Best Practices: Florida retailer parlays its success into a tool to change lives - Nov 2017

By Jessica Chevalier

There are business owners who see community service as a good marketing tool. They support their local schools and non-profits and get their name out there in the process. They do good, and they see good results. It might be nuance, but there are others who see their business’ success as an opportunity to make a real difference-to help the less fortunate and create real, tangible change. Julie and Don Herndon, owners of Classic Wood Flooring in Melbourne, Florida, fall into the latter group. They use the good fortune of their successful business as a means to change lives.

As we’ve all heard, real change starts at home, and for Julie and Don, “home” very much encompasses their Classic Wood Flooring family of 25 full-time employees. During the Great Recession, their concern wasn’t simply keeping themselves and their business afloat but also sustaining every one of the other 25 families that the business supports. To that end, Julie and Don used their personal savings to pay their employees. When the recession dragged on, and that wasn’t enough, the Herndons went into “heavy” personal debt to keep every member of the Classic Wood Flooring staff earning a paycheck throughout the entirety of the recession. “All of them were committed to us,” explains Don, “and we were committed to them. That’s our trademark.”

That sense of commitment and goodwill extends beyond the work-family as well. Classic Wood Flooring donates $150,000 to $175,000 annually to local charities. One of Don and Julie’s favorite charities is AMI Kids, for which Don serves as a board member. “AMI Kids is a rehab program for troubled youth,” Don explains. “Thirty boys live there, and they were sentenced to live there by the Department of Justice. These are kids between the ages of 13 to 18, who have an average of 12 offenses. We have them six to nine months, and 76% don’t reoffend after completing the program. There are three certified school teachers at AMI Kids, and in the time they’re with us, we see their reading and math skills raise an average of two grade levels.”

One of the company’s favorite ways to support these groups is through auction donations. “We give 150 to 200 square feet-worth around $1,500 to $2,000-as the auction item,” says Julie. “People will often want to do more than one room, so they pay us for the balance, which helps us too.” At a recent auction, one of Classic Wood Flooring’s items netted such a great price that the auctioneer asked the business-on the spot-to donate another, which it did. At another event, Don approached two competitive bidders who’d lost the item and told them that if they’d be willing to match the donation of the winning bidder, he’d give them the flooring as well. They agreed.

Of their good work, Don says, “It’s the right thing to do. The book I read and the place I go on Sundays tells me that I’m to help my neighbors.”

As you might expect, customer service is also of great importance to the Herndons. “We insist on customer service,” says Don. “We tell our installers, ‘If Mrs. Smith wants her couch moved three times before she’s happy, you do it.’” The couple reports that a significant part of their success is that the Classic Wood Flooring team-including its 55 to 60 subcontractor installers-takes this philosophy into the field. “Some of our installers have been with us for 35 years. It’s the same with our staff. We don’t have much turnover. They care, and they have the same vision we do.”

After each installation, it’s Classic Wood Flooring’s policy to attach felt pads to the feet of each piece of furniture before returning it to the room. In addition, the installation team changes out the wheels on all rolling furniture-such as desk chairs-to those that are more hardwood-friendly, free of charge.

Also, with each sale, customers receive a cleaning kit that includes Classic Wood Flooring’s custom-made floor cleaner, a practice that keeps customers coming back into the store between flooring purchases. “We sell gallons of our cleaner every week,” says Don. And at the end of the sale, after payment has been collected, Julie has a floral arrangement delivered to the customer’s home or business.

Classic Wood Flooring also has its moldings custom-made. “When I installed flooring,” recalls Don, “the moldings were always wrong. We have our moldings made in 16’ lengths, and I have a painter who colors them to match the floor. That way, we’re not waiting on a backorder of moldings. The moldings are a big part of our success. We also do custom inlays. We don’t just buy them-we actually make them.” Not only do these custom offerings set Classic Wood Flooring apart from its competitors, but they also make for a more streamlined installation process and produce a higher-quality end result.

Don spent his early career as an electronic technician for the Paris Corporation. At the time, he was also working part time for a man with a carpet cleaning business. Eventually, the man told Don that he wanted to sell the business, and Don decided to buy it.

Don added installation to the business’ offering and started installing carpet and sheet vinyl for Sears, Montgomery Ward and Scotty’s Builders Supply. He also did insurance work. Eventually, he was running 15 crews.

When Don began to notice hardwood floors increasing in popularity, he was eager to jump into the new category. “My father worked in wood, and I was always interested in it,” Don explains. “Carpet at that time was getting harder to work with. It wasn’t the quality that wood was, and I told my son, who was working with me at the time, ‘I’m tired of holding carpet and pad on my shoulders.’” Don notes that he had also just been through a divorce from his first wife, which he characterizes as a “master reset.” Ready for a new path, he attended training and seminars and completely refocused his installation business on hardwood.

The next ten years were significant for Don, as his installation business became wood-only, and he met and married Julie. “I kept telling Don that he was making the stores he installed for look really good, and I encouraged him to start a retail business,” she says. Don told Julie that he would only make the leap with her at his side. At the time, Julie was overseeing the books and scheduling for a dental office. “I had to think hard, both about working with my husband and leaving the benefits of my job,” she explains. “My daughter was only ten at the time, and it was a big decision. Don said, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? If we fail, you can get another job, and I can go back to installing.’ So we got a second mortgage on the house and opened a 900-square-foot showroom in a strip mall in 1998, right around the corner from where we are now. We were in that location for six years.”

In the beginning, the Herndon’s focused their retail business solely on hardwood, per the business name, and that was a unique approach in Florida, often assumed to be too humid for the flooring. Don says, “We really like wood and installing wood, and we were on the cutting edge here. We really brought hardwood to Brevard County.” The Herndon’s success with the material centers on the fact that Don intimately understands hardwood installation and is clear with his customers about what will work and what won’t. Solid hardwood, he says, will not work, explaining that in Florida’s humid climate cupping and buckling are inevitable-and not an installation problem or product defect.

In 2004, the Herndons moved Classic Wood Flooring into a larger, custom-built facility, still focusing only on hardwood. But when the recession hit, the Herndons decided to expand their offering, “In the downturn, we started looking at other income streams and branched back out. The builders we work with wanted us to do it all-that was the driver. It was income, and it kept everyone working. Plus we found that a lot of customers wanted one company to install all types of flooring, so we realized, if we are going to grow the company, we have to offer it all. We can’t just be a specialty wood flooring shop.”

Today, Classic Wood Flooring’s breakdown is as follows: custom builder business, 15%; production builder business, 35%; commercial business, 10%; and residential replacement business, 40%. “It’s a good mix,” says Don. “Each phase is significant.”

Part of the trouble with selling installation as a career is its wear and tear on the body. When installers age out, what are they left with? Don and Julie have recognized that while older installers may not be able to handle the physical aspects of the floor installation business, they are valuable and knowledgeable assets in the showroom. Don adds, “We have an installer who wants to come inside now; he’s 50. And I’m grooming him to help in the builder area. A former installer’s experience is such an asset because they can look at the job from that standpoint and notice things that a regular salesperson wouldn’t notice. Having a mechanic in sales really helps.”

While style and design are drivers in the showroom today and retired installers may not fit the “design consultant” mold, Don and Julie’s approach is unique and constructive.

“Skilled labor will be a big challenge over next ten to 15 years,” says Don. “Society has told everyone that they need an educated job, and we’ve left the trades behind. Public schools in Florida are putting trade schools back in, but that will take time. In the meantime, we bring in anyone we can and train them. We want a skilled installer today, but that doesn’t happen-it takes years. We’re hiring immigrant labor and finding that they are very hard workers.”

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