Armstrong World Industries, Inc. History

Address:
313 West Liberty Street
Lancaster, Pennsylvania 17603
U.S.A.

Telephone: (717) 397-0611
Fax: (717) 396-4477

Website:
Public Company
Incorporated: 1891 as Armstrong, Brother & Company, Inc.
Employees: 10,572
Sales: $2.16 billion (1996)
Stock Exchanges: New York Philadelphia Pacific
SICs: 2891 Adhesives & Sealants; 2952 Asphalt Felts & Coatings; 3253 Ceramic Wall & Floor Tile; 3996 Linoleum, Asphalt-Feltbase & Other and Surface Floor Coverings, Not Elsewhere Classified

Company Perspectives:

We will be a fast and flexible learning organization committed to ever-improving the value of Armstrong for our employees, customers, and shareholders. We will be a world leader in all our businesses by excelling in customer satisfaction, innovation, marketing, and manufacturing. These capabilities, our people, and our commitment to quality will be our global platform for growth.

Company History:

Armstrong World Industries, Inc. is a leading international manufacturer and marketer of products used to finish interiors of homes and other buildings. Its products include floor coverings, ceilings, and adhesives. To a lesser extent the company also produces specialty products such as gaskets and insulation materials for the building, automotive, textile, and other industries. Armstrong also holds a 33 percent stake in Dal-Tile International Inc., a leading producer of ceramic tile in North America. About one-third of the company's overall sales are derived outside the United States.

Originated as Cork-Cutting Shop

In 1860 Thomas Morton Armstrong, a 24-year-old son of Scottish-Irish immigrants from Londonderry, Ireland, used $300 of savings from his job as a shipping clerk to buy a small cork-cutting shop in Pittsburgh. The firm was originally named for his partner in the venture, John O. Glass, but Glass's interest was purchased by Armstrong's brother in 1864 and the company's name was changed to Armstrong, Brother & Company.

Armstrong's original business was cutting cork stoppers, first by hand then after 1862 by machine, from the bark of cork trees which grow in Portugal, Spain, and northern Africa. During the Civil War, 1861 to 1865, the company made bottle stoppers for the Union Army and was singled out for official praise for fulfilling its contracts at the agreed prices with top-grade corks. This good publicity enabled Armstrong to land a large contract with a New York drug firm after the war, beginning the move toward national distribution of its products. In 1864 Thomas Armstrong pioneered the concept of brand-name recognition in his industry by stamping "Armstrong" on each cork and offering a written guarantee of quality with each sale.

Originally cork was purchased from American importers, but in 1878 Armstrong made arrangements to purchase, process, and ship corkwood and corks direct from Spain, thus beginning the foreign operations that eventually would make the company the largest cork processor in Spain. By the 1890s Armstrong was the world's largest cork company, employing more than 750 people, most of whom Thomas Armstrong knew by name. In 1891 the company incorporated as Armstrong, Brother & Company, Inc. and, in 1893, purchased the Lancaster Cork Works, beginning its long involvement with the Pennsylvania Dutch area. During the 1890s Armstrong expanded its cork product line to include insulation, cork-board, gaskets, and flexible coverings for machinery. In addition, foreign markets were expanded with sales offices opening in Montreal and Toronto in 1895. In that year the corporate name was changed to Armstrong Cork Company. Thomas Armstrong died in 1908 and was succeeded as president by his son, Charles Dickey Armstrong.

Expanded into Linoleum Floor Coveringin Early 20th Century

Searching for new cork-based products, the company decided to add linoleum floor covering to its line and, in 1908, the first Armstrong linoleum was produced in a new plant in Lancaster. Invented in England in 1863 by Frederick Walton, linoleum was basically a mixture of cork flour, mineral fillers, and linseed oil, which was pressed under high temperature onto burlap backing and colored with pigments. The linoleum line was the beginning of the company's involvement with floor products, which by the 1990s, in a variety of modern forms, provided about half of its sales volume.

Under Charles Armstrong's leadership the firm expanded its product lines with cork insulating board and other insulating materials, packaging closures, and gaskets, as well as linoleum and related flooring materials, becoming in the process a much more consumer-oriented company than before. He also continued his father's policy of responsibility towards his employees by initiating benefits that were rare, if not unprecedented, early in this century. In 1909 he established free dental service for employees. Other pioneering examples of corporate responsibility followed: extra pay for overtime in 1913, shop committees to communicate with management in 1919, paid vacations in 1924, and group life insurance in 1931. Armstrong was one of the first U.S. companies to provide such fringe benefits as pensions and group medical insurance. Thus Charles Armstrong's presidency expressed the company's philosophy that employees should be provided for voluntarily by industry rather than by means of government compulsion.

