Focus on Leadership: Keith Campbell is bullish on Mannington’s future as he steps aside as chairman – Dec 2023

Interview by Kemp Harr

Keith Campbell grew up watching his father, Johnny Campbell, lead Mannington as chairman, and he worked his way up to the same position. Mannington was founded in 1915 by Keith’s great-grandfather, John Boston Campbell. Keith joined Mannington in 1977 and spent his entire career in the family business, stepping away this year after 28 years at the helm.

Prior to assuming leadership, Keith worked his way through many departments of the family business, learning the ins and outs of everything from warehouse operations to cost accounting. Early on, while in the field as a territory sales rep for the company in Tampa, Florida, Keith complained to his mother that he didn’t have any friends in the area. She suggested that he find a church to meet people. Keith looked up the local Presbyterian congregations in the phone book, picked the closest one and visited its adult Sunday school. There, he met the Sunday school teacher he would later marry, Shirley. In addition to teaching Sunday school, Shirley held a degree in finance from the University of South Florida.

Keith and Shirley have three children and seven grandchildren. With Keith retired, the pair have packed up their New Jersey home and opted for a new life in Sarasota, Florida. Keith will maintain a seat on the Mannington board.

Q: What was it like growing up as the son of the chairman of Mannington Mills? In the early days, in what ways did you have to prove yourself to be worthy of following in your father’s footsteps?
In the earliest days, I was working in the manufacturing plant during the summer. I quickly realized I was living in a fishbowl, because no matter what I did, everyone was watching me. And those guys in the plant, they teased me, but I teased them right back. They were just being tough factory guys-tough Jersey factory guys-and I realized that in order to prove my worth I had to work hard. I developed a thick skin and also understood that people had high expectations. But those guys always had my back. They were always teaching me, and they gave me a hard time, but they always had my back.

Q: Were your schools and education path selected to prepare you for becoming the fourth-generation leader of the company?
Absolutely not! I went to a boarding school, and then on to Muskingum College (now University) in Ohio, and I received a very good education at both. I was a bit of a late bloomer academically. I did not go to graduate school, but I did receive advanced education from “Mannington University.”

My path truly began after college, when I went to work full time at Mannington-first in sales, and then back in New Jersey at our Salem headquarters through a series of different roles in different areas of the company. This taught me all the various aspects of running a company. For example, I worked in cost accounting. I can tell you that cost accounting in manufacturing is about one of the most important jobs there is. And at first, I was terrible at it! But within a few months, I actually could understand the cost sheet and could explain it to the CEO. I worked in human resources, IT-before it was IT and was just called “the computer department”-and my father even put me in charge of the construction of a new building. And onward that went. In all those jobs, I always learned something about how the company works, and I have an appreciation for our associates who do those jobs since I’ve been there myself.

Q: Remind our readers of some policies you put in place to ensure that Mannington’s family leaders are poised to succeed. The “Swiss Army Knife” and succession guidelines come to mind.
The succession guidelines for family members were something that I developed, and when we started our family council, they were formalized. Number one, all family members are encouraged to spend summer internships at the company so they can learn various aspects of the business, especially if they’re studying business, as they can get some practical application. Next, family members must have a postgraduate degree applicable to some aspect of the business at Mannington. Family members must also be at least 30 years of age, which gives them time to get outside experience.

The “Swiss Army Knife” is the idea that you have about 30 different tools you can call upon at any time. Overall, it might not be the best single tool, but it means that you have a variety of experiences you can draw upon and utilize. Ed Duncan came up with that analogy.

Succession guidelines for officers of the company were put into place by my father. They require officers to retire at age 65. This forces us to be disciplined and diligent in our succession planning. Succession planning is one of the most important things we can do as a company. Strategically, it is often overlooked, and if companies don’t do it correctly, they can have real problems down the road. When I considered my successor, I considered it from the standpoint of the relationship between the chairman and the CEO. We knew there would be some internal movement to backfill positions in selecting Tom Pendley as CEO. Once we made that move, we began to transition Zack Zehner to the chairman role, and we knew there would be subsequent movement behind that, as well. But it was all done with very careful planning, and that is key.

Q: What do you look for in the people you hire to work at Mannington Mills?
Honestly, first and foremost, we hire nice people. As you take a look at our entire organization at Mannington, I think that our associates’ personalities reflect the personality of our family. We hire nice people, people who fit with the culture and will uphold the values. But, of course, you’re also looking for certain attributes, including competency for the job, that will make them a good fit.

Q: When you started working at Mannington 46 years ago, it was a resilient sheet manufacturer. Today, the company has a diverse portfolio of products-some of which it sources and some that it manufactures. Tell us about the strategy behind these choices.
Well, 46 years ago we had two products-we had sheet, and we had commercial carpet with Wellco, which became Mannington Commercial. And as we grew, we wanted to get into different product lines. Our first foray was ceramic tile, purchasing Mid-State Tile, and then we purchased a small wood flooring operation, Linwood Manufacturing in North Carolina, which became Mannington Wood Floors. In 1998, we broke ground to build a laminate plant in High Point, North Carolina. And in the 2000s, we have continued to grow through the acquisitions of Burke, Amtico and Phenix/Pharr.

