Focus on Leadership: Dan Natkin is a man of many interests - April 2020
Interview by Kemp Harr
Philadelphia native Dan Natkin, vice president of hardwood and laminate for Mannington, has spent nearly two decades in the flooring industry and the last 14 with Mannington, a company he was attracted to for its personal culture and values. In addition to heading up two product categories and managing the installation training and developments program for Mannington, he is active in several industry organizations and part owner and brew chef for New Jersey-based craft beer and coffeehouse Death of the Fox Brewing Company. In addition, Natkin enjoys scuba diving, cooking, camping, reading and spending time with his wife and boys, both of whom are Boy Scouts.
Q: How did you get into the flooring business?
A: I started my career in logistics and dealer services with Toyota Motors, USA. All paths within Toyota led to California, and my wife and I decided we wanted to raise our children in the East close to family.
I was recruited by Armstrong Flooring to serve as a distribution center manager. The local headquarters and proximity to family appealed to my wife and me. Shortly after joining Armstrong, the wood business was integrated from Texas into Lancaster, and I was tapped to join the global product sourcing group.
At the time, I couldn’t have told you the difference between red oak and maple, nor solid versus engineered. I literally knew nothing about the product categories. However, I jumped in with both feet and learned as much as I could in a short period of time with the help of several amazing mentors and tons of reading. I consumed everything I could, particularly on wood. I read every book, practically memorized the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) training manuals, and set off around the world procuring products for the wood group.
In time, I moved into product management, which I quickly developed a passion for. There was something amazing about taking an idea-or even a germ of an idea-and turning into a tangible product that really appealed to me. It was like a natural fit, and I’ve been in flooring ever since-almost 20 years now.
Q: What attracted you to Mannington Mills?
A: A former co-worker from Armstrong introduced me to Mannington. He knew I was looking for a change and thought that culturally it would be a good fit for me. I liked the family-owned structure of the company and had tremendous respect for the quality of product Mannington was putting into the market.
During my interview, I met Keith Campbell, who had customers in for duck hunting but made time in his day to come see me. I was taken aback at how approachable and down to earth he was and felt as though Mannington would be a perfect fit for me. While I interviewed, I was introduced to the core values of Mannington: care; do the right thing; work hard, play hard; control your own destiny. All four fit my own guiding principles, and I knew it would be a great match. Fourteen years later, I’m still with Mannington. The company is truly unique in the flooring industry. The core values are as true today as they were years ago; it’s what really sets us apart.
Q: What do you like most about your current role in the flooring business?
A: It’s fairly simple: what drives me every day is working with our teams to design, develop and introduce new products to the market. For me, the ultimate job satisfaction is when I see a Facebook or Instagram post from a consumer with one of the floors our teams drove out to the market. In addition, I get to work with some amazing people and have the opportunity to meet numerous outstanding retailers and flooring contractors. The independent side of this business is really the lifeblood of the industry.
Q: You are charged with managing the wood and laminate business at Mannington. What are the advantages of one over the other?
A: This question is like asking me to pick my favorite child. There are advantages to each product category. There’s no denying the natural beauty of wood. It’s a challenge to design products in wood because you’re working with a natural product, and there are only so many ways you can distress, scrape, stain, etc. In laminate, you’re unbound in design but bound by the fact that it is produced with almost no labor, meaning that if you want random width or random lengths, you need to design that in.
Q: Will there always be a viable market for both surfaces?
A: Absolutely. You cannot replace the natural beauty and luxury of hardwood. It’s the only flooring type proven to increase the value of the home, and while printed products do a great job of emulating wood, in the end, they are still printed. For laminate, if you have kids and pets or a very active lifestyle, it’s the perfect choice for your home. I have both in my home in different areas based on what I needed for each room.
Q: Are you looking to grow these product categories commercially? What are the barriers for these products in the commercial market?
A: For both products, we look at the commercial market opportunistically. Where I see both playing well is in the multi-family market, which acts more like commercial. For luxury condos and apartments, wood is a natural choice. For multifamily buildings and hotels looking for a product that will perform better than LVT over time, laminate is a perfect choice.
Supermarkets and hospitals should stick with vinyl products. That’s what they are designed for.
Q: You are also charged with managing the installation training and development responsibility at Mannington. What do you feel is the best option for solving the shortage of trained installers in the field?
A: The solution must start at a younger age. As an industry, we are not doing enough to recruit kids in middle and high school. In the past, the schools taught trades in school. Wood and metal shop were part of the education path. Not everyone needs to go to college; kids need to be exposed to the kind of income they can make as a flooring installer. The NWFA is doing an amazing job at partnering with trade schools and high schools to try to bring the next generation of installer into the business. We support them at every opportunity. In my own community, I’ve given talks to groups of scouts and other youth about the opportunities in flooring. A grassroots effort is really what is required.
Q: You have a diverse range of responsibilities at Mannington. How do you manage your time and prioritize what needs to get done?
A: Coffee: it’s the essence of life and keeps me going! In all seriousness, I’m a big believer in Stephen Covey and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People curriculum. You must make time for what’s important and understand when to fight fires and when to hole up in your office and concentrate on long-term planning. Prioritization is a key.
Q: What do you consider to be your most important contribution to the flooring industry to date?
A: I’m really not a person that likes to toot his own horn. I’ve been lucky enough to surround myself with really good teammates who do an amazing job. If I had to pick something, it would probably be the focus I’ve helped to bring in the builder community regarding laminate flooring. It started with one, then two, and now many builders have revisited the product, solving issues they were having with hardwood. It’s kept life in a category that many had written off.
Q: Looking ahead, are there particular goals you want to achieve?
