One-to-One: Heidi Martin, United Tile

Heidi Martin, United Tile

For over 50 years United Tile, a leading distributor in the Pacific Northwest, has offered the most comprehensive and creative selection of tile stone and glass products to its customers. With showrooms in major markets in Seattle, Portland and Spokane, United Tile is focused on serving the needs of designers, architects, builders, retailers, and contractors. It was recently named best professional design center by the Home Builders Association of Portland.

Heidi Martin, United Tile President, has been a leading voice representing distribution for several years through her involvement in the Ceramic Tile Distributors Association (CTDA). We asked her to share with us her perspective on many topics, ranging from strategic decisions or changes that needed to be made due to COVID-19, to the importance of involvement in industry affiliations and associations.  

Can you share with us a little bit of history on how United Tile came to be a leading distributor in the Pacific Northwest, explain your role in the company, and tell what a typical day looks like for you?

Fostering camaraderie among employees with a pre-COVID wine and cheese night at United Tile.

United Tile is a family-owned business, purchased by Ken Wiedemann in 1991. For over 25 years, we were blessed with fantastic leadership from our management team of Ken, Ron Cook and Bob Hart. I was fortunate to learn from men who truly care about our employees and our customers. Their passion for this industry is contagious.  

Our goal has always been to be the best source for tile and hardwood in the Northwest. To achieve this, we have focused on providing excellent products and service at a fair price. We place a high value on our relationships with our customers and suppliers. This has proven invaluable during good times – and tough times.

I was named President of United Tile in March of 2019. I’m not sure there is a typical day for me – which is part of what I love about this job. I’ve been with United Tile for almost 25 years and I still learn something daily. 

I’m an early riser, usually up by 5:00 am. I like to get a workout in and get to the office with a clear head and a full cup of coffee. On any given day, I will meet with our different department managers, consider sales strategies, catch up on customer accounts, meet with vendor reps, review marketing direction, connect with other distributor leaders, and anything else that comes up. I enjoy meeting with our customers, so I can better understand their needs and how we can help them grow – but that has been more difficult during the pandemic the past five months.

What decisions or changes did you have to implement in your company as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? Since distributors grow their business by working directly with consumers, designers, specifiers, architects and contractors, what measures did you take to continue in these relationships? How has this impacted your business and what do you think your business model will look like in the future as the situation comes somewhat under control?

Our first goal was to create a safe environment for our employees. We took the same steps I’m sure everyone else did, including hanging signs to encourage hand washing, social distancing, and staying home when not feeling well. We set up most of our employees to work remotely. We limited interactions and overcrowding by having our showrooms open by appointment only. We set up curbside pickup as an option for orders. Most of our customer service representatives are remote, but those who are in the office have protective partitions, and we require masks to be worn in our facilities.

As far as our sales focus, we are listening and learning from our customers to better meet their needs. We often use the term “fluid” around here, as we realize the situation is changing and we need to adapt accordingly. We have used technology to create a library of presentations for whenever our customers are ready. We continue to produce relevant social media content to keep them informed of products and trends. We are making sure we are respectful of our customers’ limited time and interaction preferences. Many of our customers are working remotely and do not have access to the resources they may have previously used, so we are helping to bridge that gap. We keep our products and price lists updated for them. We provide extra samples or product information as needed by customers. We want to ensure that we are easy to do business with – especially during these difficult times.

We believe that technology will play a much larger role in the future of our industry. We have been relying heavily on video conferencing to keep in touch with remote employees as well as customers. It is critical that information is easily accessible, so updating our website has become a high priority. But knowing that our industry is driven by a combination of great people and creative products, we hope to see the return of more face-to-face meetings when this pandemic ends.

How has your involvement in the CTDA and the industry benefitted you individually and as a leader in your company?

CTDA has been a wonderful organization to be a part of. I have served on their Board of Directors since 2012 and have benefitted greatly from the connections I’ve made. CTDA connects, educates and strengthens tile and stone distributors. They have been extremely helpful in navigating many situations, including the Chinese duty and tariffs, as well as the Coronavirus pandemic. Every fall they co-host Total Solutions Plus, a wonderful event that brings contractors and distributors together each year to make our industry better. I always learn from that experience and return with new ideas to share with our staff. I am very grateful for the friendships with other distributor leaders I have made through CTDA. They make this industry enjoyable and are a great source for business advice when needed. 

As a leading provider of ceramic tile and natural stone tile, among other products, what are the things you look for when selecting manufacturing partners? Did the tariff increases and countervailing duties assessments on Chinese tile manufacturers help you or hurt you, and what decisions did you make as a result of this news?

A pre-COVID Trade Night at United Tile.

First and foremost, we select suppliers that make great products and are reliable. We are fortunate to be paired with some of the best manufacturers in the industry. 

While the low-end market has never been our main focus, we were doing some business with China and were affected by the tariff increases and countervailing duties. Luckily, we were not too heavily invested in that market, and we were able to find alternative sources for that product category. 

On the other hand, we are also happy that the ruling strengthened the position of our domestic suppliers. They have always been critical to our success, but perhaps more now than ever. Many of our projects require readily-available products, an opportunity that is enhanced through our domestic partners.

NTCA, like other companies or associations, met and decided to make quick changes to its strategic planning, creating a pivot plan to quickly react to the extraordinary times in which we find ourselves. What changes to your planning, if any, did United Tile make in order to continue to thrive as a leader in your industry in your area?

We had to get creative quickly, since our territory included one of few states where construction was deemed “non-essential” and shut down for a period of time. We used that down time to tackle some long-term projects that will help us operate more efficiently and provide better resources to our customers. Those projects included creating a new website (due to launch early fall), setting up bar coding for all our samples, conducting a full inventory in our warehouses, and creating numerous presentations for customers. We also used this time to stay on top of the commercial projects in our pipeline. While there are many challenges because of this pandemic, there are also many opportunities. We have to be adaptable, and willing to work harder and smarter to keep up with the changing environment. Fortunately, we have an incredible team here at United Tile and we are up for the challenge!