So, we’d been strategizing about products for years, and we continue to strategize about manufacturing versus sourcing. We always believe that if you can manufacture it yourself, you should. If you can get the technology, the best thing is having it under your own roof. But with the explosion of flooring manufacturing in the Far East, the answers become complicated, so we have a strategy of blending sourced and manufactured. Even though manufacturing will always be our preference, we know that market demands mean we have to have that blend.

Q: Why did you exit the tile business?
We actually exited the ceramic tile business twice-once as a manufacturer and once as a sourcing partner. After our purchase of Mid-State Tile, we needed to invest a great deal of money to put in new manufacturing lines to provide the products that the marketplace was demanding: monocoturra and porcelain tile. We sourced with a company out of Mexico, and it came to pass that they ended up purchasing our entire business. It was not an easy thing to compete as a tile manufacturer here in North America. The distribution of the product was fragmented, and it was a difficult business, so when we saw a clear path out of it, we took that opportunity.

Later on, in the early 2000s as Mannington was gaining importance with professionally installed retailers, we saw an opportunity to develop a specialized porcelain line for them. We executed a strategy of sourcing with Italian, Turkish and other producers in creating the Mannington porcelain tile line. Overall, it was successful, but it was difficult to sustain given the market pressures; there were a lot of people out there making tile cheaper and cheaper. And you know how heavy tile is. So as a pure sourced model, it was difficult to sustain. Eventually, we exited the market, but I’m not sorry we went back into that business. We had some wonderful people working for us who were really good, and we learned an awful lot.

Q: Why is it important that the home centers don’t sell products with the Mannington Mills brand on them?
Very simply, we have always believed that the consumer has the best experience overall if they go through the specialty retailer-before, during and after the sale, not only from a business standpoint but also philosophically. These local stores are part of the fabric of their communities. They are mostly locally owned and operated; they’re family businesses. Offering our brand to the big box stores forces them to compete on price, when their value proposition is so much more than that.

Q: I’ve heard you list the company’s values many times. Have they always been the same, or did they evolve over time?
We always had the values, but it wasn’t until my father (Johnny Campbell) died in 1998 that we wrote them down. At the time, I was chairman, Tony Kelly was the CEO, and Tom Davis was COO. We sat down in Tony’s office and said “Okay, let’s jot down some of the things that Johnny taught us over the years.” We did this separately but came together to talk about them, and they were all pretty much the same, which was kind of strange but also just perfect.

Number one, do the right thing. I don’t know how many times my dad turned around and said, “This is a hard decision, but it’s not when you stop and think about what the right thing is.” Often, the right thing is the most expensive, but it’s just the right way. Next is caring. Caring is something that’s in the soul of the company: caring for our customers, our associates and our communities where we’re engaged. Then there’s controlling our own destiny. Destiny-that was a real Johnny Campbell. This one means that if we’re going to remain an independent company-a family owned independent company-we’re going to have to go about things our own way rather than following the pack. And the last one is work hard play hard. We want people to have a life. Everyone who comes to Mannington works hard. But there’s more to life than work, and even at work, there needs to be a sense of enjoyment about it. It shouldn’t be drudgery.

These principles have always been there-back through my grandfather, Kenneth Campbell, and then through my dad. But it was on that day they became real, and we live those values every day.

Q: Here is a list of the professional leaders that worked alongside you at Mannington: Tony Kelly, Tom Davis, Ed Duncan, Jack Ganley, Russell Grizzle and, now, Tom Pendley. For each one, tell me what their biggest and most memorable contribution to Mannington was.
Well, Tony Kelly saved Mannington. That’s not an understatement. We had a crisis with Mannington Gold product failure, and it took someone of Tony’s intellect to put it back in order, and he did. Tony is a wonderful man, a brilliant man.

Tom Davis brought in some operational excellence that we were lacking. After we had gone through Mannington Gold, it became obvious we had some operational issues, and Tom came in and brought in some new leadership that helped with that. It really shored up our entire manufacturing capability on both the residential and commercial sides of the business.

Ed Duncan, when he started with Mannington in 1989, brought a very professional and keen sense for marketing, which influenced both the residential and commercial businesses. He built up our image, which was really needed at that time.

Jack Ganley was a seasoned pro in the commercial business, and we really benefited from his leadership. He took the hard and soft surface product lines and brought them together to create the Mannington Commercial we know today. He unified them and took the program to customers and end users with a professional platform we hadn’t had until then.

Russell Grizzle brought tremendous operational experience and also understood a great deal about the costs that go into running a company. He was able to bring a lot of discipline to us. And from a growth standpoint, it was under his leadership that we acquired Amtico and Phenix, which propelled Mannington Mills into one of the global leaders in the flooring industry.