Charles Armstrong became chairman of the board in 1928 and the next year John J. Evans succeeded him as president. In 1934, the vice-president, Henning Webb Prentis, Jr., who was to have a great impact on the company's development, became the next president of Armstrong.

Marketing Innovations Boosted Sales in the 1910s and 1920s

Prentis had joined the firm in 1907 when, as a 23-year-old with an M.A. in economics, he took a job with Armstrong's insulation division in Pittsburgh in order to gain some practical experience before beginning a teaching career. It was a significant hiring decision. Prentis became interested in the possibilities of advertising and public relations. He wrote the first promotional literature on cork products to be published by Armstrong, including selling aids for retailers and booklets on home decoration for consumers. In 1911 he became head of the tiny advertising department and persuaded management to support a three-year, $50,000 advertising campaign. In 1917 he arranged for the company's first national advertisement in the mass media, to appear in the September 1917 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. He pioneered his industry's recruitment of college graduates as salesmen and, with Charles Armstrong's support, helped develop the strenuous training programs that enormously strengthened company management. He improved distribution practices by initiating price lists with discounts based on quantities purchased, and insisted on the establishment of close, friendly relations with wholesalers and retailers.

Thanks largely to Prentis's marketing innovations, Armstrong grew substantially during the 1920s, reaching nearly $48 million in sales by 1929, when the company moved its headquarters from Pittsburgh to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When the Great Depression cut sales in half and produced large losses by 1934, Prentis was appointed president to improve the company's situation. He diversified by purchasing rubber- and asphalt-tile factories, and in 1938 acquired two glass companies, Whitall Tatum and Hart Glass Manufacturing.

The company's personnel policies helped to maintain morale and loyalty during those hard times. One example was the research employee who was laid off because of the Great Depression but continued to come to work without pay and, eventually rehired, made significant contributions to the development of a new flooring process. With Armstrong's debt-free balance sheet, Prentis's efforts were successful. By 1935 dividends on the common stock were restored and in 1936 Armstrong had its most profitable year to that point, a stunning achievement at a time when the country was still in the grip of the Great Depression. By 1937 the common stock had climbed from a low of $3.25 in 1932 to a price of approximately $65.

In addition to improving Armstrong's profitability, Prentis became much more of a public figure than his predecessors. He spoke frequently on behalf of conservative business philosophies in opposition to the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt administration. He served as director of the United States Chamber of Commerce and as president of the National Association of Manufacturers. When World War II began, Prentis organized Armstrong's conversion to war production, including the establishment of a munitions division. In 1942 and 1943 he served as deputy director of the War Production Board for the Philadelphia region, becoming an employee of the government administration he had so frequently criticized.

Postwar Emphasis on Product Innovation

After the war, Armstrong prepared to meet the tremendous demand for building materials for new houses. Two more asphalt-tile plants, a fiberboard plant, and a bottle-closure plant were built. In addition the company expanded its industrial-adhesives business and added the production of glass bottles to its packaging division. By 1950 annual sales had climbed to $163 million, and earnings were at record levels. In that year Prentis became chairman of the board and was succeeded as president by Clifford J. Backstrand.

Backstrand's goal was to use the growth to date to increase profits. He emphasized not only marketing but also research, realizing that product innovation was essential for successful competition in the postwar period. He completed the building industry's biggest research-and-development center. To help sell products in the home-remodeling market, in 1953 Armstrong built in Lancaster an "idea house" filled with Armstrong products, to be used as a showcase for dealers and customers. Creativity within the company was encouraged by giving special recognition and awards to employees who came up with ideas for new products and new processes. During the 1950s cork was largely replaced by chemicals and synthetics as the basis of the company's products. By 1960 building materials accounted for 60 percent of sales, and industrial specialties and packaging were each 20 percent of sales. Backstrand improved the company's accounting methods for measuring the profitability of various operations, establishing the concept of return on capital employed as a gauge of achievement. In 1962 Backstrand became chairman and Maurice J. Warnock was appointed president.

