When he was in college studying to be an engineer, Brian Carson’s summer job was working in New York for his family’s construction company.
That’s when he first heard of Lancaster-based Armstrong World Industries, which at the time made pipe insulation he used when helping to install new heating and cooling systems.
That early experience with Armstrong made Lancaster a logical destination for a first job in 1990 after Carson graduated with degrees from New York University and St. John’s University.
“I was young and just got married. New York was expensive for an engineer to make a living and Lancaster seemed like a wonderful place, and we moved here.”
At Armstrong, he spent 16 years in operational leadership roles at Armstrong World Industries, including as senior vice president of North American resilient and hardwood flooring.
“I think Armstrong was a wonderful company to come up through because it created those opportunities for people to learn and contribute,” he said.
Carson eventually left in 2006 for an opportunity to join Mohawk Flooring, an Atlanta-based manufacturer of carpet, wood, vinyl, tile and rugs.
But now he’s back.
And while he is again working on the Armstrong World campus on Columbia Avenue, he won’t be staying.
Carson returned to Lancaster to become president and chief executive officer of AHF Products, once the hardwood business of Armstrong World, and most recently part of Armstrong World spinoff Armstrong Flooring.
The hardwood business got a new owner, American Industrial Partners, and the new name at year end. It will soon get a new headquarters near Mountville.
“We’re our own deal. We’re in the process of separating, so we’ll be off this campus in July,” he says.
Along with the new ownership and new location, Carson said the company has a renewed energy to expand the business, which now has 1,780 employees and annual revenues of $390 million.
“They bought the business to grow it, and I came here to grow the business,” he says. “I would expect that we’d be three or four times bigger five to 10 years from now than we are today.”
Ready to grow
At the new headquarters in a 43,000-square foot building at 3840 Hempland Road, Carson said he expects to have more than 120 employees by the end of the year, compared to more than 70 now working in Lancaster.
American Industrial Partners, a private equity firm that bought the business for $100 million in December, is also pushing for growth in other areas.
The company has an agreement to buy LM Flooring, a Texas-based hardwood flooring maker that serves customers in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific and has a plant in Cambodia where plans are already underway for an expansion.
Carson said LM Flooring’s specialty in wide width, long length, sliced, sawn and textured products aligns with current customer tastes.
AHF Products, which has six U.S. plants, manufactures solid and engineered hardwood flooring including brand names such as Armstrong, Bruce, Capella, Homerwood, Robbins and T. Morton.
In addition to retooling more of its domestic plants to make products that suit customer tastes, Carson said the company has come up with a way to make wood not just water resistant, but actually waterproof, opening up new possible uses.
Carson says his optimism about the new company’s prospects is rooted in his belief that deep down, customers really want what it’s selling.
“People generally either want real wood or real stone in their house. Everything else they put in their house is some form of settling off of the real deal,” he says. “Why do folks settle for the imitations when they can have the real deal?”
A return to home
As he returns to Lancaster County after 13 years, Carson said he’s noticed a lot of positive changes.
“The area has grown quite a bit. The industry, manufacturing and the economy is more diversified than when I left,” he said.
The 54-year-old Carson, who lived in the Landisville area the first time around, will be moving to Lititz, taking a condominium in The Wilbur, a commercial and residential project in part of the former Wilbur Chocolate factory.
Carson said the changes around Lititz and in Lancaster city with downtown restaurants are appealing on a personal level as well as on a professional level, since he will need to recruit employees to work and live here.
“Lancaster was a great place to raise a family — that’s where our kids were raised. But Lancaster, I think, is an easier place to attract people than it was 15 years ago,” he said.