In this episode of Get Unstuck & On Target, Mike speaks with Louis Fordham about HR in the flooring industry and how you should differentiate in the marketplace? How you distinguish yourself so that you can attract and retain the very best talent. While working to create a workplace that is ready and capable to handle changes.
Louis Fordham is the Vice-President of Human Resources for Engineered Floors. He gives us a look at how the industry has changed over the years.
Louis Fordham’s Biography
Louis has BBA in Management from the University of Georgia. He has been working in the flooring industry for over 22 years. Louis was an Assistant Personnel Manager at Queen Carpets. He also worked for J+J Flooring Group being responsible for Human Resources, Information Systems, Corporate Training, and Facilities.
In This Episode, You’ll Learn…
- Having processes inside your organization gives you the tremendous ability to do the things that are best for your company and therefore best for your customers
- What the biggest challenges are in supporting a fast-growing company
- Challenges that you encounter when you are providing HR support to a rapidly growing company
- I try to tell young people that always think they have to have a plan. It really wasn’t a plan, but I’m thankful that this is where I need to be.
- The more we control our processes, the more we control quality and service, and we’re not dependent upon an outside party that doesn’t have our same interests.
- Today I think HR is ideally seen more as an advisor to the business, to help keep us out of trouble because people issues now.
Links & Resources Mentioned…
- Louis’s LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/louis-fordham-5226869/
- Engineered Floor’s Website: https://engineeredfloors.com/
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Mike O'Neill: Welcome back to the Get Unstuck & On Target Podcast. I'm Mike O'Neill with Bench Builders. And we're business coaches who love to help leaders get unstuck and sleep better. In this podcast, we're talking with thought leaders to uncover tips to help you break down the barriers that may be keeping you or your business stuck. Joining me today is Louis Fordham. Louis is the vice-president human resources for Engineered Floors based in Dalton, Georgia. Welcome Louis.
Louis Fordham: Hey Mike. Glad to be here. Thank you.
Mike O'Neill: I'm looking forward to our conversation on multiple levels, but, those who have listened to prior podcasts. They know I've had this opportunity to speak with thought leaders, literally from all over the world, from Israel, Germany, Canada, and all across America. But today I get to speak with a longterm friend who also lives in Dalton, Georgia. Louis is a highly regarded HR professional, and I've asked him to share a bit about his journey in the HR profession, Louis you and I go back a long time. How did you get into HR?
Louis Fordham: Well, I try to tell young people that always think they have to have a plan. It wasn't planned. And I was out of work and looking for a job and, dependent upon the old, dependable word of mouth with a family member and ended up, coming to work in Dalton for a company named Queen Carpet as a management trainee. And, after a little while and operations, they said, we've got to get this guy out of operations. And so, got into human resources and, I've been there ever since. And so, that's, it, it really wasn't a plan, but I'm thankful that this is where I need to be.
Mike O'Neill: You know, I forgot about that, Louis. Ironically, I joined the flooring industry and I joined the company that I joined as a sales trainee. So we both started as, as trainees. So when you went to work for Queen Carpet, describe a little bit for those who don't know the industry, what was the industry like when you started working in the flooring industry?
Louis Fordham: Oh, well, Mike, yeah, it, w when we came to Dalton, Dalton was literally carpet. And at that time it was heavily carpet, hard surfaces just were not as dominant as they are today. So it was all carpet. And I remember looking in the phone book and there were literally hundreds of carpet companies. It was a very, very, big industry as far as number of organizations. And you couldn't go anywhere without seeing a carpet needle. Of all shapes and sizes. And shortly after we came to the industry, you really started seeing the centralization, the, the acquisitions. And do you do, you're going to, it's remarkably different today, where you have really, just a fraction of the number of different companies that are basically full-time into flooring manufacturing compared to, oh gosh, nearly 30 years ago when we came here. So, a lot of change.
Mike O'Neill: Yeah, I wonder to what extent this is mirrored in other industries, you mentioned it when you joined. It was right before the heavy consolidation. It strikes me as a lot of the companies in the industry. They were started by someone who might not be doing all aspect of making carpet. They might've only been doing one piece of that and maybe sold theirs, their product to another company. Is that what you remember early on?
