Focus On Leadership: Fifth-generation Mannington leader Zach Zehner carries on the family - Jan 2019
Interview by Kemp Harr
Zack Zehner, a fifth-generation member of the Campbell family, was recently named president of Mannington Residential, following Ed Duncan’s retirement. Since starting at the family business in his late teen years, Zehner has worked his way up through the ranks and will eventually take his uncle Keith Campbell’s place as chairman.
As the largest family-owned manufacturing brand in the flooring industry, Mannington holds a unique position-the ability to focus on investment in the long-term health of the company, rather than simply keeping stockholders happy in the next quarter. Zehner is highly committed to that “big picture” vision and carrying on the work his ancestors started.
Q: Tell me the path that kicked off your professional career and led, ultimately, back to the family business.
A: I am the oldest of the fifth generation of the Campbell-family grandchildren. I actually grew up on the plant grounds for part of my childhood. My mother and I lived for a couple of years in a really beautiful, old colonial farmhouse toward the back of the Mannington property here in Salem, so I spent a part of my childhood literally kicking around the plant grounds.
I also spent a lot of time with my grandparents, John B. “Johnny” and Anne Campbell. I was very close to them. When I worked in the plant during the college summers, I would eat at least one meal with them every day. My grandfather was not wild about the idea that I wasn’t going to go into the family business straight out of college. He expected me to. But I chose to go my own path, to do something on my own for my professional development. I actually taught school for a couple of years in Virginia prior to going to law school. My grandfather passed away while I was in law school, so I really never had the opportunity to express my interest in re-engaging with Mannington to him before he died.
After law school, I practiced as a lobbyist in the telecom industry for several years before joining Mannington. I learned a great deal, including how the world turns inside the Beltway. The critical thinking, communication and negotiation skills I developed during that experience provided a great foundation for my career at Mannington.
After practicing law for four years, I began talking with my uncle, chairman Keith Campbell, and we came to a mutual understanding of our mutual needs. He had an interest in having another family member in the business-his children were very young then, and my other cousins were scattered-and I had interest in getting back in the family business.
Q: You’ve said before that your grandfather is your hero. Tell us why.
A: My grandfather established a strong foundation for Mannington and put us on the path to where we are today. He had the courage to drive change and growth, honored a true set of values, and recognized the importance of building a strong team. The values and the culture he created are our guiding principles. I also always had a ton of respect for the importance he put on family. No matter what was going on with the company, he made it a priority to keep his family connected and close. He was also just a lot of fun to be around-always driving some crazy adventure. He really set a great example of how to live a full, well-rounded life.
Q: You were also close to former Mannington CEO Tom Davis, right?
A: Yes, I grew up with Tom Davis’ family. He had children my age, and I was close with his family during my teenage years. Tom was fantastic, a great mentor for me. I learned a lot from him.
Q: As you’ve come up through the ranks, it’s been known for some time that you would ultimately be taking Keith’s role. How was that decision made, and what kind of coaching do you get to prepare you to take the lead family role?
A: We take succession planning seriously. I have been working closely with Keith for the last 15 years, and he has spent a good deal of his time mentoring me regarding business and family as well as the Mannington culture and the “Mannington way.” There are three other family members of the fifth generation who have also joined the company over the last several years, and I have a similar responsibility to be part of their development.
Q: You joined Mannington after you turned 30 in 2002. You held a field sales role; then you went into product management, first in laminate and then porcelain, then to commercial hard surfaces and finally over to the distribution network. Which job have you liked the most and why?
A: Yes, I have had an opportunity to hold a lot of different roles in the company. As I said earlier, I actually began working in the Mannington plant and claims department during the summers in college, and I can tell you a VCT plant in South Jersey is a hot, dusty place in August.
It’s hard to say what job I liked best. I really enjoyed elements of all of them. I loved being in field sales, learning the business at the street level and working with customers; I made a lot of good friends in the industry during that time. In product management, I was mentored by the best in the business (Ed Duncan and Jack Ganley) and gained a strong understanding of the key drivers of a P&L and what it takes to successfully get product to market. In my distribution network role, I gained a deeper understanding of operations and developed strong relationships with our key distributor partners.
During my Mannington career, I also continued my education with finance classes to round out my background in that key area. We didn’t hit on accounting and finance in law school.
Q: Mannington has made a point of being family owned and professionally managed, incorporating non-family members into leadership roles as needed. Tell me about that approach.
A: We continue to be ‘professionally managed’ by a professional management team with deep industry experience that may-or may not-at any given time, include a family member. I’m very fortunate and excited to have an opportunity to be part of that team. Our CEO remains a non-family member, and we have no plans to change that scenario.
Q: Frequently, rumors swirl around the industry that the family is preparing to sell Mannington. Is that on the table?
A: Rumors of us having sold or nearing a sale of the business are always out there, and I get that. Many people don’t understand how the ownership portion of a privately held business works. It definitely requires dedication throughout the shareholder group to the cause, and while there has certainly been pruning and small liquidity events over the last 100 years of Mannington’s history, we have worked hard to remain committed to our mission of family ownership. This is a big priority for Keith as chairman: to engage the family shareholders and to make sure they understand what is required to keep the company within the family as well as competitive and healthy. We spend a lot of time on it. We invest in it, both in the move to start a family council as well as through our extensive financial and estate planning.