Dave Gobis, part 2 Industry icon and NTCA Recognized Consultant

The first part of this One-to-One that NTCA Executive Director Bart Bettiga conducted with industry legend and NTCA Recognized Consultant Dave Gobis was published in the August issue of TileLetter. Find it in that issue or online at tileletter.com.

Headshot of Dave Gobis
Dave Gobis

What was the most challenging project you ever got involved in as a consultant and how were you able to help solve the problem?

There is a bunch of them. I have lots of stories.

For instance, there was a big mall project with four colors of porcelain tile installed on the first and second level over a membrane. A large number of beige porcelain tiles were cracked on the second floor, very few on the first. The other three colors were fine on both floors. Uniformly, thinset coverage was less than ideal, but I’ve seen worse. It could have used more soft joints.

What happened? Beige through-body porcelain is less homogenous after firing due to the mineral make up of the body. It had a lower breaking strength and flexural value than the other products. The mall had no restrictions on wheel load over the floor, i.e. pallet jacks and cherry pickers. The compression of the membrane was technically ok. But keep in mind, standards are minimum performance values. They were not written with loaded pallets in mind. 

They fought me on my opinion. In my report, I offered to substantiate my opinion using Scanning Electron Microscopy (for a rather large fee) to provide a visual on my assertion. They paid, opinion confirmed. They decided to keep patching and use plywood under lifts in the future.

What are the most common trends you see related to installation that you get called on that could have been avoided?

#1 Grout and grout haze. Grout complaints have increased quite a bit with the popularity of single-component products and epoxy.

#2 Lippage. Nobody likes floor prep. Nobody likes to check the tile before they install it. Very few people measure lippage properly. 

#3 Leaky showers. Where do you even start?

#4 Google University. Between groups, podcasts, and YouTube, the number of experts is almost as numerous as the labor force itself. I had to leave most groups because the misinformation out there is so rampant. It seems most can’t read and feel manufacturers are part of some subversive group.

You have a long history of working closely with the Tile Council of North America (TCNA). You were the Executive Director of the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) for 10 years, and you were a Regional Director for the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA). What value do you think these organizations bring to the tile industry and what would you tell a tile contractor about joining NTCA and getting involved and active in their industry?

It is interesting to reflect back on my career. I hauled mud buckets – once my legs were long enough – where the bucket didn’t hit the ground. I learned to mud in rural South Georgia where farmhouses were built out of shipping crates – lots of memories. I went to trade school for apprenticeship in Jacksonville, Fla., which was closer than Atlanta. When my grandfather, Ralph Mayfield, retired from the contracting business, I moved back up north to Wisconsin with my family and went out on my own. I have always been eager to learn and always wanted to know why something worked. Initially, that was not a profitable attitude in the contracting world but it did prove to be the key to longevity. 

Dave Gobis was the first Executive Director for the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF), a position he held for 10 years.

I sold the business because I was worn out. I couldn’t find help, and we reached a plateau, hovering there three years. It was a good sale and left me with the ability to do as I pleased. Because of my involvement in technical meetings and representing contractors for NTCA at the then-TCA Handbook Committee, Bob Daniels at TCNA reached out to see if I was interested in running CTEF. The focus of CTEF at that time was to be training, something near and dear to my heart. I agreed to accept the position. As an industry organization, that also included a seat on various standards committees. At the time, CTEF was located in the TCNA building where the lab is now. That led to a very close relationship with TCNA staff. Curiously, at the time, I was the only person who ever installed tile at TCNA, even finished up some work at the building, which was new. Over the years whenever installation questions would come in they would go to me. If I didn’t know the requirement for a standard, the Secretariat of Standards was right down the hall. The location of CTEF also afforded me the opportunity to work closely with the TCNA Performance Testing Lab and observe countless performance tests over the years. It was enlightening to say the least. When I retired from CTEF I agreed to continue taking second tier installation calls on a gratis basis, a relationship that still exists. 

In summary, we certainly have the need for some inspectors and/or consultants. There is a growing void. It is not a get-rich-quick scheme; you will make more as a good tile guy or sales rep. If you are a good tile guy or sales rep you’re the one we want. Consider your marketing area, where will the clients come from? What does your fee structure look like? It takes knowledge, lots of knowledge. If your experience revolves around sales seminars and you have never attended a technical meeting, you need not apply. If you are not actively involved in the industry, it will be an uphill battle you may or may not win. I can positively assure you had I not been involved in NTCA, CTIOA, TCNA, attended Surfaces, Coverings, and other tile shows (not seminars), I would not be here. You need to be able to draft a properly-worded, cohesive report on tile problems. Most of my reports are six to 10 photos buried in 1,500 to 2,000 words of text. While your client may love it, your report will be scrutinized fully by the opposing side. You need thick skin, especially if you go legal. The other side’s job and/or their attorney are to discredit you. There are many nuances to this type of work. I continue to do it because I find it stimulating. 

One-to-one exclusive with Dave Gobis, Part I

Industry icon and NTCA Recognized Consultant

Headshot of Dave Gobis
Dave Gobis

As a leading trade association of tile installation contractors, the NTCA is constantly asked for recommendations for individuals who are qualified to perform inspections of workmanship and performance. The list of who we can consistently rely on for this work is very select. NTCA Recognized Consultants can be found on our website at www.tile-assn.com. They possess a unique skill set that takes years to develop, especially if they are to be trusted for complex and large-scale projects. 

One such individual is Dave Gobis. Dave is the former Executive Director of the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation and was a successful tile contractor in Wisconsin for many years before becoming one of the tile industry’s leading consultants. He also generously donates his time to offer advice to many consumers and industry professionals. Many excellent consultants like Dave are nearing the end of their careers in this important sector of our industry, so I caught up with him to gain insight into considerations and training one should take if they wish to venture into this area of work. Part I of our interview is presented here; Part II will be published in the September issue of TileLetter.

As a former tile contractor, how did you transition into consulting work? What specific skills did you have that qualified you to become a consultant, and what steps did you take to educate yourself about codes, standards, proper inspection reporting, and writing, etc.?

Given I am in the process of retiring and not actively looking for work, I am going to be a little more candid in my response than I would normally be.

