Wichita family carpet seller’s next venture: The Floor Project

05/29/2013 12:00 AM

05/28/2013 8:27 PM

For La Vone Pirner and his son, Aaron, flooring is the family business, and business is good.

The elder Pirner opened his first 4,000-square-foot store in Wichita in 1967. Since then, CAP Carpet has grown to seven brands and more than $50 million a year in business.

“What success we’ve had is because of the quality people that built this company, and I’m not just talking about Aaron and myself,” the 82-year-old La Vone Pirner said.

“There’s a whole history of people that are now gone that helped build this company and people that are here that are just great,” he said. “It’s a culture thing.”

Over the last several years, the company he started – CAP Carpet – has undergone major changes and growth.

Most recently, the company started a brand called the Floor Project, which had a soft opening in Topeka and Wichita, 8088 W. Kellogg Drive, about two months ago.

The Floor Project is one of seven brands owned by CAP Carpet. The others are Aircraft Interior Products, Carpet One Floor and Home, ProSource Wholesale Floorcoverings, Big Bob’s Flooring Outlet, the Floor Trader and White Oak Carpet Mills.

The family owns 19 stores in the Midwest, which makes it the 13th largest flooring provider in the country, according to trade organizations. Home Depot is No. 1.

The store is more than a seven-figure investment – it represents two lifetimes of work for the family, Aaron Pirner said.

The company used focus groups in Wichita, Topeka and St. Louis to help form the store’s concept and layout.

“This is what people in this area said they wanted,” Aaron Pirner said.

In addition to its bricks-and-mortar store, the Floor Project also has an online planning and designing program that customers can use to view how flooring would look in either a standard set of rooms or the rooms inside their own home.

The products it carries can be found in everything from middle-class homes to $40 million corporate jets. Business has also gone international. Roughly 25 percent of its aviation business is outside the U.S.

Aaron Pirner said about 50 percent of the company’s business is in carpet and 50 percent in hard surfaces – and the hard-surface half is split about evenly between ceramic and materials such as hardwood, laminate and tile.

Although he says he didn’t want to go to college, Aaron Pirner graduated from Wichita State University and earned his master’s in business administration from Friends University.

From the beginning, his goal was to work for his dad.

“I wanted him to do whatever he wanted to do with his life,” La Vone Pirner said. “But what I wanted him to do secretly was come into business with me. But I tried not to impose that on him and leave his life open.

“So he’s sitting there with his cap and gown on and I said, ‘Now what are you going to do with your life now, son?’ That kind of a speech. He gets this shocked look on his face. ‘Well, I’m coming into business with you Dad, didn’t you know?’ ”

La Vone Pirner said that although he and his son are very different kinds of thinkers, he’s enjoyed working with Aaron.

“It’s an experience I wish all fathers could have,” he said.

There have been many changes in the flooring industry since La Vone Pirner started the business in 1967. The biggest change is that the big players in the industry used to be department stores such as Sears, which gave way to smaller stores.

“The specialty retailer took that business away from them because they did a better job servicing the customer … but as probably all industries evolve, they’ve had consolidation. We got larger and in that process began to niche the market,” said La Vone Pirner.

“We focus on serving the customer in a slice of the market better than anybody else,” he said. “That’s been our goal since we started.”

They primarily focus on helping people find the flooring that best fits their lifestyles, Aaron Pirner said.

The company also operates its own mill in Spindale, N.C. – a city that Aaron Pirner says has about 20 percent unemployment

“It was literally a fabric-centric environment, and all that’s gone overseas now,” he said. “It’s just been devastated. Our mission is we want to be the biggest employer.”

The goal is for more growth, Aaron Pirner says. He hopes they someday hit 200 stores.

“Over the next 10 years, we’ll make it even better,” he said. “Much like our business is a generational business, we would really love to have generations of people buying floor covering from us. I think we’re going to have the whole family buying from our family.”

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