A: I’d like to help drive growth back into the laminate product category. I believe, at my core, that LVT/SPC/WPC products have been tremendously overhyped and oversold. Helping to drive growth back into what I believe to be a superior product is my number one goal.
Number two would be a re-introduction of hardwood to many retailers. It’s a category that has begun to be lost in this waterproof craze. It’s astounding to me how many consumers come in desiring wood and are switched to LVT by the independent retail sales associate. We are one of the only industries that will actually trade a consumer down, rather than up. Bringing life back to wood is a critical goal for me.
Q: What is the biggest challenges you face in your area of responsibility at Mannington?
A: Time management is one of my biggest challenges. We all are faced with firefighting every day, and taking the time to pause and concentrate on what’s truly important can be challenging at times. I frequently wake up in the middle of the night with an idea or thought about something. I’ve taken to keeping a notebook on my nightstand so I can jot it down and get back to sleep.
Q: How do you balance your work responsibilities with your family time and hobby time?
A: That’s another of my challenges. I block time on my calendar for key family-time activities, such as Scouting. Both of my sons are Boy Scouts. One is an Eagle Scout, and the other is just about there. I also block off time almost every weekend to concentrate on my side business: brewing beer.
Q: Tell us about your craft beer business.
A: When I was in college, I thought to myself, ‘There has to be something better than this swill we are drinking.’ I discovered a place in Washington, D.C. called the Brickskeller. Back in the early ’90s, the Brickskeller was the place for beer aficionados. They had a list of hundreds of beers.
Once I graduated, I started reading about how to brew beer myself and slowly developed my craft. In 2015, a few friends and I had the idea of opening a nano-brewery. And in 2017, we opened the doors to Death of the Fox Brewing in Clarksboro, New Jersey. We are the only craft brewery/craft coffeehouse in New Jersey.
I act as the “brew chef” for the business. Cooking is one of my passions, and brewing is no different. I’m constantly creating new beers to fill the 16 taps in our tasting room. I’m lucky enough to have a full-time partner in the business, Chuck Garrity. Chuck keeps the operation rolling and gives me the flexibility to come up with my crazy recipes. When I brew, it’s the only time my mind isn’t thinking about other things. It gives me the opportunity to shut out the rest of the world for six or eight hours and reset. I find it very cathartic.
Q: Who would you consider to be your mentors?
A: I’ve had so many through the years, but there are a few that I consider to be my closest mentors.
Roger Osbourne, who retired from Toyota, was my first boss out of college. I was young, full of myself, and thought I knew everything. Roger taught me otherwise. He was a calm, steady hand in managing a difficult facility. Unfortunately, I lost touch with him a few years ago but think about him frequently.
Neil Moss, who retired from Armstrong, has sawdust in his blood and started me down my path of learning about wood. He’s my wood Yoda!
Greg Burleson of Mullican helped me early in my sourcing career at Armstrong. He taught me a ton about wood and how to tell the difference between a good plant and a not-so-good one. We traveled the world together, and I’m always thrilled to see him at various trade shows.
Kim Holm, who retired from Mannington, was our president when I started. He really taught me to sharpen my pencil and check my work. He had an uncanny, almost Rain Man-like way of looking at a set of numbers and finding an error.
Ed Duncan, who retired from Mannington, took me in and really taught me different ways of looking at things and better ways to examine problems as well as how to consider the right messaging.
Joe Amato, who retired from Mannington, worked hand in hand with me for years in designing new wood products. He really taught me that two heads are frequently better than one. Joe is a great friend.
David Sheehan of Mannington is an unparalleled genius in product management. I continue to learn from him every single day and was overjoyed when he came back to Mannington.
Q: As the president of NALFA and on the boards of NWFA, NERF (the NWFA Educational Research Fund) and the Hardwood Federation, you must see value in serving the industry. What do you get out of that?
A: This industry has provided a good life for my family and me. I feel strongly that it’s important that I give back, and I do so through these organizations. I also am constantly learning because of my interactions with the great business leaders I meet through these groups.
Q: Why do you think so many responsibilities fall into your lap?
A: Ultimately, I have a really hard time saying no! I think that’s why so many things fall to me. I also believe firmly in establishing trust. Once you are trusted, people will bestow additional responsibilities on you because they trust you will see them through. Here are a few traits that I live by as a leader and mentor:
Get it done. As Yoda said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Ultimately, you’re either in or out. You’re committed or not. Don’t do things halfway.
Servant leadership. Be willing to roll up your sleeves. No task is too menial. I don’t care how high in the organization you are. I’m on my knees prepping the booth for Surfaces every year right alongside the installation crew. For those few days, they are the boss, and I take their lead.
Listen first then speak if necessary. This is a trait I’m still working on. It doesn’t always come naturally, but the results are amazing when you do it.
Work hard; play hard. It’s one of the core values at Mannington, and I take it to heart. You spend an inordinate amount of time at work; make sure you take the time to recognize your co-workers and enjoy being with them!
Q: How has the latest coronavirus threat tested your leadership skills?
A: We are facing an unprecedented time right now. First and foremost, we need to keep our employees calm and productive. Like anything else, we will get through this, and that message needs to resonate from the top down. At the same time, we have to make difficult decisions about spending, product development, etc. No one knows how long this will last. We need to make sure we keep looking past it but manage our resources effectively right now.
Q: Do you have a good outlook for young leaders in the hardwood industry?
A: When you look at the NWFA emerging leaders group, there are many young people coming up, such as Steve Skutelsky of PID Floors, Allie Finkell of American OEM and Jesse Joyce of Middle Tennessee Lumber. I used to think this industry was getting old, but there are a lot of young innovators.
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