By the early 1960s Armstrong had extensive foreign operations, manufacturing textile-mill supplies in India and flooring in plants in Canada, Britain, and West Germany, as well as continuing to process cork in Spain. Warnock attempted to reduce the company's strong dependency on the housing and construction markets by entering the consumer products field with a liquid wax plus detergent that cleaned and polished floors at once. Successful at first, this move to enter the supermarket-oriented consumer market eventually failed to justify its invested capital and was discontinued. Otherwise, Warnock's tenure as president was successful with new efficiencies in organization, improvement in flooring products, and continued growth in sales to $460 million in 1967. In 1966 and 1967 Armstrong entered the carpet business with the purchase of Brinton Carpets and E. & B. Carpet Mills. By the end of the 1960s, over one-third of Armstrong's sales came from products developed by the company within the previous decade. Armstrong invariably promoted from within and, in accordance with this policy, Warnock was succeeded in 1968 by a flooring executive who had spent his entire adult life with the company, James H. Binns.

Furniture Added in the Late 1960s

Binns's tenure as president from 1968 to 1978 brought significant changes in the makeup and direction of the company, based on his belief that Armstrong's future lay mainly in the interior-furnishings market, which was entering a boom period. In 1968 Armstrong acquired the furniture manufacturer Thomasville Furniture Industries and the furniture wholesaler Knapp & Tubbs, although the latter company was sold in 1972. In 1969 Binns sold the line of cleansers, waxes, and polishes to Chemway Corporation and the extensive packaging operations to Kerr Glass Manufacturing Company. The insulation-contracting business was sold to its former employees. Altogether Binns sold off businesses with about $125 million in annual sales, about one-fourth of sales volume. By the early 1970s about 90 percent of sales were concentrated in building products and home furnishings, and about 10 percent in industrial products such as gaskets and textile-mill supplies. This ratio continued into the 1990s.

In 1978 Binns became chairman of the board, and Harry A. Jensen served as president and CEO until his retirement in 1983. Through the 1970s and much of the 1980s Armstrong continued to grow in the same directions. The production of linoleum was discontinued in 1974, but the company continued to develop new types of resilient flooring, among which Solarian no-wax flooring became a well-known brand name. In 1980 the corporate name was changed to Armstrong World Industries, Inc. to reflect its growing international operations and the fact that it was no longer based on the cork business. Sales generally trended upward with some annual fluctuations due to changes in the building cycle, reaching $1 billion in 1977 and $2 billion in 1987. Earnings followed the same pattern with net income increasing from $66 million in 1979 to $187 million in 1989.

Ceramic Tile Added and Carpet Divested in the Late 1980s

Between 1983 and 1988, Joseph L. Jones served as president and chairman. His successor, William W. Adams, oversaw a series of significant events in the late 1980s. In 1988 Armstrong entered the ceramic-tile business by acquiring American Olean Tile Company from National Gypsum for $330 million, adding about $200 million to 1989 sales. In December 1989 Armstrong completed the sale of its carpet division, abandoning that business which was not producing an adequate return on investment, thus reducing annual sales by about $300 million. In addition, in 1989 the company sold Applied Color Systems, a small digital color-processing-control business.

In July 1989 Armstrong learned that the Belzberg family of Canada had acquired 9.85 percent of its stock and had announced the intention of gaining control of the company and selling its furniture and industrial products divisions. The Belzberg's stock ownership increased in 1990 to 11.7 percent. In April 1990, Senate Bill 1310 of the Pennsylvania legislature, the strongest antitakeover bill passed by any state, with support from Armstrong, became law. The bill provided for seizure of short-term profits in a failed takeover, limited voting rights of hostile shareholders, and guaranteed severance pay to employees who lost jobs because of a corporate takeover. A few days after passage of the law, the Belzbergs lost a proxy attempt at the company's annual meeting, seating only one of four candidates for directors on the board. At the end of the next month, the Belzbergs sold their Armstrong stock at a loss of about $18 million. In June 1990, Armstrong and the Belzberg affiliates resolved the remaining issues between them by withdrawing lawsuits and countersuits against each other.

