Focus on Leadership: Geoff Gordon talks about his journey from radio DJ to executive director of Fuse Alliance - March 2021
Interview by Kemp Harr
Geoff Gordon, executive director of Fuse Commercial Flooring Alliance, has worn many hats over the years, including as a disc jockey while in college. It was that stint in radio that actually led him to his impressive career in the flooring industry, where today he leads a 100+-member organization of flooring contractors. His career spans 35 years and includes stints at Armstrong World Industries, SCS Flooring Systems and Designweave. The past 12 months have presented unique challenges for the flooring industry, like every other aspect of life, but Gordon remains optimistic and hopeful for the future.
Q: How did you get into the flooring industry and become a commercial flooring contractor?
A: I was a radio disc jockey when I was in college and held a professional job working the morning drive time shift for a station in Vineland, New Jersey. At that time, I was attending Drexel University in Philadelphia. During my senior year, I had an epiphany about my future and realized that I did not want to be spinning records for a living.
Drexel had a great reputation for attracting big companies to its campus for job interviews. On a whim, I interviewed with Armstrong World Industries and wound up accepting a job with them. Armstrong thought I was a good fit for the carpet division, so I started as a rep in Salt Lake City, Utah. To say I was shocked was an understatement-an East Coast big city boy headed to a small city in the West. Once I got there, I absolutely loved it!
Back in those days, companies promoted you by moving you around the country. After two years, Armstrong moved me to Atlanta and then to Houston. After three years in Houston and shortly before Armstrong sold their carpet division to Shaw, I went to work for Designweave as a territory manager. The Designweave management team moved me to Southern California a year later; I was the first rep ever to be relocated by the company. I became the top salesperson for Designweave and was promoted to a regional vice present and then to the vice president of sales and marketing, the company’s top position. Designweave and Tuftex (sister company making residential carpet) were sold to Queen Carpet in 1994 and then to Shaw in 1998.
I was looking for a new challenge, so in 2003, I went to work for a commercial flooring contractor, SCS Flooring Systems in Los Angeles. I came in as the president, but quickly realized I had a lot to learn. Even though I had been on the manufacturing side for years, I had no idea how challenging it was to be a flooring contractor. The risks that business owners take every day are monumental, and the amount of detail can be overwhelming. Construction can be a tough world!
Q: Tell us how your career background makes you well-suited to lead the Fuse Alliance.
A: I am so blessed to be the executive director of Fuse. I absolutely love the job! I think my background of being a manager at a high level on both the supplier and dealer sides gives me a unique insight into what both groups are looking for from each other.
Q: What would you consider are a few of your major career accomplishments?
A: I have loved my career in the flooring industry. When I was in commercial carpet sales, I was nominated for the President’s Award twice while at Armstrong and received an award for Top Salesperson of the Year at Designweave. I was so proud to lead Designweave a few years later, and our team did an amazing job. We tripled the business in five years with a lot of help from the management team at Queen and the resources they made available to us. It was a very exciting time. At SCS, we doubled the business in four years, and with that, I learned that when contractor revenues increase, you need to develop the in-house resources to support it.
Q: How is Fuse different from the other groups within the flooring business?
A: I believe the strength of our network is in the camaraderie we have built within our membership. This was particularly evident in 2020 when we all worked together to share best practices through the pandemic. I was on call after call with our members and the board of directors, and the ideas exchanged back and forth were truly exciting. We also pride ourselves on maintaining a very positive relationship with our suppliers. Without them we could not succeed!
Q: What would you say are Fuse’s primary challenges for growth and prosperity?
A: To grow and prosper, we must continue to offer value. By “value” I mean that we need to continue to deliver to our customers the best possible service experience and, at the same time, take care of our suppliers. If we execute well as contractors and offer superior service to our customers and vendors, we will succeed.
Q: Which sectors have been impacted the most by the pandemic?
