Focus on Leadership: Jay Smith s a second-generation flooring leader who loves a challenge – Oct 2023

Interview by Kemp Harr

Jay Smith, vice president of Shaw Industries’ builder, multifamily and specialty markets businesses, is second generation in the flooring business, following in the footsteps of his father, Jule Smith. Jay spent the early years of his career with Mohawk and DuPont Flooring Systems before transitioning to the FEI Group for a two-decade tenure. He joined Shaw in May 2021.

Jay and his wife, Celeste, live in Atlanta. The pair met through flooring: Celeste was making a pitch on behalf of the interiors-focused advertising agency she worked for. Jay and Celeste have two daughters: Georgia, 23, who lives in Berlin, Germany, and Brynn, 21, a senior at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

Q: Your father, Jule, worked for DuPont’s carpet fiber business and ended his career in the carpet backing business. How did you end up working in the floorcovering business?
It just that simple-I’m in it’s because my father was in it. We are very close and always have been. His influence would be hard to overstate. I knew he loved the industry, the people and the business. When I got out of the University of Georgia, the flooring business was the natural place for me.

Q: Changes in your father’s career forced you to shift school systems from the Wilmington, Delaware area to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Would you classify that situation as a tough adjustment or character building?
I remember that well. It was seventh grade. Mom and Dad sat us down to share the news that we were moving from Delaware back to the South. My brother and I could tell it was a big deal; the vibe was a little heavy. As soon as they told us the news, we were all over it. We said, “Let’s go!” Our reaction was both a surprise and a relief to my parents. I’d like to think that was a precursor for embracing the changes that life throws at us. However, for a young boy, it probably had more to do with the mountains and rivers in their description of Chattanooga. It was a great change for the family. What a special place to grow up.

Q: You started with Mohawk in sales and transitioned into marketing; later, you shifted to DuPont Flooring Systems on the commercial contracting side. Which role did you like better and why?
When I started with Mohawk, it was a $300 million mid-size company. This was before all the acquisitions took place that made it a global player.

David Holt was running sales then and hired me. He was still in his 20s, maybe 30. We hit it off immediately, and he is still a great friend today. We were young, energetic, hungry, and we loved competing. The major run of growth that followed was an incredible experience, too-mergers and acquisitions at a fast tempo. What a learning experience. I was very fortunate to have a great start to my career.

The DuPont experience was also a lot of fun but quite different. This was when Shaw, Interface and DuPont had each moved into the commerical contracting business through a major mergers and acquisitions push. It was an exciting and challenging experience. Working with both the corporate “roll up” side and the entrepreneurs who sold their companies was a great background for all the consolidation that we see in our industry. It also gave me a deep appreciation for the day-to-day challenges of the contracting and installation business.

Q: You spent over 20 years as president of Floor Expo/FEI Group. What drove that shift in career focus?
The desire for change and a new challenge had me primed to make a move. What made it the right move was relationships and a vision of what could be. Dave Gheesling and Andy Hogan-good friends of mine-had stepped out and started something new and exciting. Andy and I had been together in the early days of our careers at Mohawk. I remember those old Color Center conferences we worked on together; they were super-hard work, but we created something that really spoke to folks. The thought that we could bring that level of connectivity and positive business results to the builder segment was quite motivating.

Q: What were a couple of your proudest achievements or highlights at FEI Group?
We had so many. The highlights were the friendships and the good business outcomes that we were able to play a role in. I can’t think about this time without thinking about my friend, Glenn Wyatt. He literally put us up in his building and gave us his full support during the startup phase. He and [wife] Eileen were really key; they are a great family.

Growing from builder into multifamily was a fun expansion project and became a key part of the company. Hiring and working with Brian Penabad to move into the cabinet business was a real highlight, too.

Overall, the member companies and the people are what made it special. Remember, FEI was started before the corporate and private equity money came in and drove the consolidation we see today. In the early days of the group, flooring contractors tended to be local, with just a few regionals. That promoted a spirit of openness and sharing. The conferences were always a highlight for me. I took a lot of personal enjoyment in helping to create a culture that was positive and unique. The connections that were created were, and are, simply outstanding. It was an incredible opportunity, and I’m very grateful to have been a part of it.

