Focus On Leadership: Paul De Cock plans to bring fresh energy to Mohawk’s flooring business - Feb 2019

Interview by Kemp Harr

Paul De Cock was named president of Mohawk Flooring North America in November. The 45-year-old Belgian native grew up in the flooring business while his father, Frans, led their family business, Unilin.

De Cock studied engineering in college, intending to pursue a career in the field, until his father convinced him to join the family business. Following Mohawk’s acquisition of Unilin in 2005, De Cock worked in various capacities for the company, both within the U.S. market and internationally, ultimately serving as president of Unilin’s flooring division.

With four sons under the age of ten (ages 9, 6, 4 and 1), De Cock and his wife, Ana Elena, moved to the U.S. in January and settled into Atlanta, where they purchased a home.

Q: How has your career prepared you for your new role as president of the Mohawk Flooring North America (MFNA) segment?
A:
I worked in finance; I built manufacturing plants, oversaw big capital projects and ran sales and marketing for different divisions of the company. I’ve run different business units. I have been involved in acquiring companies and integrating those companies. If you look collectively at those accomplishments, I think they are good preparation for this role because I’m going to do similar things here.

Q: How does running a business in the U.S. differ from running a business in Europe?
A:
There are quite a few differences. The North American market is bigger and more consolidated. You have bigger customers here, which makes doing business riskier. Of course, riskier also means bigger opportunity.

But, from another perspective, it’s a lot simpler. You have one market with different channels you serve, but you don’t have so many different geographies with so many different languages and so many different microsegments, which is the case in Europe and the rest of the world.

Q: Belgian flooring companies have always had an entrepreneurial flair. How do you intend to put that mindset to work in MFNA with over $4 billion in sales and 18,000 employees?
A:
I believe in getting things done, keeping it simple and delivering on the customer promise. I value efficiency, effectiveness, clear organization and clear accountability. And I like to have fun while doing it. These are business principles that I live by and want to implement in the Mohawk Flooring North America business.

Q: The American flooring business has been heavily influenced by leaders with Belgium roots: Carl Bouckaert, founder of Beaulieu of America; Filip Balcaen, former CEO of Balta and founder of IVC; Piet Dossche, founder of U.S. Floors; and now you. What is it about the Flemish heritage that has driven these men to make such a difference from a leadership perspective?
A:
My family’s background was in the flax business in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Flanders, a region of Belgium. Flax was used in particle board, and so a lot of the flax entrepreneurs ultimately became flooring entrepreneurs. You could say the Flanders region is very similar to Dalton, Georgia. It’s not a coincidence that Bouckeart, Balcaen, Dossche and I are all originally from that region. You could compare it to the Lorberbaum and Shaw families in Dalton. The only difference is that we were in a very small country, and, in order to survive, we had to be export-driven and very much exposed to the international markets, while the Lorberbaum and Shaw families could serve a big domestic market. This explains why the Belgians always came to America and not the opposite flow.

Q: You’ve been part of Mohawk since the company bought Unilin from your family in 2005. Give us a quick overview of the roles you’ve served within Mohawk since that acquisition.
A:
After working on Unilin’s acquisition by Mohawk, I moved to Dallas where I was responsible for integrating Unilin into the Mohawk organization. At that time, I was the president of Unilin North America. I also helped integrate the Columbia acquisition. After that, I went back to Europe in 2009 to run the flooring business in the Rest of World segment for nine years. Now, I’ve returned to America to run the Mohawk Flooring North America business.

Q: What do you consider to be your main successes in running Mohawk’s North American hard surface business and its Rest of World operations? How does your tenure in these roles inform your new position?
A:
In my prior position, we expanded the laminate business dramatically in the Rest of World segment by focusing on innovative product. We also acquired companies like Pergo and Balterio and expanded the categories of the company. We entered the hardwood and LVT businesses. Last but not least, we also got into the direct-selling side. When I took over, we were 100% a two-step distribution company in Europe. Now, we have a direct connection with the retailer in about 70% of the cases. A very limited amount of our business is still going through two-step distribution. We completely changed the go-to-market model of the business.

Q: What areas do you intend to focus on first as you step into this new role?
A:
Our first task is going to be to realign the business units. We are going to focus on being a product-oriented, business unit-focused organization. We’ll have respective organizations for carpet, resilient, hardwood and laminate, home (including rugs and mats) and commercial business. I think that is a better organization-to focus on the business and to focus on the customer.

