Tarkett's Jeff Fenwick: Focus on Leadership


Interview by Kemp Harr


Last October, when Tarkett North American named Jeff Fenwick president and COO of the Tarkett-branded hard surface business in the U.S. and Canada, many in the industry were surprised that they didn’t recognize the new leader’s name. 

Fenwick didn’t come from the flooring business. Previous to being hired by Tarkett, he was vice president and general manager of Kimball International’s office furniture unit. Interestingly, both Carmen Pastore and Jeff Buttitta have backgrounds in furniture as well. When it came to filling the COO position, Pastore sought out a furniture veteran, believing that flooring should be positioned and sold as furniture is: categorized as a depreciable asset that helps to create a productive workplace, rather than as an expense item. 

Fenwick is in the process of relocating to Cleveland for his job with Tarkett, where he will live with his wife, Mary. He has a son and daughter who are in their twenties.

Q: What motivated you to leave the furniture business and join the flooring industry? 
 I had a number of influences, both professional and personal, that motivated me. Professionally, I was impressed with the values of Tarkett—the passion of the people for the customer, the brand and one another. Even more important was the level of understanding of culture versus values. We embrace different cultures (our Tarkett culture in Cleveland, our Tandus culture in Dalton, our Centiva culture in Florence), but we demand similar values. 

I had never planned to leave furniture. I really liked what I was doing. The way this past recession affected the furniture business was like a light switch. One day, business just stopped. After living through that and making some hard decisions, we were starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. Business was good again, so the last thing on my mind was leaving, having lived through the worst. On the drive to my interview in Cleveland, I called my wife and said, “Mary, I don’t know why I’m doing this.”

But when I got to Cleveland, I interviewed with Lee James, Carmen [Pastore], [Jeff] Krejsa and [Jeff] Buttitta. These guys talk, live, breathe customer first. And I got the feeling they would take a bullet for one another. They are transparent, honest, with no pretense. On the way back from the interview, I called my wife back and said, “We have a problem. I really liked it.”

Personally, the move to Cleveland brings us closer to elderly relatives who need attention; my wife and I are in a better position to provide that attention.

Q: How do the businesses overlap, and how are they different? 
 Both are design businesses that are seeking to provide healthier, more productive workspaces. Operationally, the furniture business, at least the brand to which I was associated, relied more heavily on project business and a made-to-order model. There is more day-to-day business here—something, by the way, we tried to increase within furniture. 

Furniture is often viewed as a discretionary spend item and becomes an asset to most businesses. Truthfully, you could use folding tables and chairs if needed. The furniture people have learned the language of the work environment by focusing on employee health, productivity and collaboration. Johnsonite has been using that same language for a long time, which is truly unique in the resilient flooring and accessories business.

Q: Other than the obvious reasons of having more products to sell, what does the Tandus acquisition do for Tarkett from a strategic standpoint?
 The Tandus acquisition increases Tarkett’s visibility overall by making us a player in both the hard and soft surface businesses. It also increases the opportunity for coordination on interior systems, meeting all functional demands of the space, while working to achieve the specifier’s aesthetic vision. In addition, adding Tandus to our mix provides balanced access in large project business and small projects in all segments for both hard and soft surfaces, and it offers us the ability to guide customers through a procurement process that meets their objectives—value drives the discussion instead of price. Lastly, it offers a global platform for reliable service to the largest organizations in the world.

Q: In Tarkett’s latest annual report, Michel Giannuzzi talks about the complementarity of the Tandus and Centiva route to market versus the Johnsonite and Tarkett model. Explain what he means by that. How do you manage it?
 We are able to take advantage of the routes to market that currently exist for each division, as well as develop unique and differentiated ways for clients to procure the products and services that meet their business objectives. Our efforts to include the channel as part of the value proposition for the client is steadfast—the divisions allow us to partner with the channel in different ways that support our Balanced Choice strategy.

End users demand broad choices and reliable decision-making systems in all product categories, as do consumers and facility owners. Part of that expectation of choice is to have those broad choices available through multiple procurement methods as consumers and facility owners. We will manage the experience with Tarkett companies based on the value the client is seeking, not the price. 

We have to do a great job of making sure the client understands that a direct-to-dealer model may work for them, and a two-step distribution model may also work for them. If our focus is on the value the client seeks from the experience with a Tarkett company, then the products, pricing and channel path will follow the Balanced Choice they select.

We think at a higher level; we think at a systems approach, looking at the whole building. Whether we bundle products together and say “here’s the quoted price” is almost irrelevant to how do we make sure that space is designed correctly with a wide variety of products. We have told our channel partners, our job isn’t to tell you how to run your business; our job is to make you more profitable.

Q: Michel has been quoted many times as saying that people are the asset that makes all the difference. What do you look for in people when you hire them? 
 Our passion for the customer drives a high-level work ethic and desire for excellence in service execution. Our people have a natural curiosity and consistently challenge the status quo to spot trends and lead change in the industry by influencing people. We are very competitive and show that in disciplined entrepreneurial actions. We have respect for all of our coworkers and practice openness to new ideas and diversity.