A: It is no secret that retail renovation and hospitality have been hit the hardest. It is doubtful that these sectors will pick up until later in the year. We do significant business in senior living, and other than emergency work, there is very little renovation going on. Education and healthcare will be fine, and we are also relatively bullish on the corporate sector. Any movement in this sector is good, whether companies are reducing or increasing office space.
Building owners and managers will do everything they can to fill up their buildings and flooring is always a part of that process. Our members are optimistic about 2021, and we’re confident it will be a better year than 2020.
Q: Does the consolidation we are seeing within your sector concern you?
A: Our industry has been changing since my career began many years ago. When I started, there were more than 300 carpet mills. We have all seen what has happened on the manufacturing side, and now the same thing is happening on the dealer side. We have many members looking for an exit strategy and selling to other flooring entities or venture capital groups. This is going to play a role in Fuse’s future.
We are not concerned with consolidation because the additional capital will help companies get better at what they do, and there will always be new companies starting up across the country. Many of our new members are younger and are joining the network to gather the intelligence they need to grow their businesses.
Q: To be effective, your members need to nurture relationships with general contractors, specifiers and end users. Is one more important than the other two? What worked for you at SCS?
A: Some of our members are very successful calling on general contractors, while others work well with A&D and end users. At SCS, we had a unique blend of business because of our diverse sales group. We were very good calling on all the customer categories and did a particularly good job selling to national accounts.
Q: There is some debate on how much influence the commercial flooring contractor has on what product ends up being installed in any given project. What are your thoughts?
A: We talk about this a lot with our preferred suppliers, especially since business was negatively impacted last year.
We have carefully studied our business and determined that we impact about 25% of commercial specifications. Based on our combined revenues of almost $2 billion, that represents a discretionary opportunity of about $300 million dollars in purchases once we account for labor. What is even more interesting is that we believe our discretionary business in LVT is almost 35% since LVT has become more commoditized.
We also see Material Bank as a big disrupter and a big influencer on specifications; as a result, we are the first service organization to join the group.
Q: What does the flooring industry need to do to improve?
A: I thought 2020 was a banner year for Fuse-both members and suppliers-because everyone really worked together. The heads of all our key manufacturers were calling and asking what they could do to help, and right out of the gate, many of them offered extended terms, which we were very grateful to receive.
Since reps control pricing in the commercial world, there is oftentimes an inherent distrust between the manufacturer and the contractor. That can be alleviated by being honest through the specification process. I believe our members do a very good job supporting and working with our suppliers. If we work together as a team, we will always be successful.
Q: What is the secret of your success?
A: I learned this from my father: nothing replaces hard work. I always felt that I might not be the smartest person in the room, but I would always be the hardest working.
Q: Who are your mentors, and what did they teach you?
A: I have been fortunate to have many mentors in my career. I will only name a few at the risk of offending the others, but they know that I love them!
When I worked for Designweave, Ed Lutterloh, who was the head of manufacturing at the time, was always taking me out to the plant to show me how products were made, and he allowed me to be heavily involved in product development. This knowledge was invaluable as a senior level manager.
When Queen Carpet bought us, James Lesslie was the liaison between us and Queen, and without his help navigating between the two companies, we would have never been as successful. His knowledge of fiber and product helped us immensely.
When I moved to the contractor side, I could always call Bob Plann of Resource Arizona (now InteriorWorx) and Ron Lee, the former executive director of Fuse, and they were always happy to counsel me. At Fuse, I have had many mentors. I could not have learned my new job without the help of Ron and many board members too numerous to mention.
Q: You have a contagious level of enthusiasm. Is that your DNA, or did you pick that up along the way?
A: I have always been like that. I have been an avid reader of self-help books, and they always focus on energy and enthusiasm. If you are going to succeed, you need to put 110% into it.
Q: What do you do for fun when you are not focused on growing the Fuse Alliance network?
A: I love spending time with my children and grandchildren, and I am a big foodie. I never met a restaurant I did not like. I also look forward to traveling once things get back to normal.
Copyright 2021 Floor Focus