AUGUSTA — Sitting in his office in late December, Norman Pomerleau, president of NRF Distributors, said he doesn’t think he deserves any recognition for anything.
“About the only thing I’ve done is employ people,” the 81-year-old founder of the flooring distributors said. “I think it’s important for everyone to work.”
The number of people working because of Pomerleau, however, is significant.
He said NRF Distributors employs about 350 people, mostly from the Augusta area.
It’s down from about 400 less than a decade ago, he said, but still good for 15th overall of private companies in Kennebec County, according the most recent figures from the Maine Department of Labor.
The company, which distributes flooring materials to contractors and retailers in the Northeast, saw a downturn in sales in the Great Recession. They’ve been growing again, Pomerleau said, with $142 million in sales this year, up about 10 percent from last year.
“We’ve got to grow every year. The pressure of a company is you must grow. You can’t stand still. Why can’t you stand still? Because (the cost of) everything goes up,” Pomerleau said.
“If I was to sell the same as last year, I’d be in trouble, because I’ve given raises, I’ve hired more people to do certain jobs expecting more business,” he added. “So the pressure is here all the time. There’s no let up.”
Pomerleau hasn’t let up either since founding the company in 1973. For his years of work in the Augusta area, Pomerleau will receive the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the chamber’s annual banquet on Jan. 24 at the Augusta Civic Center. The Kennebec Journal is a member of the chamber.
Pomerleau is a son of Frank X. Pomerleau, who ran his eponymous furniture and appliance store in Augusta for half a century before closing in 2003.
Pomerleau started working as a delivery driver for his father’s store, but later moved to the sales floor and began buying and managing merchandise. Pomerleau said he tried convincing his father, who was in his 70s at the time, to expand, but his father was content. So instead of staying with the family company, Pomerleau struck out on his own.
With the help of some inventory from the store, Pomerleau opened NRF Distributors. He started selling carpet, but the company now sells “anything that goes on a floor,” Pomerleau said. Wood and vinyl flooring have overtaken carpeting in popularity, he said.
The company began distributing only to clients in Maine, Pomerleau said. Because Augusta is centrally located in terms of population, he said he knew they would do well selling in Maine.
But when looking at a map one day, Pomerleau said he thought, since the company was already delivering products as far north as Fort Kent, why not go the same distance south? “A lot more people there,” he said.
Pomerleau said he traveled to New Hampshire and hired two salesmen on the spot to start selling there and in Massachusetts. Now the company distributes to more than 2,000 customers as far south as Pennsylvania.
Floor Covering News, a monthly industry publication, named NRF Distributors the sixth top flooring distributor in the country for projected sales in 2013.
Pomerleau said a big reason for the company’s success is the work ethic of the employees and the ability to stay ahead of the curve in terms of technology. The company developed a computerized system for inventory by the mid-1970s. Pomerleau now has four computer programmers on staff, and the company trains retailers to use iPads to check inventory levels and make orders.
He said a customer can place an order on Saturday and a truck will leave to deliver the order by Monday.
The company has about 70 salespersons all over the Northeast and about a dozen in Maine, Pomerleau said.
“The people here have a great work ethic. They care about what they do,” he said.
The company usually promotes from its own ranks, he said. For instance, the person leading the accounting department started in the mail room at the company, Pomerleau said.
“That’s what made this company, people from within,” he said.
Pomerleau is also being recognized for his charitable work. He said he supports many local causes, as well as a rural school in Brazil.
During the interview with the Kennebec Journal he received a call from someone raising money for a local family in need.
“How about $1,000, would that work?” he asked.
Pomerleau said the company supports a lot of small causes, but they don’t usually publicize what they give.
“Nobody really knows what we do, and that’s the way it should be,” he said.