How Woodwright Hardwood Floor Co. CEO Lorie Welch Saved the Family Business

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Over the past seven years, Lori Welch has been learning everything there is to know about landing on solid ground—literally and figuratively. She has been the CEO of Woodwright Hardwood Flooring since 2016, a role she took on after her husband Steve lost his life to throat cancer quickly and painfully.

You can find her company’s work in Dallas Fort Worth corporate offices, residential buildings, hotels, higher education campuses, stadiums, civic buildings, museums, healthcare facilities, artwork on floors and sometimes walls, ceilings and other creative installations. places, and more. Woodwright works closely with design firms such as Gensler, Corgan and The Beck Group and is responsible for much of the flooring in Old Parkland, including more than 25 intricate, hand-crafted medallions. Other clients include Keurig Dr. Pepper, Toyota Music Factory and the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth.

Welch was joined by her husband and uncle Tom Peterson in 2011. When she takes over the company she founded in a garage in 1985, she faces a big challenge: Can she keep clients and win new contracts from skeptical architects and general contractors who aren’t sure how to homeschool, mom-turned-CEO?

Welch met her late husband, Steve, in 1996 while working at a furniture store in Addison. He was recently divorced and kept the house but not a single piece of furniture. I didn’t buy anything that day, but Welch invited me to a nearby TGI Friday dinner. As they got to know each other, Welch saw Steve’s passion for the business and deep knowledge of different wood species and building floors. She describes him as “nerdy, in a cool way,” with a knack for talking extensively about wood and the intricacies of its materials.

The couple got married in 1998. By then, Steve had bought out his uncle’s interest and owned the company outright, becoming a well-known name in the commercial flooring industry. Welch spends most of her time at her family’s ranch in Aquila, about 90 miles outside of Dallas, with their two children – son Ransom and daughter Copeland.

Somewhere along the way, Steve made a close friend in Spike Cutler, whom Cutler met through his insurance agent when he was a young construction lawyer. Now, with three decades of experience, Cutler represents commercial construction contractors such as Woodwright.

In building the company, Cutler says, Steve worked to identify Woodwright and deliver a perfectionist vision of high-level service. He brought most of the production functions in-house, and if he could not buy equipment to complete the creative installation, Steve would build or build it himself.

Cutler recalls a few of Woodwright’s “inventions,” such as the pioneering use of mesquite wood as a hardwood flooring material, one of the first laser cutters he saw, and a machine with “like 15 hydraulic rams in a row” to achieve a sandwich effect.

“The bottom line was this culture of innovation and quality,” says Cutler. “He wasn’t as cool as Steve, and he was often consulted by people from around the world on specific design problems to find new approaches and get things done.”

Under Steve’s leadership, Woodright has completed high-profile flooring projects in North Texas at the Winspear Opera House, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the George W. Bush Presidential Library. In the year In 2009 and 2015, the company won the prestigious National Wood Flooring Association’s “Wood Flooring of the Year” award.

In the year When Steve died on January 26, 2016, his family, friends, customers and community members were shocked. “Steve was one of my best friends in the world,” says Cutler. “When we lose him, it’s our guts.”

Holding the floor

The morning after Steve passed, Lori held a crisis meeting at her parents’ house in Aquila, next door to where she and Steve lived. Cutler and James Colton, Steve’s right-hand man, Woodwright’s chief operating officer, were still in shock. “The challenge was that the company was so closely associated with Steve, and we had one shot to present to the world that Steve was gone before the world knew itself,” Cutler says.

The team wrote a statement and assembled a list of prime contractors and architects—prior clients—that Woodwright relied on for business. Colton hit the road quickly, driving to meet face-to-face with several major contractors. The message was: Steve was gone, but Lori was committed to Woodwright. The company continues. The team was completely unexpected, and financially strong. There was no loss of drive, direction or quality.

Until then, Welch Cutler said, it was “certainly proving that’s the case.” Within 48 hours, her role was quickly transferred to Woodwright’s new leader and the stigma of being a wife on her head became a reality. She was scared. “Steve was a creative person, always coming up with new and different ideas,” Welch says. “How many new and different ideas are there when you talk about wood flooring? You will be surprised.”

As the company worked on contracts that predated Steve’s death, Lori was hesitant to sell the business she had started and was hesitant to give Woodwright any new projects as her clients waited to see if she could run the company her late husband had built. Built to his specifications. “I don’t blame them,” Welch said. “It was a very difficult time, and everyone was in a wait-and-see situation—waiting to see if we’d be here and waiting to see if they’d come back.

She has found community and support among her family, friends and employees—some of whom have now been with Woodwright for 25 to 30 years. Welch has participated in trade groups such as the Metroplex Subcontractors Association and the Association of Professional Women in Construction for support and to learn about the industry. She quickly built a network of subcontractors and other insiders who offered friendly communication and “no fuss” advice. “Lori closed down and learned the business, and in doing that, she assured the community that Woodwright was here and here to stay,” Cutler said.

On solid ground

Détente finally comes with general contractors and architects, and Woodwright starts winning business again—now with Lori at the helm and Colton at her side. She is especially proud of the company’s work in Old Parkland and art spaces like the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. At the end of the day, however, she humbly credits her late husband for the company’s success. “When Steve died, we were ready to take off,” Welch said. “It’s a lucky or unfortunate time, depending on your point of view. In the last five years, we have done a lot of high-profile projects.

Today, Welch says Woodwright’s backlog is deep, and the company is on track to generate $11 million in revenue this year — just $1 million shy of its record 2019 record. It has 82 employees — another record — and is always hiring. The company does not object to inexperience in new hires, as it gives its professionals the opportunity to teach them the level of service and skills that Woodwright and its clients expect.

“When someone wants a material that perfectly matches or complements a certain color palette, and it has to be done to a high standard, they call it Woodrite,” says Cutler. “What I see is a continued focus on high quality and high quality artwork because other people say, ‘We can’t have that.'” Woodwright says, “Hold my beer.”

Welch, for her part, sees future growth in the company’s materials sales business, which will bring in $1.5 million this year and could double that figure next year. He has many projects in full swing; He recently completed work on the Gucci store in North Park—a hand-polished oak floor with marble stars—and is involved in a new tower in Old Parkland, along with other projects in Las Colinas, Houston, and Austin.

“Steve put everything in place to make this possible,” Welch said. “I think he’s incredibly proud of not just me, but the whole team. My kids and Woodright saved me; they found me when I lost him and showed me the light on the other side.”

Author

Hilary Law





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