Several years ago, we started a formal family council-which gives us a structure for setting expectations, education and communication-and it’s been a great move. It’s something we are engaged in and managing carefully because keeping a family company with a family doesn’t happen without a standing investment in time, energy and work.
Q: With several generations of family owning shares that would become liquid if the company sold, what keeps the company from going that route?
A: There are three generations of the Campbell family that make up the Mannington shareholders today. The family is very dedicated to the long-term health of Mannington; it believes deeply in our associates and the company, and understands the need for steady investment. Ultimately, we believe that by remaining private we can take the appropriate long-term view versus focusing on results in the next quarter; this allows us to make the necessary investments for the longer-term health of the company. However, by no means is this easy. We invest in keeping family members connected to the mission and outlook of the company. As the sixth generation of the family continues to grow-and it seems to be growing quickly-we have a strong vehicle to continue the culture and mission going forward.
Q: Mannington produced the “Make Some Noise” video to teach about its commitment to selling products made in America, and yet Mannington recognizes that sometimes the best product options aren’t available here. What is Mannington’s thinking as it relates to sourcing and country of origin?
A: We continue to be deeply committed to U.S. manufacturing. Not only because we are patriots at the end of the day and want to create American jobs, but also because we believe it’s the best way to drive the most value to our customers. Domestic manufacturing allows us the greatest level of control over our supply chain, quality and service.
We have recently made a number of large investments in our domestic capabilities. We are working on producing LVT rigid core here in the U.S., planning to roll out Georgia-based WPC-production in the next calendar year; are close to opening our new commercial rubber flooring plant in Calhoun, Georgia; and have made significant upgrades to our hardwood operations in High Point, North Carolina. We think these investments will put us in a strong position to service our customers in key growing categories.
With that said, we are in a global industry and firmly committed to delivering differentiated products to our customers. We recognize that in some cases providing those innovations will require sourcing and external partnerships.
Q: Mannington makes products in virtually every category with the exception of residential carpet, porcelain tile and area rugs. How are you able to manage that complexity, which, as we have been reminded by Armstrong’s recent decision to exit the hardwood business, is not easy?
A: Without a doubt, it’s not easy and requires continual, significant re-investment in the company. We started diversifying our focus beyond resilient flooring in the 1960s and have been committed to growing a portfolio of differentiated products ever since. We believe that it’s important to be able to offer the right solutions for our customers and not force one category into the wrong application. We also believe that by managing a portfolio, we are able to be important to our customers as a full-service provider.
At the same time, at our size, we have learned that it is key to achieve and maintain excellence in each category we offer. I predict our portfolio will continue to evolve, but the core principle of only participating when we can do it right will be a constant.
Q: Mannington has always recognized the value of the independent retailer. What advice do you have for them as they face increasing competition in the market from the home centers, Floor & Décor and the Wayfairs of the world?
A: Despite multiple sources of competition, the truth remains that strong retailers continue to grow and take marketshare. If you look for common characteristics in how successful retailers approach business, you will see that, above all, they challenge themselves to grow; provide service excellence before, during and after the sale; offer unique and differentiated product; and market those unique selling propositions. Strong retailers have a bright future in our industry-no matter how the competitive scene evolves.
The hot button issue right now with retailers is about brand presence on the Internet. And we’re working hard both to build our brand and to control access to our products online through MAP pricing and how we enforce that. We see MAP pricing as a vehicle to help the brick-and-mortar retailer.
Q: How many family businesses in the channel buy from Mannington because it is also a family business?
A: It is hard to say exactly, but there are certainly a large number of family businesses in our industry-it’s one of the things I like about the flooring industry. While I don’t think it is the only reason customers do business with Mannington, I do think they feel comfortable that we share similar values and are committed to the type of relationships that families understand.
Q: What are a few of the key issues that you will be closely monitoring as you step into your new role?
A: Our residential team will be driving key initiatives that we’ve put in motion over the last several years: driving a leadership position in the fast-changing LVT category and continuing to build our premium hardwood business. I will be working on supporting the team, which includes a number of new faces, as well as familiar folks in new roles, to execute these initiatives.
Q: Company leaders are often asked to serve on boards. How will you choose when to say “yes” and when to say “no”?
A: I have served on the Resilient Floor Covering Institute board and recently completed a term on the North American Floor Covering Distributors board. Currently, I am also president of Stand Up for Salem, a nonprofit organization that my grandfather started to support the re-vitalization of our hometown, Salem, New Jersey. It means a lot to me to be part of that legacy.
I think it’s important to participate in associations supporting the industry, and I see joining another industry board in my future-after getting my feet on the ground in my new role.
Q: You’ve got a wife and three children. How do you balance your work, family and personal time?
A: I work hard to strike a balance. One thing I cherish about Mannington is that we recognize there is life outside of work, but, honestly, I mainly pull it off through the support of my wonderful wife, Jill. She is a schoolteacher and very supportive; she keeps an eye on our three teenagers and helps me prioritize and plan ahead to be sure I am there for important family events. While I’m not able to attend everything that I’d like, they understand that Mannington is our family business.
Copyright 2018 Floor Focus