Tom Pendley is our current president and CEO. Tom had worked for J&J Industries, and we had a joint venture with them, so we knew Tom well. He later came to work for us at Mannington Commercial, eventually taking over as president when Jack Ganley retired. As I mentioned, we’re always thinking succession planning, so as we were looking at the next steps after Russell’s retirement, we quickly realized Tom had the right stuff. He has worked in all aspects of floorcovering, from manufacturing to finance and marketing, so he has a deep background in virtually everything we do, and from a personality standpoint, is just a great fit. He and Zack are absolutely ready, willing and able to lead Mannington Mills through the next generation.

Q: As you look back over your career, what are some of your greatest achievements?
I honestly never look at it that way. How I see it is that I had two goals as chairman: to leave the company in better shape than when I found it and to pass the company on to the next generation. So, I think in those ways I’ve been successful.

The first one was based on getting the company back on track after the Mannington Gold setback. If the company didn’t react appropriately, we weren’t going to survive. But that wasn’t anything I did. It was all the associates-at every level; it’s the work we all did together that got us through.

The second one was harder. Do you know the odds of a family company going on to the fifth generation-not to mention a company our size? It’s about one in a million, several million, even. As we grow and diversify, and as each generation comes in, there are more shareholders; it’s hard. But we developed the family council, and we have a group of family members who buy into what we are doing-they believe in the company, our industry, the associates. That’s what it has taken to get us here.

Q: How did your role on the Federal Reserve Board contribute to the decisions you made as the chairman of Mannington?
That was a humbling experience. First of all, I wish I had taken better notes and paid more attention in economics class. But it was a tremendous learning experience to be exposed to the monetary policies that are enacted in this country, the democratic way that they are put into place, and how the Federal Reserve System works. You might ask why someone from a family-owned manufacturing business in a small town in South Jersey would be asked to be on the Federal Reserve Board and to give input. But I gave insight into what was going on in the world of building materials, both residentially and commercially. And I was on the board right after the 2008 housing market crash, so my insight was particularly relevant at that time. It was a great experience.

Q: How is the flooring industry better served by its family-run businesses compared to those owned by private equity or publicly traded?
As a family-owned business, we have to take the long view. We look out five or ten years, even to the next generation, to help guide our decisions. Our focus isn’t on numbers for the next quarter. I think it also makes us uniquely able to understand our customers, many of whom own their own businesses, whether large or small. Inherently, we think the same.

Q: What is Mannington Mills’ competitive advantage?
Our competitive advantage is summed up in a mission statement we’ve had in place for decades: to be the best people to do business with in the flooring industry. We work hard on that every day-in the products we manufacture, in the services we provide and in the way we interact between our customers, end users and suppliers.

Q: How has the flooring business changed in the last ten years? 
The growth of LVT has changed the landscape of flooring in a way we’ve never really seen before. And some can say, “Oh, I don’t like change,” but the reality is that we have embraced it.

Q: What aspect of the industry needs to be addressed to ensure the consumer is best served by the suppliers within this industry?
When I first went on the road selling floorcovering in 1977, retailers were telling me that the biggest problem they had was getting qualified installers, and that has not changed. If we are going to provide highly advanced products to the end user, whether they be soft surface or hard surface, we also need to make sure that we are able to follow that up with trained, professional installers. It’s happening, but it’s not happening fast enough.

Q: Are you bullish about the next generation’s ability to lead the flooring industry in the right direction? What advice do you have for them?
I am extremely bullish. I feel blessed that Zack Zehner is taking over the chairman role. He’s a wonderful man, and he’s the right person to take our company into the next generation. I’m also extremely proud of the other fifth-generation family members who are with the company today: John Campbell, Ian Campbell, Andy Smith and Tom Smith. They are bright people with the training and the insight we need. They’re part of a changing world, and my advice is to figure out the change and manage it but never give up who we are. Never give up our values that have stood well for 108 years.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time to relax?
My wife, Shirley, and I have moved to Sarasota, Florida. We’ve downsized, and we intend to take it easier than we have in the past. We love to travel, so we’ll do some of that. And we love spending time with our grandchildren, so we’ll visit them too.

And me, I can’t sit still, so I probably will do some volunteering.

Q: What do you plan to do when you step down as chairman of Mannington Mills at the end of the year?
I’m stepping down as chairman, but I remain on the board and will remain on the board as long as I’m mentally able or on this Earth, because Mannington is the biggest part of our lives in the Campbell family. So, I’m stepping down as chairman, but I’m not going away entirely. And I will always be at Tom’s and Zack’s disposal for advice or, at least, an old story that may or may not be pertinent.

Shirley and I are going to spend time and sort of figure things out on the fly, which feels pretty good.

Copyright 2023 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Mannington Mills, RD Weis