By Reginald Tucker
Back in June, AHF Products, parent company of the venerable Bruce Hardwood Floors brand, announced a partnership with Mark Bowe, host of cable TV’s “Barnwood Builders,” to introduce the Barnwood Living Collection—a new line of American-made solid hardwood flooring that conveys the authentic look of a reclaimed, time-worn floor. While it’s still early in the launch phase, the rollout is off to an auspicious start.
“We’re doubling up on display orders,” said Wendy Booker vice president of marketing and product development. “We’ve had some distributors who placed their first order and said, ‘Wow, we went through them so quickly.’ That not only speaks to this product line as a new launch, but to the success of a launch in today’s market where a lot of retailers are just starting to open back up and they’re looking for new products.”
More importantly, the collaboration between Bruce Hardwood Floors and Bowe serves as a classic case study in the power of co-branding and underscores all the elements that factor into a successful product rollout from inspiration/conception to prototyping and manufacturing, and, ultimately, marketing execution and retail positioning. “If you could combine a corporate experience with a small batch mentality, I think that’s where we are,” Bowe told FCNews. “It’s the perfect combination of a corporation and master craftsmen making a product available in enough SKUs to fit wherever you build.”
Here’s a closer look at how it all came together:
Impetus behind the collaboration
One of the common denominators between Mark Bowe and Bruce Hardwood Floors is the tie-in to the local Beverly, W. Va., community. For Bowe, it’s the place he calls home; for Bruce, it’s the site of one of its largest manufacturing facilities. But it was a chance encounter a few years back that brought them together.
“It’s a pretty folksy tale,” said Bowe, who does a lot of speaking engagements at local events across West Virginia. It was during one such event where he struck up a conversation on the subject of reclaimed hardwood floors with employees from AHF Products’ Beverly plant. “It was a Q&A session after a presentation I had given, and the plant manager asked me, ‘How would you like to tour the largest hardwood flooring manufacturing company in North America?’ To which I replied, ‘How would the largest hardwood flooring manufacturer in North America like to have my name on its product?’”
A few years later (“These things take time,” Bowe said), the TV host met with workers at the Beverly plant as well as AHF Products executives to not only discuss how a partnership could be mutually beneficial, but to also get to know each other better. “We really got to know Mark and learned about his vision,” Booker said. “We also used the opportunity to talk to him about our capabilities and share some of the innovations that we’ve been working on as well.”
Bowe eventually found himself working elbow to elbow with the production line employees and design teams at AHF Products, tweaking elements here and there to get the looks, colors and surface enhancement techniques like wire brushing and scraping just right.
“Mark was out there on the line with his hard hat, goggles and safety equipment and really working through all the ins and outs of each and every single color in every single design in the collection,” said Justin Hypnarowski, a product manager who worked closely with Bowe during the early stages. “I have been developing products in plants for seven years or so, and it took me a long time to gain the confidence and come to the plant with a vision to execute. But when Mark came in, he seemed like he did it in an hour. He knew what he was after, and he already had an idea in his mind that he wanted to get across.”
For Bowe, it was also a valuable learning experience. “Early on, I realized that when you’re dealing with a very big company like AHF and a well-known brand such as Bruce, you have to be creative and flexible,” he explained. “Being a big company, it has a lot of orders to fill and the only time that you really have to develop the colors in the plant is in between shift changes. We would try different things with staining, for example, look back at it and say, ‘Oh, that’s too dark. Or, that look doesn’t remind me of Lincoln County, West Virginia. The cool part is we had everybody from corporate to plant managers to online supervisors and maintenance supervisors providing feedback. It was really a lot of fun.”
Original barn flooring is hard to come by due to its scarcity. But when you can get your hands on reclaimed boards that have to be re-milled or restored, it can be very expensive.
By teaming up with the Bruce brand, one of the oldest names in wood flooring, Bowe was able to recreate a vintage look in a new wood floor at an accessible price point. (Whereas genuine reclaimed wood that has been salvaged and repurposed into new hardwood flooring might fetch up to $20 per square foot, products in the 3 ¼-inch-wide, solid Barnwood Living line come with a suggested manufacturer retail price of $6.99 per square foot.) This not only makes it more accessible to the average consumer, but it also provides higher margin opportunities for the specialty retailer—the channel segment that will have exclusive rights to the line.
Inspiration for the designs
Products in the 10-SKU offering boast natural knots, wormholes and graining—just some of the telltale characteristics one might find in the antique log cabins and other structures that Bowe and his team of master craftsmen have managed to salvage over the years. It was decided that half the products would fall under the category of “rich rustic” (a little more texture), with the other half labeled “refined rustic” (a little wider, lighter in color and softer texture). Red oak and hickory species comprise the rich rustic offering, while the refined rustic selections utilize white oak due to its lighter tones.
In keeping with the local history of West Virginia, it was critical that the product names assigned to each SKU reflected specific counties in the region.
For example, there’s a color called Sandstone, named after Sandstone Falls in Summers County. Then there’s Greenbrier, inspired by a famous hotel of the same name. There’s also a product inspired by old cabin floors that have been taken out of an 1800s home in Lincoln County. “I pulled out a couple of boards from the inventory stack we had, and said to the folks at AHF, ‘This is what I’m trying to do. It’s from a pre-Civil War building, and the board matches it exactly.’”
Marketing execution/retail positioning
For AHF Products and the Bruce brand specifically, the inspiration behind the designs in the Barnwood Living collection gives RSAs a story to tell and sell.
“Mark really spent a lot of time developing the designs and thinking through how the characteristics really depict or emulate a county’s characteristics in West Virginia,” Booker explained. “It really gives a unique view from a point of purchase standpoint for a retail sales associate to share with the consumer, that there’s a story behind every single design in this collection.”
And that, according to Bowe, is the whole point. “To be successful in today’s market, you’ve got to have some sort of transformational experience for the homeowner,” he explained. “That’s what we’re trying to do here; we want to convey that emotion. We want the Barnwood Living collection to not only transform the way the homeowner thinks about her space, but also inspire an attitude shift as well.”
But perhaps the biggest selling point, especially during a time in America where the spotlight on domestic production has never been more intense, is Barnwood Living is made right here at home. “This is really an American story,” Booker explained. “These are real American visuals, made by American workers in a U.S. manufacturing plant. Mark Bowe stands for West Virginia and the U.S. He stands for things that are natural, that really build a connection with people and the community. All of those factors play into the Barnwood Living collection.”