FEI Group members growing stronger despite challenges

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Jay Smith, FEI president, is flanked by Graham Howerton, left, VP, and Andy Hogan, EVP/CPO.

Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.—“Attitude of Gratitude” was the theme conveyed at the FEI Group annual conference held here last month, a message certainly apropos for this group. Despite evidence of softness in some flooring segments, FEI’s trajectory is through the roof—now with 655 locations, up from 535 a year ago, and more than $900 million collectively in additional top-line sales year-over-year.

For that, FEI executives said they are eternally grateful, and were happy to spread the good vibes over three days here at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa. Citing a Deloitte study showing the No. 1 success factor for a business is an engaged and motivated workforce (84% agreed), FEI president Jay Smith encouraged members to appreciate their workforce, noting, “You’ve got great people; take care of them. And say, ‘thank you.’ That’s where Attitude of Gratitude comes in.”

From meager beginnings—FEI started with 10 members two decades ago—to today’s five-division powerhouse, FEI has created a culture that breeds success. “People see and recognize that this club is the best of the best, the most elite, ethical people in the industry, and that attracts other people,” Graham Howerton, vice president, told FCNews. “As the saying goes, ‘Your vibe attracts your tribe.’”

That tribe just got one division larger during convention with the news that Exterior Contractor Alliance— which specializes in roofing, siding and gutters for residential and commercial accounts—had joined the group. It is the first division “outside” of the home; however, executives said they see ECA as a great fit that will create synergies across the group. FEI’s other divisions—Home Solutions on the builder side, MultiFamily Solutions serving apartments and two organizations for kitchen and bath—are all growing. And there are reasons to believe that success will continue. To wit:

  • Builder confidence hit a 20-month high last month, up three percentage points.
  • Multifamily housing continues to show an appetite for growth, led in part by millennials as well as baby boomers.
  • Single-family rental has become what Howerton called “an amazing” segment. According to Pew Research, millennials—which accounts for roughly half of U.S. households with children—are more likely to rent than own a home compared to previous generations.
  • Household formations are on the rise. A study by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing noted that the rate of household formation is rising in line with population growth, with annual gains of nearly 200,000 on average since 2015.

Experienced FEI Group veterans and new attendees alike gave high marks to the three-day event, which included presentations, seminars, a vendor connect trade show, beach party and golf events. Don Finkell, CEO of American OEM, was attending the FEI conference for the first time and said he made contact with several accounts interested in the company’s SPC/wood hybrid Raintree line. “What I liked most about it was that the number of attendees was pretty small, but they each have big potential,” he told FCNews. “You can easily forget how successful they are and when you look at their combined buying power—it’s impressive. It’s either the smoothest and most professional event I have ever attended, or they really are just a bunch of friends doing business with friends. It felt like a reunion more than a business meeting.”

FEI conference regular Redi Carpet sent nine of its members to the event, and president/COO Jerry Hosko was not disappointed. “In addition to the seminars, I had some very good one-on-one conversations with other members about the common issues we all face in this business, with labor at the top of the list,” he said. “Networking with other members is always the most important aspect of what we do at conference. We all have common challenges and needs, but we also have different approaches that we can learn from.”

That cross-pollenization of ideas among disparate business groups is one of the hallmarks of a FEI convention, according to Nick Freadreacea, president of The Flooring Gallery, a multi- store dealer in Louisville, Ky. “With everyone from veterans like Larry Barr, who dominates the new construction industry [as president of the Artisan Design Group], to the newest up-and-comer like Adam Nonn [president/CEO of Nonn’s Kitchen Bath & Flooring], who balances his business with retail, to Brian Caress [CEO of Redi Carpet] who is a master of multifamily, there is a wealth of knowledge to be had and all are willing to share.”

New initiatives

A year ago, FEI Group launched the Climb Leadership Program to develop and enhance the leadership skills of high-potential employees. The first session, held in Atlanta in May, featured 75 rising stars who took part in broad-based education on what it means to be a leader in flooring and cabinetry. “The way the leadership program was received was beyond our wildest dreams,” Dave Gheesling, CEO, said of the biennial initiative.

Starting in 2020 FEI will launch the All Aboard onboarding initiative for industry member employees. The program will encompass product training, technical industry education including glossary and terms, and three business-to-business selling programs.

During the conference several top executives raved about another FEI program—Big Rocks Financial—which is designed to help CFOs and others with fiduciary responsibility to better understand cash flow, collections, inventory and ways to achieve overall profitability.

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Oct. 28/Nov. 4, 2019

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