CFI convention: Dawn of a new era for installation association

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November 30/December 14; Volume 30/Number 12

By Ken Ryan

Dallas—The 22nd annual International Certified Floorcovering Installers (CFI) convention was held here last month, but to Robert Varden, the new CEO, it might as well have been the first.

“We are in our infancy,” Varden told members and associates. “We are born in an age with so much opportunity. We have so many more resources now with the WFCA [World Floor Covering Association].”

In September the WFCA finalized its acquisition of CFI, which will operate as a separate division. Scott Humphrey, CEO of the WFCA, echoed Varden’s comments, telling attendees, “This is a new day. From this point forward it is about your legacy. You have a platform. You are the solution to the problem. The fact is the industry needs you like never before, and we are here to support you, not tell you what to do.”

Not every CFI member was in favor of the WFCA acquisition. After all, as the flooring industry’s largest advocacy group WFCA exists primarily to ensure the success and profitability of the flooring dealer. “The original objection was that we are a retailer organization and CFI would lose their autonomy,” Humphrey said. “That was never the desire.”

Tom Jennings, vice president of professional development for the WFCA, equated the CFI-WFCA relationship to that of Buick and General Motors. A Buick employee’s checks are signed by Buick but all the resources and benefits come from GM, the parent company.

As to why the WFCA would be interested in acquiring CFI, Humphrey relayed a story of when he was an executive at Shaw Industries and had an opportunity to speak with Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Shaw. “I asked Warren, ‘Why did you buy Shaw?’ And he said that he looked for companies with great leadership that were undervalued. We see the same thing with CFI. I knew we had a team in which we could hand off the leadership reins to Robert. This is a phenomenal group of talented people. Our goal is not to change this thing except to make your voice louder.”

Varden, Humphrey and Jennings held a Q&A with members during the opening session. No question or subject was off limits.

Humphrey later used stories to illustrate the importance of leadership, making the right choices, and adapting and embracing change. He particularly noted how difficult it is for people to truly change when they are set in their ways. He cited a story in the magazine Fast Company, headlined “Change or Die.” In the article, Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University, said studies have shown that 90% of people who undergo coronary artery bypass grafting have not changed their lifestyles two years later—the same lifestyle that created the problem. “And that’s been studied over and over again,” Miller said in the article. “Even though these people know they have a very bad disease and know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t.”

Humphrey said when he was approached for the WFCA job he was 50 years old, had four children at home and had served 25 years at Shaw. “I understand how difficult it is to change.”

CFI will continue to change. The organization that for more than two decades has certified and trained installers will now also recruit the next generation. CFI opened a new training school in Forney, Texas, on Sept. 29 that is already drawing students from across the globe. The campus will provide long- and short-term training programs on every category of flooring for students at all levels. To start, the school will be offering R1C1 courses in carpet certification, one- and two-week classes in all hard surfaces, and an extensive course on carpet installation designed to turn entry-level individuals into professional residential carpet installers in five weeks. By mid-2016 there will be six CFI-led training schools in the U.S., including three by the end of March.

Varden said the labor shortage crisis opens a window of opportunity for CFI. “We have been a certifying body all these years. We have got to evolve [by] training individuals and recruiting. We have to because we have lost two generations of installers.”

According to CFI’s estimates, close to 60% of installers in the field today have 15-plus years of experience. Five years from now there will be 20% fewer installers than there are today. And in the next 10 years the flooring industry will lose 50% of the current installation force. The message is clear: The industry has to work together on this problem or it will face peril. “It will affect everybody, and if we’re unable to adapt we won’t be able to sustain,” Humphrey said.

This year’s convention included another CFI partner —John McGrath, director of the International Standards and Training Alliance (INSTALL). As a guest of Varden’s, McGrath spoke both at the pre-event reception and opening session.

“We walk the same path as CFI,” he said. “I don’t think there is any concern to continue to work together. Ultimately we are both trying to do the same thing. There are always ways to help each other out when you are trying to do good things.”

INSTALL already has working relationships with Carpet & Rug Institute (CRI), Starnet, Fuse Alliance and the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA). Humphrey wants to see more collaboration. “One of the most frustrating things for me is to see how the industry operates in silos,” he said. “We are not here just to support and promote CFI. There are areas of common interest with INSTALL and then there will be times when we say, ‘John, this is yours,’ and we won’t be involved.”

Varden said CFI has gone through a significant transition over the last year. Gone are founding CEO Jim Walker, a member of the WFCA Hall of Fame, and his wife, Jane Walker, who handled communications functions for the group.

Despite the changes, the closeness among CFI members and associates is evident. “CFI matters,” Humphrey said. “When you see the camaraderie, you see that it matters. CFI also has clout. Our job is to magnify their voice so they can make a difference to this industry.”

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