By Kemp Harr
Nestled between the Clinch and Holston ranges of the Appalachian Mountains, Johnson City, Tennessee is one of the most breathtaking areas of the country. Much of the landscape is undisturbed, the natural hardwood forests are abundant, and the air is crisp and clear. This is where Mullican Flooring, the fourth largest domestic hardwood flooring producer, established its headquarters in 2000 and where it recently completed a $14 million upgrade and expansion of its largest manufacturing facility, by moving it into a repurposed 309,000 square foot factory. Expansions and upgrades are always positive news for this industry, but the biggest news is Mullican’s decision to move the bulk of its engineered hardwood production from Asia to this new facility in East Tennessee. Not only does this decision allow the company to print Made in the U.S.A. on more of its boxes and, yes, put more Americans to work, but it also enables Mullican to get better quality, shorter lead times and a lower cost of goods.When Mullican first entered the flooring business in 1985, its focus was strictly unfinished solid hardwood. But, by keeping close to its customers, Mullican followed the industry trend, first toward prefinished and then toward engineered. In addition to Johnson City, Mullican also operates plants in Norton, Virginia; Ronceverte, West Virginia; and Holland, New York. The firm, which sells through distribution and has estimated annual sales of $115 million, is led by Neil Poland, who has spent his entire career in hardwood flooring, previously with Harris Tarkett, which was also located in Johnson City.Mullican’s ability to make its 3/8” engineered hardwood more cost efficiently in the U.S. than in Asia may come as a surprise to many. The company achieves this through sophisticated material handling and cutting equipment, coupled with reduced transportation costs and regionally sourced raw materials. The factory employs 10% of the labor that is needed to make the same product in Asia; the process is cutting-edge and highly mechanized. In total, the plant, which has the highest throughput of any engineered hardwood flooring production facility in the U.S., employs 250 people. In addition, Mullican procures its raw materials from the surounding Appalachian Mountains and makes the entire product in-house, including the plywood core. It also helps that, in the last five years, wages in many parts of Asia have doubled, so labor costs there aren’t as low as they once were. Says company president Poland, “We believe we’re on the leading edge of a trend by U.S. manufacturers to shift jobs back to American soil. The high quality workforce available in the Johnson City area has made the expansion of our production line a reality.” Mullican, it seems, is on the right course; according to USA Today, in 2012, 62% of American consumers said that U.S.-made was the most influential attribute with regard to their new purchases. That is up from 2008, when only 48% of Americans valued domestic production over all else. Mullican’s high commitment to this country extends to its own buying; with the exception of one piece of equipment, the profile saw, all equipment in the new factory was produced on U.S. soil.
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