Mohawk’s Kilbride navigates toward a new beginning
March 31, 2014,
New York— After a career that has spanned 42 years, the first half working in financial services and the second heading a major home textiles company, Bill Kilbride said he is ready to start over.
“I can’t imagine what retiring would be, but I know it would not suit me,” said Kilbride, who serves as the president of Mohawk Home and the chief sustainability officer of Mohawk Industries worldwide.
This week in New York, during the Home Fashions Market, Kilbride is seizing the opportunity to share with longtime industry friends and colleagues his plans to — forgive us, Bill — retire from his posts.
“It has been absolutely remarkable to be here and to go from where we were then — a $50 million company — to now be part of an almost $8 billion company,” he told H&TT in an exclusive interview.
Mohawk Industries chairman and ceo Jeffrey Lorberbaum praised Kilbride’s service to the company.
“For the past two decades, Bill Kilbride has guided Mohawk Home through industry-leading product innovations and process improvements,” Lorberbaum told H&TT. “He has consistently delivered quality, value and service to our customers and brought fashion and performance to households around the country. As he segues into retirement, I know that Bill will continue to be an active community volunteer and his talent and energy will benefit any cause or endeavor he champions.”
Still involved with some strategic initiatives, Kilbride is postponing his official departure for a few months to help the recently reorganized executive team settle in.
“We are in the process of transitioning management roles here, and there are also several projects I am working on that will take a little longer than expected, which may run into the end of summer or early fall, so I wanted to be flexible with my schedule to leave everything done on my end,” he said.
Once all that is wrapped up, Kilbride — an avid sailor — has a series of personal projects lined up.
“I absolutely plan to spend time with my family,” said Kilbride, who has three grown daughters — two of them in college — with his wife of 28 years, Mary.
“Now that we’ll have the time, my wife and I also plan to finally do some things we’ve always talked about doing. We’ll spend some time sailing. I don’t know how far we’ll go, but certainly through the Florida Keys and the Bahamas the Virgin Islands, maybe even back to my old home, Long Island,” he said. “We also have talked about traveling to other places.”
But once he gets that out of his system, Kilbride expects he will be “ready to jump into some kind of work, such as consulting for businesses that are either challenged or looking to grow globally.”
“But certainly, I will be getting involved in the charitable arena, where my wife has focused her work,” he continued.
Mary, a certified public accountant whom Kilbride described as “very business-savvy,” has devoted her free time to nonprofit educational causes — “so there will be a lot of room for that to continue with me once I start over.”
Kilbride, who was born and raised on Long Island, N.Y., became a home textiles executive almost accidentally — a career move that would credit him with helping turn what was once a $50 million rug manufacturing company into one of the country’s largest home textiles manufacturers with $556 million in sales in 2013.
He started in financial services with Chemical Bank (which today is J.P. Morgan), moved on to the New York Stock Exchange, then Dean Witter (now Morgan Stanley) — 20 years altogether.
A persistent friend and colleague who owned a rug manufacturing company in Georgia tried several times to woo Kilbride to make a change — professionally and geographically.
“We had three young kids at the time. My wife was also working on Wall Street, and we were ready to move south to raise our kids,” he reflected. “It was an appealing move on all levels — for my career and for my family.”
That was 1992, and Kilbride relocated to the Chattanooga, Tenn., area to become the new president of American Rug in Dalton, Ga.
“It was much smaller then. It had just $50 million in sales,” Kilbride recalled. “But it was growing fast, and one thing we knew was that we needed to recapitalize the firm. And because my background was in finance, that’s the first thing I got working on.”
A year later, the business was sold to Mohawk Industries, which had $800 million in sales at the time, and the new area rug division changed its name to Mohawk Rug.
Kilbride remained president of the division, and soon after the company expanded its rug operation with new business segments via acquisitions – Newmark, American Weavers, the textiles division of Crown Crafts and Godwin Weavers, and the bath segment of Brumlow. Finally, in 1995 the company merged with Aladdin.
“All of those acquisitions brought us into new markets with new products and gave us great people, and helped us grow overall with a whole lot of organic growth,” he said. “It’s been all of the people I’ve worked with — our staff and our customers — that have made my job fun.”
Kilbride was only about a decade into his new career, at the helm of Mohawk Home, when he was named the 2003 Industry Leader of the Year by the Fashion Institute of Technology.
