Focus on Leadership: Neil Poland offers his take on the state of the hardwood industry - Feb 2018
Interview by Kemp Harr
Neil Poland has been leading Mullican Flooring for almost two decades and has guided the hardwood industry through many waves of change in that time. In 1982, fresh out of the University of Florida with a business degree, Neil joined Armstrong’s resilient division and then left to join Bruce, his entry into hardwood. After 15 years in the business, he took the helm at Mullican and has served as a steady and informed voice in the industry for decades, acting as an NWFA board member for 11 years and serving on its executive committee for five. He was chairman of the organization from 2010 to 2011.
Q: What decisions have you made that enabled Mullican to become one of the industry’s leading suppliers?
A: Since I joined Mullican Flooring in 1999, we have expanded our hardwood product line to be one of the most comprehensive in the industry. We introduced prefinished solid flooring products in 2003, then, in 2005, entered the prefinished engineered segment as an importer with an Asian partner. In August of 2012, we started an engineered manufacturing plant in Johnson City, Tennessee in order to replace most of our Asian supply. Last year, we also began production of sawn engineered products in Johnson City.
Q: You take the time to volunteer for leadership roles within the hardwood trade association. Why do you feel this is important?
A: I have spent over 15 years being involved in the National Wood Flooring Association. I believe it is vitally important for the hardwood industry to continue to grow and be successful. A healthy hardwood flooring industry will enable our company and other industry partners to grow our businesses and provide great career opportunities for our employees.
Q: Would you mind giving our readers a quick history lesson on how prominent hardwood flooring was in the middle of the last century, and how the demand for the product has changed over the years?
A: Hardwood flooring was a requirement as part of a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan up until 1965. The majority of new homes built during that time included hardwood flooring; therefore, it was a huge industry. In 1965, the FHA agreed to provide FHA loans to homes built with carpet, and this devastated the industry for 20 years.
During the mid 1980s, the demand for hardwood began to slowly gain momentum. This new movement toward hardwood flooring created tremendous growth for the industry over the last 20 years. Hardwood flooring has been proven to increase home values by 3% to 5% (according to Consumer Reports 2016), it can be easily refinished, and it is a sustainable product that is naturally renewable. Research shows that the number one consumer preference for flooring is hardwood.
Q: Last year, hardwood look-alikes from both the ceramic and LVT sectors took share from the hardwood flooring business. What should the hardwood flooring industry be doing not only to mitigate but also reverse this trend?
A: The industry needs to provide real hardwood floors and accentuate their true benefits, such as the fact that they increase the value of a home more than any other floorcovering. According to the U.S. Forest Service data, hardwood, our national resource, employs a 1.8 to 1 growth rate, and our lifecycle analysis proves that the product is totally renewable and has a positive impact on the environment.
Q: In addition to competition from imitators, what else threatens the success and growth of the hardwood flooring business?
A: Importers who utilize illegal logs and violate the Lacey Act have hurt the industry’s reputation.
Q: Do you fear that the Millennial decision-makers of today don’t value or aspire to have quality materials in their home?
A: No. I hope that Millennials are interested in increasing their home’s worth and know that hardwood flooring will enhance the value of their investment. Millennials are known to study data about big-ticket purchases, and we in the hardwood industry need to make that data more available and better positioned in their searches.
Q: Mullican has been investing millions of dollars to shift its engineered hardwood production to the U.S. Why did you make the decision, and does country of origin make a difference to the consumer today?
A: We believe that engineered flooring will continue to grow mainly due to the trend by homebuilders to construct an increasing number of homes with concrete slab foundations. The trend toward wider widths also favors engineered, since there is more movement in wider boards. All engineered constructed product will be generally more stable, thus eliminating gaps and cracks during the winter months.
Q: What can be done to help consumers understand that engineered flooring is real hardwood versus the plastic lookalike products?
A: We in the hardwood flooring industry need to embark on a greater communication effort to educate the consumer about how real wood engineered floors can be refinished once or twice, and that real hardwood flooring upgrades the value of their homes. There is confusion with regard to laminates and engineered hardwood flooring, and this needs to be corrected.
Q: How much of your product is manufactured in the U.S.? Is it your goal to make 100% of your product in the U.S.?
A: Approximately 95% of our products are manufactured in the U.S., and we believe that over the next five years, we will come very close to manufacturing all our products at one of our U.S. locations.
Q: Do you sell hardwood to the commercial market? If so, in what ways do you make your hardwood suitable for the performance requirements of the commercial market?
A: Although the commercial market represents a small segment of the hardwood flooring industry’s volume, we do believe there are many suitable applications, such as corporate offices, boardrooms, museums and retail showrooms. Our hand-sculpted and wirebrushed products are manufactured to withstand heavy traffic in almost every commercial application.
Q: Now that planks have gone just about as wide and long as they can, what’s the next big trend in hardwood flooring?
A: Surface: textures, dual stains and enhanced finish. Treatments are going to be tied into the next future growth trend in wood flooring.
Q: Mullican sells to retailers through distribution. What are the pros and cons of this channel strategy?
A: Mullican Flooring is only as strong as our distributor’s commitment and effort to sell our product in a given market. The majority of our distributors have made a long-term commitment to grow our business, and we are truly appreciative of their success at selling Mullican products to retail flooring dealers.
Q: What character traits do you look for when you are adding new members to your staff at Mullican?
A: Regarding our hiring process, we attempt to match the prospects’ personality traits with the job’s responsibilities. It is important to find the right fit, or it will limit the person’s success. Obviously hiring people high in character, integrity and energy is very important. Our high achievers are often relentlessly determined, results-oriented and possessing of strong interpersonal skills.
Q: Whom do you consider a mentor to your success?
A: I believe my father, who managed an operation for General Electric, was the mentor who had the most impact on the early stages of my career. He taught me to listen and use common sense.
Q: I know you’re pleased that all three of your children are leading successful careers in the business world. What advice did you give them that helped lead to their independence and professional success?
A: My wife, Beth, and I were consistent in communication with our children related to career development. You must have high integrity, prepare for your work, be punctual and exude a very strong work ethic. We encouraged them to find internship experiences during their summers while attending college, as we believed those experiences would enable their resume to stand out from the pack.
Q: What do you do during your free time to decompress?
A: I like to spend time with family and friends around the water-boating, water skiing or just hanging out at the lake during the summer.