If an employee gets a good opportunity elsewhere, I don’t want to stand in their way. I always tell my employees, “If you get a call from a recruiter, you speak to that recruiter.” First, they might learn something. And, second, I’m secure enough in what we do and how we treat our employees that I’m not worried that they will leave us. 

Q: What sets Tarkett apart? How would you describe its unique selling proposition?
 Our Balanced Choice and iSelect Decision Making systems, supported by the broadest coordinated portfolio and world-class service, are unique in the market. 

In addition, we have a strong desire to remove or mitigate the compromising that happens for key stakeholders, the specifier or the homeowner, empowering them to create the best environment for meeting their individual demands.

Q: Do you think it’s better to be a house of brands or a branded house? 
 Long term, Tarkett is the brand, but we will maintain strategic brands to support business objectives. Customers will learn to love the Tarkett brand because of the experience we deliver to them using the worldwide capabilities of the organization. We have steadily increased our emphasis on Tarkett as the singular brand that drives our aggressive growth plans, while respecting and valuing the significant equity we have in our strategic brands, such as Johnsonite, Tandus and Centiva. This balance will continue as we strengthen the experience we provide our customers.

Q: Which of the vertical market sectors offer the largest opportunities for growth?
 Healthcare, education, retail and mainstreet. And I’d be lying if I said we shouldn’t be bigger in residential than we are. We have the opportunity to change that market like we changed the commercial market. The model in the industry seems to be that everyone says, “I can sell it for $0.05/square yard cheaper.” I don’t think you’re doing the market a favor when you sell products that aren’t likely to hold up to the end users’ expectations. We have to train our salespeople to have different conversations than everyone else is having.

Q: Today, one third of Tarkett’s global revenue comes from North America. What are the biggest growth opportunities for Tarkett in this region?
 Our greatest opportunities are in converting transactional relationships to long-term Balanced Choice and iSelect systems relationships and making that the expectation of the marketplace; in creating great experiences for the end user or homeowner with our channel partners; and in product and service innovation to support the above, especially focusing on the needs of vertical markets.

Q: How important is the “Made in America” phenomenon, and what are you doing to put emphasis on it?
 Made in America has weight, but made with good materials to deliver people-friendly spaces is more meaningful. No matter where Tarkett products are made, they are safe, beautiful, performance-oriented products that a client can trust in their home or business. Tarkett products are the world standard in every category. 

We have made significant investments in manufacturing in North America, and if clients continue to reward us with the business, we have an appetite for more capacity expansion. Locally produced not only creates confidence in the origin of raw materials but also offers more flexibility in service and personalization for our customers. Recent third-party studies show a high demand for locally produced solutions, especially from consumers.

Q: In terms of sustainability, what are the key differences between Tarkett’s approach in North America compared to Europe and other regions? 
 Tarkett has a worldwide strategy based on the triple bottom line approach. Environmentally, we have developed a circular closed loop design. 

The differences between North America and Europe are mostly found in activities specific to the division. When it comes to our market approach regarding phthalates and low emissions, we use the Asthma and Allergy Friendly Certification, which started as a residential approach, to help consumers understand the benefit of these changes. Commercially, we found that the certification also had merit, especially when it comes to healthcare and education (IQ products, IDInspiration). On average, we spend 93% of our time indoors, and one in five Americans suffers from asthma and/or allergies. Over the last ten years, these have increased by 160% in children under five.

The other difference lies in our recycling program; in Europe, there are very few post-use recycling programs, as REACH (Europe’s organization that deals with Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical substances) prevents us from recycling from the market. Tarkett North America does recycle post use, 91 million pounds in the last three years, and the levels of recycled content are carefully monitored to keep levels of phthalates under 0.1% of the total weight of the product. 

Q: When it comes to going green, what is Tarkett’s position on transparency? Do you have product EPDs or HPDs for products sold in the U.S.? What about in Europe? 
 Tarkett has been integrating transparency in product disclosure since 2011, using third-party certification (NSF/ANSI 332, C2C certifications); publishing total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs) and information on phthalates; and having Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency (EPEA) evaluations.

There is much less pressure in Europe when it comes to transparency. North America is actually leading the charge. Generic EPDs are available in Europe and will also be available in North America for homogeneous, heterogeneous, VCT, VET and vinyl tile (inclusive of SVT and lVT). For those products not included in the generic EPDs, Tarkett is looking at product-specific EPDs.

HPDs (health product declarations) do not exist in Europe; European products need to meet REACH standards to be sold in the EU. Tarkett is considering its options when it comes to HPDs and material disclosure. We have been reducing our TVOCs with goals to get all our products under 100 and moving to phthalate alternatives when it comes to our vinyls. Our chemistry is constantly reevaluated through the EPEA. And Tarkett has committed to become a C2C company by 2020.

Copyright 2013 Floor Focus



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