Don Maier, CEO of Armstrong Floor Products: Focus on Leadership

Interview by Kemp Harr

Don Maier, CEO of Armstrong Floor Products, joined the company as senior vice president of global operations in 2010. Maier possesses a diverse mix of talents with both a technical and business education background.

Born and raised in Massillon, Ohio, Maier earned a degree from Ohio State University in industrial systems engineering and began work at Hillenbrand Industries, where he spent the better part of 21 years. While at Hillenbrand he worked first with Batesville Casket Company, and then with a medical device company called Hill-Rom, where he rose to senior vice president, North America. Maier’s P&L work caught the eye of private investment firm TPG, which is what initially brought him to Armstrong—when TPG became a major shareholder of Armstrong World Industries. But when TPG sold its ownership of the company, Maier chose to stay with Armstrong and now leads its flooring business. 

Q. You came to Armstrong when PE firm TPG bought into the company, and yet you stayed after they sold their interest and moved on. What factors led to your decision to stay with Armstrong? 
 I was actually planning to leave the company because my job in operations excellence was done. I was brought in to introduce and integrate Lean into Armstrong’s culture and focused most of my efforts on five of their plants to help improve our processes, and, in turn, free up resources to grow the business, including building five new plants in Millwood, West Virginia; Wujiang, China; and Tatarstan, Russia; as well as two plants in Lancaster.

Q. Lean has a mixed reputation, sometimes carrying a negative connotation. What’s your perspective?
 It’s one of the most misunderstood and misapplied methodologies out there. Most companies that attempt to do a Lean transformation fail. Most of the folks who get beyond that point only see it as a cost-out methodology. My view on Lean is that it is a true growth enabler. Everything you do needs to be driven by the customer, focusing on what value they perceive and enhancing that, and eliminating things that are not value added and that they’re not willing to pay for.

Q. As the new leader of Armstrong’s flooring business, where will you direct the focus of your team?
 When I was approached about leading the flooring business, I was very excited. I believe wholeheartedly in the strategy and the possibilities and the people. We need to continue to execute well and keep customer value at the center of our thinking and our actions. The Armstrong brand has a terrific heritage, great products and great customers.

Q. Armstrong has one of the strongest unaided brand recalls with consumers. How did it get there and what are you doing to maintain that awareness?
 Longtime investment in direct to the consumer communications, including national consumer advertising since 1917, has helped to build the Armstrong brand. 

In addition, we have a great presence at retail. By having a strong nationwide presence in all channels, particularly at retail, we keep our brand constantly in front of the consumer. 

Branding is critically important to Armstrong. We track branding on an ongoing basis—not just overall awareness, but how people feel about our brand across measures such as innovation, trust, quality and confidence, where we consistently rank high. 

During this last recession, we did pull back in our consumer advertising expenditures, but we are looking at opportunities in 2015 to get back into some of the more traditional media. We recognize that you have to continue to invest in this area. 

Q. How can a business model that includes a dristributor and a dealer be competitive against those companies that have opted to cut the distributor out?
 We have what we think is a best-in-class distribution network. What they do to service thousands of retailers every day is something we could never do. Responsiveness and direct line of feedback is invaluable in servicing the retailer. Our distributors are the primary vehicle in which we intend to go to market. We may not sell to dealers direct, but we present our products and put on programs in collaboration with our distributors to make them predisposed to Armstrong branded products. These partners of ours have deep, long relationships that cannot be underestimated. They work hard to earn the business for us every day. 

Q. From your perspective, what critical elements allow a company to rise above the others?
 Strong business for me boils down to three things: the best employees, strong processes that are under constant evaluation for improvement, and the best products. If you have these things right, all focused on how to best deliver value to the customer, you have a great business model.

And there’s the customer. They need to be the center of our professional world. I’ve been out on the road meeting with a number of our customers, and I’m very excited about the conversations we’ve had. In my first 90 days, solidifying my relationships with our customers is my highest priority.

Q. Who is your customer?
 I use that term to include our distribution customers and our retailers and ultimately the consumer who walks in the door. I think it’s important that we view them all as customers and make sure that we’re focused on all of those bases.

Q. You recently made the decision to move the production of your engineered hardwood from your plant outside of Shanghai to your facility in Somerset, Kentucky. Explain the dynamics that let to that decision.
 All of our decisions are driven by customer needs. Our customers want a world class handscrape, made in the U.S., at the same or close to the same price as import product. 

We are excited about the opportunity to provide improved service and inventory flexibility by moving to domestic manufacturing for our engineered handscraped hardwood products, in addition to supporting the U.S. economy and job force. We are not just bringing products to the U.S.; we are also driving new features and benefits and doing this in ways that allow us to be very competitive in the marketplace.

Q. What are your long-term sustainability objectives?
 Currently, all of our plants have reduction goals for energy, water and waste. In Australia, Armstrong harvests and uses rainwater—a practice that reduced the plant’s potable water use by over 40%. Both Kankakee, Illinois and South Gate, California tile flooring plants use more recycled waste materials than they generate. In October 2014, our Kankakee manufacturing facility was honored with the Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Award for its efforts to reduce waste both internally at the manufacturing facility and externally through the recycling program for VCT.

Q. When you are adding new employees to your team, what skill sets do you look for?
 It starts with integrity and ethics, not just the minimum, but extremely high levels. Next, I believe that getting the highest level of talent is the most important thing I do. I want folks to speak up. I like noisy meetings. By exploring different perspectives and paths, we can arrive at the best plan, and the best execution of that plan. That’s diversity, engagement and commitment, and it drives accountability, which is crucial to business success. That’s why organization vitality is so important, and I intend to continue to drive that initiative. We need to hire well, develop our people and fortify our leadership team, empowering people to make good decisions at all levels of the organization. We have an excellent group now, and I intend to continue to build on that.

Q. Talk about of a few of the mentors you’ve had in your career. Which ones stand out in your memory and why? 
 I have been very blessed in having a constant stream of mentors over my career. Joe Granger stands out among them all. A colleague, a friend and a confidant who I’ve worked with for at least 20 years, he was the model of customer focus. He really helped me understand the secret sauce of Hillenbrand Industries. I really believe it’s the same secret sauce that Armstrong has had for hundreds of years. It was an impactful piece for me to understand and learn that side of the business and how important that connectivity is. I’ve been spending probably more than 50% of my time, since I was put into this role, out in the field with customers. I can tell you that wouldn’t happen naturally if it weren’t for what I learned from Joe. He taught me the art of connecting with people at all levels of an organization. As a result, I am as comfortable on the shop floor as I am in the boardroom.

Q. What advice do you have for people who are just now entering the professional world? 
 Follow your passions. If you are doing something you truly love and are passionate about, you will excel, and it will not feel like work.

Q. What important goal have you set for yourself for the years to come? What have you not yet accomplished? 
 To give back in a more meaningful way. I have been blessed in so many ways, and it is my intent to share these gifts both professionally and personally.

Q. What is your favorite book or quote? 
 “It all begins with people.” This is my personal motto.

Q. What do you do to decompress and relax? 
 Time with my wife and family as well as long walks in the woods with my very best friend, our dog Ivy.

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus

Related Topics:Armstrong Flooring