Photo of Dave Gobis
Gobis was a successful tile contractor for many years and member of the NTCA Board of Directors before working for the CTEF and then venturing into consulting.

I would ask that readers consider my comments not offered as a road map, but rather how things worked for me. I have always been a technically-oriented guy. Early on, I even lost accounts because I was “too difficult” to deal with. One of the ironies of that was years later, as my competitors bit the dust, I didn’t appear so difficult. 

I have always been a voracious reader and always wanted to know why something did or didn’t work. In the mid-80s, I joined NTCA and was an active member, attending all the shows and blocking out time for back-to-back technical seminars on the front end of the show. NTCA and trade shows also allowed me to meet and interact with all the industry players. Relationships I developed years ago are still active today and have always served as a resource over the length of my career. 

Learning codes and standards are a bit of a challenge. You have to endure some very dry reading and learn how to deal with frustration. You also need to understand them. I personally read each industry-related code or standard a minimum of two – and occasionally three – times. I have had to refer to TCNA methods or ANSI standards since taking a job at CTEF in 1998, so after 22 years of near-daily referencing methods and standards, I know what they are and where I can find what I am looking for most of the time. Plus, the benefit of serving on various committees is that I get a chance to review and sometimes vote on changes. 

In terms of proper inspection, that is certainly a quagmire. If someone hires me to look at a job and figure out a problem, I absolutely have to be able to do what it takes to determine a cause beyond a reasonable doubt. This often means deconstructing the installation. 

For instance, in my most recent project, the client said a liquid-applied crack-isolation membrane was used over concrete and the floor tented in various areas. We can assume there is a lack of expansion joints, but there has to be something else. As long as I have been doing complaints I have never seen a floor fail based on a single issue. 

My client was averse to doing any demo. The manufacturer already denied the claim based solely on no soft joints. I’m not willing to risk my reputation on that speculation. They relented and gave me three areas to remove tile, which showed a silky smooth slab. 

End of search? Not quite. It was also very green and the drops I put on from my water bottle went nowhere. Then we had to core the slab. Analysis of three cores showed the slab was burnished to an average of 3/16” deep. That is what it took to figure out the problem. Something like coring the slab I hire out, though I used to have a core drill In addition to regular old tile tools. I have a fair amount of additional specialized equipment I use in failure analysis. I want to use the least intrusive means to fully examine the installation, but it must be thoroughly examined. If you make an incorrect diagnosis, your future is not so bright. News travels fast. 

I have yet to meet anyone who likes inspection report writing. I spent years developing my format. Writing is an art form in itself. You become a content writer. Like a good novel, readers hang on your every word. There will be those who love it and those who hate it. 

Photo of floor tile installation in a bathrooom
Successful tile consultants like Dave Gobis work tirelessly to determine the cause of the problem and to develop a strategy for remediation.

Reports must be accurate and without speculation. When speculation is unavoidable – which is rare – the steps needed to resolve it, as a matter of fact, should be explained. There are many things we may think we know but don’t have facts to support them. There is usually some type of test that can provide facts to support your opinion, however, in some instances, the testing protocol can cost more than the claim. Still, it should be offered in the report if you are speculating based on your experience. 

You also need to keep away from assigning responsibility, which is for judges and juries. It can also create a liability issue for you if you end up being wrong. Your job is to either find or identify the cause of the problem, not to assign responsibility for it. That said, the majority of my clients want me to do just that, and I simply won’t. The specifics of the report writing process are quite lengthy. It is more than a short article but probably less than a book. Just remember, whatever you write is a matter of permanent record. If it goes into litigation, any errors will be used to discredit you, making the report worthless to your client and possibly producing a negative result.

We have many installers and manufacturer and distributor representatives who aspire to be inspectors or consultants. What advice would you give them as they get started?

You really need to be the go-to guy before you start, not after you start. It is not an occupation where you just decide this is what I shall be and hang out your shingle. It is also not one full of riches, as many are surprised to find out. This is particularly true when you start out with no track record. I am currently charging five times what I was when I started, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I have a track record, having done 2,864 inspections. Second, I am trying to retire; otherwise, it would only be four times as much. 

Photo of Dave Gobis receiving an award
Dave Gobis has received numerous awards for career achievement, including the TCNA Tile Person of the Year in 2015 and the NTCA Joe A. Tarver Award in 2009.

You have to like flying. I have done probably fewer than 12 inspections in my home state. For the first 10 years, I flew to a different city every week, did my inspection, came back and wrote my report, and moved on to the next one. 

The other consideration is: what is it you think you know better than anyone else? You need to have some type of knowledge that sets you apart. Anyone can be the “doesn’t-have-any-expansion-joint guy.” That doesn’t pay much either. 

Where are you going to sell your services? Because you and the manufacturer are buddies does not mean he is going to send you his work. Manufacturers are not going to allow you to control their customer or budget. I have heard more than once, “We don’t call you because we can’t predict what you’re going to say.” Manufacturers will also not open the door to finding they have a defective product, which is rare, by the way. 

Distributors operate on razor-thin margins, which they make by associating with a select group of manufacturers, so not much chance of work there either. The only time either one has given me work is when they are ready to “burn the bridge.” That means they are prepared to lose the business typically from a contractor, who is about to find out that liability insurance doesn’t cover in-place work. 

The other thing that amazes me about people wanting to get into inspecting or consulting is that many have never been involved in any technical aspects of the industry. Recently, I had a project where the guy’s qualifications were attending Schluter, wedi, and MAPEI schools. It’s great to know how to install these products, but it takes more than that. Inspection and consulting really need to be career goals, not something you just one day decide you want to be.

Join us next month for Part II of One-to-One with Dave Gobis.

One-to-One with Crossville Inc.

Mark Shannon and Noah Chitty

Crossville Incorporated is a leading manufacturer of porcelain ceramic tile located in the heart of Tennessee. In recent years, it has expanded its operations by acquiring and opening strategic distribution locations, to support markets where traditional distribution channels were not their best option.

Crossville has a proven track record of producing quality tile and supports the industry in numerous ways. As active members of the NTCA, CTDA and TCNA, among others, Crossville leaders work closely with association staffs and volunteers in standards development and in promoting and developing training, education and certification programs. 