Louis Fordham: Absolutely and that, that's why you had so many, because the process is the manufacturing process was really broken up, to different manufacturers. And so you did, you still had dye houses, you still had yarn processing facilities, but a lot of smaller organizations that did one part or, or, or a few parts of the process, you did not have, the number of fully integrated mills. Like you do today, where they're doing everything from start to finish. And so, it, again, a remarkably different and, a lot of business owners, a lot of different companies owned by different individuals. So even, from a standpoint of community leadership, and how the businesses operated, remarkably different than, the, the very, very large organizations that you have today.
Mike O'Neill: You know, you mentioned about this transition. It turns out there were folks who started businesses but they didn't make flooring from start to finish. They made one component and sold it to the next. And these converters over time became actual manufacturers where they might would have all this under one roof. But you mentioned something about consolidation. Can you elaborate a little bit about that? When you say consolidation, what was going on when you, when that was happening?
Louis Fordham: Well, like you said, you had a lot of companies that were doing a good job, but because of, because of their scope is limited or because their process was limited, they were, they were, they really were somewhat limited in what they could do from a business standpoint. And you had these other organizations that for different reasons, sometimes it was pure leadership. Other others just because of the success of their business, you know, had the ability to, to, or desire to grow in, in, in, and really in scale. And, and so, you started to sort of this, downstream integration was sort of the first wave in it as a manufacturer the more processes that you can pull in to the organization. There's lots of benefits. Obviously you're eliminating, complexity, you're eliminating costs. You're eliminating, you know, those extra costs you've got for, for the different profit aspects of independent companies. I remember, my second company, I worked for J and J we acquired some processes and I remember one of our executives, you know, you know, someone would ask me, what, why are you acquiring and why are you. You know, vertically integrating and his normal response was because of our customers. And you're like, what do you mean? Because of our customer says, the more we control our processes, the more we control quality and service, and we're not dependent upon an outside party that doesn't have our same interest in and, you know, plans then you, you're sort of, sometimes you're subject to their wishes or their priorities, not your priorities.
But when we have those processes inside our organization, it gives us tremendous ability. To do the things that are best for our company and therefore best for our customers. And so again, lots of reasons, but you just had a pretty aggressive, process. And as a business owner, we all know lots of times we see it today, you start up a business, it gets to a certain size and it's right for acquisition. And you've put a lot of time and effort into it. And now you have something of value that you can sale and you can in most cases make decent money. And that was also part of the process. And so, and it was also an industry that, that, although, you know, we feel like flooring has been around forever. It really wasn't that old of an industry. So it was also just part of the natural evolution of an industry. When you've got big companies around, you're a small company, it's sometimes difficult to be competitive. And so sometimes the best option is to sale, versus going out of business.
Mike O'Neill: You know, we've talked about an industry and how much that industry change in rapid succession. Our focus in this conversation is all going to be kind of on HR. And I'm kind of particularly interested in Louis to kind of get your insights. When you joined the industry and the kinds of things you are doing early on versus the kinds of things you and your team do now, how has the role of HR changed during your career?
Louis Fordham: Well, I, I think we were chatting about this before, you know, my first title, I was an assistant personnel manager and, and I think in the early days of personnel, you were really probably seen more as having a very narrow and specific purpose. And that was to really hire employees, to get employees on board. Obviously, you know, personnel you're tied to the, to the people sides of the business with, with benefits, and, and so, but you were, you were sort of always at operation that was set aside and, you know, it wasn't necessarily part of the mainstream aspect of business. The, and you know, we've always dealt with personnel issues, the legal issues of the business. And I think, I know in my early days it was, it was sort of, that was sort of your primary focus to, to fix problems or to deal with problems. And today. Yeah, I think some of those fundamentals are still there. Obviously employment is our number one, aspect, but a lot different aspect in the, in the terms of, you know, people talk about talent now versus personnel. So they even and look at at how we go about it differently in what we're trying to find in a little bit different perspectives. Today I think HR is ideally seen more as an advisor to the business, to help keep us out of trouble because people issues now. Even though they're not really different in the nature of the problems, the consequences and the costs of people issues today are so much more severe. It can be so much more, you know, damaging to a company that, human resources, in the ideal environment as seen as a key partner, that is designed to help accompanies people be very effective, very productive, and more important to keep a company from having problems in the first place, versus just trying to resolve the problems when they happen. At least that's how I try to, establish our role here. You know, we have a little saying in HR at, at an Engineer Floors that our job is to serve those who make it and those who sell it. And you know, the rest of us are overheated. And so our job is to stay focused on the things that really touch our customer.
