Peter and Diane Nazarenko and their poodle, Mocha, in their showroom.

Floored by the Forest

Green is way more than a color for the Nazarenkos

by Liz Schick

Peter and Diane Nazarenko are the owners of Planet Hardwood, a retail showroom and warehouse in St. George that offers flooring from certified, recycled and antique wood, and an extensive line of chemically benign building materials. Mocha is the official greeter.

Peter and Diane Nazarenko are passionate about wood. That seems clear to anyone who’s met them.

“Peter is absolutely fascinated by and committed to wood and forest products from all over the world,” says Milford Cushman, principal of Cushman Design Group in Stowe. “He is encyclopedic in his knowledge about wood and is such an advocate for its use as a renewable resource that I have a great deal of respect for him.”

As the owners of Planet Hardwood in St. George, the Nazarenkos are in the wood flooring business. Without question, Peter is quite knowledgeable. Not only can he impart detailed information about species from all over the world, but he also knows where and how the wood is grown and forested, milled and cared for, transported and sold. His passion isn’t just for selling wood. It lies in educating everybody about the vital importance of ecological responsibility for this most valuable renewable resource.  

Before discussing the business he and his wife, Diane, own, he is eager to explain why Planet Hardwood exists and is being run as it is: first as an environmentally sound resource for certified and recycled and antique wood; and second, as a one-stop resource for green solutions for architects, builders and consumers. 

“Plantation forestry is a complicated, dynamic issue,” Peter says. “It goes back to the 1980s, when we first became aware of how developers were destroying the world’s rain forests. The Forest Stewardship Council became the certifier of certifiers, setting the worldwide ground rules for what should be done, what organizations should monitor, and how to make sure certification policies are followed.” 

One such certifier is the Rainforest Alliance’s Smartwood Program, with headquarters in Richmond. The Rainforest Alliance does the field work, making sure harvesters, mills and other middlemen are doing what they should, keeping the best interests of the forest, woods and the planet in the forefront of the process of bringing wood to the public. 

Peter has been active in the FSC since its beginning. Besides setting the standard for what constitutes responsible timber culture, it has a strict chain-of-custody procedure that follows the wood from the forest through to the end-user, regardless of how many hands touch the wood. Planet Hardwood has that certification and, Peter says, “by agreeing to it, we are constrained to be politically correct.” 

The company also works with another nonprofit certified-certifier, the Vermont Family Forest in Bristol. As part of promoting responsible property management, Vermont Family Forest’s extraction policies include an aesthetic component. 

“When VFF looks at which trees to harvest,” Diane explains, “they go above and beyond the Forest Stewardship Council’s certification requirements, in that they want the forest to still appear beautiful.”

Having found this aesthetic requirement attractive, Peter has committed to taking the organization’s logs and producing flooring from them. He notes proudly, “We stock more FSC-certified flooring than anyplace in Vermont and possibly in all of New England, and we sell more recycled and antique wood than anybody in the state.”

Paul Farrel driving a forklift in the warehouse.Moving to St. George two years ago gave the Nazarenkos 6,000 square feet of showroom and 12,000 square feet of warehouse. Paul Farrell is the warehouse manager.

Peter knows the ins and outs of wood flooring and forest products intimately thanks to a career in the industry. He found his career through a serendipitous debacle, not of his own making. He was eight months from graduating with a degree in architecture from City College of New York in Manhattan when the city went bankrupt. As a cost-cutting device, CCNY took away all its majors except for city planning, says Diane, “and Peter was never planning to stay in a city. He was very disappointed.”

He had met Diane through a friend of hers. They had been dating, “but not seriously,” Diane recalls, when Peter invited her to come with him to Vermont.

So it was that on the weekend of her 23rd birthday, on a cold day in January 1976, they traveled to Vermont on a bus. “I figured it would be an adventure,” says Diane. “I thought we’d have some fun in the snow and come back to New York in the spring. 

“We stayed in Vermont and we stayed together, and after a few years we had Damon. A couple of years after that we bought a house, and when Damon was 4, we got married. We never celebrate our wedding anniversary, though, because we always think that moving to Vermont was our beginning.”

After a short stint in construction, Peter began selling for Depot Woodworking on Pine Street in Burlington. After several years, the owner closed that business and moved to Pennsylvania, and Peter took a job with Huttig USA, a window and door company, as an architectural rep. Eventually, he heard again from the former owner of Depot Woodworking. He had opened a company called International Hardwood Flooring in Pennsylvania and offered Peter a job as vice president of sales.