As a proud sponsor of the NTCA Five-Star Contractor Program, Crossville worked closely with director Amber Fox to reach out to our members during the COVID-19 pandemic to initiate best practices discussions on a number of topics. Mark Shannon is the Executive Vice President of Sales for Crossville, and recently was named Chairman of the Board for the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF). Noah Chitty is the Director of Technical Services and was recently appointed as Chairman of the ISO TC-189 Committee, the international development body for global standards related to ceramic tile and affiliated materials. 

I was able to sit down with these two dynamic leaders to gain some insight on many issues. The first bank of questions is directed to Mark Shannon, followed by questions for Noah Chitty. 

The coronavirus pandemic has radically impacted all of our lives. How has it affected Crossville as it relates to effectively communicating and interfacing with your customers? What steps have you taken to reach out to them and have there been any positives you can take out of this challenging situation?

Mark Shannon

Mark Shannon: COVID-19 has challenged us all on every level, first and foremost, in keeping our people and their families safe while ensuring the enterprise continues to move forward. We have adopted a very vigorous digital platform for our sales team, one that is filled with new content that targets key stakeholders in the construction pipeline: architects, designers, contractors, and our distributors. We are all becoming experts on Zoom and Webex. This content is being delivered in a regular cadence that respects the customers’ work-from-home challenges. 

We are also reaching out through our Technical Services Team to provide training on industry updates on standards, the TCNA Handbook for installation, and CEUs. Our team has been reaching out to contractors, particularly residential and commercial NTCA Five-Star contractors – to check in and stay in touch. These calls are to see if there are opportunities where the pandemic has impacted their business, and if there are industry best practices we can share such as sourcing PPE and PPP challenges. The good that is coming out of this is the opportunity to connect with our friends who we do not get to see due to the travel restrictions, and letting us all continue to show support for the industry and people we all love.

The recent news that the Department of Commerce has affirmed a final ruling on anti dumping and countervailing subsidies related to Chinese imports to the U.S., is creating an opportunity for manufacturers to take advantage of the tariffs and duties on these products and replace the gap left by them. What is Crossville doing to take advantage of this opportunity?

Mark Shannon: The recent rulings by the Commerce Department and the ITC have created a window of opportunity. There are projects that the domestic manufacturers can supply to fill the gap. More importantly, the decisions were fairly clear that damage had been done to the coalition partners. There will be other offshore supply chains that will also step in to fill some of the voids, but not all.

We are focusing on our customers to offer solutions that support the domestic customer base with inventory and manufacturing flexibility to meet these needs.

More than ever before, consumers, designers and specifiers will look to products that are environmentally friendly and easy to clean and sanitize. How will Crossville market this and do you have products available or in development that can meet this need?

Mark Shannon: We are currently working on our messaging for porcelain tile from the durability and ease-of-maintenance perspective. We all know porcelain tile is impervious and easy to clean. The inherent properties of the product in a well-installed system make for a perfect surface due to the ability to withstand any necessary cleaning and sanitizing materials or methods. This product offers cleaning solutions that other surfacing products do not. There are a number of products that we make with our Cross-Sheen surface – which imparts a subtle glow that enhances the color of the tile and allows graffiti, stains and scuff marks to be easily wiped off the surface – that go above and beyond when it comes to maintenance. 

As the newly-appointed Chairman of the ISO Committee, what are your plans moving forward to lead an international group of volunteers in a collaborative process, especially as it is now affected by challenges related to travel with the COVID-19 situation? How do you plan on working through this, and what are your next steps?

Noah Chitty

Noah Chitty: Well, I was just getting my feet wet when COVID first started to spread. The meeting in Berlin in November 2019 was my first as Chairman. Of course, I would have preferred to figure out how to be a good leader in a non-pandemic time, but that matters little now. So far, we have moved our end-of-July meeting in Indonesia to December and we are just waiting to see if that will be possible; we hope so.

One of our biggest hurdles seems to be that we have too many projects that get started, but then there is a struggle to get them completed. The ISO timelines are pretty strict. So, I hope to be able to add some additional focus to the working groups and really concentrate on the most important things and get them done before adding new priorities to the list. Also, if necessary for the near future, we may need to figure out how to do this virtually. It will be tough to get representatives from 30 or so countries together virtually at the same time, both from a technology and time zone standpoint. For now, there are countries still struggling and we don’t intend to put anything additional on their plate, but hopefully as we get into summer we can start to move things ahead.

What are the main objectives or goals you have established that you feel ISO can accomplish in the next year and beyond as it relates to tile manufacturing standards?  How does installation factor into this, if at all?

Noah Chitty: We have 11 working groups that span a broad array of issues related to the tile industry. From COF, membranes, large thin panels, to sustainability and more – we have much going on. I would hope this next year we move the ball on the thin panel information; I would like to see that progress. But, all of the working groups have active projects, so things will have to be accomplished or they will have to make the case to the committee as to why they deserve a new time clock.

For manufacturing standards, the ISO and our ANSI A137.1 are pretty well harmonized, so we are continuing that effort of harmonization and also looking to see if there is any interest in moving more towards ISO for any of this work.

There is an installation working group, WG6. So far they have produced two technical reports and are now working on one about mechanically-fastened exterior tile work. Traditionally, due to the wide range of construction practices around the world, ISO has not had a huge push on the installation standard front. I’d like to explore this more and see if there are in fact some opportunities where we could collaborate as a committee.      

Crossville has been at the forefront of leadership when it comes to the development of training and education programs for their products. How do you see this evolving in today’s environment and what are you doing to plan for this?

Noah Chitty: This is still a main focus for our team and we don’t plan to let it become less of a priority. But what the future brings is still something to be seen. We are holding – for now – the belief that hands-on training can’t be replaced by videos and virtual meetings. But we are talking about it regularly, and I have spoken with our setting-material manufacturer partners. We are all trying to figure it out with as much of a crystal ball as we can right now. We very much hope the NTCA programs will continue eventually. Our plan for porcelain panel training is to continue to work with NTCA and our setting-material partners to further these training initiatives. We are also trying to figure out how we can bring new-found use of virtual technologies to create things we have not done before, and can bring value to our customers and the industry.