“It was a highlight for me,” Kilbride said. “I was very surprised. But I will say it was a high honor for me to be recognized and receive this award.”
Soon after, Kilbride’s division changed its name to Mohawk Home to reflect its expanded home textiles offerings, which in those days included not just area and accent rugs but also tufted top-of-bed products, throws, decorative pillows and fabric wall art as well as its high-end soft floor covering division Karastan Rugs.
In 2009 Mohawk Industries made the decision to emphasize sustainability across its entire operation domestically and worldwide, and Kilbride was chosen to head the effort, becoming chief sustainability officer of the parent company. The additional role, he said, has been “very exciting and challenging … and one I’ve enjoyed immensely.”
Under his leadership, the company has received recognition from several regional and national organizations. In 2012, for example, Newsweek ranked Mohawk the highest among flooring manufacturers in its annual ranking of America’s largest green companies, while the Southeastern Corporate Sustainability Rankings placed the company third among Georgia companies in its 2012 rankings.
Lorberbaum vouched for Kilbride’s accomplishments in this arena.
“Bill has helped Mohawk become the industry leader in sustainability,” he said. “He is the rare visionary who sees opportunity where others see obstacles, and that has made him an important contributor to the growth and success of Mohawk Industries over the past 20 years.”
In turn, when H&TT asked Kilbride who he would consider his mentor, his response was: “Certainly Jeffrey Lorberbaum.
“I’ve worked with him for many years — almost 20 years now – and I can tell you there is nobody like Jeff,” Kilbride said. “His sense of business, how he conducts business, how he challenges us and brings our people together to make them feel like they are truly part of the business — not just someone who is running a crank — all these things are what make Jeff a wonderful mentor. He’s been a good friend to me always, and he’s always made me feel like a partner, not someone who works for him. He’s had a huge impact on my career.”
Over a quarter-century in home textiles, Kilbride has seen his share of evolutions.
“I continually talk here about how fast this business changes — not in years but in weeks, days,” he said.
One of the turning points came in the late 1990s, a time that portended the end of American manufacturing in textiles.
“Everyone was running overseas, and if you weren’t, no one would talk to you because they figured your prices were too high,” he noted. “Over the past 20 years, there has been a significant reduction in the number of North American manufacturers. But now I’m beginning to see it come back, and people are starting to see the importance of ‘Made in America’ again.”
More recently, it’s been the high speed of doing business in tandem with advancing technologies that has created the most noticeable changes in the industry, he said.
“It used to be that you got an order from a customer, and you agreed on delivering within a window of time, and everyone was happy with that,” he said. “Today, people want it on the same day. That has impacted logistics and supply chain on the supplier base.”
Kilbride also cited the expansion of retail hierarchies as another difference from when he first got started in home textiles.
“We used to have a buyer come in and she would write up an order and put it in your hand,” he recalled. “Nowadays, we have to deal with many more people, from the buyer to the replenishment person to the financial planner, the designer, the product development person and others. It’s the way retailers are now managing their businesses. To get the work done, it takes a lot more people, which has made it more complicated.”
Another factor is the shortened shelf life of products.
“Years ago, if we had a best seller at a store, it could stay placed there for five years,” Kilbride said. “Today, there is not one retailer who would keep the same rug in their system for more than six months to a year. Their attitude is: ‘I don’t care. Bring me something new, something creative, something innovative.’”
Finally, with these changes comes a higher price to getting the work done.
“The cost of doing business is higher. Producing, developing product for the end consumer costs more today than ever,” he added.
“And if you have not created and delivered a perceivable value for the customer, it’s all for naught, because today’s consumer is a more educated consumer.”
While Kilbride admits shifts demand suppliers adjust, often reluctantly so, they all serve to improve Mohawk Home’s performance and business practices.
“At Mohawk, it’s made us better at what we do. We astonish our customers with our service levels,” he said. “These shifts have changed the fundamentals of doing business, but for the better, for not just for us but the retailers as well.”
So what will Kilbride miss the most when he “starts over”?
“On any given day here, I am in my office, I am out on the floors, I’m in the design studio, I’m in accounting, and I will tell you the best asset we have at Mohawk is our people,” he said.
“I work all the time with hundreds of people, many who have been here as long or longer than me, and it is them I will miss the most. It’s amazing when you see what these people accomplish every day pulling together to get the job done.”
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