Focus on Leadership: John Finch continues to lift Legacy Group through a focus on customer service and innovation - Dec 2021
Interview by Kemp Harr
John Finch has led Seattle-based Legacy Group-the business he cofounded with Lou Lanthier in December 1999- through a number of iterations, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which sent workers out of the workplace and into their home offices, represented another significant transition for the business, hitherto focused almost exclusively on turn-key flooring and furniture installations for corporate workspaces, completed in off-business hours. In fact, prior to the pandemic, 75% of the business’ work was completed at night.
Today, the company has diversified into healthcare, education and new construction work, yet Finch has kept a close eye on staying true to both the business’ focus on serving the customer and its motto, “Radically honest and transparent.”
Finch and his wife, Heather, who he has known since the age of 13, live in Duvall, Washington. They have two adult children, a daughter and a son.
Q: What drove you to leave a career as a firefighter to build a business in the commercial flooring arena?
A: I always had an interest in business. However, it wasn’t until my girlfriend at the time-now my wife of 26 years-broke up with me for a week that I was motivated to start one. About a year later, I left the fire department and never looked back.
My firefighter schedule left me with four full days off a week. I got bored, so I started hauling trash in the bed of my pickup for extra cash. Soon, I began transporting used carpet, then removing it too. In 1995, I developed a hydraulic lift system to raise cubicles so carpet could more easily be removed beneath them. That’s when things started taking off.
Q: What attracted you to partner with Lou Lanthier as you two decided to start the Legacy Group?
A: I had been running my business for about seven years, wearing a lot of different hats. Lou was able to bring a lot of business experience that provided the opportunity to strategically grow the business and gave me the ability to focus on business development.
Lou was a partner at Kahn and Company in Denver, which was purchased by Shaw as part of its Spectra program. Later, he moved to Seattle to run a different Spectra commercial flooring operation. I had already been doing business with that Spectra dealer, and we met there. Lou had a college roommate who had a computer and technical furniture company.
We decided to leverage our shared strengths in flooring by building an installation service organization catering primarily to furniture and flooring dealers; this is how Legacy Group started.
Q: How has the business evolved in the last couple of years?
A: We had been predominately focused on occupied office refresh with end users until about 2020. Occupied office refresh projects represented about 60% of our business revenue. A lot of our end-user customers switched to work-from-home strategies during the pandemic. We adapted well and put additional attention to healthcare, education and new construction projects.
Our current product and service mix was achieved by a lot of planning, providing clarity to our sales team, and focused goal setting. We were able to forecast in advance with some of our largest customers to meet their evolving needs, as their infrastructure, facility and workspace integration requirements were changing.
Since we have experience in both occupied office refresh projects and new construction/large tenant improvement projects, we can navigate the changes as they present themselves.
Q: What is your to-market strategy?
A: We are a commercial furniture and flooring business. Our base business model is focused on service. You could say we are a commercial interior service business with a bad habit of selling commercial furniture and flooring products.
Q: Which group do you focus on most for business growth: general contractors, A&D or facility managers/owners?
A: We have been most successful with end users from a long-term partnership strategy. However, it’s all about relationships and partnerships, be they with A&D firms, GCs, facility managers or end users.
We do have segmented and focused business goals. Our salespeople are incentivized based on meeting and exceeding their booked goals in their vertical segments. From largest to smallest, our current segment breakdown is as follows: corporate, which still accounts for more than 55% of business; healthcare; education; senior living; multi-family; hospitality; retail; property management; public entity; nonprofit; residential; biotech and government.
Q: What is your secret for successfully working with these different entities, which all have different priorities?
A: It’s simple-listen and ask questions; diagnose before prescribing solutions. We don’t show-up-and-throw-up on the customer. It also means letting the customer know when we are not the right fit for them. Low price is virtually non-existent in our vocabulary. Best value is who we are.
Q: We’re seeing consolidation within the commercial contracting channel. Is your plan to stay independent?
A: We did not start our business with the idea to generate a higher multiple in order to sell to the highest bidder. We built our company with our “legacy” in mind. This creates a career path for our associates, a solid bench and a perpetuating business model that will function well into the future.
