Engineered Floors' James Lesslie: Focus on Leadership - Jan 2016

Interview by Kemp Harr

Assistant to the chairman at Engineered Floors, James Lesslie grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, the son of an Internal Revenue Service manager and a teacher. After earning degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering and membership into Phi Beta Kappa, Lesslie began working in Allied Chemical’s fiber division, a decision that propelled him headlong into the flooring industry. Before stepping into his current position, Lesslie served as president of Beaulieu Commercial. 

So how did a middle class kid from South Carolina become the right-hand man of industry icon Bob Shaw, facilitating Engineered Floor’s growth from non-existent to the third-largest U.S. carpet company in seven years? Lesslie characterizes his success as a combination of luck and wisdom—finding himself in the presence of opportunity and knowing enough to take advantage of it.

Q: How does the merger with J+J fit into Engineered Floors’ expansion plans?
A:
 We wanted to expand into the commercial market. Building a commercial facility was going to take a significant amount of time to complete. An acquisition with a company almost 100% focused on the commercial market seemed to make the most sense to us and is the a fastest way to grow our business in that market.

Q: What led you to focus on chemistry and chemical engineering? Also, why did you choose South Carolina? 
A:
 I grew up in South Carolina and followed my father’s footsteps to the University of South Carolina. 

I started out in chemistry, as I was planning to go to medical school. Once I decided that a business career appealed to me over med school, I decided a double major with chemical engineering would be more beneficial.

Tim Baucom and I were classmates at South Carolina. He was in mechanical engineering and I was in chemical. We had several classes together.

Q: Tell us about your decision to go to work for Allied Chemical’s fiber division. 
A: 
My decision to go to Allied was driven by the opportunity to do fiber product development. I have always had a passion for trying to make things better. I was aware that the fiber was going into carpet, and that the carpet industry had been able to withstand inroads from overseas competition. Those factors appealed to me.

Q: I’ve heard others in the industry call you the most informed leader from chip to finished carpet. How did you develop such a broad knowledge base in the carpet industry?
A:
 Others in the industry are too kind. I have been blessed with opportunities in many phases of the business, on both the residential and commercial sides. Some of that may be luck, but a large part of it has been intentional. A successful day is when you have learned something new about the business. I have also been fortunate to have great mentors.

Q: Outside of the obvious—your understanding of the chemistries involved in carpet—how does your science background help you most as a leader in carpet manufacturing?
A:
 I used it the most when I was in product and technology roles. Engineering taught me to analyze problems and come up with solutions. It also helps to have a working chemical knowledge of your processes. Our goal at Engineered Floors is to make the best products, and having as many people as possible contribute ideas toward that goal is critical.

Q: You arrived at Shaw Industries through the Queen acquisition. When did you develop such a close collaborative relationship with Bob Shaw? 
A:
 Mr. Shaw and I knew each other, as we attend the same church. I worked for Mr. Shaw indirectly at Shaw Industries, but we interacted more frequently when I took on some commercial carpet tile responsibilities for Shaw Industries. Obviously, here at Engineered Floors our management team interacts with Mr. Shaw on a daily basis.

Q: How are decisions made at EF regarding pricing, capacity, capex investment, product styling and personnel hiring?
A:
 We have an executive management team that consists of four people: Danny Freeman, Clay Shaw, Melvin Silvers and myself. While we all have areas that we focus on to some degree, it is a collaborative work environment. We generally will review decisions with Mr. Shaw, build a consensus on what the best course of action is and move on with a strategy. Mr. Shaw, in his role of chairman and CEO, obviously is involved in and drives a great deal of the decisions, but the degree of collaboration is more like a dotcom company than a traditional mill. Customers, when exposed to it, find the speed of decisions and the time to market very refreshing.

Honestly, here at Engineered Floors, long-term strategy is a once or twice a week discussion. It’s very stimulating. Mr. Shaw is incredibly sharp at debating. He can do three-digit math in his head. He doesn’t use a calculator.