Rocky Times in the 1990s

The early and mid-1990s saw the company continue to be involved in litigation relating to personal-injury suits and other claims based on asbestos-containing insulation products, a business that was sold by Armstrong in 1969. The claims were being paid by insurance income under the Wellington Agreement on asbestos-related claims. In 1988 Armstrong and 20 other companies replaced the Wellington Asbestos Claims Facility with the Center for Claims Resolution, which continued in operation through the mid-1990s. Other cases were brought by public school districts, private property owners, and others, including a lawsuit filed with the U.S. Supreme Court by 29 states. By 1994 Armstrong had recorded $198 million in liability and defense costs on its balance sheet, and estimated that it might be responsible for $245 million in additional liability by 2004.

Overall, this period was a fairly rocky one for Armstrong, punctuated with restructuring charges and divestments on the one hand and awards for quality and record sales on the other. In 1992 the company posted $165.5 million in restructuring charges, mainly to close four major manufacturing plants--two in the United States, one each in Canada and Belgium. Another $89.3 million restructuring charge was incurred the following year in relation to the elimination of hundreds of jobs. In fact, Armstrong's workforce became increasingly streamlined as the 1990s went on, with more than 6,300 fewer people employed in 1996 as in 1990. In the midst of these changes came a change in management as well, as George A. Lorch took over Adams's duties as president and CEO in September 1993 and then became chairman as well in April 1994 when Adams retired.

Momentous events proved to transform Armstrong during 1995. Although of only small financial consequence, the company's sale of its champagne cork business in Spain was important symbolically as it marked Armstrong's exit from its original business. More important was the divestment of the company's furniture business, which was struggling as a result of a long recession in the furniture market. In December Armstrong sold Thomasville Furniture to the maker of Broyhill and Lane furniture, INTERCO International Inc., for $331.2 million. Another struggling Armstrong business--its ceramic tile operations, which was beset with low-cost competitors in Spain and Italy--was also divested later that same month. In a deal with Dal-Tile International Inc., Armstrong traded $27.6 million and American Olean Tile for about a one-third stake in Dal-Tile. Also in 1995, Armstrong entered the European metal ceilings business through the acquisition of the U.K.-based Cape PLC. Finally, in October the company's Building Products Operations, after twice being named a finalist earlier in the decade, was awarded the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, an honor that highlighted Armstrong's continued commitment to making quality products.

By 1996, then, Armstrong World Industries was involved in fewer core businesses than it had been for decades but held a leading position in nearly all of them. In the building area, the company specialized in floor coverings, ceilings, and adhesives, while its industrial products were led by insulation and gasketing materials. When its numbers were adjusted to reflect only these ongoing businesses, Armstrong posted record net sales of $2.16 billion in 1996, while net earnings hit $155.9 million, an increase of 26 percent over the previous year.

Following its 1995 divestments, Armstrong concentrated on bolstering its core operations, through joint ventures, alliances, and acquisitions. It also increasingly looked outside its home country for growth opportunities. In 1996 the company completed a joint venture ceiling plant in Shanghai and entered into joint ventures in Europe for the manufacture of soft-fiber and metal ceilings. Armstrong that same year formed an alliance with the Austria-based F. Egger Co. for the manufacture of laminate flooring, a new product category for the Armstrong flooring line. In 1997 the company entered into a battle with Sommer Allibert S.A. over which company would take over Domco Inc., a Quebec-based maker of flooring products. By October, with a lawsuit between Armstrong and Sommer Allibert pending, Armstrong's proposed $354 million acquisition of Domco was approved by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Armstrong had come a long way from a one-room cork shop to its position in the late 1990s as a leader in the international home-furnishings industry with an outstanding brand-name reputation. The company was likely to continue to aggressively seek out opportunities to bolster its core businesses, both at home and abroad.

