Focus on Leadership - July 2011
Interview by Kemp Harr
The oldest of four children, Olga Robertson was born in Naples, Italy and immigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was a child. Like many first generation Americans, Robertson’s parents expected her to work hard and make the most of her opportunities. Robertson climbed her way up from a desk clerk position and now serves as president of the FCA Network, a flooring co-op founded in 1998. The FCA Network, which sprung from Illinois-based retailer Floor Covering Associates, was formed so that independent retailers would have the opportunity to take advantage of FCA’s marketing, merchandising and sales programs, while still maintaining their autonomy.
Q: Tell me about the first jobs you had in the early stages of your career. Who gave you your first chance, and how did that help to mold where you have ended up?
A: You think you know it all when you are young. I have always been very industrious, and, in the early years of my career, I didn’t like to be questioned because I wanted people to presuppose that I was doing the best job I could for them. If I didn’t agree with a supervisor or manager, I would get quite vocal. Needless to say, I got fired from a few jobs.
I was raising a daughter on my own after my divorce and needed to make more money. I ran into a friend of mine who happened to be a vinyl installer for a flooring store in Shorewood, Illinois. He said, “I know a guy looking for a gal.” Those were his exact words. He told me that the man owned a floorcovering store in Shorewood. I thought to myself, “Floorcovering, no way.” I remembered the time when my mother put a deposit down on two rooms of carpet, and the dealer ran off with the money. I figured that floorcovering wasn’t the industry for me.
Even so, my friend gave me the man’s phone number, and, after vacillating for a few days, I called Bob Hill, owner of Floor Covering Associates (FCA). The rest is history.
Bob was willing to pay me $15 more a week, which was a lot of money back in 1978. Initially I thought that I would continue to look for another job, but after a short period of time Bob gave me more responsibility and more money. Within a few years, I was making serious money and providing a good living for my daughter and myself. If you hear Bob’s version of the story, I started running things after 30 seconds. It wasn’t quite like that, but I listened and learned from the best and hoped to one day make a name for myself.
Back in the mid-90s when Shaw went into retail and bought up all the New York Carpet World or Carpetland stores, it meant that FCA was buying inventory from its biggest competitor because all of our locations were next to these stores. And with all the consolidation in the industry, we knew that we needed to grow our business and increase our buying power to become more important to the big mills.
At the same time, unemployment was the lowest it’s ever been, under 4.9%. You couldn’t hire a decent salesman or manager. How do you expand under those conditions? We had no debt and could have built other retail locations in and around Chicago, but how would we staff them?
Q: How did the FCA Network get started?
A: Bob posed the question, “How do you grow without any capital investment?” We knew the retail business, and we saw an opportunity to offer our expertise in secondary markets (the big groups like CCA and Abbey were mature and had the big markets tied up) and leverage our expertise in buying, merchandising, advertising and marketing. We wanted to provide retailers in those smaller markets an opportunity to have all the services that the big groups provided, for a lot less money, while simultaneously increasing FCA’s buying power and stature in the industry. That’s how and why FCA Network was formed.
It started as a regional group in the greater Cleveland area by Rich Sebastian, who happened to be president of the Northeast Ohio Floorcovering Association at the time. He began FCA Network with 12 members in Ohio. At that time, I negotiated all the programs with the various mills and took over as president of FCA Network in 2002.
Q: How does your Italian heritage affect the way you conduct business and interact with others?
A: Most Italians have what I call a joy for living. It’s part of their culture. They enjoy good food, good wine and good conversation, and are very family oriented. But my mother was truly the biggest influence in my life. She was from Yugoslavia and left the country when the communists took over after World War II.
She was only 19 and left her entire family, knowing that she might never see them again. She was determined to make a better life for herself. I never understood who she really was until I became an adult and a parent. Because I was strong, I always thought I must be more like my father, but he was more philosophical, more intellectual. It was my mother who got things done, who made things happen. She was a force to be reckoned with. I have that same drive, to be the best I can be. She knew that in America you could be anything you wanted to be if you worked hard. There’s an expression, “Keep fear behind you and faith in front of you”—that was my mom.
Q: What is it like to be a woman in a leadership role in the flooring industry?
A: A man is never asked what it’s like to be a man in a leadership role in this industry. Trust me, I’m not a feminist, but it seems that after 40 years of the women’s movement, we wouldn’t need to explain who we are. That being said, it’s still a man’s world; I simply figured out how to work in it without losing my femininity.
When a woman is in a leadership or executive role, many people assume that she got there by being tough and walking on people, but a woman can be tough and also kind, generous and thoughtful. I’m glad that I’m a woman, and I’m glad that I’m a successful woman in an all-boys network. I don’t think that there is another industry that makes it as difficult for women to succeed.
I worked like I believed men worked, but my perception was incorrect. Women have to prove themselves, so they work harder than men do.
Q: As a woman, what dimension do you bring to the decision making process?
A: Most women are very good at collaborating and like to get other people involved in the decision-making process. I’m not good at that. I’ve been on my own since I was 18 and have made many tough decisions, so I have a tendency to be more autocratic. But I’m working on it. Because of my experience and knowledge of this industry, I can typically get from here to there and resolve issues fairly quickly.
Q: What do you consider your greatest career success?
A: Earning the leadership role at FCA Network.
Q: Do you think the success equation differs for women and men?
A: I know what makes me feel successful, and it’s not money, although it certainly affords me the opportunity to do the things that I like to do. I’m very gratified and feel successful when I can make a difference in a member’s business. I’m result-oriented, so when I can see things moving in a positive direction, I feel successful.
Most of the FCA Network’s members were installers or salesmen previously, not experienced businessmen. There was a dealer in Tuscaloosa, Alabama who was about to close his doors. He joined FCAN etwork, and now he is paying himself and has brought his son into the business as well. These kinds of success stories make me feel successful.
Q: Tell us about some of your frustrations as a woman in the business world.
A: In the early days it was frustrating because most people in the industry thought I was Bob’s secretary. Some still do. Once I started making a name for myself and was described as a tough negotiator by my peers, many were surprised to find me down to earth, easy to be with and even quite humorous.
Q: As a single mother, how hard was it to balance your personal life and career?
A: It wasn’t that difficult for me because I had the support of my parents and sisters who were always there for me when Michelle was growing up. I never missed a teacher’s conference, but I wasn’t always available for some of Michelle’s extra-curricular activities. I was blessed. My heart goes out to single parents who truly are all alone with no support network.
Q: What is the secret to your success?
A: I never take myself too seriously, and I always deliver on my promises.
Q: Who played a key role in making you who you are?
A: My mom gave me my strength of character, and Bob Hill was my mentor.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: I like to travel, garden and cook, mostly Italian dishes. I read both fiction and non-fiction and play the piano. I love classical music; Giacomo Puccini is my favorite composer. But the most fun I have today is spending time with my two grandchildren.
Q: What does the flooring industry need to do to improve?
A: We need to do a much better job of letting young people know about the opportunities to make a good living in this industry. We need more women in engineering, marketing, merchandising and sales.
We need to find ways to de-commoditize the business; that would also help stabilize pricing. If we could de-commoditize, we could increase margins, which would enable us to pay salespeople more money, pay installers more money and invest in the business, which in turn would improve the industry.
While FCA Network has great relations with all of its suppliers, I think the industry would benefit if other factions were doing a better job collaborating, because the buying groups, single-handedly, have done more to improve this industry than any other innovation in recent memory.
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