When Don Herndon, owner of Classic Wood Flooring and long-time customer of Wheeler, learned J.J. Haines was acquiring the Orlando, Fla.-based distributor, he had some initial trepidation. “I was concerned about this big corporation out of Baltimore not caring about things. But the truth is they care about the smallest details.”
When he was later invited to Maryland for a big corporate meeting with Haines and its suppliers and customers, Herndon was anxious for a different reason. “Here you are sitting in a room with some powerful people who have been customers [of Haines] for 80 years. I was a newbie. But everyone there made us feel right at home, just like family. We’re a mom-and-pop retailer, so we are comfortable with being treated like family.”
Whether it is a relatively new customer like Classic Wood Flooring or generational partners like Avalon Carpet Tile & Flooring, Armstrong or Acousti Engineering, the story is consistent. The relationship Haines forms with its customers is more like a bond, a partnership built on caring, commitment and service.
“They are the No. 1 distributor we turn to for our needs; that pretty much sums it up,” said Jerry Caito, director of strategic alliances, Acousti Engineering, a commercial build-out company that does flooring, ceilings and drywall in 18 locations, 12 in Florida. “They give a personal touch whereas a lot of other companies are robotic in their methods.”
Maryanne Adams, president and CEO of Avalon Carpet Tile & Flooring based in Cherry Hill, N.J., put it this way: “You do business with people you like to do business with, and Haines is a great business partner. They provide merchandising and marketing support, sales and training support. They have a great product line and strategically go after very good quality products. They do a great job of aligning themselves with quality manufacturers.”
Armstrong has been doing business with Haines for more than 100 years, a partnership that has grown and prospered over the decades. Matt Espe, who was appointed CEO and president of Armstrong in July 2010, said it is a “privilege” to be partners with such a respected distributor as Haines. “I think it’s mutual trust and mutual respect, and understanding each other’s role in the market [that has made this partnership so successful]. They have had changes in leadership over the years, we’ve had changes in leadership over the years, but the relationship continues to grow, and that’s the important thing. Both companies are mutually committed to defining and expanding the relationship.”
Espe said distribution plays a vital role in Armstrong’s go-to-market strategy. “The coverage distribution adds for us is mission critical,” he said. “Our job is to be as transparent and efficient a partner as we can be, to be easy to do business with. We’re very comfortable sharing relevant information with Haines to optimize the coverage.”
Customers talk about Haines’ attention to detail, quality customer service, ability to pick winning products, expert training. The list goes on. It all adds up to the flooring industry’s leading distributor.
The Haines approach
During the summer and fall of 2010, Haines asked a highly reputable research firm, Kadence International, to conduct “blind” research. There were three objectives in mind: find out what is important to Haines’ customers, how they compare Haines to the competition, and what Haines could do better for them. More than 450 customers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey and down through Florida were interviewed. Bruce Zwicker, president and CEO, said his company learned a lot from the findings. “In short, we learned we were very highly viewed in all markets, and we learned what we could do to improve and even differentiate ourselves. As a result, we will be launching a project soon.”
Haines’ strategy is multifold: stay focused and work hard, keep striving to be the best distributor from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and all the way south to Florida take care of customers; bring the market to its suppliers; do the selling and operations job consistently better than the competition; sell the best brands to help customers draw in consumers; keep evolving and innovating, and retain the core values that make Haines No. 1.
The challenges of 2010
If the economy and housing woes were not enough, Haines had the added burden of losing Wilsonart—“a great brand at one time,” Zwicker said, “and the disruption caused by our switch to Indusparquet from BR- 111.”
Despite these events, Haines increased sales and gained share, with its most dramatic growth occurring in south Florida and Georgia. “Overall, we grew because some suppliers gave us their lines in these areas and/or we became the exclusive distributor for some suppliers,” Zwicker said.
Many of the distributor’s suppliers, including Armstrong, Mirage, Anderson, Mapei, Tarkett, American Olean, LMF, Marrazi, Columbia, Penwood and Roppe, introduced aggressive programs. Haines also rolled out a number of new products for its suppliers. All the while, it maintained a high level of service. “In fact, the number of customers joining the Haines Loyalty Club increased each year during the recession,” Zwicker said.
Wheeler growth continues
Haines has been happy with the growth of Wheeler in Florida. Beginning in 2007 four warehouses came on line, starting with Wheeler’s Orlando warehouse and a warehouse in South Carolina. In 2010, Haines added a warehouse in south Florida and Atlanta. “We have helped Wheeler become much more productive and effective. Their product portfolio is much stronger,” Zwicker said. “They have some new talent while retaining the very best of their loyal Wheeler team. We integrated many of their back-office functions into Baltimore while retaining the Florida focus. In other words, we didn’t take them over. Rather, we helped them, including greatly improving their benefits.”