Mike O'Neill: I had not heard that that is so apt. Your job in HR is to serve those who make it and sell it. And therefore you're basically defined your own customer. You're defining your internal customers. You mentioned that that vertical integration came as a result of taking better care of the customer, the external customer. If HR job is to support those who make it and sell it. What are some of the biggest challenges you're seeing nowadays in supporting a fast growing company like Engineered Floors?
Louis Fordham: Well, you know, in today's climate, especially, you know, people issues can easily escalate, and that there is a much higher comfort level, with, you know, obviously the legal aspects. There's a lot of resources out there. A lot, more sensitivity to, to aspects of behavior. So the risk levels I think, are, are, are higher then they, and we've ever seen them. And you know, so again, you know, just trying to make sure that we are doing everything in our power to prevention. You're going to hear me say it over and over and over again. Prevention. Is a huge focus for us. You know, once you have a problem, containment is very difficult. You have a lot more ability if you're in the prevention mode. And so that's our heavy focus just because today, like I said, we're having the same problems. It's just that the consequences are so much more severe. For good and bad reasons, companies are supposed to conduct themselves in a way today that is the appropriate manner. We are supposed to look out for our employees and protect our employees from those problems. And, and I think that's also a big shift as well. In the past I asked it was sort of our, again, like I said earlier, I think there's more of an expectation that an employee had to bring you their problem. And, and then it was our job to address that problem .Today there's a lot of expectation that you better be looking for that problem before that employee brings to you. If they bring it to you all, sometimes it's too late and the fact that you weren't being proactive and you weren't being preventative, you weren't, you know, doing the things to avoid problems. You can be held just as liable today for that as you can the problem itself.
Mike O'Neill: Well said. It might be helpful for our listeners for those who don't know, Engineer Floors. Can you kind of give our listeners a little bit of an idea of the size of organization that Engineered Floors is?
Louis Fordham: Yeah. We're, we're just under 5,000 employees. We're, we're a privately held company, so we don't, we don't, publish a lot of numbers, but we're in excess of a billion dollars. And, we have employees all across the 48 states. And, some in Canada. So, we're primarily a US-based organization, not, any international business, just, just very, very small amount. And, we're, we're heavily based here in Northwest Georgia. We have, manufacturing in Northeast Alabama, but everything else we do other than our sales organization is right here in a pretty tight geography. And again, we're a flooring manufacturer. We primarily manufacture carpet and rugs, but we also, have hard surface, as a product for our customers.
Mike O'Neill: Louis, when was Engineered Floors founded?
Louis Fordham: So Engineered Floors was founded in 2009 coming out of the, out of the recession. It, we, the description and I use this as Mr. Shaw's retirement project, as we know Mr. Robert Shaw, Bob Shaw was the founder and longtime CEO of Shaw Industries, retiring after the changes that Shaw went through, following the Berkshire Hathaway acquisition. And so deciding that retirement wasn't for him, he started Engineering Floors. While this industry was literally in and starting the steps to come out of, one of the hardest recessions that ever hit it. And so we're, we're just over 11 years old. And, we're now the third largest carpet manufacturer in the United States. And, and so, pretty exciting times around here.
Mike O'Neill: Louis, I think that's note or they for our listeners and 11 years go from zero to 5,000 employees. That's a remarkable, growth. And if you had to step back and you've seen this firsthand, you've been on the frontline of this. What have you and your team seeing as the biggest challenge when you are providing HR support to a fast growing company?
Louis Fordham: Well, there's pros and cons. When you are part of a company that is growing and is having the success like Engineer Floors, you benefit from that because people want to be a part of a successful company. People want to be a part of a leading company. And what we all though, and, and, and, you know, we used to talk about, you know, years and years ago, the whole idea was loyalty. You know, people went to work for a company and there was this automatic loyalty that almost had to be disrupted for a person to not be loyal. Today one of the key things that people want us stability. They want that security know that my job's going to be there tomorrow and the next day. And, and so when you're running wide open and, and literally every several months, you're either adding equipment or building a new plant, that sends a message. We talk all the time about it. You want to boost morale and the manufacturing operation add equipment. Buy new machinery and that tells employees that things are okay. And so literally Engineered Floors in that time period, built three, plants, fully, vertical plants from start to finish from scratch and in that process added equipment within those facilities. And so for, and even today we're adding equipment. And so, so from a recruitment, from an HR perspective, You really do benefit from being a part of an organization that is doing the things that EF has been doing. Our challenge as always is when you are also in the same market as the number one and two in the industry, the competition for labor is a little bit different because of the fact that we're all doing the same thing.
