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Cole's Travis Wichern on Meeting Challenges and Moving Forward

Posted By NAFCD, Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Travis Wichern has more than three decades of experience in the floor covering industry. But he has only been at Cole Papers as Sales Manager and Senior Vice President of its Flooring Division since 2011. Before that, he owned his own chain of flooring stores for 16 years. He had expanded to six locations before he sold the business to look for a new challenge. At Cole, he has certainly found that and more.

We sat down with Wichern recently to discuss this North Dakota-based company now celebrating its 100th year, along with his career and where he thinks the industry is headed. What follows is our chat:

NAFCD: Cole is involved in more than just flooring. You also have two paper divisions, correct?

TW: We actually have three divisions. One, we call our General Division, which is a building supply division. We also have a Paper Division, and then the Flooring/Cabinet division.

NAFCD: How do they all fit together? Or, do they all fit together? Is there synergy?

TW: The synergies are actually in the logistics advantages. We have nine service centers throughout the Midwest, which is our geographical wheelhouse. We use the logistics that we have set up to move all three of these items where they don't conflict with each other. In some cases, they will overlap. We cater to a lot of assisted living communities, colleges, universities, and so forth where we are selling them chemicals and stuff. But a lot of our partners on the flooring side will also have doors opened for them through these synergies.

NAFCD: Have you seen any unique trends to the various markets that you serve?

TW: In the five states I am responsible for, which include Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, you will always see certain trends in styles and designs. What I've found more interesting is that what stays the same in each area, and that's good business practices. Whether you are out in Wisconsin or Bismarck, N.D., good business is good business. It's about how you take care of people.

In terms of product, luxury vinyl plank remains a popular trend right and growing still. What I envision is we'll see growth in rolled goods again. When people buy flooring, they buy it on style and design. They have to like the look of it, right? Or else they're not going to buy it. The reason luxury vinyl plank and luxury vinyl tile is selling now is because of style and design and also because it has become accepted. I think there will be an uptick in rolled goods in the next one to three years. One of our partners is Beauflor, and they have a product [in this niche] called Black Tex that we are the supporting distributor in our trade area.

NAFCD: What do you see as the industry's one or two biggest challenges of the moment?

TW: I see installation as a challenge for our dealers, which becomes a challenge for me here in distribution in terms of flow of goods. Their production schedules are affected by how much they can put in and how much I can move out. It's a trickle effect. So, even though we're not doing installation as a distributor, it still affects us because of how much goods can we move. We can only move as much as they can install.

It's also an aging industry. That's certainly another challenge. Throughout my trade area, there are flooring stores that have been around a long time. Many are working towards a second generation. There are still strong business models out there. But we all age, and the next generation has to step up.

NAFCD: What do you think are some of the keys to appealing to Millennials and Generation Z behind them? How can they be shown that this is a growth industry and a cool one to work in?

TW: It won't be appealing to them until it comes to be looked upon as more lucrative. We have to appeal to the young designers, architects, and entrepreneurs. The buying groups, I think, are the best way today to draw people into our industry. It's a business model that you can sell to an entrepreneur. It's an industry that can be learned over time, and it can be quite lucrative when done correctly. I mean, there are a LOT more things to be done out there as a career that you make a lot less money at with a lot more work.

NAFCD: What is the favorite part of your job?

TW: I just love what I do. I don't really look at it as work. It's not even so much about the flooring. It's the business side of things. That's my passion. Do I have stress? Do I have challenges? Yes. But I really enjoy helping our dealers with their projects. I like showing them that we are a good choice and why.

NAFCD: What do you personally still find a challenge? What do you still find hard?

TW: A challenge for me is there's just not enough time in the day. I'm never done with what I need to get done. I'm busy all of the time. But it's a seasonal thing, too. We'll see upticks at certain times of the year. So, my biggest challenge is getting to all of the things I need to do or even all of the opportunities that are there.

NAFCD: Was there some advice given to you earlier in your career that has stuck with you?

TW: (laughing). Yeah. Marry rich! No, seriously. I had a great upbringing, and my family was all about strong values and hard work. At the end of the day, you're asked to do your best, and that's all we can ask for ourselves. The Lord takes care of the rest. I believe we are blessed in so many ways. And how we make do with what we are given is how we come out of it. I lived through the housing crash just like everyone else. Nobody liked it. But at the end of the day, how you dealt with it is how you came out of it.

NAFCD: Do you have any advice to anyone new in the business who is just starting out?

TW: I have some Millennials who are working for me today, and they bring a great value to our organization. They see things different, for sure. I think they get a bad rap sometimes. I tell them to find what they enjoy doing. What's your passion? If you enjoy what you are doing and have a passion for it, then it doesn't become work. Do whatever that is long enough to see a value in your time. Even if you are going to dig ditches for a career, stay at it, learn how to do it, be efficient, stay positive, and do it long enough that you become an expert in it. Time takes time. It really does. You can't force the hand of time nor do you want to.

NAFCD: And, finally, how has NAFCD been of value to you personally and to your business overall?

TW: It's been huge for us. When they hired me to evaluate the division, our CFO Brian Haugen went to an NAFCD convention and made a decision that we needed to find new business partners and determine what the next product trends were. That's where we started, and that was six years ago. We gained partners at that convention that are still our partners today.

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