Our second priority is that we need to substantially grow our resilient business. It’s the fastest-growing category in the industry. LVT is the new kid on the block, and we have a tremendous amount of activity in the pipeline to bring new product to market. Related to that, we also have the best manufacturing footprint in the United States for this category. We’re going to massively invest in this footprint to increase the output and our capability.

Lastly, I want to grow the business. We have two customers essentially. First, the retailer, and we have to make sure we de-burden our retailers so that they can focus on things where they can add value. We need to make the process seamless-bringing the best product without any issues-so that the retailer can focus on the complexity of getting product selected and installed and keeping the consumer happy. This is more of a B2B marketing approach, and we have programs to support that.

The consumer is also our customer, and we need to make sure we do the right thing for them so that they can make the best possible selection in the best possible circumstances. We need to develop products that look good and bring value to the home, solving whatever problem the customer wants solved, whether it be weather-resistance, water-resistance or achieving a particular look. Whatever package the consumer wants, we need to answer that.

Additionally, there are people on the sidelines influencing the selection process: the designer and architectural communities. We have programs for these people so that they are making good recommendations.

In my position, I will focus on both our customers-the retailer and the consumer. In doing the right things for the retailer and the consumer, we can continue to grow the business and take share in this market, while also equipping retailers to grow their businesses.
 
Q: Tell us about the influence of your father, Frans, who helped build the Unilin and Quick-Step businesses and just retired from the Mohawk board of directors in May 2018.
A:
Well, Kemp, I learned this business at the kitchen table. I still remember a conversation when I was four or five years old, discussing business issues. The advice of my father goes back a long, long way. Up until recently, when I would visit my parents with my kids for coffee or lunch, my mother would separate my dad and me in another room because she was fed up with the business fights and discussions we were having. Now that my father has retired, I hope he will have a little more time to spend with his grandchildren. He will have to come to Atlanta to do that. That will be a good opportunity to catch up on where the business is. I definitely value his ideas and expertise.

 
Q: At age 45, you are the second youngest leader to serve as president of Mohawk (after Jeff Lorberbaum who took the helm of a much smaller company at 41 in 1995). You also bring a wider range of business experience that extends beyond manufacturing into branding and channel strategy. Are you excited about the potential for success that this new role brings?
A:
I think we are in great shape. Mohawk is by far the best company in this industry. We have the most innovative products. We have the best sales teams out there. We cover all segments and all channels of the market. We have the best and most efficient distribution system in the industry. On top of that, we have the most customer-intimate digital strategy to help our customers get to the next level. I am excited about the potential of our business, and I think we haven’t seen the end of the potential of the Flooring North America segment within Mohawk.

Q: Do you think being a Gen Xer gives you an advantage as a leader?
A:
Yes, I do. The way consumers select products today compared to the past represents a huge change, and I don’t believe we’ve seen the end of those changes yet. We need to bring Gen X and other digital consumers a tactile experience in their home if they are to make a good product selection. As a business, we need to better understand how they want to make that choice and help them, layering some technology on to make it easier.
 
Q: What do you do for fun when you aren’t working?
A:
Well, as you know, I have four boys, and that keeps me busy. I like a good glass of wine-French Burgundy is my favorite. I enjoy wine-related travel. I also collect contemporary art. With that being said, most of my time is spent on the business.
 
Q: What reservations, if any, do you have about moving your wife and four young boys to Atlanta? Will you continue to speak Flemish at home?
A:
I don’t have any reservations. Our children have always been educated in a very international way. They speak Spanish with their mother. They speak Flemish with me. I speak French with my wife, so they’ve picked up French along the way as well. For them, coming to America is a great opportunity to learn English. As far as I can tell from the first two weeks of school, they are doing great. And they are very nicely adapting to the Atlanta area.
  
Q: I’ve heard that in Belgium you get special treatment from the king if you have a seventh son. Have you thought about going for seven?
A:
That’s absolutely correct, Kemp. In my case, we are going to keep it at four boys. That’s plenty when you need to make an international move.
 
Q: Do you have any business philosophies that you try to live by?
A:
I have plenty of business philosophies, but I will give you one of my favorites from our CEO Jeff Lorberbaum, “Congratulations! You are halfway there.” That’s his way of saying that we never give up. We always pursue new opportunities. We always want to get better, service the customer better, make better product. And we live by that philosophy 100% day by day.
 
Q: What motivates you?
A:
I want to win. I want to convince consumers that Mohawk is the best and easiest company to do business with, that we have the best and nicest products as well as the best service and the best quality. When you do all that right, the results are good financial performance. It’s not easy to deliver day after day, but happiness for the customer and the consumer drive me.

Copyright 2019 Floor Focus