And, and once you're qualified at one place, you're qualified at all places. And, we've got great companies in this industry, but we are competitors no doubt about it. And so that's our greatest challenge, has been from the start. You know, Engineer floors entered an industry as a brand new company against two companies that were established solid performers well-respected companies. And, and we knew it was a mature industry. So the only way we could grow was to take market share. And people don't like giving up market share. So the competition for labor and the, especially the competition for skilled labor. People that are really talented and can go other places if they want to. I think that's been the biggest challenge EF has had, especially as we've grown and have had to add more talent to our, to our organization. That's where the competition really, really gets tough. Is with those skilled positions like Jim Collins says, people are not necessarily your best asset, the right people, are, are your greatest asset. And we all can appreciate that. So.
Mike O'Neill: You know, you've went from zero to 5,000 in a short order of time. You said it's not so much people, this is Jim Collins, but it's the right people. In today's tough labor market that's hard, extremely hard. And as you and I have discussed prior to us hitting the record button and over lunch, you've got to figure out a way to differentiate. That's really interesting. You're talking about Engineered Floors, competitors. And how do you differentiate in the marketplace? The same applies to as an employer? How do you differentiate? How do you distinguish yourself so that you can attract and retain the very best talent. You know, we could spend the whole time talking about what are the challenges when you're working with a fast growing company, because I think what you're seeing firsthand, when you just add plants and equipment and people, it's not just an incremental increase in complexity, is it?
Louis Fordham: No, no. Yeah. Going from 500 to 5,000, you know, again, when you're one plant 500 people. You know, you, you can manage that. You can sort of keep all the boundaries around in, in, in any organization as it's, once you start spreading out, once you start separating people an leadership, you start, you start having the complexity of autonomy. You start having the complete challenge of communications, and controlling processes that need to be done the same way. And so, you know, we, you know, Engineer Floors is also at two acquisitions. And, in the last several years. And so the thing that we've communicated, and we talk about now a lot is that, you know, what got us here is not going to work for the next 10 years, how EF went to market and started the company. The first 10 years of our business is not going to work. That strategy has no application in the second 10 years. Just because of the nature of our business today. And the other thing was when we were a little carpet manufacturer, we weren't a threat to the big guys. We're a threat now. And so even our competition looks at us differently. And, so today is heavily different. As far as strategizing and planning and competing for talent, even going to market. Because like I said, even, even though we're competing against the same companies, the game has changed. And so, again, different, but, but the same.
Mike O'Neill: Louis you and I share, a background, I came up through a, kind of a corporate HR path before Bench Builders, but in doing so, one of the things I'm picking up very loud and clear, with your leadership is that you're first and foremost, you're, you're understanding the business that you're supporting. And your team has to understand the business that you're supporting and from an HR perspective, and we've got HR leaders listening to this podcast, I'm hearing that as something that you're stressing and that is understand the business that you're supporting. And much of what you've talked about technically is not HR, it's the business. Which I think is a credit to kind of what you're trying to establish. Do me a favor Louis. Think about since we've looked back a little bit. The name of this podcast is Get Unstuck & On Target. And therefore, I try to ask guests to reflect on an example, could you share an example where perhaps you Louis Fordham got stuck. And if that's the happened, what did you do to get unstuck?
Louis Fordham: It's interesting. I was, I was a part of one of those acquisitions, and had served 22 years with a, 700 employee company, privately held, head of HR and, and, you know, to say I was comfortable was, would be a very accurate statement, in, in the role I played and, and how I approached, and also being a part of a smaller organization I had a small HR team and in most cases I was still the head HR manager. And so, and so I operated that way for most of my time at J and J. Overnight, I went from 700 employees to at the time of the acquisition. We went to about 3000. And then we've grown, since then. And I think when I came over, we had about, I had, there were about 20 on the HR team. So my HR team also quadrupled. From what I experienced and now we're almost double that. And so, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that it took me way too long to really understand that I can't, I cannot perform the duties of my current role, the way I performed these in my former role, even though I feel like I was very effective. In fact, I, you know, again, I was blessed that that when the acquisition happened, Immediately afterwards, I came over as the head of HR for Engineer Floors, and I think that was a compliment to J and J heavily because our culture with people at J and J was so strong and I know EF, it just blended really well because that's also the kind of culture that EF wants as well for all of its employees. And so it was a, it was a very quick and very easy transition for me. And it's really been in the last 12, 18 months that it's really hit me, Louis you're you're trying to do business the way you've always done business. And you're trying to do HR the way you've always done HR from a standpoint of your own personal behavior, somebody comes to you with a problem. You solve that problem, just like you did at J and J when that employee walked into your office or that manager came to your office. Well, the problem is today when I get pulled into the weeds, I can do a lot of damage. I can undermine credibility. I can, I can create lack of confidence in my management team.
