Fashioning a Future
The bad economic times of the last few years have been a very dark cloud hanging over many small businesses. While some enterprises did not survive, others have been able to find the proverbial silver lining. One such company is Flooring Fashions, Inc. in O'Fallon, Illinois.
Todd Fix and Sam Lance are the owners of the company, which is celebrating ten years in business this year. They offer a huge variety of floor covering options for both commercial and residential customers. It was their relationship with a local builder that originally led to an opportunity to start their own business. While they still work on a lot of new construction projects for builders in the area, the segment of their business that has become their silver lining is residential remodeling. "People are deciding to stay put and improve what they've got" says Todd. And for that, the partners are grateful.
Starting on the Ground Floor
Sam and Todd met in 1991 when they started working for the same large St. Louis flooring business within a few months of each other. They were both new to the industry. Todd had been working in the Machinists Union doing factory work for five years after graduating from high school. Sam had gone to college with thoughts of possibly going into law enforcement, but was uncertain of what he wanted to do.
Their new employer had several large commercial projects going on and needed a lot of workers to complete them, regardless of their level of experience. The two were not even apprentices (a one-year pre-apprenticeship was followed by an apprenticeship before a worker would become a journeyman), but they were available and willing to learn - and let's face it, inexpensive - so they fit the bill.
Todd and Sam spent the next ten years with that company, gaining valuable experience as they learned about the flooring business. They enjoyed the work itself, but since they were both from the Metro East, the commute to St. Louis every day became tiresome. When a flooring company on the Illinois side of the river was hiring, they jumped at the chance to spend their days closer to home.
Building a Foundation
It was at this company that the pair got an even more thorough education in the flooring business. The shop was a smaller operation than the one in St. Louis. As a result, they were able to do a greater variety of tasks. They also gained some insight into how a small business operates, and got to know several of the local builders. As Todd explains "it taught us the parts of the business that we still needed to learn."
"Eventually" adds Sam, "we realized that we could do it for ourselves." After about a year and a half, they decided to do just that, opening Flooring Fashions, Inc. at 109 South Oak Street in O'Fallon. Today, their business consists of about 70% residential projects and 30% commercial. When it comes to new construction as opposed to remodeling, they maintain good working relationships with a number of builders in the area.
As with most new start ups, they had some rough times at the beginning. The first year in particular, involved a lot of hard work. It was several months before they were comfortable enough with their situation to draw a paycheck; until then, every cent went back into the business. Sam and Todd agree that anyone starting their own business needs to be prepared for long hours and some lean times at first. Their wives, Elaine Fix and Ida Lance, understood. “We had already been working so much before we started the business;” says Todd “they kind of took it in stride.”
Gradually, Flooring Fashions gained its footing, making a name for itself in O’Fallon and the surrounding area. In addition to Sam and Todd, their staff grew to include ten installers (all members of the Floor Layers Union) and two people working in the showroom. After about four years in business, they purchased the building they were in. As a result, they were able to eliminate some garage space and expanded their showroom.
Expanding Their Reach
The purchase of the building was only one thing that happened in 2007 to make it a memorable year for the partners. They became a Mohawk ColorCenter Elite store. The ColorCenter Elite designation is described on the Mohawk Flooring website as offering “premier and comprehensive selections of Mohawk flooring options in carpet, hardwood, laminate, ceramic tile, resilient and area rugs.”
Sam sites the decision to align with Mohawk as one of the best business decisions they’ve made over the years. Not only are they able to offer all of the products that the well known brand has available, but Mohawk also helped in designing and outfitting their showroom. A customer-friendly showroom is a must these days, and as part of their ColorCenter Elite designation, they were provided with displays and samples that give the space a professional and put-together look and feel. The renovation of their new showroom area, and the increased revenue it created, earned them a nomination for Mohawk's Dealer of the Year. Another advantage of the partnership is that customers searching the web can find Flooring Fashions listed on the Mohawk Flooring website, www.mohawkflooring.com, through the store locator function, something that drives a lot of traffic their way.
When it comes to naming their worst business decisions, Todd and Sam have little to say. “There really haven’t been any bad decisions” says Todd. “Everyone makes mistakes, and you learn from them and move on, but I don’t think there have been any decisions that have been detrimental.”
Getting Help With the Basics
Although Todd and Sam both still do install jobs, with a crew of ten other installers, they are able to be selective about which projects they do themselves. They feel very lucky to have good, reliable employees, the majority of which have been with them since the company was formed.
Taking up the rest of their time and attention are the countless other matters that keep business owners occupied. When they first started the company, they hired Diel & Forguson LLC to help them manage some of those responsibilities. They were introduced to Diel & Forguson by Denny Blumberg, owner of Huntington Chase Corporation, the O'Fallon Illinois contractor who first suggested that they open Flooring Fashions. Diel & Forguson handles Flooring Fashion's payroll, financial statements, tax returns and tax planning, as well as personal tax returns for Sam and Todd. As Ken Diel explains "it's always helpful when business owners also have us do their personal work. We are able to see the big picture and therefore better coordinate the tax benefits for both the business and the individuals."
Floors That Make a Statement
Sam and Todd see the “big box” stores in the area as their main competitors, but they aren’t intimidated by them. They insist that if people do their homework, they will see the advantages of working with a smaller, more personal business like Flooring Fashions instead. As Sam explains “due to their buying power, the big stores can sometimes offer very low prices, but often it is for products that are not the best quality. The sale items can get customers in the stores, but once they upgrade to a little bit better quality product, better padding, etc., they will see their prices start to come into line with ours.”
The partners have also learned over the years that price is not the only factor for customers and that the quality of their work speaks for itself. Their motto is "Floors that Make a Statement", and they pride themselves on bringing the best to their customers. One thing that Flooring Fashions offers is sanding and finishing of hardwood floors, something that Sam says is an area of specialty that is somewhat scarce on this side of the river. Their services extend beyond just flooring to projects such as back splashes and custom tile showers. One of their more unusual assignments involved the tile work on a custom made baptismal font in a local church. It's things like that that can make a company stand out from its competition.
Spreading the Word
Todd and Sam know they can’t compete with the advertising dollars spent by the big retailers, so they don’t even try. They advertise in some church bulletins, and in the Scott Air Force Base directory, but their most successful marketing campaign getting referrals from satisfied customers.
In addition to the word-of-mouth testimonials from neighbor to neighbor and friend to friend, some of their more high profile commercial jobs can bring them to the attention of numerous potential customers at one time. When the company works on projects such as Katy Cavins Center, the O’Fallon-Shiloh Chamber of Commerce, city hall buildings, schools, fire departments and numerous businesses throughout the region, the individuals who witness their quality of work often remember them when they need flooring in their own homes or offices. It is a prime example of a company’s good reputation being as important as a sizable marketing budget.
Regaining Their Footing
Like virtually every other business in America, Flooring Fashions felt the pinch of the struggling economy in the past several years. Any plans for further expansion that Sam and Todd may have envisioned were put on hold. But in the last year they’ve finally begun to notice an uptick in business. Nearly all of it, however, has been in remodeling work and little in new construction, but the partners have no problem with that. As they see it, the important thing is that things seem to be improving and they can start to once again think about what direction they’d like to take the business.
“It’s nice to come back out of that two to three year funk and start to see that progression again” says Sam. Todd agrees, adding “things are going pretty well now, now we just need to decide where we want to go from here.” u
Flooring Fashions, Inc.
109 South Oak Street
O'Fallon, Illinois 62269
Owners: Todd Fix and Sam Lance
In business since 2003