Piet Dossche, founder and CEO of US Floors: Focus on Leadership
Interview by Kemp Harr
Piet Dossche, founder and CEO of US Floors, didn’t hail from a business environment. His father was a judge in his home country of Belgium, so he grew up in an academic household. He was an ambitious extravert with clear leadership abilities at an early age and was voted class representative to his high school council.
After attending a Brussels Catholic college, Dossche took a job at Beaulieu International Group, where Roger De Clerck became one of his first professional mentors, giving him the chance to prove himself at an early age. He shot up the corporate ladder to become managing director of a manufacturing plant in the U.K. at only 24. A few years later during a union crisis, Dossche decided to strike out on his own, founding Image Flooring in Europe.
Twice more during his career, Dossche would turn a business challenge into an opportunity. First, when Image Flooring was derailed by a quality issue, he moved to the U.S. to work for Beaulieu of America, where he rose to president of its residential business. Then in 2001, after a struggle at Beaulieu brought about by the ill-timed acquisition of L.D. Brinkman, he once again pursued his entrepreneurial itch and started US Floors, which today is one of that fastest growing mid-size hard surface flooring suppliers in the business.
Through it all, Dossche credits his wife Sabine for helping him remain grounded during twists and turns of his career. He says that Sabine balances his risk taking with her more cautious tendencies, which he describes as the yin to his yang.
Q: What attracted you to the floorcovering industry right after college?
A: The tufted flooring and woven rugs industry was in full expansion in the early ’80s, with several of the big Belgium players—Beaulieu Group, Balta, Lano—looking for young talent. An opportunity at the Beaulieu Group was presented to me, and I took it with full enthusiasm. Today, I’m still excited to be involved in the same flooring industry to which I committed myself 34 years ago.
Q: How did you learn to be confident and to put others at ease?
A: I think you are born with certain things, but you develop them over time. I am comfortable talking to people because I love what I’m doing, and I like to talk about what I’m involved with in the industry. For whatever reason, I’ve always been selected or designated with the task of taking charge, and it makes you more comfortable in your demeanor. But you have to teach yourself as well.
When I was at Beaulieu, I did a Leadership at the Peak course in Denver, Colorado. It was just a small group, nine people. One of the other members was Bill Haslam, who is now the governor of Tennessee. He was then a young executive at Pilot and I was a young executive at Beaulieu, and we spent the week together brainstorming and being taught how to speak and to conduct ourselves through leadership classes. It’s a combination of things that end up forming and molding you.
Q: Tell us more about your career transitions.
A: After a year of management training, including sweeping the warehouse for six weeks and chauffeuring customers, I volunteered for an assignment at the Beaulieu plant in the U.K., New Venture Carpets. I quickly understood that training pretty well consisted of what you taught yourself and the commitment you made to learning about your job on your own.
A phone call at 11:00 one night from the big boss, Roger De Clerck, where he drilled me with questions I could not answer, was the turning point for me. Determined I was never going to be that embarrassed again for not having the right answers, the next day my self-study and self-training began in asking questions about every step in the manufacturing process and every relevant data point and measurement.
Within a very short time, I knew the ins and outs of the business and got asked my opinion, participated in strategy meetings, and two years later, at the age of 24, was promoted to managing director of the Unionized Carpet Manufacturing plant, employing 150 people. First lesson in life: Unless you are proactive yourself, nothing will happen.
Five years later, when a six-month strike resulted in firing the entire workforce, hiring and training a new team and starting all over, I left the company and started my own business, Image Flooring. The woven Wilton wall-to-wall market in the U.K. was a wool or wool blend, an expensive product and therefore limited in sales. Advances in polypropylene yarns made it possible to use this in the weaving of Wilton broadloom and brought retail price points down to the masses.
Using commission weavers in Belgium, I developed a unique product that I could sell and build my company with. Business took off like a bullet train, but came crashing down 18 months later when an avalanche of manufacturing claims stopped the business dead in its tracks. Second lesson in life: Even if you have a unique product, quality will make or break you.
Then came the call from Carl Bouckaert and Ed Ralston: “We’re growing in Dalton, with even bigger plans on the horizon, and we want you to join us.” We loaded the shipping container and moved to Dalton.
Q: What motivated you to come to America?
A: During the summer of ‘78, before going to college, I went tobacco harvesting for three months in Canada and traveled the U.S. for four weeks thereafter. The glass was half full in the U.S. compared to half empty in Europe. The can-do mentality convinced me to want to work and live in the U.S. one day. That day came with Carl and Ed’s call.
Q: What can you tell us about the itch to own and run your own company?
A: My years at Beaulieu of America prepared me well to make the step and pursue the American dream of owning my own company, a dream I had from the day I set foot on American soil. It takes the right timing and preparation, and sometimes a crisis, to leave your comfort zone to take the step.
In 1999, we bought LD Brinkman, a $450 million nationwide distributor of hard surface flooring, and it was a big nut to swallow. At the same time the economy tipped in the early 2000s, right after the dotcom boom. It was clear that someone had to go, and I could feel that. So before I got fired, I resigned.
Sometimes I look back at all that, and I see that this was the real push I needed to make it happen because I was so absorbed by Beaulieu. For me that was my baby. I was very passionate about it. The crisis made me look at it and say, “Hey, it’s time to do my own thing.” Third lesson in life: Every crisis presents an opportunity!
Q: Why did you name your company US Floors?
A: I always liked strong patriotic names, like American Airlines, United Parcel Service and so on. In my search for a company name, I was very surprised that US Floors was still available. Over the years this name has given the company more credibility than the size it actually was, particularly when traveling and sourcing in China. When our focus on sustainability became our strategy, we adapted the Unique and Sustainable within our US Floors name.
