Focus on Leadership: NFA’s Ian Newton talks about how he plans to lead the exclusive group of flooring retailers – April 2023
Interview by Kemp Harr
Ian Newton is the newly elected leader of the National Floorcovering Alliance (NFA). After immigrating to the U.S. from England in his teen years, Newton began his career as an installer, through which he became acquainted with Jimmy Poulos, founder of Flooring 101, the business that Newton manages today.
Based in California, Flooring 101 has seven locations across the state, and, no doubt, part of the business’ success in recent years has been Newton’s warm, generous style of leadership-a charm that, no doubt, makes him well-suited to lead the highly convivial NFA.
Q: How did you end up focusing your career in the flooring business?
A: When I came to the U.S., I needed a job, and an uncle of mine was a carpet installer, working for himself. He was 72 years old at the time, had been installing for 55 years and was ready to retire. I met Jimmy Poulos, founder of Flooring 101, at a local supply house; it was a chance meeting, as he was looking for some extra help. I started as a helper to Jimmy’s brother, George, who was the lead installer, and peddling carpet remnants at a local swap meet on weekends, where I honed my selling skills. Starting at the bottom and working through all aspects of an industry gives you a unique perspective on what it takes to make it in this business, and, as they say, the rest is history.
Q: Why did you choose to immigrate to the U.S. from England?
A: In those days, as a 17-year-old teenager, you followed your parents. My parents decided to come to the U.S. for a better life for my brother and me. I give credit to my parents for thinking of our future.
Q: You started with Jimmy as an installer at age 17, and now, 42 years later, you are running the day-to-day as general manager. Where did you learn the required skills to make that progression from craftsman to senior leader and buying-group president?
A: Jimmy taught me the craft. My father taught me the ethics of hard work and to focus on bringing out the best in others as well as learning and improving to be good at what you do. This combination of craft and the ethics of hard work became my daily routine.
Q: What has been the secret of Flooring 101’s rapid growth?
A: It was hard to start stores two and three, but then we learned the art of looking for opportunities. Our success comes from sticking to our model. We own all the buildings; therefore, our overhead is fixed. And all our inventory is paid for, which gives us ability to offer great values to our customers.
Q: What are your biggest challenges in running seven stores in Southern California, and how do you plan to overcome them?
A: Finding great people, training and retaining them is our greatest challenge. Finding people who are self-motivated and fit well into our culture of hard work isn’t easy. We have some employees who have been with us for 30 or 40 years, and, in our organization, you are considered a rookie if you have less than ten years employment.
In addition, we focus on staying lean, as we do not have layers of management and back office. Real estate is expensive in SoCal, so we have to be efficient with space and the way we merchandise our store.
Q: Who were your mentors, and what did they teach you?
A: My dad, who taught me the value of hard work. He would get up early and go to work every day, never missing a shift because, “my people need me,” he would say. When you are a small, family business, you all depend on each other.
On the work side, Jimmy has been my biggest mentor and supporter. He taught me that when you focus on something and want it bad enough, you can make it happen.
Q: People who enter the flooring business usually stay until they retire. Why does this profession have such stickiness?
A: It is a very specialized business. People before us have been in the business for a long time, so there is a precedent for long-term tenures.
Also, in this industry, we develop relationships. Everyone will need flooring one day. Your vendors and other retailers end up becoming your long-term friends and extended family. Look at all of us in the NFA. I have so many close friends in the industry. It is a big yet small industry; everyone knows everyone.
Q: You are stepping into the president role for the NFA. Why do you think they elected you to this leadership position? What do you hope to accomplish in this role?
A: This is a hard question to answer. Flooring has given me so much. I always wanted to do something to give back to the industry. This is one opportunity.
I believe that all my NFA friends know that I work hard. I selflessly want to make things better; that might be the reason of their support of me. I will do everything possible to, with the help of the great board and committee members, take the NFA to the next level.
Our collective objectives for the NFA are to continue making the group the best at what we do, up our game on the technology side, and bring value to our members.
Q: People are drawn to you because of your accepting and friendly demeanor. Where did you learn these skills, and does that make it difficult for you to disagree when you need to?
A: My mom had the greatest impact on my upbringing. When we came to the U.S., I left my childhood friends behind. As a newcomer, it was important that I get along with everyone, and being friendly is so much better than being unfriendly.
As an installer, working on the floor and then managing people, I wanted to make sure that my co-workers would feel comfortable and trusting of me. Being friendly does not mean that you cannot disagree. I must share my point of view, and I can do that respectfully and firmly.
Q: How will you balance the demands of this role, your day job and your family life with your wife and kids?
A: Let us start with where the credit is due. My wife is my biggest supporter, and she helps with our family balance. I made a commitment that the responsibilities of managing Flooring 101 would not mean a sacrifice of family life. Jimmy and I had multiple conversations and put systems in place. I have great managers who are on auto pilot, and I support them. My mission with the NFA is bigger than myself individually; that is the passion and motivating factor.
Q: You mentioned in our last interview that you wanted to focus on sourcing products that are made in the USA. Tell me more about that.
A: Over the last few years, freight and supply chains were big issues of uncertainty and price fluctuation. Since we last spoke, the supply challenges have eased, and freight costs have decreased, but, as a group, whenever possible, we want to support U.S. made products, as supporting U.S. business is the right thing to do.
Q: How do you plan to address the “nimby” (not in my back yard) reaction to adding a new member that would strengthen the group but might be in close physical proximity to an existing member?
A: We’re not looking to add someone to adjust economies of scale. New members must be a good fit for the group, and the group must be a good fit for the prospective member. The strength of the NFA is its members and the ability to share information amongst ourselves through networking and best practices. When you have a room of some of the most successful retailers in North America, it’s that interaction that brings value to the group.
Q: How has the consumer changed in the last ten years, and how have you adjusted your business to accommodate?
A: Flooring was one of the last industries to evolve and adopt technology, the Internet, social media, online shopping and other elements. Consumers can shop as many locations online as they wish. Our focus is that our online and in-store experiences align. It is hard, but we continuously stay at it.
Q: What do you do to clear your head and stay sharp when you aren’t focused on Flooring 101 or the NFA?
A: My wife and I take small weekend trips. We spend time with our family, children and grandchildren, as well as extended family members and friends.
The real truth is that flooring is my life as well as a 24/7 hobby.
Copyright 2023 Floor Focus
Related Topics:National Flooring Alliance (NFA)