By Reginald Tucker
In 2019, when the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) began contemplating potential themes for its 2020 Wood Flooring Expo—originally scheduled to take place in Milwaukee, Wis., April 28-30—it decided to go with the slogan, “Make it Happen.” The theme turned out to be more prescient than anyone could have ever imagined as the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic on U.S. shores just a few months ago put the kibosh on scores of conventions, conferences and events across the country, including the annual NWFA Expo.
But in keeping with the steadfast leadership of the organization, coupled with the creativity, hard work and ingenuity of NWFA employees and the group’s dedicated members and associates, the association “made it happen” anyway via the launch of its first-ever virtual expo, which kicked off in earnest earlier this week.
“I was supposed to be welcoming you all to our annual NWFA conference in Wisconsin, but instead I’m here at my home, like many of you stuck home waiting for this coronavirus to pass,” said Craig Dupra, NWFA chairman and president of Installers Warehouse and Rebel Woods Flooring, Rochester, N.Y., in his opening remarks to the 600-some-odd “attendees” during the virtual expo’s opening session. “It’s often said that necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s certainly the case with the creation of this virtual event. The physical expo was cancelled, but the most important thing is we’re coming together virtually. Over the course of three days, you’ll have the chance to participate in more than 30 events, exhibitor demos and technical presentations from our regional instructors in a variety of networking rooms. From manufacturer groups, to technical expert rooms, attendees get the chance to enjoy the same networking and education without the cost of travel.”
Mike Martin, NWFA president and CEO, echoed Dupra’s sentiments. “Coronavirus not only derailed our expo, but it also derailed our world in general,” he said. “We’ve all been touched in some way by the pandemic, and we will continue to be impacted in the coming days, weeks and months.”
In order to help members better grasp the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and, more importantly, navigate through the aftermath, NWFA officially kicked off its virtual expo with an industry panel discussion to help members more fully understand the economic, legislative and industry ramifications.
Participants in the discussion were: Bruce Zwicker, CEO of Virginia Tile. A fixture at trade shows across the industry, Zwicker brings 20-plus years of experience in both publicly held and privately held business, including J.J. Haines. Also sitting in was Dana Cole, executive director of the Hardwood Federation. The group leads a coalition of 2,800 business organizations, including NWFA, representing state and local hardwood associations to speak in one singular voice to U.S. legislators. Rounding out the list was Chris Zizza, NWFA immediate-past chairman and current president of C&R Flooring and Wood Flooring Inspectors in New England. NWFA’s Martin moderated.
Following are excerpts of the panel discussion:
Taking its toll
NWFA research shows that since coronavirus arrived, 60% of members (including contractors, retailers and manufacturer associates) have reduced staffing, 27% are open and working normally and 13% are temporarily closed. “When you break that down by member type, the answers are a little different due to the different states they do business in and the type of business they are,” Martin explained. “Half of our members believe the impact will last through mid-year; half believe the impact will last until the end of 2020—and 10% of those believe the impacts will go through 2021.”
Psychology of uncertainty
While the U.S. has endured hardships and traumatic events in recent history, i.e., 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008, some say this one doesn’t compare. “The recession in 2008 was similar but different,” Virginia Tile’s Zwicker noted. “That was a financial crisis and there was a bubble created in advance of the event. The novel coronavirus is an economic crisis caused by a health crisis on an enormous global scale.”
The ensuing uncertainty, Zwicker noted, is having an adverse effect on consumer confidence. “We don’t know how bad this crisis is or what the recovery is going to look like,” he said. “It really depends on where you are. I believe floor covering demand is going to recover slowly, but I also believe we can survive and thrive through this. We have to focus on what’s important to us and our people, and we’ll get through this. The good news is the U.S. government is acting like we’re in a wartime economy.”
While Zwicker encouraged NWFA members—and the industry at large—to expand their knowledge about the virus and all the ensuing developments, he warned against sinking too low. “I’m suffering just as you are—it has been absolutely nuts,” he told attendees. “I’m going up and down watching the TV every day. On one hand, I’m up when I hear the news about potential vaccines, and then when I hear about unemployment and GDP, I’m down. I encourage people to educate themselves and get as many data points as they can—right now, it’s just foggy. We are beginning to see states reopening, although there’s a mix of politics and health issues at play. In general, I feel the economic recovery will be flat—more ‘U’ shaped than ‘V’ shaped.”
Impact of stimulus
Industry watchdogs have been closely following the pandemic to try and assess what’s going on at the federal government level. From the vantage point of the Hardwood Federation, the tide could be turning.
“It has been interesting in Washington these days—you usually hear things don’t move very fast there, and usually that’s true,” Cole stated. “However, Congress and the President have passed and signed over the last month four separate pieces of legislation that have gone to assisting businesses, hospitals and the public. Assistance has come in the form of payroll tax credits, business support programs and billions of dollars in aid made available in Phases Two and Three of the stimulus deals. The latest package of $484 billion seems to be running out quickly, but it appears to be going more smoothly than the previous $345 billion package in Phase Three.”
Another benefit available to NWFA members, according to Cole, is a provision that covers contractors for net operating losses. “Under Phase Two, businesses are allowed to deduct losses for 2018, 2019 and 2020, and can be carried back five years,” she explained. “Make sure you consult your accountants and tax consultants to see if you are eligible.”
There was widespread criticism that the third round of emergency funding went to large corporations as opposed to the small businesses for which the aid was primarily intended. NWFA research shows members are faring slighter better with the latest stimulus package.
“Our research shows only 70% of our members have applied for the SBA PPP loans,” NWFA’s Martin said. “We also report that only 40% of those who had applied for funds actually received them. In a lot of cases, we’re finding people just became frustrated with the process.”
The new normal
While much of the focus during the COVID-19 pandemic has been trained on dealing with the present challenges of the crisis, many are looking ahead to how they might emerge when the worst of it is behind us.
“What are we going to do when we get to the other side?” asked C&R Flooring’s Zizza. “The reality is customers are going to have different expectations; in fact, I’m already seeing it. When we show up at a job, the customer wants to know if we’re going to wear a mask. Ask yourself, what are the policies you are going to put into place moving forward so your customers are more comfortable doing business with you. “
Moving forward, Zizza said he believes more emphasis will be placed on a company’s public perception. But that might not necessarily be a bad thing. “Without a doubt, COVID has been disruptive,” he said. “But this is your opportunity to hit the reset button. Reinvent your company and show people who you are going to be moving forward. It’s a new beginning, and anytime you have a new beginning it’s an opportunity to grow your sales and improve your procedures.”
(Look for more coverage of the NWFA Virtual Expo in upcoming print editions of Floor Covering News.)