CFI convention: The wait was worth it

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Robert Varden, executive director of CFI, said the response to convention turnout was “phenomenal.”

By Ken Ryan— Orlando—Twice postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Certified Flooring Installers (CFI) met here for the first time since 2019, and the turnout and response exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Of the 175 attendees, 73 were first timers, a testament to the evolution of the organization, according to executive director Robert Varden. “In the [early years], if we got 100+ to the event that would be good. Then the number was 120, 140, 150 and so on—and it’s not just the number of people here, it is the kind of people that are here and their involvement. The response has been phenomenal.”

The conference included several younger installers (30 and under), precisely the demographic CFI—and the greater flooring industry—has been trying to attract during the ongoing shortage.

Among the new kids attending convention were four family members (all 30 and under) of Mr. Wright Flooring in Jacksonville, Fla. Founded in 2012 by then 21-year-old Marquis Wright, the installation company has earned praise from customers for their craftmanship and pleasant demeanor. Wright’s introduction to the trade came quite innocently. “One day, my next-door neighbor came to me and asked if I would work for $70 a day,” Wright told FCNews. “I was down for that.” Wright, 30, recalled one job that sealed the deal for him as an installer. “I saw the finished product and was so proud of it—more proud I thought than the customer would be. But then the customer saw it and started crying she was so excited. That was an amazing experience. I love that I get to use my hands and can make something.”

Wright’s team includes brother, Jakhari, who is 25; and cousins, Ricky Robinson, 30, and Shavazz Robinson, 29. Shavazz has been installing for six years. “At first, I didn’t think I was going to continue [with installation]. At the time I was just looking for a check.” Over time, he said he started enjoying the craft “especially being able to create something and seeing how the floors come together. That was cool.”

Evolution of CFI

For most of its history, CFI has provided training and certification to installers throughout the industry. And while it still does that, recruiting new installers has become a critical objective of the association. Perhaps CFI’s best example of recruiting is through Build My Future-Flooring Edition. The first meeting in Plano, Texas, two years ago (COVID-19 sidelined last year’s scheduled event) drew 118 high-school-age kids, many of whom were learning about the flooring installation trade for the first time. Based on the program’s success, Build My Future is looking to branch out to other U.S. cities. “We learned that you have to be interactive, you have to engage with the kids,” Varden said. “We found that kids enjoyed working with their hands and liked building stuff with their own hands.”

Varden said a high school graduate who successfully completes CFI’s 5-week training course would be ready for employment anywhere in the U.S., at a starting salary of $35,000 or more, with no college debt. Many high schools who had dropped shop classes are now offering constructions programs, albeit most are not including flooring as part of their curriculum. Varden said he encouraged flooring professionals to get involved by contacting their local high schools and making them aware of the opportunity in flooring installation.

Retailer-installer dynamic

CFI
Members of Mr. Wright Flooring, from left: Ricky Robinson, Marquis Wright, Jakhari Wright,and Shavazz Robinson. The install group is all 30 and under.

One highlight of the CFI convention was a panel discussion between installers and retailers about their working relationships, which can sometimes become thorny. Dwayne Pruitt, president of Pruitt Home Services and a CFI installer/certifier, said he has felt installation “was always treated as a necessary evil. If that’s still the case, then we have a lot of work still to do.”

However, retailer panelists suggested the opposite is true. Mac McIlvried, vice president of operations for Empire Today, said he views his installers “as our lifeblood.”

“We know where our bread is buttered, and it is buttered on the installation side of the business.”

In the same vein, Don Roberts, who owns five retail stores in Alabama and is secretary of the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA), said they are inclusive when it comes to subcontractor installers and treat them just as they would employees. “Every company takes care of the salespeople because they are the revenue-generators but we include our back office people, installers, subs—everyone on our staff,” Roberts said. “When we have outings like Topgolf and the Mario Andretti Racing Experience, we invite our subs. My experience has been that subs want to go where they are treated well and, unfortunately, they are not treated well everywhere.”

Scott Humphrey, CEO of the WFCA, who served as one of the moderators, told installers “You have never been more valuable to this industry than you are today, but make it shine. While it is often portrayed that the two sides—retailers and installers—are against each other, we need to work together.”

One area that both sides agreed on is that it all comes down to customer satisfaction. “If my installers don’t treat my customers well, they won’t work for me long,” Roberts said. He noted that he would rather employ courteous installers with average skills than an excellent technician who did not treat customers well.

Roland Thompson, who is uniquely positioned as both retailer and installer, said his company (Thompson Flooring in Frederick, Md.) calls the customer following the install to ask about the job and how the installers treater her. “We ask questions like, ‘Did they clean up afterward?’ ‘Were they courteous?’” The ones who check the boxes are likely to get better compensated.

Roberts said his idea of the perfect installer is one who “leaves the customer satisfied. Also, it’s about trust. If they can only work three days a week, that is fine, work those three days. Don’t say you can work three and show up for two.”

Asked of his vision of the perfect retailer, 50-year installer, Alan Ellis, said simply, “A retailer that treats you like family.”

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