At 17, Scott Wise took a job as a janitor that would see him travel the world for the company that became Armstrong Flooring.
From cleaning the workshop, Wise then led the installation and technical teams. This work showed him the world, as he traveled to Canada, Mexico, Germany, Australia and Japan teaching people how to install floors. This job gave Wise some of the best friends he’s ever known and allowed him to help create some of the products made by one of America’s great manufacturers. It was there that he met his wife, Glenna.
Wise retired in 2007, but like many he followed the bankruptcy of Armstrong Flooring with a sense of loss for a place that not only offered stability and decent wages, but served as the glue that held generations of people together. Lancastrians for 160 years.
Last Monday, the cultural and economic institution that crossed the lives of countless locals like Wise passed away, bankrupt. Its Lancaster and Beech Creek factories were consolidated into another flooring company and its corporate office and other factories were closed and liquidated.
“The older we get, the more we appreciate it,” Armstrong Flooring’s Wise said as he recently sat with other retirees at the Hong Kong Garden on Columbia Avenue in the Wheatland Mall. The restaurant was where Armstrong Flooring employees filled tables at lunchtime years ago. Retirees still meet there regularly, testimony to the lasting friendships forged between generations through work within the company.
Rick Wartzman of the Drucker Institute said Armstrong Flooring seems to have clung to this social contract longer than most large companies. This unwritten contract stated that companies would provide secure jobs and retirement in exchange for employee loyalty and hard work.
In his 2017 book, “The End Of Loyalty”, Wartzman said that the social contract between companies and employees has been eroding since the 1970s due to globalization, automation and outsourcing and the focus on cost reduction to deliver a profitable bottom line to shareholders.
Although the gains of the so-called golden era of capitalism have spread widely, the hallmarks of the social contract have not come easily, he said. They came partly through hard-fought victories by organized labor. He came with an element of paternalism and didn’t come for people of color or women.
The shift from a blue-collar economy to a knowledge economy has had many ramifications for workers. Then came the rise of maximizing shareholder value, which became the quintessential corporate ethic. Warzman told NPR in 2017 It wasn’t there before.
“Coming out of the Depression and World War II, if you looked at the way CEOs were talking, the way companies were defining who they were accountable to, it wasn’t BS,” Wartzman said. “It was real. They were – they were talking in terms of ‘we’ and they had a very stakeholder-focused orientation, which means companies felt obligated, talked about an obligation to take care of communities where they were present, of their customers for sure, of their workers and their shareholders – all these groups.
It’s the Armstrong Flooring culture that former employees remember, and that she struggled to maintain.
Each employee received a book about the company’s history and its slogan, “Let the buyer have faith,” which comes from founder Thomas Morton Armstrong. It wasn’t just a slogan, employees said; it was a culture and a work ethic.
“When you work for Armstrong Flooring, you feel that sense of pride. You felt like you were part of that legacy,” said Amy Sumpman, who rose from order taker to customer service manager during her 20 years there. She was among many headquarters employees who were laid off on July 22. She works temporarily for one of the buyers, Gordon Brothers Commercial & Industrial, until the latter liquidates part of the business.
In the 1980s, shareholders of American corporations began to take precedence, the idea that corporations should maximize shareholder value, according to Wartzman.
Warzman said the corporate changes reflect and lead to a change from an “us” mentality in which we are all in this together coming out of the Great Depression and into the age of “me, l.” ‘individual”.
When it filed for bankruptcy on May 8, Armstrong Flooring cited supply chain challenges, inflation and COVID-19 as reasons for its financial troubles, but there’s more to the story.
The beginning of the end
Armstrong Flooring began in 2016 when Armstrong World Industries created its flooring division, the heart and legacy on which the company was built. Armstrong Flooring lasted six years before being sold in bankruptcy this month to AHF Products. Turns out AHF started out as the wood flooring division of Armstrong Flooring that was spun off into a private equity firm in 2019.
The sharing started years earlier.
David Byrne, who retired in 2006 after nearly 34 years, noted that the business changed in the 1990s when George Lorch became president and he instituted a series of changes. Byrne has worked in a variety of production roles.
“For 12 years I’ve been making the miraculous paste that made your floor shine without wax,” said Byrne, who is a sports correspondent for LNP | Lancasters online.
The first change was to separate the various operations into focused business units, each responsible for its own profit/loss, said Byrne, who added that the idea had previously failed at General Motors.
Then, said Byrne, Lorch introduced the concept of return on assets.
“For generations, American businesses have operated on the theory of return on investment, the profit made on the money invested in making the product to be sold,” Byrne said. “Some morons have come up with the idea of return on assets. In Armstrong’s case, each targeted business unit (FBU) had an assigned value (raw materials, machinery, etc.) and if that FBU didn’t return a percentage of the value of these “assets” – in Lorch’s imagination, 12% – profit, the FBU was in danger and/or destined to be eliminated.
“Let the Buyer Believe”
The story of how founder Thomas Armstrong kept a promise made to a customer at the very beginning of his cork business is well known throughout Armstrong Flooring and Armstrong World Industries. Armstrong supplied caps to a soft drink customer. The customer blamed the corks when the drinks went bad. Never mind that the corks probably didn’t cause the drinks to sour, Armstrong replaced the soft drinks. His concern for reputation led him to stamp Armstrong on all corks and the company motto that has stood for over 150 years, “Let the buyer have faith”.
It’s a reputation that Armstrong World Industries carries on today with its ceilings and walls business.
Not only have its iconic flooring designs become staples for generations of American families, Armstrong has built its brand on innovation. It was the first in its industry to open a research and development center, in Lancaster in 1952.
The company has employed thousands of Lancaster County residents over the years, including several generations of families. As late as 1990, Armstrong’s workforce here was 5,000 employees, but a recession in the early 1990s and restructurings in the late 1990s reduced it to 2,900.
by Lancaster the robust arts community got much of its strength waves of creatives (writers, photographers, designers and more) that Armstrong has brought here for decades.
“It’s a shame because he was once the biggest employer in the county,” said Rick Herr, who retired from the research and development division in 2016 after 48 years.
When Armstrong World Industries turned Armstrong Flooring into its own public company, the combined companies had approximately 1,500 employees, making it one of the top 10 employers in the county. The company had its own fire department and medical department.
Armstrong is woven into Lancaster County’s identity the same way other businesses, such as Bethlehem Steel, are tied to a community.
Consider that the company has tested soils throughout Lancaster County and central Pennsylvania, according to Herr, Wise, Glassman and Tom Erisman, who retired in 2018.
The men recalled a new floor installed for free in Hershey. They went to check it out to find rocks had been kicked back, presumably by women’s high-heeled shoes. Armstrong decided not to launch the product, but the customer liked it and wanted more, so he took all the test flooring.
The flooring products have been tested in hospitals like Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the busy hallways of McCaskey High School and small stores like Queen Street Bistro where Armstrong tested a new adhesive. This floor is still there, the retirees proudly note.
“Essentially it was a cradle-to-grave business,” said Alan Glassman, who retired in 2002 after 32 years. An architect, he came to Lancaster to work for Armstrong from California. He was initially involved in new product development, but eventually became Technical Information Manager, Flooring Division.
Erisman said Armstrong was the kind of company where generations of families worked. He had 107 years of service among his extended family members. Armstrong paid for Erisman to attend Millersville University, and he relied on the company’s labs and organic chemists to help him complete the labs for his degree. It was not uncommon for the company to pay for college, the retirees said. It was that kind of place.
“It’s deeply sad,” said Erisman, a former research and tech support associate. “I spent 46 years there.