Mohawk's new head of marketing discusses strategic marketing: Focus on Leadership - Jan 2017

Interview by Kemp Harr

This past September, Karen Mendelsohn stepped out of retirement to take the reins on Mohawk’s marketing efforts. Having spent nearly 30 years, combined, in the building products and faucets industries, Mendelsohn is in the unique position of having seasoned eyes through which to view a new industry, and here she offers a fresh perspective on the functions of marketing, insight on how the flooring industry can better serve the end user and advice on achieving life-work balance. 

Q: What guided you to attend first Wharton and then Columbia, and why did you pursue a focus in marketing?
A:
 I grew up in Baltimore, and I was captivated with the University of Pennsylvania as I went to visit colleges my junior year in high school. Penn was a nice distance away from home-far enough but not too far. It had a great academic reputation, and I felt at home from the first time I stepped foot on campus. 

I started at Penn in pre-med as a psychology major-psychology was a natural science at Penn and counted toward my pre-med requirements. After the first semester of my freshman year, I met a number of people who were in the Wharton School of Business. I realized my interest in psychology was a natural fit for what turned out to be a passion for marketing, as the two go hand-in-hand. After my freshman year, I stayed in the college and earned my bachelor of arts degree in psychology, but I also matriculated into the Wharton School and earned a bachelor of science degree in marketing. 

After college in Philadelphia, I moved to New York to begin my first “real” job in the management-training program at Macy’s. I realized at that time that, as an ambitious woman in business in the early ’80s, having an MBA would be a competitive differentiator. I wanted to stay in the New York area, so I applied to and entered Columbia, where I double-majored in marketing and finance. By that point, I realized I wanted to be a businessperson first with a functional expertise in marketing, so a dual marketing/finance major made quite a bit of sense for me.

Q: To what do you attribute your Phi Beta Kappa and top 5% of class accomplishment?
A:
 I attribute that accomplishment to plain hard work. I learned very early in life, through my family values and my parents’ role modeling, that regardless of the natural gifts you’re given, you cannot take those gifts for granted. You must apply them. I was always a hard worker, whether it was in school, extracurricular activities or career. I believe that my work ethic and deriving the most value out of my innate potential is an advantage. I am proud to say that my husband and I have instilled this value in our daughter as well. 

Q: Following a successful career, you moved to Atlanta to be near your daughter. What about the Mohawk offer motivated you to come out of retirement?
A:
 I was initially attracted to the category because, while I was in home improvement and building products for 30 years, I never worked in flooring, though it’s a style and design category much like the categories I had worked in previously. After interviewing at Mohawk and meeting with the executive leadership team, what really motivated me to come out of retirement and accept this opportunity was the people and the values of the company. In addition, I saw that Mohawk needed someone with my skill sets, and I believed that I could make a difference here.

Q: What your role is at Mohawk?
A:
 As the senior marketing employee for Mohawk Flooring North America, my role is several-fold. My role is to represent the marketing function within the executive leadership team of our business. My role is to help integrate marketing and align marketing with all the other critical functions of the business-operations, product development, sales, sales ops, purchasing, supply chain and customer service-to drive increasingly better results for all of our stakeholders and to deliver the best Mohawk experience for our customers. My role is also to help us get the most potential out of our brands and to drive the most value into our product and service experiences. And, finally, my role is to teach, mentor and train the next generation of marketing leadership for Mohawk, a leadership team that will continue to take this organization to even a higher level.

Q: What are a few of the lessons you learned at building product manufacturer Masco that you feel should be implemented at Mohawk?
A:
 One of the lessons I learned at Masco that will be to our advantage here at Mohawk is that marketing is a function that can be measured. And marketing is a function where you can drive process, drive efficiency and eliminate waste. Often, people think of marketing as being different from manufacturing or the functions that are considered to be harder, asset-based functions within a corporation. One of the lessons I learned during my time at Masco is that business processes, outcome-based thinking and return on investment criteria are all things that should be part of the marketing function. Marketing is not just about creativity. Creativity is critical, but if it doesn’t drive business results, eliminate waste and add value, then it’s simply creativity for creativity’s sake. That discipline is something I think we are quickly incorporating into my team’s role here at Mohawk. 

Additionally, what I learned at Masco is how quickly the consumer purchase decision process is changing, even for relatively high-ticket, discretionary purchases, how much of that process-the researching, comparing, selecting-is moving into the online and mobile spaces, and how important that is, even if the actual purchase is still happening in a traditional brick-and-mortar environment. We at Mohawk understand how important it is for us and for our retailers to be wherever, whenever and however she wants to interact with us during her decision-making process. 

Q: Tell me who Mohawk’s customer is and why this is important to understand.
A:
 Mohawk’s customer is the end-user, who ultimately creates demand for our brand, our products and our services. Mohawk is a flooring business in North America that serves many channels and segments. For our brand, our products and our services, that demand is ultimately pulled through the channels. For example, for our independent retailers, the ultimate customer is the homeowner. In builder/multi-family, the builder or property manager, who is likely making the final purchasing decision on flooring, is the ultimate customer, hopefully operating on behalf of their tenants’ or buyers’ interests. In commercial, the end user may be a purchasing agent for higher education, or it may be an architect or a designer specifying for corporate or hospitality. It’s critical for a business as large as Mohawk-a business that goes to market across a number of different segments and channels-to know where the demand is created, who is creating that demand and what problems they are trying to solve, so that we can become part of their solution set and develop the entire experience around their needs. 