Peter traveled around the world, maintaining quality control and developing products. He was responsible for obtaining the first FSC-certified engineered tropical floor through the Smartwood program, as well as the first reclaimed wood floor. 

In 1997, he and Diane launched Ligna USA to take on a line of tropical engineered flooring called Terra, which Peter had developed with his boss at IHF. It was made at a mill in Mexico. They ran the company from their home; Diane covered the home front, and Peter called on customers around the country and oversaw production in Mexico. 

“Then,” says Diane, “the owner of the Mexican mill shut it down, so we went out of business overnight.” 

They spent the next year and a half exploring other options. One was an idea for painted flooring, “a country look,” says Diane, in which they invested money. Unfortunately, they were never able to get the chemistry of the paint and the topcoat to work together well enough to make the finish last.

Peter was tired of traveling and thought about opening a retail business. “I had been in probably a thousand retail showrooms throughout Europe and North America,” he says, “and realized there was a better way to show consumers wood flooring than the industry standard, which was a 2-foot-square panel on a board you could take home, like a carpet swatch. I knew I could do it better.”

Carrie DeBisschop stands in front of a display of paint colors.The plan is for Planet Hardwood to become a full-service green building store. Carrie DeBisschop is the office manager.

Peter proposed that they open a retail showroom. They put together 10 of their 20-square-foot flooring panels and obtained a last-minute slot at the Vermont Home and Garden Show at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds. “We were out in a tent, freezing cold, rain was coming in, but people’s reactions to the floor were so positive once they talked to Pete and heard what he knows,” says Diane. 

They rented space in Hillside Park in Winooski and put eight of the panels in there. Peter started building panels, Diane ran the sales desk and worked with customers. “He did the purchasing, all the grunting and delivering,” she says.

They were there about two years, and would have stayed longer, but they needed more room. In March 2005, they moved to St. George, where they have a 6,000-square-foot showroom and 12,000 square feet of warehouse. This space allows them room to carry wood from some 35 individual mills plus a large stock of recycled and antique wood, and still have room to present a selection of green products, which is Diane’s passion. 

“We have more than 250 of those 20-square-foot panels on display,” says Peter, “with each species of wood displayed by grades so customers can see exactly what they will be getting.”

The Nazarenkos have been “living the green life” at home, too, since they bought their house in North Ferrisburgh, says Diane. “In 1979, Peter ripped the front of the house off and built a passive solar greenhouse. Green is our shared passion.” 

The Nazarenkos’ plan is to become a full-service green building store. They carry an extensive line of chemically benign materials — paint, cleaners, polyurethane and penetrating oils for wood, and countertops, cork and Marmoleum recycled rubber flooring — and are investigating products from solar panels to dual flush toilets and water systems. 

 “Our aim is to make Planet Hardwood the one-stop shop where the green builders can come find products they otherwise would have to search out or buy online,” says Peter. Eventually, they hope to replicate the business model outside of Vermont.

At the end of last year, for the first time, the company had turned a profit. “We’ve been running lean and mean and keeping the money in the business, so we have a big investment in antique flooring inventory,” Diane says. “In addition to our first employee — our standard poodle, Mocha, our greeter and baby-licker who works for biscuits — we’ve been able to elevate Carrie DeBisschop to full-time bookkeeper and showroom salesperson from a part-time employee.” 

Five months ago, Paul Farrell came on board as operations manager, to join warehouse, delivery, driver and general helper Ian Nye. Although the Nazarenkos’ son, Damon, doesn’t work for Planet Hardwood, his IT company, Cybertribe of Vermont, has been hired to produce a new website for the company.

Farrell recently returned from making a three-ton delivery of wood flooring to the Northeast Kingdom. He started the day at 5:30 a.m. and, because the job site was a mud bog, had to offload it into the contractor’s small truck. Although exhausted, he says, “I’ve had a lot of jobs in my time, but this is definitely one of the nicest. I really like working for Peter and Diane. They are very easygoing and,” he says laughing. “I haven’t found a bad side of them yet.” 

Diane maintains that right now there is no a life outside the showroom. “At least we are here now only six days a week, because I was able to convince Peter to close on Sunday.”

It doesn’t take Kermit the Frog to know it’s not easy being green. •