Q: What sets your business apart from other contractors in the flooring space?
A: A sense of urgency and having a commissioned, proactive sales team. Most of our competitors do not have a focused sales team. They respond to request for proposals (RFPs) from general contractors. Our competition has project managers or estimators and typically do not incentivize them from a compensation standpoint that rewards them for negotiated higher-margin work. Simply responding to RFPs commoditizes the industry. Their approach is more to “feed the machine” than develop long-term relationships that can better solidify a long-range business strategy.
We see our sales team as our front line and the face of our company and culture. The behaviors that our sales team-and entire company for that matter-demonstrates all speak to and tailor to our customers needs. We can enter new business engagements with a high level of confidence that our customers will have world-class service from beginning to end. This is very reassuring, as it is a sustainable and powerful value proposition.
While carpet tile is our key flooring category, we offer LVT and ceramic products as well. LVT and ceramic each account for 15% to 20% of business, with the balance going to carpet.
Q: What challenges in the market today are the toughest to overcome?
A: The more our industry is commoditized by flooring dealers and contractors simply responding to low-bid RFPs, the harder it is to get the opportunity to share how we can be the best value for projects. Having a dedicated sales team is our industry disrupter and will allow us to map out our destiny with a lot more accuracy.
Q: What are your guiding principles as you work to build an organization where everyone is in the same boat?
A: Ironically, we have always referenced our company as a canoe paddling upriver. The canoe is our company; our associates are the paddlers; the current in the river is our competition. We are all paddling toward the same destination goal. We all have a right to be happy in the canoe. That means being willing to look for different opportunities to paddle in a different spot. Sometimes, if a paddler is not happy in the canoe, we will pull over, let them out and wish them well.
Q: What part of your job gives you the greatest sense of joy or accomplishment?
A: Making my customers (Legacy’s associates) my number one priority by being available to listen, collaborate, problem solve and champion their successes. Leadership, to me, is stepping aside to let others shine.
I seek to achieve a high level of connectedness with our team. I have weekly leadership team member one-on-one meetings, and annual-moving to bi-annual in 2022-skip-level meetings, a meeting in which a managers’ manager will meet with all associates who do not report to them directly. In these meetings, I ask,
• How do you feel about work lately?
• What have you accomplished lately that you’re most proud of? What about since you’ve been with the company?
• How do you measure success in your role?
• What’s blocking you from being more successful than you already are?
• What tool would be most helpful for you in your current role?
• What would you do differently if you were in the role of your team lead? Why?
• What are your professional goals during the next year here and over the next three years?
• What ideas do you have for innovation in your team and in the company?
• Are there any questions we did not cover that you feel would be helpful in a skip-level meeting?
• Is there anything else on your mind?
Q: How do you maintain a work-life balance?
A: It’s taken a long time for me to figure this one out. However, paying more attention to being in the moment at home and at work has allowed me to better listen and respond to my family and associates so that I do not miss out on the good stuff in life. I try to bring as much fun and activity as I can to everything I do.
Q: What do you do to stay healthy and sharpen your saw?
A: I am always reading, researching and identifying new ways to improve in business and in life. I am a lifelong learner.
My wife and I spend a lot of time walking numerous miles together. It’s great physically and mentally spending that time outside together.
Working my brain in different ways helps me a lot, too. Currently, my wife and I are in ground school to become private pilots. She always had the dream to fly. She inspired me to join her in the journey.
Q: What attributes do you look for when adding more talent to your team?
A: Authenticity is number one. Everyone we bring on must be a great cultural fit to our organization. We take a team-based approach to hiring so that if there are any red flags, we can be sure to identify them as early in the process as possible. We want salespeople to be hungry. We want all associates to have a sense of urgency and accountability. We also want everyone who works on our team to be fulfilled and happy.
Q: Who is your mentor and what did they teach you?
A: My most impactful mentor is my Vistage chair, Mike Huse. Vistage is a CEO-coaching and peer-advisory organization for small and midsize business leaders. Mike has really opened my eyes on better taking care of myself mentally and physically so that I can always be ready to tackle the challenges ahead in business and life.
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