Ron Nash, LATICRETE International

In the One-to-One column, NTCA Executive Director Bart Bettiga interviews industry leaders about pertinent topics.

Ron Nash, LATICRETE International Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing North America

One thing that I have learned the hard way over the years is not just to expect change, but to prepare for it and embrace it. Suffice to say, no one could have prepared for the events that have taken place in this country and our world in the past several months. The impact of COVID-19 is being felt by everyone in all areas of the world.

The tile industry is no different, and it is difficult to try to deal with everything associated with the vast changes happening in our personal and professional lives. Tile contractors are faced with trying to navigate the impact the crisis is having on their businesses, trying to finish and complete projects in a safe and healthy manner, and protecting their families at home. 

When times get challenging, leaders rise to the occasion. In my opinion, Ron Nash, LATICRETE International Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing North America, is an example of a leader who is embracing the changes around us, and reaching out to communicate and share with contractors around the country. Ron is an active and consistent presence on social media, and despite the challenges he faces leading a large installation materials company and raising a family, he always seems to have time to answer questions from tile contractors, and often initiates and engages them in thought-provoking conversations. For this reason, I chose Ron as our One-to-One interview this month. 

The coronavirus pandemic caught all of us off guard with the short and long term impact it is having on our world. What steps have you and your team taken to support the tile industry through this very difficult time, and how are you positioning yourselves to be prepared for the opportunities that will be open to you once we begin to regain a sense of normalcy?

In this time of uncertainty, it’s essential to communicate via multiple channels. 

To join forces and keep us all informed about what other tile industry businesses are doing amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, I initiated a Facebook group where tile industry experts can share/discuss their business operating status and monitor the impact of the ever-changing public information. This group – named Tile Industry COVID-19 Response-Impact – is an open channel for those in the tile/stone installation industry to share real and timely information, look for support, ask business-related questions, or simply talk about current issues with no political focus.  

In response to the situation, the LATICRETE team immediately accelerated a digital transformation effort, which originated in 2019 company-wide. We are now fully operational, working remotely all over the world. This effort quickly moved hundreds of people out of offices and manufacturing facilities. We simultaneously started a strict set of protocols regarding sanitation and social distancing, weeks before state and local governments issued guidelines. And our leadership team formed a COVID-19 taskforce focused on sharing information and monitoring the health of the business and team members. 

These efforts have been extremely effective, as I am pleased to report that all LATICRETE team members are currently safe and virus-free, and our facilities are still producing and delivering much-needed materials to essential projects worldwide.

How has LATICRETE used social media as a way to market its products and create brand awareness in the installer community?

We’ve taken our social media to another level with the support of the entire LATICRETE team.

One of the significant challenges going from a highly-collaborative team environment to one in quarantine, is the loss of interpersonal communication. It’s a difficult situation for everyone and an extra-challenging one for sales professionals who thrive on interaction. 

To help our team remain engaged and feel productive, we’ve initiated all possibilities for them to continue teaching. Our sales reps thrive on supporting customers and teaching them how to be successful. To date, we’ve conducted many “live” events across all platforms of social media training with several hundred architects and contractors streaming seminars and demonstrations. 

There’s been an unprecedented spike in training at LATICRETE University in the last few weeks.

In 2017, we built an online education platform (LATICRETE University), which offers an entire library of free industry-related courses covering an incredible variety of topics relating to LATICRETE products and industry knowledge. We’ve witnessed an unprecedented spike in training over the last few weeks, with our users taking several thousand courses. And the number continues to climb. 

We are happy to see our friends use this time to train and sharpen their skillset because we have a good feeling we’ll all be swamped in Q3 and Q4.

LATICRETE is much more than a manufacturer of grouts and mortars. Tell us a little about the strategic approach the company has taken the past several years in acquisitions and partnerships that have enabled you to position yourselves for growth and expansion.

LATICRETE has always enjoyed forward-thinking and innovation. Several years ago, we began looking at “near-neighbor” construction categories. We were particularly interested in businesses that held technologies that could improve our manufacturing prowess, open up new markets, and expand our reach with the contractors, owners, and architects we already serve. 

Today we are active in several new channels with many new customer types servicing masonry, coatings, concrete remediation, surface care, as well as tile and stone. This effort expanded our capabilities immensely, touching every part of our business. 

What types of investments have you made in research and development, and how has it paid off? Please highlight a few of your new product introductions for 2020. 

In recent years we have more than doubled our research and development capabilities worldwide.

In 2019 alone, we launched seven new products across multiple categories expanding our self-leveling, moisture vapor barriers, shower systems, sound control, and tile adhesives offerings. 

We are focused on new platforms that are healthier, lighter, and easier to transport and inventory. At the same time, we are continuing our long-standing mission of reducing waste and being even more environmentally friendly. 

These efforts have already produced many marquis new products. 

This year, LATICRETE launched an innovative “modular adhesive” called LATICRETE SELECT-BOND™, which allows contractors to inventory one LHT adhesive base that is jobsite “tuneable” to meet various challenges.

In 2020 we’ve launched an innovative “modular adhesive” called LATICRETE SELECT-BOND™, which allows contractors to inventory one LHT adhesive base that is jobsite “tuneable” to meet various challenges. This system leverages the “Performance Pack” technology similar to our PERMACOLOR® Select grout system. With performance packs, the tile installer can add ANSI A118.15 shock-resistance, speed up his job with a “rapid pack” or make it non-sag for when the installation goes vertical. It is also compatible with all of our PERMACOLOR® Select Color Kits, so it can also be tinted to match any one of our stock 40 colors. We see a bright future for this system. 

Nash also praised SpectraLOCK 1. Though it’s only been on the market for a few weeks, Nash said it’s been receiving stellar customer reviews.

With all this innovation, it’s easy to overlook other category-leading products like SpectraLOCK 1, which we feel is the best single-component grout on the market. We’ve only had it on the market for a few weeks, and the customer reviews are nothing short of stellar. 

We intend to extend our lead in the industry by providing the best new product innovations. 