Q: What is the best strategy for Mohawk to service both the home center and the independent retailer without having the smaller guy be at a disadvantage?
A:
 We need to understand what differentiates those two retail experiences for the consumer and understand why the consumer selects one destination over the other. This will ensure we go to market with products and services that help to differentiate those channels in ways that are appealing to that particular consumer target. It’s really not about big or small, because collectively the independent retailers are a very large percent of our business. It’s much more about strategically understanding the uniqueness of their value propositions in order to augment their success in the market. 

Q: I’ve heard that you think the flooring business is more complex than the faucet business. Why?
A:
 On the hard surface side, there are so many different products-sheet vinyl, flexible LVT, rigid LVT, laminate, engineered wood, solid wood-and so many different elements that go into each of the surfaces. And, on the soft surface side, there are so many fibers and product components. Moreover, in both hard and soft surface, the number of different manufacturing operations that are involved in order to produce a single surface, not to mention the number of different surfaces that we manufacture, make for a complex business. That complexity magnifies when combined with all of our different channels of distribution and paths to market. However, the fact that Mohawk is able to take what is, in my opinion, a fundamentally complex business and drive simplicity in all of our processes and go-to-market strategies is one of the primary reasons we are so successful. 

Q: This industry raises prices across the board as if the products are commodities, instead of pricing new products and collections individually as they are introduced. Don’t you think that further exacerbates the focus within this business on price instead of performance?
A:
 I have a different point of view. My point of view, and my experience since I’ve been at Mohawk, is that we are very strategic as it relates to the pricing of our products, and we think long and hard about pricing when we bring new products and new collections to the marketplace. We think about their positioning and how and where they should be priced, what our strategy is, where the products fit in a product portfolio hierarchy, and we price based on the market, not as a general rule. Now, do we sometimes need to raise prices because of escalating input costs? Of course we do. Every business does. But that is not our fundamental pricing strategy.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you are facing today in your role at Mohawk?
A:
 The biggest challenge I’m facing is something we touched on earlier. I’m impatient with my ability to catch up in product knowledge to what many of my peers have after 20 to 30 years of flooring experience. I don’t like to be behind on anything. It’s just not my nature. So I’m running as hard and as fast as I can and listening a whole lot more than I’m talking to learn as much as I can as quickly as I can about the actual operations and the manufacture of flooring surfaces.

Q: How do you split your time between focusing on the residential and commercial markets? 
A:
 At the end of the day, I believe everything is about balance, and I believe in order to achieve that balance a couple of things are necessary. It’s necessary to have a perspective on the entire business and what we at Mohawk Flooring North America are trying to achieve. And by having that perspective, it becomes relatively easy to set priorities. It’s never about choosing between residential and commercial. It’s always about making sure that I’m focusing on the things that have the biggest impact on the top and bottom line for the business. When you have that perspective, then balance is quite easy. 

Ultimately, the balance comes in protecting the business that is currently strong but also moving into opportunity areas where we might be underpenetrated, such as hard surface and on the commercial side of the business. It’s my job to understand what the priorities of the business are and to make sure I am appropriately supporting all of them. 

Q: What advice do you have for the companies that think the function of the marketing department is to dress up the offering?
A:
 My advice is simply that they are missing a huge opportunity. They are missing an opportunity to really bring consumer insight from the marketplace back into the organization. They are missing an opportunity from a group of individuals who should be charged with having a longer view. They are missing an opportunity for strategic alignment across a number of the disciplines of the business that need to work together to ultimately drive share for the company. And they are missing an opportunity to garner the benefit of the diversity of opinion that naturally comes from individuals who are attracted to a role in a marketing function. 

Q: As one of the highest-ranking women in the flooring industry, what advice would you have for other women who aspire to reach that level?
A:
 The advice that I have for other women is the same advice I have for anyone that aspires to reach a senior level. Work hard. Learn the business. Listen a lot. Take advantage of mentorship. Stretch yourself. Take some risks. Learn from your mistakes. Hold yourself accountable. Play as a member of the team. Surround yourself with great people and diversity of thought and experience. Take the lead when required. Make decisions. And always, always, always be yourself. 

Q: How do you balance work with family and spiritual life?
A:
 As I’ve stated before, I think balance is incredibly important, but my family does come first. It always has and it always will. That doesn’t mean my role or my career at Mohawk is unimportant, but family is first and foremost. 

The way that I’ve learned to manage all aspects of my life is to allocate the appropriate amount of time and space to each aspect. This is not something that came easily to me early in my career. I have learned how to be all-in so when I’m at work, I’m all-in. When I’m with my family, but for a rare exception, I’m all-in. I believe the philosophy and practice of committing yourself to doing what you are doing when you are doing it at your highest potential with complete focus is actually quite an effective way to be your best self in all aspects of your life, whether its work, family, spirituality or philanthropy. Be all-in; be present. 

Q: How do you relax when you aren’t in a work mode?
A:
 I love to read. I love to work out. I love to cook. And I love to entertain friends and family. Nothing makes me happier on a summer weekend than to cook for my friends, my neighbors, my daughter and her friends at my home, where I can focus on being a wife, friend and mother. That’s heaven. 

Q: What people have been most influential on who Karen Mendelsohn is today? 
A:
 There have been many people in my professional life who have been extraordinary mentors, but in terms of who has been most influential in making me who I am, it would be my mom, my dad, my husband of 35 years and my daughter of 32 years. My mom and dad provided me with the values, upbringing and support that helped mold me into the young adult that I carried into my higher education academic career and professional career, and my dad continues to influence me to this very day. My husband and daughter have been my rocks, my best friends, my support system and my day-in and day-out safe place to land throughout my entire adult life.

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