Q: US Floors has focused on sustainability. Talk about why you chose this path.
A: During frequent travels to China in 2001 and 2002, I came across bamboo flooring. I liked the look and the story and realized nobody had really brought this innovative and sustainable product to the U.S. market yet.
Green was in, and the acquisition in 2004 of Natural Cork, the largest cork importer and distributor in the U.S., complemented my natural product assortment and strengthened the company’s sustainability story. In a sea of sameness, US Floors had carved out a niche within the retail community. The majority of the retailers had to have cork and bamboo in their assortment, as the consumer was asking for it, and we captured the business.
The installation of solar was heavily subsidized and became a no-brainer as an investment with a fantastic return. When we started our manufacturing plant in 2008, 500kW were installed on our corporate building and warehouse, further endorsing our commitment to sustainability.
Q: Tell us the story behind the development of Coretec.
A: We were looking to participate in the strong growth of LVT with a product in line with our company vision of “unique” and “sustainable.” The LVT on HDF core we had seen primarily in Europe was, in our opinion, the wrong sandwich, as the HDF took the waterproofing out of the product, but we liked the rigidity and the ease of installation. In visiting several outdoor decking companies in China, in a quest to import a line of decking, we got introduced to wood plastic composite (WPC), the core material used to produce outdoor decking that is also used as a core for kitchen cabinets. We knew we had found the ultimate waterproof core for the perfect sandwich. Several months of trial and error finally resulted in the perfection of our Coretec product line.
Q: Why was getting a patent for this product so important?
A: Getting a patent is important to protect this product from self-destruction. Just like with laminate, if nobody can govern the development and growth of this new flooring category, in no time the race to the bottom in quality and price will destroy the product. I want to invite those companies who have the right interest at heart to help build this category and maintain profitability for all involved, but use the patent to deter and stop those focused on bringing it down.
Q: Does US Floors do more business in residential or commercial markets?
A: The majority of our business is residential, but with the building of our company-employed commercial sales force, under the leadership of Rick Morris, who joined us earlier this year, we are seeing strong growth in our commercial business. Multi-family, assisted living and hospitality are proving to be our strongest growth sectors in our commercial business.
Q: Describe the fundamental differences between developing residential and commercial programs.
A: The most fundamental difference, next to styling and design, is the emphasis on creating products that keep performing in a more demanding and harsh commercial environment, as well as products which bring hassle-free solutions to installation challenges. And commercial programs require a much longer ramp-up time, as projects specified may take up to two years to come to fruition.
Q: Looking ahead, are there new product categories or markets that you are interested in exploring?
A: We are expanding our distribution into Europe and other countries as we are getting enquiries from several distributors and retailers globally. There are always new products in several stages of development in the hopper. The story hasn’t ended yet.
Q: What is your vision for the future of US Floors?
A: Our focus is on doing the things we do right, not making mistakes and not wasting this once in a lifetime opportunity that this totally new product category we created provides us, to build a first class organization and grow US Floors into a strong player within the industry. Once we achieve this, the rest will take care of itself, and good things will result from it for all those involved: customers, employees and shareholders.
Q: You built an entrepreneurial company in a business dominated by giants that have tremendous economies of scale. What is your secret for success?
A: Short of the stereotype attributes of hard work, innovation, creativity, persistence, etc.—all important in creating a success story—luck and timing also play an important role. But the most important is the ability to build the right team to help you execute your vision and your story. I’m very proud of the team at US Floors.
Small companies have the advantage of being nimble and fast with low overhead, but struggle to sell their product deep enough into the market against the size of the sales force and logistics of the big mills.
The success of our Coretec product has allowed us to expand our penetration in the market at a rapid pace, to help close the gap. Fourth lesson in life: The harder you work, the luckier you get!
Q: As a father of four, talk about your philosophy on education.
A: Provide them with the best education, in line with their goals and skill set, and let them develop into whoever they like to be, but guide them all the way. Make them challenge the status quo and push them forward to excel beyond their comfort zone.
Don’t be their buddy, be their father.
Q: Tell us about the mentors who helped guide your development.
A: No doubt Roger De Clerck, the founder of the Beaulieu Group, played an important role in the beginning of my career. He was a very hard driving, relentless but fair leader, for whom the word “impossible” did not exist. Ed Ralston, the owner of D & W Carpets, taught me to focus on the important things in business, and the sign behind his desk said it all: If you don’t make it or sell it, you’re suspect. He lived by the saying: “Overhead is like fingernails, you have to constantly cut them.” I learned from Carl Bouckaert the strength of positive thinking and the energy to never give up.
But the biggest support and drive to move forward, no matter how tough the road looked ahead, I got from my wife and partner, Sabine. She balanced my drive and ambition with caution and rationale and a relentless belief in my ability to make things work.
Q: What is your favorite outdoor activity?
A: I enjoy several outdoor activities: cycling, running, skiing and even golf, despite the fact I’m not that good at it. But competitive sailing is what I enjoy the most. I’m fortunate to have a great friend who’s got the right boat and passion to race, and I truly enjoy being part of the racing crew.
Q: What do you consider your primary language?
A: I think and count in English, and I find myself being more comfortable writing and making speeches in English than I do now in my Flemish mother language. I guess that’s it; I’m fully Americanized!
Q: How do you balance your life with the extensive travel that your job demands?
A: If I can, I combine my business trips with a couple days of leisure or visits back to my parents or family and friends in Europe. I clock on average close to 200,000 miles in airplane travel on a yearly basis, but I learned a long time ago, the business doesn’t come to you, you have to go and find it yourself, no matter if your buying or selling. There’s no such thing as easy business.
Copyright 2015 Floor Focus
Related Topics:Beaulieu International Group