I can, I can bypass, people that need to be involved in the process and more, the, the worst thing that can happen is that people can, can, now they can then bypass those that are there everyday to help them and come straight to me. And so it's really taken me through some unfortunate mistakes and some experiences to realize that the Louis you have to operate differently. Your focus has gotta be much more on process and, and, and consistency across operations and keeping those core values and those core fundamentals going across the whole footprint. And getting problems solved, but not necessarily getting pulled down into the weeds and trying to solve them yourself. And as you can relate, you know, doing what you love doing as a part of HR, when you can go help someone with a problem, there's nothing more gratifying. And so, but I was sort of stuck in what had gotten me to where I was kind of what Engineered Floors the challenge we see ourselves, you know, what got you here when that's not, what's going to get you forward and you don't realize it. You could be declining more than, than improving. And so, I've had some aha moments. The last, the last 12 months in the last 90 days, we started really making some structural type changes in my group, and I've already seen the benefits and it's kinda like my people say, Louis, if you'll do your job and let us do our job, we're all gonna be happy. And so, I hope I'm unstuck. And, and definitely on the right side of that situation,
Mike O'Neill: Louis, I appreciate your candor. You are learning and growing and, we're profiting by what you would, what you have learned, you know, as you kind of reflect on what we've discussed thus far, what would you want the listeners to have as a takeaway and maybe what might be some of your closing thoughts you'd like to share?
Louis Fordham: Well, two things and you touched on one of them, you know, earlier Mike and, and, and, and, and that is change. And in most business climates today, and especially with, you know, we saw COVID, you know, had this impact that it's not just a matter of adapting to change, but, but being that change, and being responsive to change and, and almost being prepared for the change that you don't know is coming. We built a really strong wellness team, here at Engineered Floors. We had a strong foundation coming out of J and J and EF laid a foundation, but we had really built a strong wellness initiative and a health and wealth initiative with an onsite team and so forth that when COVID hit, we had the team in place to help this company manage through COVID. And so. So I think historically you would say you gotta be adaptable to change. And to me, it's almost like you got to prepare for the change that you're not, you're not even sure it's coming. Given the right people in the right places who are also adaptable. And, and so to me, that's a really, really key thing, that I would want people to take away from, from this conversation and from what we've learned. And you and I chatted about this, I've changed more in the last five years than I think in my entire career. And it, you know, it was challenging, but it's also refreshing.
Mike O'Neill: This conversation that's been refreshing. I do appreciate the time you spent with me, today. Louis, if folks want to reach out to you, what's the best way for them to connect with you?
Louis Fordham: Probably for this channel, LinkedIn, I'm pretty active on LinkedIn as far as checking and looking and, and watching that and making connections through that. That's one of the easiest ways to get to me its current. And then definitely, email is, is, is probably my second best I'm I'm, I'm catching up with the modern, texting and I don't do any social media beyond, LinkedIn. So, that's probably my best channel. And, as always my work number and my work email, is good.
Mike O'Neill: So, so we will include, your LinkedIn profile, in the show notes. So if folks want to reach out and connect with you, they can do so readily. So be looking for that in the show notes, Louis. Thank you.
Louis Fordham: You're welcome. Thank you, Mike.
Mike O'Neill: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us for this episode of Get Unstuck & On Target. We upload the latest episode every Thursday. And if you haven't already please subscribe. You know, life is too short to let business problems keep you up at night. Our coaches love helping leaders solve tough planning, process and people problems so they can sleep better at night. So you have been listening to my conversation with Louis and realizing that something is keeping you or your business stuck. Let's talk. Go to our website, bench-builders.com or just go to your browser and type unstuck.show to schedule a quick call. So I want to thank you for joining us, and I hope that you've picked up on some tips to help you Get Unstuck & on Target. Until next time.