How has LATICRETE supported industry efforts to address glaring needs such as a shortage of tile installers, the need for basic, intermediate and advanced training, and certification?

LATICRETE has long recognized the efforts of the NTCA and CTEF in helping secure the future of our industry. We believe in their missions. 

Lack of skilled labor is a big problem, and in my opinion, everyone who profits from this industry will need to step up and support their efforts.

To us, the word “certification” is important, and not something to look at as purely a marketing opportunity. We invest heavily in training installers to properly use our products, but we believe that nationally-recognized industry certifications are essential and different from the training events we conduct. That’s one reason we’ve avoided the word “certification” and have opted to issue completion certificates for programs like our “Profit Through Knowledge” (PTK), International Passport to Success, and LATICRETE Live training events as well as LATICRETE University courses.

We physically train thousands of contractors every year, and now we are making investments in more digital tools to help augment and scale all of our training efforts. On social platforms like the Facebook group “LATICRETE’s InsideTrack,” we are forging new connections with the end users to promote our industry organizations. 

All of these programs promote industry certifications and will continue to recognize the efforts of the trainers and friends who are in the field doing this tough and important work.

Robert Roberson, David Allen Company

David Allen Company Chairman (DAC) Robert Roberson is a two-time President of the National Tile Contractors Association and has been with the firm for 63 years. DAC celebrates its 100th Anniversary in 2020. 

David G. Allen established his tile, marble, and terrazzo company in 1920. Allen, an exceptionally-skilled craftsman in the masonry arts, was often called on to perform the most difficult, challenging, and complex projects. His commitment to excellent quality and ethical business practices quickly drove his small company to become the preferred tile, marble, and terrazzo company in the region.

Robert Roberson, the current Chairman of the Board, began his career with David Allen in 1957, and purchased the company in 1967. Knowing the value of David Allen’s foundation of high standards and ethical business practices, Roberson and his leadership team remain committed to David Allen’s beginning principles, the result of which has placed the company as one of the largest and most-respected tile, marble and terrazzo companies in the nation, with offices in Raleigh, N.C., Washington, D.C., South Florida, Columbia, S.C., Birmingham, Ala., and Charlotte, N.C. 

The company’s work – in airports, museums, hotels, hospitals, coliseums, schools and universities – has received more industry awards for workmanship and professionalism than any similar firm in the U.S. Today, David Allen Company continues its commitment to excellence as an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) company, instilling pride and ownership at every level. 

David Allen Company has a long standing history of supporting industry associations and affiliations. It is one of the few remaining charter members of the National Tile Contractors Association, joining what was then the Southern Tile Contractors Association in 1947. In fact, Robert Roberson is the only person in NTCA history to be named President of the association at two different times, serving in 1971-1973 and again in 1989-1991. 

As the company celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2020 as a leading tile industry contractor, we caught up with Mr. Roberson in an exclusive TileLetter One-to-One interview. 

What are the main factors that have allowed the David Allen Company to thrive as a leading tile installation contractor for 100 years? 

Roberson: From the beginning, the high standards of integrity, professionalism, craftmanship, and customer service practiced by Mr. David Allen himself attracted loyal customers and talented employees. 

During the first 10 years of my 63-year career with the company, I was able to witness how those values were truly lived out in Mr. Allen’s personal life as well as in his business life. 

As we continued to be authentic in those areas, the company attracted talented leaders and craftsmen. Being a trusted, responsible resource is important to contractors, developers, architects, and owners. Being a trusted employer is certainly valued by team members and potential team members. 

Beyond living our core values, I think several things have contributed to our successful longevity: 

1. We are future-focused – to see both short- and long-term opportunities and risk. 

2. We have attracted capable team members on all levels. 

3. Our ongoing education and training emphasis, on all levels, causes good team members to become great team members. 

4. We believe being financially sound is a major asset. It eliminates stress so we can focus on opportunities. We have purposely been overcapitalized.

 5. We demonstrate genuine concern for the welfare and success of all DAC team players, not just the owners and leadership. 

What steps are the leaders of David Allen Company taking to ensure that they will continue to succeed both now and into the future? 

Roberson: As it has so appropriately been said, “What got you HERE, won’t get you THERE!” 

Aware that society and business, like everything in life, are constantly changing and evolving, we not only accommodate change – we advocate and capitalize on change. We respect and stay true to the core values while continuing to stay focused and prepared for the opportunities, challenges and changes that are coming tomorrow and next year. Our next generation of leadership is in place and being mentored for senior leadership. Forty-five percent of DAC (David Allen Company) ownership is ESOP owned – making everyone an owner. 

The David Allen Company has a long history of support of trade associations in the tile and construction industry, including support of the National Tile Contractors Association. How has having the leaders of your company get involved in national and local associations benefitted David Allen Company? 

Roberson: Beginning with David Allen himself as a charter member of NTCA, the company has actively participated in the associations that represent tile, marble, terrazzo, and the construction industry. We would never have achieved the level of success and professionalism that we enjoy today had it not been for our significant involvement with those associations. Much of our standing in the industry and certainly much of our knowledge resulted from our association involvement and from our interaction with association members. 

To illustrate, DAC has provided four of NTCA’s presidents. I served as president on two occasions, Don Scott and Martin Howard are past presidents, and Chris Walker is the current president. 

In 1985, I was appointed Chairman of what had been a three-person technical committee that had reported no activity for the previous three years. I immediately appointed 20 technically-knowledgeable industry members and scheduled quarterly meetings. We promptly started producing documents designed to guide the contractor through the maze of new and challenging installation methods and products. Those efforts resulted in the highly-popular NTCA Reference Manual. I served as Chairman of this committee for 13 years and was followed by Don Scott, who served for another six years. Martin Howard and Chris Walker are current members of that committee. Our team members, on all levels, have been and continue to be “association addicts.” Yes, we know the value of association involvement and recognize that we are largely who we are because of our association involvement. 

David Allen Company currently has two representatives serving on the NTCA Executive Committee. Martin Howard (third from left) is the current Chairman of the Board and Chris Walker, (far right) is President. 

