May 2003

Walking the Plank
A Glimpse Into Two Virginia Flooring Manufacturers
by Kristine Tunney

A native-born Virginian, I’ve always reveled in the uniqueness of my home state and loved admiring the differences in its geographical landscape. From the bustle of Northern Virginia to the mountainous areas in the Western regions to the Atlantic-lining beaches of the east, I’m constantly amazed how diverse one, single state can be.

I recently had the opportunity to do a tour around the state, visiting just a few of Virginia’s wood product manufacturers. And just as differences in topographical landscapes changed the further we drove or flew, such were the differences in what would otherwise be considered similar wood flooring manufacturing plants. 

Stuart Flooring Corp., in Stuart, Va., was the first flooring company I visited. Acquired by Harris Tarkett in 1998, one step inside the building and you knew that you were getting a firsthand glimpse of a successful, well-run, family business. A fairly small mill, tucked in a bend in the road, Stuart Flooring is run by president Buddy Williams, his daughter Terri Birkett who serves as vice president of sales, and her husband Gary Birkett, the company’s lumber purchasing manager. With a staff of approximately 260 employees, most of Stuart’s employees have worked there for years, many working alongside family members and friends.

A sister company to Harris Tarkett, Stuart Flooring was acquired in 1998 and both companies are now owned by Domco Tarkett, the second largest flooring manufacturer in the world. According the Terri Birkett, the standard for excellence upheld at the company really sets it apart from many other flooring manufacturers.

“The work ethic of the people who work here really shines through in the quality of the finished product. My father, owner Buddy Williams, is a perfectionist. He always says that it’s not the best if you don’t do it right the first time, and I think that that pride in his job and his product really spreads to the other employees.”

In information provided by Harris Tarkett company vice president of marketing Bill Clossin, Stuart Flooring Corp. is referred to as one of the industry’s premier producers of flooring saying, “Stuart may be the only facility in the country that grades both sides of the lumber. It’s a standard procedure for them and this extra step assures uniform quality throughout the line.” 

But just as Stuart Flooring has changed over the years, the lumber climate surrounding the company has changed dramatically. For a company whose output is almost 99 percent unfinished, oak-strip flooring, the shift of furniture manufacturing toward facilities in the Far East is a key concern.

“The biggest challenge facing our industry these days is the movement of the furniture industry to China,” said Birkett. “In our industry, the high-grade lumber is sold to furniture manufacturers and the low-grade is bought by companies like ours. Since the beginning of the movement to China, the ability to get the low-grade lumber we need is getting more and more difficult. While we still have enough, the supply is much more scarce than it was just a few years ago.”

Sustaining its forests is a family-affair for Stuart Flooring, highlighted by a book published by Terri Birkett in 1995 in an effort to educate youth about the forest products industry. Entitled the “Truax,” Birkett’s book was intentionally written and illustrated in a style reminiscent of Dr. Suess’s book, “The Lorax,” a story about a character that destroys land by cutting down trees and a character named the Lorax who “speaks for the trees” warning others about the consequences of such devastation.

The Other Side of the Mountain
Visiting Mullican Flooring, I was struck initially by the size and cleanliness of the facility. A modern flooring mill, the company’s Norton, Va., facility had the look of a company that belonged to a larger corporation, rather than an intimately run small business. A privately held division of Baillie Lumber, Mullican also has facilities in Ronceverte, W.Va., and Holland, N.Y. Boasting more than 300,000 square feet under its roof, Mullican’s Norton mill is twice the size of Stuart Flooring, although run by fewer employees. 

“What really sets our operation apart from lots of other hardwood flooring manufacturers is the steps we take in procuring the lumber going into the plant,” said Brian Greenwell, Mullican’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We take extra care in the way we buy our lumber to how it’s stacked on one foot centers to the way it’s stored in either of the company’s predryers, which hold 1.2 million board feet at a time for periods of six weeks.” 

This drying process maximizes the stability and minimizes the movement of the wood during the warm and cold seasons. After the drying process, each piece of wood is checked automatically by an in-line moisture meter. The company says that its state-of-the-art kiln drying processes help produce consistently stable flooring that results in fewer cracks with less filling.

The company harvests all its Appalachian lumber within a 150-mile radius of the mill. Citing its commitment to the environment that sustains it, this Forest Stewardship award winner prides itself on using all parts of the tree in a process that wastes nothing. The bark that is removed from the tree is used as mulch and wood chips are used in its kilns.

While the resources in the area have remained more than sustainable, there are definitely issues affecting the state of Mullican’s industry. As was the story for Stuart, the migration of the furniture industry to China has been a strain on Mullican as well.

“Losing the furniture industry is definitely a problem. With so many saw mills closing and furniture factories shutting down, it makes us weary as to who’s going to be purchasing the high-grade lumber that allows us to get the grade that we need,” said Greenwell strongly echoing Stuart’s Birkett in his concern about the company’s similar situation. 

“Our flooring is distributed through a variety of hardwood distributors primarily as flooring for new homes,” he said. With the combination of the war and the economic slowdown it’s a tough time for everyone. But we expect to fair well enough.”

Greenwell went on to say that despite the factors stacked against the manufacturer, Mullican had a record-setting month for sales in March, achieving its highest sales ever.

“We are really excited about it,” he said. “It’s really a great accomplishment.”

Despite the differences in size, species, machines or man-power that separate these two flooring manufacturers, chances are they both have at least one main thing in common: the desire to keep their flooring customers walking the planks. 

Kristine Tunney is an assistant editor for SHELTER magazine. 


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