board of the NFA (National Floorcovering Alliance). Tell us how you think Associations can be of help to both the manufacturers and retailers and what inspired you to accept the position of Chairman of the WFCA.
The WFCA is virtually the only place where all segments of our industry can come together – retailers, manufacturers, distributors, installers and members of the related service industries-for information and ideas that will create a stronger business future. I took on the job of Chairman of the WFCA because I believe that our industry is at a crossroads, and needs fresh ideas and resources in order to flourish in the difficult times ahead.
What are the benefits of WFCA membership since it is not a local association?
To begin with-a surprising and little-known fact: For the low membership cost of $250.00 per year, members are immediately eligible to receive trade scholarships for their employees of up to $500.00 per year. This is the only membership I know of where a single benefit alone exceeds the annual membership fee.
Our members also benefit from access to unbiased information on everything from new installation techniques and creative problem-solving, to the latest consumer behavior and marketing research. In addition, our certification program enables members who qualify by taking a test to call themselves WFCA-certified flooring experts, thus giving them a distinction in the marketplace. For a full list of benefits, take a look at www.wfca.org.
What are your goals for the WFCA during your tenure as Chairman, and how will you make a difference?
As you know, over the past five years the specialty floor covering retailer has lost ground to the national home center chains. Home centers reportedly sell 40% of all floor covering today. I hope to make a difference by encouraging dealers to get their salespeople to increase their knowledge and professionalism by taking the WFCA test to become qualified as “Certified Flooring Experts” (CFE’s). The Chicago Floor Covering Association is already taking the lead in this. I believe that only by improving our professionalism at every level will we be able to successfully differentiate ourselves from the home centers and bring customers to our stores.
You started FCA as a single operation in the middle of a cornfield and have grown into a hugely successful retailer with multiple store locations. Did you anticipate this happening when you first opened?
Frankly, when I started FCA, my goal was to make a living. Looking back today, I realize that our growth has come from looking for opportunities to create new businesses, and from moving quickly when we perceive there is a niche for us to fill.
What is your basic philosophy of conducting business?
That’s an easy question – take care of your customer, make a profit and pay your bills on time. When you take care of your customer, she will take care of you. When you make a profit, you can pay your bills on time. When you pay your bills on time, your suppliers will also take care of you. Most importantly, when you make a profit, you can afford to take care of your good employees and keep them happy and productive.
The NFA is a buying group of the top 33 largest retailers in the country – describe this group.
This is an interesting organization. We meet only three times a year. At least one of those meetings is devoted to roundtable meetings with the senior executives of all of the major manufacturers in the industry. We also learn a lot from each other. We do a “best practices” session once a year, and it is just incredible how much you can learn from other top retailers. We aren’t the largest dealers in the country by accident.
You are a board member of that group and also started FCA Network. What makes FCA Network different from other buying groups?
The FCA Network is the only buying group that was started by a successful retailer. We understand the retail business, and we share what we’ve learned from our own experience about running a successful business, solving problems and increasing profitability. Nobody understands your business better than someone else who’s in the same boat. And nobody can be more helpful than someone who’s actually been there. FCA Network is an unusual buying group model that works. It’s a very tightly knit family. We all help one another.
You also are in Home Furnishings. You started a Home Furnishings and Design Center in Naperville a couple of years ago and it seems to be doing great…what prompted you getting into the furniture business and how is it doing?
I have always enjoyed furniture and design. Actually, my first job out of college was working in a furniture store. I’m fascinated by the challenges in home furnishings. I’ve watched ABC in New York, Carpets of Dalton, and Nebraska Furniture Mart to name three, all graduate, if you will, from floor covering into home furnishings. It seemed like a logical next step for FCA.
As it’s turned out, we’ve learned many things that apply to our floor covering business from our design business. Most importantly, designers sell floor covering differently from floor covering salespeople. Designers focus almost exclusively on such things as color, texture, pattern and the “feel” of the material. They don’t sell price or warrantees or performance. They sell a “look”, a coordinated design where the entire room, indeed the entire house, comes together. All the elements, flooring, lighting, furniture, window treatments, must work to make a unified statement. In other words, designers really do sell fashion. They don’t just talk about it. They are light years ahead of us.
There seems to be a shift in our industry in the percentage of hard surface vs. soft surface sold. What percentage of your business is Hard Surface?
We are approximately 50% hard surface, and the trend is holding.
How does FCA compete against the big boxes?
Whenever we go head- to -head, we always win. The problem is that we don’t always get the opportunity to compete. The home centers have built an incredible business where consumers habitually shop their stores for all of their home- improvement needs. Consumers have learned to trust the home centers because they know what to expect. They don’t have high expectations for service, but they do know they will get a good value, and if there is a problem, the store will take care of it. The problem we have is bringing the consumer into our stores in order to compete. I always say: “if we can get them in the door, we can make the sale.”
There seems to be fewer independent floor covering retailers today than 5 years ago. Is this a sign of things to come?
I’ve been looking for statistics to confirm that. The business is changing and the specialty retailer is definitely at a disadvantage if he doesn’t commit himself to changing with the times. Joining any one of the fine independent “merchandising” groups (I prefer this to the term “buying group,” because they all do so much more for the retailer than just buying.) will be essential. Very few dealers will be able to survive in the future if they are not committed to change.
How has the internet changed the floor covering industry?
It is still too early to tell, and no one I know has solid objective information on it. Anecdotally, we think the consumer comes into the store with more information, but frankly, I think many also come into the store more confused.
I used to believe that people would not buy floor covering over the internet, but I was wrong. Some of the online stores are doing a terrific job – especially in laminates.
I’m pretty certain that many consumers, especially younger ones, will use the internet to find their local dealers. That’s the reason the WTCA is making such a huge investment in developing its website, and the reason that every floor covering store owner should become a member of the association in order to be identified on line.
The Chicago Floor Covering Association appreciates your giving us some of your extremely limited spare time and feels lucky that the new Chairman of the WFCA is a member of our organization. Anything you’d like to add?
I feel lucky that I stumbled into this business when I graduated from college. I didn’t know it at the time, but it gets into your blood. It’s full of great people and great challenges-it makes life interesting.
About Floor Covering Associates
Since 1976, FCA Flooring Specialists (FCA) has specialized in the supply and installation of flooring, carpets, hardwood, laminate, LVT, Bamboo, Ceramic tiles, and more to the southern and western suburbs of Chicago. Today, FCA a locally owned and managed company is one of the largest flooring retailers in the country. The company includes major retail centers in Shorewood IL, Naperville IL, Kankakee IL, Merrillville IN, and St. Charles, IL as well as a Design Center which sells furniture and draperies, a commercial division, and an online store.