May 11/18, 2015; Volume 29/Number 3
By Ken Ryan
Importing hardwood flooring from China has certainly had its share of challenges lately. In the aftermath of the Lumber Liquidators/Chinese laminate debacle, U.S.-based suppliers who source from Asia are under increasing scrutiny to demonstrate compliance all while working to market differentiated products.
Despite these obstacles, many suppliers believe they can solve both issues: meeting compliance standards and delivering distinctive offerings for their customers.
Peter Spirer, CEO of MaxWoods, said in today’s competitive market, outstanding features are soon copied by the next guy. “Advantages are erased quickly. Nonetheless, we continue to shoot for a unique line of products, knowing the competition will nail you on one or two. A strong line of products provides both our customers and us with competitive insulation.”
Johnson Hardwood knows a little bit about differentiation; its Alehouse series won a 2015 Best of Surfaces award in the Style & Design category. “We’re known for innovative, trendsetting products and techniques we’ve developed,” said Bill Schollmeyer, CEO. These techniques include multi-width combinations (Tuscan and its new Roma Series); long-length, wide-width products like English Pub and Alehouse, and a double hand-staining process to give its upgrade products a unique look.
Hallmark’s Organic line, a hit with flooring retailers, plays on the trend of natural, reclaimed and aged products. The company spent two years on R&D to perfect the process, including a 10-step proprietary protocol that “mimics what would be found in nature if you allowed a hardwood floor to be touched by the elements and then gently smoothed over by human touch,” explained Ron Oliver, vice president of sales and marketing.
Hallmark has also invested in finishes that solve two consumer needs: fewer scratches and ease of maintenance. “We believe we have both covered, first in our Glazetek finish, which is three times more durable than normal polyurethane floors that allows that ‘just installed’ look to last longer,” Oliver said. “Additionally, our thermal-baked, oil-finished collections have our NuOil finish that guards against stains, color walk off, needs no additional coat after installation and uses non-flammable cleaning products.”
While being a large, U.S.-based manufacturer would appear to have many advantages in today’s market, being nimble has its benefits as well. “We are comparatively small potatoes in the general market,” Spirer said. “We don’t want to remain small, but while we are our reaction speed and ability to respond is often a huge advantage.”
Johnson Hardwood is another lean organization that can turn quickly to react to market conditions. “And that makes us much more customer friendly,” Schollmeyer said.
Urban Floor’s go-to-market strategy is to offer a variety of products in different sizes, textures, finishes and colors that give distributors and retailers sizable profit potential. “In this way we maintain an atmosphere of healthy growth and expansion,” said Tony Em Mergreh, vice president of marketing and customer relations.
Elegance Exotic Wood Flooring has been in business for 13 years, during which it has developed long-standing relationships with customers both here and in Asia. It has the capability to sell factory direct from China to larger customers that buy containers, but it can also service customers from any of its three U.S.-based warehouses, located in Fontana, Calif.; Conover, N.C., and Dallas.
Flooring dealers who carry Elegance often rave about the quality of the product, its precise milling, and say they have experienced few, if any, claims. That is not by accident, according to Lukasz Piatek, vice president of sales and marketing, who said the company’s quality control efforts are the reason for its positive reviews.
Elegance personnel travel to China several times a year making plant visits to oversee operations. In addition, they hold daily conference calls. “Our internal QC team from North America meets over there with our largest vendors to help with product development,” Piatek said. “We weren’t always that efficient, but with constant communication, consulting with other factories and recruiting people from other companies, we turned a challenge into a strength by addressing it and giving it a lot of attention. The challenges now are keeping up with supply.”
Spirer said the best way to achieve compliance is to work with concerned, responsible suppliers. “The Lumber Liquidators story was shocking to the industry, and any factory careless enough to be breaking the law deserves to be shut down. We don’t feel this has ever been a problem for us. Further, I predict that it never will be.”
Hallmark uses a “trust but verify” approach. While the source of information might be considered reliable, it does its own due diligence to verify that such information is accurate and trustworthy. It tests all of its products through an independent third-party laboratory in the U.S. Hallmark said it has been CARB 2 compliant since 2008, long before law required it.
To help address compliance, Johnson Hardwood operates an office in Shanghai for its QC teams. “We maintain regular training meetings with our inspectors to ensure they’re following our protocol,” Schollmeyer said.
Nature Flooring, one of China’s largest hardwood flooring manufacturers, said it has always sourced and manufactured flooring with a focus on the environment. It maintains company-owned forests, which allow it to control the full supply chain, from logs to flooring. “All of our products are FSC certified and meet or exceed CARB 2 compliance,” said Jamann Stepp, CEO. “We are confident the products we manufacture are safe for installation in homes and commercial environments.”
Mergreh said Urban Floor’s meticulous quality control team ensures all its products are produced with the highest standards of integrity. “Our QC team inspects all of our production facilities on a regular basis, guaranteeing our customers that Urban Floor products are safe and the highest quality possible. Long before the Lumber Liquidators episode, our products were undergoing rigorous formaldehyde testing in reputable laboratories here in the U.S. When it comes to the health of our employees and customers, there is simply no room for error.” The company shares the results of these tests on the safety page of its website.