Q: Today, you are a leader with Shaw Industries, heading up its builder and multifamily businesses. Tell us about joining Shaw, your current role and how you are bringing your leadership style to Shaw.
Shaw is a leader in these segments. More than that, Shaw is a leader in our whole industry. Having spent my career in flooring, Shaw always seemed to occupy the high road when it came to products, service and people. I admired the Shaw culture, “The Shaw Way.” So, when Tim Baucom and Scott Sandlin reached out with a leadership opportunity with Shaw, I was ready to roll. Leading a large division of a large corporation brings exciting new challenges. I really enjoy it.

The cool thing is that after a couple of years with Shaw, I still have that admiration for the Shaw culture. We are working to do right by our customers and our employees every day, in every way.

I am very fortunate to lead an amazing team. I find myself inspired and motivated by my teammates daily. Hopefully, I can bring them some of that, as well. We have a shared vision, and we love getting after it together. Plus, we are bringing the results. That keeps it fun.

Q: What are a couple of the big challenges facing the builder market today? And how does your previous career experience help you guide Shaw, the largest builder/multifamily floorcovering business in the industry, to overcome them?
One of our big challenges is to sell the full value of what flooring brings to the interior environment. We tend to get pushed to the lowest common denominator in these tough B2B segments. That can do a disservice to the end user and to our industry. As the leader, we are telling the story of our brands-Shaw, Anderson Tuftex, CoreTec, Philadelphia-every chance we get. Let’s give the consumer a great story and a great product that they can fully enjoy.

Q: What does the industry need to do to grab more share of wallet in the interior finishes business?
Tell our story. Build powerful brands. Launch innovative products. We are striving to truly align with our customers in order to accomplish this. We want to be the partner that is helping drive their profitability.

Q: Who were the mentors that helped guide your development, and what did they teach you?
I have so many who have influenced and inspired me. However, I only have one true mentor-my father, Jule Smith.

I had the great advantage of not having to leave the house to find someone who embodies character and wisdom, has a love of family and friends, is a good husband and father, is physically fit, operates with a strong work ethic and kindness. He hits all the big rocks...all with a positive attitude. He is my main man.

Q: Tell us about the “aha” moment when you learned what it takes to step up as a leader.
I realized right out of school that a combination of hard work and asking for the order was a pretty good recipe for success in sales. First, I learned to lead myself in that way. I haven’t had many stops in my career, but each has informed and honed my leadership style and approach. I enjoy the actual doing much more than the theoretical. I believe in being “in it” with my teams. Plus, that’s where all the fun and action take place.

I like to start with a clear vision, communicate clearly and powerfully, gain buy-in, develop a sharp strategy, and then draw up the tactical plays and run the plays. Culture is critical. We will have a culture of winning, of togetherness, of openness and honesty where the best idea wins, and, above all, we will have some fun along the way. The fun is not optional.

Q: How do you balance your personal life with your professional life?
Balance is overrated. I try to live life fully. When I do that, I feel balanced.

Q: What advice do you have for young professionals who are following your footsteps?
It starts with attitude. Try to get this idea in your head: “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” If you can grasp that simple concept, it will unlock the rest. Skill development, knowledge acquisition, practice, fail, repeat, exposure-showing up is half the battle. Participate when you show up. Ask for more responsibility, before you are ready for it. And, remember to save 20% of what you make and live beneath your means. Good things will happen.

Q: What do you and your wife Celeste do for fun when you aren’t focused on growing Shaw’s builder business?
Celeste and I love to travel. In fact, we just got back from a trip to Berlin and hiking in the Austrian Alps. Our older daughter lives in Berlin. What a great town. We RV camp. We both play in gigging rock-n-roll bands. Celeste plays electric bass guitar, and I am a drummer. Life is full and very busy.

Of course, when it’s time to rest and recharge, you have to do that. My pensive activities are reading and listening to music. I love a good book and still enjoy rocking vinyl on a proper Hi-Fi.

Being physically fit is huge. I’m even throwing in a little meditation here and there these days. We approach life, and business, with an attitude of gratitude.

Copyright 2023 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Anderson Tuftex, Tuftex, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Mohawk Industries, Interface, FEI Group