In comparing today’s construction environment and tile trade to the beginning of your career, tell us a little about the changing world we live in. What was easier about being a tile contractor in the beginning of your career? What was more challenging back then as compared to now? 

Roberson: Change is often uncomfortable, but I believe change sustains. None of us wish to return to what we often call the “good old days” when we soaked glazed wall tile in galvanized tubs of water for hours before installing, applying a scratch coat, a leveling coat, and a bond coat, each with its own formula, and rushed to apply the tile before the mortar hardened – and considered installing 60-80 square feet a day as good production. Tile installations were very labor intense. 

In those times, the required craft skill was much higher, and the technical skill was much less than today. If one claimed to be a journeyman tile setter with less than a four-year apprenticeship, he would be laughed off the job. There was a high sense of pride among the most gifted craftsmen. It wouldn’t be unusual to see a craftsman, as he finished his work, step back and observe his work, just as an artist may do in critiquing his painting. 

Relationships were more likely to be personal and far less likely to end in a legal contest. Contracts were also more likely to be verbal or just one page. Many of my contractor customers were also my friends. 

Most commercial tile contractors purchased tile directly from the manufacturer since distributors didn’t exist in most areas. In the 1950s, it was not unusual for tile – especially trim pieces – to be shipped in barrels packed in sawdust. 

For many of my earlier years, much of our installations were confined to toilets, bathrooms, and commercial kitchens. As a result of changing and improving installation methods, ever-increasing innovative tile designs and sizes, and effective marketing, we now often are the feature of many buildings. We have moved from the toilet to the lobby! 

Communication with the job site usually required a visit since only a few of the larger jobs had phones on site. There was far more conversation about workmanship than about scheduling and production. 

There were no copy machines, fax machines, computers, electronic devices, or Makita saws. The closest thing to an electronic device was a mechanical calculator with more than one hundred keys. The solution to most issues and problems back then was just “plain common sense.” 

Share with us a few of your favorite or most challenging projects you were involved with during your illustrious career. 

David Allen Company headquarters construction and its tile and stone installations are favorite projects of Mr. Roberson’s career.

Roberson: In today’s construction arena, all large projects are very challenging with demanding schedules, short time frames, tight budgets, difficult coordination of trades, and accessible work areas. We master all of those challenges every day. 

The project I enjoyed most was our own 25,000-square-foot office building. We were fortunate that it occurred when we didn’t have a time frame or a budget. I took the architect on a 10-day trip to Italy to be sure he understood what I was trying to accomplish. The contractor built the building in nine months, and it took me over a year and a half to do the finishes. From the day we started construction, the job site became my office. I enjoyed working alongside our artist, Vickie Wilson – creating mosaics and marble patterns, resourcing materials, and watching the building that I had built in my head come to life. 

You have been leading the David Allen Company for many decades. What are you most proud of as you look back on the success of the company? 

Roberson: In 1957, my first year with the company, our annual billings were $358,000. During the first 10 years, I was working 12 hours or more a day, and six days a week. In 1967 – the year I purchased the company – billings had not reached $600,000. 

David Allen Company is one of the few remaining charter members of the National Tile Contractors Association. Robert Roberson (l.) worked closely with NTCA Executive Director Emeritus Joe Tarver (r.) to form the NTCA Technical Committee. He chaired this committee for 13 years, followed by Don Scott (seated) for the next six years. Mr. Roberson and Mr. Scott are both previous recipients of the NTCA Ring of Honor Award. 

In 1969, Don Scott joined my one-person team in our tile operations. Don was an education major and had just finished his first year of teaching high school math. He had no previous experience in tile, marble, terrazzo, or business. His impressive character was obvious, and I thought he had tremendous potential. Then, in 1971, David Roberson joined our leadership team in our terrazzo operations. Like Don, David was fresh out of college but had no prior working experience. They were fast learners and hard workers, reinforcing everything that was valuable to our company’s success – a strong commitment to our core values, long hours, sacrifices, and 100% loyal and productive leaders. Don became the President and David is now the CEO. 

For me, that was a turning point. Don and David liberated me. I began focusing more on vision and leadership. As things began to change, I was able to attract more very talented and committed people who enhanced our values. 

Phil Halcomb joined the team in 1986 and established our highly-successful D.C. office. In 1992, Art Odom, a CPA, became our company CFO. Art is now the President of the company. Following Art, Martin Howard became an important part of our leadership team and is now Executive Vice President and a past president of NTCA. Martin oversees our tile and stone operations and our seven branches. 

In 2010, Chris Walker joined the DAC team as Vice President, Northeast Region. Chris is the current president of NTCA, and many others along our 100-year journey have left their indelible and valuable mark. 

But back to your question: What am I most proud of? It is not the most monumentally challenging job we ever successfully completed. Nor is it some artistically created masterpiece. Rather, it is the leadership and the team of quality, talented, and committed individuals who have made our company what it is today and who will continue to keep our company exceptional and relevant. It is the people who are David Allen Company – yes, that is what I am most proud of

Luigi Di Geso, President and CEO MAPEI North America

One-to-One interview with Bart Bettiga, NTCA Executive Director

Luigi Di Geso, President and CEO of MAPEI North America

Italian-based MAPEI Corporation has been a leading installation material manufacturer for many years, and has a strong, established presence in North America. As Executive Director of the National Tile Contractors Association since 2002, I have worked closely with MAPEI leaders to collaborate on many efforts related to training and education of the trade. MAPEI’s support of our programs has enabled us to expand our outreach in many ways. MAPEI North America is known for outstanding product development, customer service and training. Because it offers a complete line of products that appeal to many trades, MAPEI has a strong presence in all flooring and surface preparation categories.  

President and CEO of MAPEI North America Luigi Di Geso has led this group for more than a decade. I caught up with him recently and asked him to share with us some insight into the company and its strategic direction.

It has been several months since the tile industry lost an icon in the passing of MAPEI Group President, Dr. Giorgio Squinzi. Tell us a little bit about the relationship you formed with Dr. Squinzi, what legacy he leaves behind, and explain how the company is moving forward with a new leadership team. 

MAPEI Group President, Dr. Giorgio Squinzi, was a true mentor, said Di Geso.

