Focus on Leadership: Michel Vermette is relishing his opportunity to live the American dream - Feb 2020
Interview by Kemp Harr
Michel Vermette took the helm as president and CEO of Armstrong Flooring in September 2019. Raised in Montreal, with French-speaking parents and in French-speaking schools, Michel learned English as a child watching Sesame Street, and put his skills to use in 1996 when, looking for an opportunity to live the American dream, he was offered a job at Daltile.
At the time, Daltile was one of four companies that made Michel an offer, and despite the fact that its financial offer was the lowest, he chose the company because he believed it provided him the opportunity to make a difference. “I liked the people I interviewed with, and having a history with building products, it just felt right,” says Vermette. Following his tenure with Daltile, Michel worked for Mohawk for 17 years before accepting the lead role at Armstrong.
In January, after commuting from Georgia to Pennsylvania for four months, Michel and his wife, Pascale Belanger, bought a home in Lancaster. The pair have three children: a 22 year-old son and daughters ages 20 and 18.
Q: How did you end up working in the flooring business?
A: I have been involved in building products since my early childhood, as my dad was a general manager for a large residential development. Eventually, my parents started a family-owned general contractor business. I worked in the business at an early age and was able to get my carpenter license in Canada to pay for college. I actually installed Armstrong sheet with my dad 35 years ago, so life is coming full circle.
Q: Tell us about your career path.
A: I was hired by Daltile in 1996. Interestingly, Armstrong was partial owner of Daltile at the time. With a background in cost accounting, I spent time with the operations and sales teams doing financial analysis and improvement. I assisted with the integration of American Olean into Daltile and, eight years later, Daltile’s integration into Mohawk, so that’s how I got to know the Mohawk folks, who subsequently asked me to move to Georgia in 2004 as corporate controller/chief accounting officer.
Q: You come to this leadership position at Armstrong with an accounting education coupled with 24 years in the flooring business. Tell us why the Armstrong board thought you were the right guy for the job.
A: After three CEOs who were from outside the flooring industry, the board wanted someone that had a strong understanding of the market, combined with a track record of improving businesses and building high-performing teams. I believe we have the right team, and I’m excited with the improvements we are making.
Q: With the sale of Armstrong’s hardwood business, the focus of the company was immediately shifted from the residential sector to the commercial sector. Was that part of the attraction for you, based on your background as the former president of the Mohawk Group?
A: Many folks know me from my Mohawk Group days, but that was actually my first true commercial role. I have slightly more years in residential. The major attraction for me was the Armstrong Flooring brand, the innovation pipeline, and history of performance and quality. At Armstrong, we believe we have the opportunity to grow both commercial and residential, and we are committed to do so.
Q: There is no denying that Armstrong’s brand is well known to the Boomer generation. What are your brand-building plans? Who will be your target audience, and what is the brand promise?
A: Armstrong Flooring built its reputation as a premier supplier of resilient flooring throughout the 20th century-first in linoleum and then in vinyl. We often hear that today’s consumer is looking for authenticity. When it comes to resilient flooring, that’s us. The growth of resilient has brought a lot of newcomers to the marketplace, but we have more than a century of expertise to back up the products that we bring to market. Our challenge now is to leverage this strong brand and demonstrate the value we offer to new generations of customers. We have teams at work on this now, looking at everything from the products we deliver to how we present our brand in the marketplace. Stay tuned!
Q: I’ve talked to a few pundits that say Armstrong’s balance sheet looks good. Tell our readers what you can about the firm’s financial situation.
A: We are fortunate to have a strong and flexible balance sheet, with modest levels of debt. I believe we are well-positioned to invest in initiatives and growth opportunities that make sense for us.
Q: Armstrong has an impressive legacy headquarters campus that it is sharing with the ceilings business. How is that working out? Do you plan to stay there long term?
A: Our company has changed significantly since we separated from the ceilings business in 2016, including the sale of our hardwood flooring business at the end of 2018. As we continue to evolve, we need to have a workspace that aligns with our vision and culture, so we’re reviewing options in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area. We want to ensure that our offices create the right environment for our teams to collaborate and deliver the best products and service for our customers.
Q: Tell us about Armstrong’s sourcing strategy. Is your focus for the future to make everything you sell here in the U.S., whenever feasible?
A: Our goal is to provide our customers with innovative, high-quality flooring from the best source possible. In many cases, that means producing it in our own manufacturing facilities, here in the U.S., China or Australia. For the most part, we manufacture product for the local market, so what we make in North America is sold here, and what we make in China and Australia is sold in those markets. In other cases, we want to partner with providers that have unique capabilities that share our values of high quality and service, so we can be early to market and take advantage of trends.
Q: What is Armstrong’s strategy with rigid core LVT? Do you have plans to eventually make it here in the U.S.?
A: Much of the innovation in rigid core originated overseas, particularly in China, and we still feel that’s a strong source for these products. Manufacturing processes in Asia are designed to produce rigid core more efficiently and effectively than most domestic plants. However, we’ll always be open to opportunities to innovate and build domestic capacity where it makes sense.
Q: Understanding that people are one of the most important components of ongoing success, what do you look for in a new hire?
A: I look for humble and confident people who are seeking a challenge, willing to take calculated risks and passionate about the work that they do. We are seeking people that want to chart a different path in the industry. I often tell people that we will challenge them to do the best work possible, and I expect them to challenge me in the same way.
Q: How do you balance your work and family time?
A: It’s very hard for a business leader to be successful professionally if they don’t have a stable family environment. You have to work at both and communicate constantly. I have been very fortunate to attend the vast majority of our family events.
Q: Who were the mentors that helped shape who you are? What did they teach you?
A: Three names come to mind. Chris Wellborn taught me to focus on the important items and how to build a team. Jeff Lorberbaum taught to me to be strategic and to always seek a better way to do things. Frank Peters taught me to lead from the front, and that your legacy is defined by how many people you impact positively. I have been fortunate to have these mentors and many others during my career.
Q: What do you like to do for fun?
A: I enjoy a good round of golf with friends and cherish a nice family dinner with good wine. I also enjoy traveling and discovering new areas.
Q: Do you still consider Canada as your home country?
A: Canada is my birth country, and I always enjoy going back. But the U.S. is home, and this is where my wife and I want to retire. We are very grateful to have the opportunity to live the American dream.
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