Q: At this point, Engineered Floors is carpet only. What are the company’s plans around getting into the hard surface business?
A:
 We still have several expansions left on our largest carpet facility, which we call the SAM plant. We continue to evaluate other growth strategies, but finishing the expansion is still our top priority.

Regarding a move into hard surface, Mr. Shaw is more interested in growing in ways that we know. To use a football analogy, we’re running a dive play. We have a fullback up the middle, and we’re getting eight yards a carry. Why would we want to throw the ball? Growth in 2015 was very strong. Until somebody stops us or until we see growth slowing a bit, we have to keep the capital flowing in that direction. 

What’s more, we believe that carpet will cycle at some point in time. When single family resurrects itself, we believe there will be some resurgence. We would support a meaningful carpet industry promotion campaign. 

Q: What would you say is your next big challenge at Engineered Floors?
A:
 We have grown very rapidly over the last five years. As a private family-owned company, we can focus on our long-term success versus the next 13 weeks. Our challenge as we grow will be to build the appropriate organization to respond to opportunities as they develop. Today, our customers recognize our commitment to the industry and also our speed in reaching the market with new ideas. We will continue to fight the “bureaucracy creep” that can slow down our decision process.

Q: What is your role and responsibility in developing end-use markets for recycled PET carpet fiber? 
A:
 The entire residential carpet recycling issue is one that we address through multiple fronts. We are active participants with the Carpet America Recovery Effort and The Carpet & Rug Institute organizations, which are focused on recycling. In addition, we are working on the problem internally, trying to find solutions that are economically feasible. The bar for recycling has certainly been raised in the last 12 months with the decline in crude oil prices.

This year our growth in nylon will probably exceed our growth rate in polyester, not in pounds but in rate. We plan to continue that growth next year. Our nylon products are getting an excellent response. 

Q: You’ve led businesses that have focused on both the commercial and residential sectors. Which sector do you prefer to focus on and why?
A:
 That is a very interesting question. It is really an apple or an orange situation. I have really enjoyed both. Commercial is a more technical and design-driven sale with a unique set of customers. The residential market is more diverse in customer base and is looking for the right price, color and performance option for a very personal space—their home. I would not trade my experiences in either.

Q: How do you balance work with family and spiritual life?
A:
 For many years, I have to confess that I didn’t have balance. When I took over the responsibilities for Beaulieu’s commercial group, I realized the strength of finding balance and made it one of our core values. Computers and smart phones can make you more efficient, but you have to learn to manage them to be present when you are in a home environment. 

Q: What do you do to relax when you aren’t in a work mode? 
A:
 Our family enjoys snow and water sports (skiing and wakeboarding). We also enjoy golfing together, although golf is a great activity that reminds me that failure is okay as long as we try to learn from it. I am still working on learning from my golf mistakes. I tend to repeat them too often.

Q: Who has been most influential in molding James Lesslie into the man he is today? Why?
A:
 First and foremost, my parents. I have also been fortunate to have worked for a literal who’s who of the carpet industry. These mentors include Steve Bordeaux, Fred Poses, Julian Shaw, Vance Bell, Hal Long, Randy Merritt, Carl Bouckaert, Ralph Boe and Norris Little. Last, but certainly not least, it has been a great experience working directly with Bob Shaw. All of these gentlemen helped demonstrate to me superior management skills on a first-hand basis. Although their management styles were different, I have been able to take their techniques and utilize them in developing my own management style. 

Q: You have five kids. Do you think any of them will end up working in the flooring business? What advice do you have for them as they consider what to focus on from a career standpoint?
A:
 It is too early to tell if any of my children will end up in the carpet business. We do have second and third generations of the Shaw family working here, and that is a really good thing. My advice for my children is the same advice I would give to any young person: find something that interests you and give it your absolute best effort. 

Our kids have been getting trophies for participation for years, so sometimes we have to teach what “absolute best effort” really means, because it involves self-sacrifice. If you have to work until 11:00 p.m. to get something done, you do it. Work should not be a four-letter word. That being said, I would never encourage a young person to work at the sacrifice of their family. 

Also, don’t panic at mistakes; use them as learning opportunities.

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