Principal Subsidiaries: Armstrong Cork Finance Corporation; Armstrong Enterprises, Inc.; Armstrong Industrial Specialties, Inc.; Armstrong Industrial Specialties International, Inc.; Armstrong Realty Group, Inc.; Armstrong Ventures, Inc.; Armstrong World Industries Asia, Inc.; Armstrong World Industries (Delaware) Inc.; Armstrong World Industries (India) Inc.; Armstrong World Industries Latin America, Inc.; A W I (Nevada), Inc.; Charleswater Products, Inc.; Chemline Industries, Inc.; IWF, Inc.; I.W. Insurance Company; The W.W. Henry Company; Alphacoustic (UK) Ltd.; Armstrong-ABC Co., Ltd. (Japan); Armstrong Architectural Products S.L. (Spain); Armstrong Building Products (U.K.); Armstrong Building Products B.V. (Netherlands); Armstrong Building Products Company (Shanghai) Ltd. (China); Armstrong Building Products G.m.b.H. (Germany); Armstrong Building Products S.A. (France); Armstrong Europa G.m.b.H. (Germany); Armstrong Europe Services (U.K.); Armstrong Floor Products Europe G.m.b.H. (Germany); Armstrong Floor Products Europe Ltd. (U.K.); Armstrong Floor Products Europe Sarl. (France); Armstrong FSC, Ltd. (Bermuda); Armstrong Industrial Specialties G.m.b.H. (Germany); Armstrong Industrial Specialties International, SARL (France); Armstrong Industrial Specialties Ltd. (U.K.); Armstrong Insulation (Panyu) Co, Ltd. (China); Armstrong Insulation Products (U.K.); Armstrong Insulation Products A.G. (Switzerland); Armstrong Insulation Products Benelux, S.A. (Belgium); Armstrong Insulation Products G.m.b.H. (Germany); Armstrong Insulation Products S.A. (Spain); Armstrong Insulation Products S.A. (France); Armstrong Insulation Products Sp. zo.o. (Poland); Armstrong Insulation Rus. (Russia); Armstrong (Japan) K.K.; Armstrong Metal Ceilings Ltd. (U.K.); Armstrong-Nyles Pty. Ltd. (Australia); Armstrong (Singapore) Pte. Ltd.; Armstrong Textile Products G.m.b.H. (Germany); Armstrong (U.K.) Investments; Armstrong World Industries-A.C.I. B.V. (Netherlands); Armstrong World Industries Canada Ltd.; Armstrong World Industries (China) Ltd.; Armstrong World Industries de Mexico, S.A. de C.V.; Armstrong World Industries do Brasil Ltda. (Brazil); Armstrong World Industries, G.m.b.H. (Germany); Armstrong World Industries (H.K.) Limited (Hong Kong); Armstrong World Industries Italia S.r.l. (Italy); Armstrong World Industries Korea, Ltd.; Armstrong World Industries Ltd. (U.K.); Armstrong World Industries Pty. Ltd. (Australia); Armstrong World Industries (Thailand) Ltd.; Inarco Limited (India; 40%); ISA Co., Ltd. (Japan; 25%); Liberty Commercial Services Ltd. (Bermuda).

Further Reading:

  • Armstrong: A Historical Summary, Lancaster, Pa.: Armstrong World Industries, Inc., 1997.
  • Carlino, Maria, "Armstrong World Industries Inc.," Journal of Commerce & Commercial, March 1, 1996, p. 5A.
  • Coleman, Lisa, "All Dressed Up," Forbes, February 3, 1992, p. 108.
  • Coletti, Richard J., "Armstrong: Calling the Belzberg Bluff," Financial World, September 19, 1989, p. 16.
  • Franklin, Barbara Hackman, "Caught in a Sea Change: Armstrong World Industries Vs. the Belzbergs; An Anatomy of an End-of-an-Era Takeover Battle," Directors & Boards, Fall 1990, p. 39.
  • Henkoff, Ronald, "Floored? You Can Come Back," Fortune, February 21, 1994, pp. 95--96.
  • Jaffe, Thomas, "The Belzbergs, Again," Forbes, September 4, 1989, p. 316.
  • Mehler, William A., Jr., Let the Buyer Have Faith: The Story of Armstrong, Lancaster, Pa.: Armstrong World Industries, Inc., 1987, 228 p.
  • Sparks, Debra, "Armstrong: Weak Legs," Financial World, October 25, 1994, p. 20.
  • Sraeel, Holly A., "Product Testing Begins at Home: Armstrong World Industries, Inc. Uses Its Own Interior Products to Define Space," Buildings, July 1988, p. 42.
  • Weston, Rusty, "Painful Re-engineering Leads to Baldrige Award for Quality," PC Week, November 6, 1995, pp. 1, 143.
  • Wickens, Barbara, "A Fight for Control," Maclean's, May 14, 1990, p. 48.
  • Zweig, Phillip, "Armstrong: Not Just a Takeover Play," Financial World, April 5, 1988, p. 21.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 22. St. James Press, 1998.