Best Practices: Costen Floors - May 2021
By Jessica Chevalier
Founded by Ralph Costen Sr. in 1948, Costen Floors started off focused on hardwood flooring with the goal of providing quality products and expert installation for both residential and commercial clients. Today, the company-run by the third generation-is much more expansive, serving the builder, retail, commercial, property management and insurance segments with a full suite of flooring products, but its logo, featuring an acorn at the lower right corner, still harkens back to the roots of the business, paying homage to Ralph Sr.’s original slogan, “From small acorns to mighty oaks to beautiful hardwood floors.”
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS
The first decades of Costen Floors, which operates out of Henrico, Virginia, were a family affair with Ralph Sr. and his wife, Anne, along with Ralph Jr. and his wife, Marsha, collaborating to grow the venture, and it was a full 40 years before the group made an effort to branch out in 1989, when it hired an individual to sell carpet at local flea markets. Following that foray into soft surface, in 1991, the Costen team, along with Ralph Jr.’s brother-in-law, Nick Rasnick, created a sister company called American Floors that specialized in carpet, vinyl and ceramic.
The effort wasn’t a smashing success. “That was our first shot at diversification,” says Ralph Costen III, who is now president of the business and goes by the name Tripp. Ultimately, American Floors was absorbed into Costen Floors in 2000. “The biggest thing about diversifying and starting another venture is not letting it become the red-headed stepchild,” says Tripp. “You have to keep everyone-across both businesses-on the same page and following the same rules. That’s what we learned from our mistake.”
The same year, the company built a new showroom and warehouse in Richmond’s West End. The 30,000-square-foot facility serves both residential and commercial clients.
In 2005, Costen Floors made another expansion-this time to its hardwood warehouse, adding 8,000 square feet of acclimated space. At the time, acclimated warehousing was highly unusual. In fact, the company believes it was the only retailer with an acclimated warehouse in the U.S. Tripp explains that the acclimated space has been very helpful to the business, as controlling temperature and humidity has decreased claims significantly.
Tripp took the reins of the business as president in 2011 and, in 2013, partnered with Marc Vest, previously president of Capital Floor and Decorating, to start Creative Flooring Solutions, which focuses on property management and material-only sales. That effort is headquartered in Chesterfield, having recently moved from Richmond.
Costen Floors joined CCA Global in 2014 and opened a new location under the name Costen Flooring America in Henrico.
While the builder and retail segments are the largest for the company currently, Tripp predicts that property management will supplant retail for the second spot within the next year. The segment is growing rapidly due to a talented team that, in Tripp’s words, is doing a “really good job of going out and getting work and making timely, quick turns.” In addition, he notes, “We have been fortunate with our salespeople and operations in that area.” The property management arm has a satellite location in Virginia Beach that can turn a job in 48 hours. That location also has a retail showroom and services builder clients.
Interestingly, property management’s rise has accelerated LVT gains for Costen Floors. Last year, hardwood remained the largest segment for Costen’s, as it has always been, but by the close of 2021, Tripp expects that LVT will have taken that top spot.
In 2008, when the economy tanked, Costen Floors went full-in with advertising. Tripp recalls that “2008 and 2009 were our largest advertising years ever. We did TV, radio and print, and it worked.”
Over the past three years, Costen Floors has transitioned more into digital advertising with a bit of print in local Richmond publications. Those efforts remain exploratory. “Covid changed a lot,” says Tripp. “People are online all the time. They want to buy online and get it done. We do some geotracking, Google adwords, social media. We have an online catalog and offer free samples on the website, so we try to drive people there.” The sample program, started in response to Covid, has been a success. “I need to look at the cost of it,” says Tripp, “but, for the short term, we have had more sales and made more money, so we will leave it be. Hopefully, customers feel like they have a little buy-in when they receive samples. You do need to make sure you follow up and stay in contact with them.”
Costen Floors has about 30 employee installers as well as subcontractors and has long structured its installation team as a mix of the two. The employee installers service retail clients.
Tripp notes that having employee installers sets his business apart in its market and also has the advantage of keeping installers around long-term. He says, “We have an incredible amount of experience on our team, and they have seen a lot of different things over the years.” Tripp notes that, whereas the trend was once for installers to prefer operating as subcontractors, today preferences often lean toward employment.
Finding new staff can be a challenge. Tripp selects new employees based more on their personality and drive than on their knowledge of flooring. “We have been looking outside the flooring industry now. You can’t teach work ethic, but you can teach floorcovering.” The sales team is trained on the job, shadowing experienced sales staff.
Tripp hopes to expand the Costen Floors’ footprint into additional markets. The next store will be a retail operation opened under the Costen Flooring America name. As is true for so many in the flooring business, sourcing good installers in new markets remains key to successful growth. “The challenge,” Tripp reports, “is finding quality installers. Once you find a good one, you need to pay them to stay.”
Costen Floors plans to stick with what it knows moving forward, and that is flooring. In the past, the retailer has attempted to expand into other areas, such as window treatments, area rugs and cabinets, and didn’t find those efforts to be worth the time or effort.
Tripp recalls, “I started working in the warehouse when I was 12, because my parents needed someone to babysit me. I just kind of helped out. No one made me do anything, but when I started being really productive, at 15, they started paying me, and, from there, I just kind of knew it was what I was going to do. Nothing else struck my fancy. I enjoyed the customers and the people. I liked seeing the product of my labor. The least fun job is what I do now-being responsible for all of it. Installation was probably the most fun job, followed by sales.” He notes that managing people is hard.
Today, Ralph Jr. is semi-retired, but still keenly aware of the daily happenings in the business. Ralph Sr. died in 1992.
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