Dr. Squinzi was a true mentor in every sense of the word. As I look back over the past 10 years where I reported directly to him, he allowed me to learn from his vast experience, while all along allowing me to form my own experience as I developed in my role as CEO. Always asking the right questions, while always listening to the answers I would provide, he empowered me to go forward and succeed. He built his empire in this manner and earned the respect and admiration from all his employees for making us truly feel that MAPEI was our company and that we are all part of his family.

MAPEI is moving forward under the careful guidance of Marco and Veronica Squinzi. They have been co-presidents, together with Dr. Squinzi, well prior to his passing and will continue the path that he put in place. As they say, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and both Veronica and Marco have their father’s vision on how to take MAPEI to a new level, even beyond where he has taken it. Despite the seamless continuity in the leadership of MAPEI, I can say Dr. Squinzi will always be missed.

TileLetter readers know MAPEI for its tile and stone installation products. But your company is much more than that. Tell us a little about the different divisions of products you offer that serve multiple markets in the construction industry. 

We like to say that we are “more than our products.” We offer system solutions. MAPEI Corp. offers 11 different product lines including the Tile and Stone Installation Systems, Floor Covering Installation Systems, and Products for Wood Flooring lines: 

  • Products for Sports Flooring (which also includes products for synthetic turf and soil stabilization)
  • Concrete Restoration Systems (includes solutions for bridges, stadiums, and public facilities) 
  • Waterproofing Systems (we even offer a 100% solids, cold-fluid-applied waterproofing membrane that is so low in VOCs it can be applied in occupied spaces) 
  • Products for Structural Strengthening (epoxies, repair mortars and wraps) 
  • Admixtures for Concrete (superplasticizers, water reducers, accelerators, fibers) Products for Underground Construction (UTT – team of experts and products to solve underground construction problems) 
  • Cement Additives (C-ADD – grinding aids, pack-set inhibitors, strength enhancers) 
  • Products for the Marine Industry (anti-corrosive primers, acoustic underlays, waterproofers) 

From the macro of tunneling to the micro of admixture chemistry, MAPEI is intricately involved in a wide scope of protective solutions for the building industry. We have seven new product lines to go in order to match our European counterparts.

What new product introductions can we expect to see from MAPEI in 2020 in your tile and stone installation systems division?

We have developed quite a few exciting new products for 2020 and are even entering into the radiant flooring heating market with the introduction of our Mapeheat line of products – customizable mats, membranes and programmable thermostats, that allow users to target and control their floor heating options with a simple app. 

Some of the other new products that we are debuting this year include our Ultracolor Plus Max, exclusively available in Jet Black and Pure White, the blackest black and the brightest white grout available on the market. These grouts are based on our popular FA formulation, which means that they won’t shrink or scratch the surface of tile or stones.

Keraflex Super is MAPEI’s new extra-smooth, non-sag, non-slum Keraflex Super is MAPEI’s new extra-smooth, non-sag, non-slump mortar with high-transfer technology, being applied over the new Mapeheat membrane for electric floor warming.

Keraflex Super is our new extra smooth, non-sag, non-slump mortar with high-transfer technology. We have a hybrid adhesive that is designed to make installing large-format and gauged porcelain tiles a faster and easier process. 

Ultrabond ECO GPT is a rapid-setting, low-VOC hybrid polymer adhesive that can be used in dry and wet residential and commercial applications. 

And for wet environments, our Shower Perfect Integrated Flange Drain and our Mapelastic Turbo waterproofing membrane provides one-day turn-around for shower installations. 

We are constantly innovating ways to improve our products, reduce waste, and save our installers time, which on the job, means money.

The industry continues to be concerned about a lack of qualified installers being available to meet the needs of the market. What is MAPEI doing to address this glaring need?

We feel very strongly about the need for properly trained installers, especially as new technologies come on board that make applications more involved than simply spreading mortar with a trowel. Our MAPEI Training Institute (MTI) is designed to ensure that the correct standards are being adhered to and that the proper installation techniques are being followed. Classes are offered at our facilities, at our clients’ facilities, and at other suitable locations upon request. We also offer the MTI-TV series of videos, which offer advice and tips on popular subjects. We collaborate with all of the industry associations of which we are members, as well as with national colleges and universities, to help promote and grow the industry.

There seems to be increasing competition in the tile and stone installation products category. What are some of the strengths you feel that MAPEI has over its competitors, and are there areas where you feel you need to strengthen?

MAPEI’s system solutions come with unparalleled product support and a warranty program that is unmatched in the industry. But it is more than our products that truly sets us apart – it is the power of MAPEI in general. We have synergies between our technologies and divisions that help the entire company – geographically, as well as within and across product divisions. We are a truly international company with 89 subsidiaries, including 83 plants in 56 countries. We have 31 research and development centers around the world and more than 12% of our 10,500 employees work in R&D.

We are always looking for opportunities to grow – whether it be through acquisition or physical expansion. We recently opened new facilities in Wildwood, Fla. (below left) and Calhoun, Ga., as well as opening new production lines at five of our existing facilities. MAPEI is always moving forward, always innovating, always growing. 

One-to-One with Lee Callewaert and Joshua Nordstrom

I have been working closely with tile contractors for more than 30 years. The diverse backgrounds and skills that so many of our members have amaze me, and it fascinates me to hear their stories on how they evolved into successful business owners.  

In this month’s issue, I was able to catch up with two highly respected artists in our industry: Lee Callewaert of Dragonfly Tile & Stone Works in Grafton, Wis. and Joshua Nordstrom of Tierra Tile in Homer, Alaska. Callewaert was the recipient of the inaugural NTCA Tile Setter Craftsperson of the Year Award in 2019 for installation excellence, and Nordstrom exploded onto the scene in social media with incredible artistic installations that invoked peer respect and support. The two will collaborate with NTCA trainers at Coverings in April in New Orleans to offer a glimpse into the intricacies of their trade and they will share some insight into the skills they have honed over the years with attendees. NTCA is proud to sponsor their participation at Coverings.  

Lee and his wife Jane have built a successful business and they take special pride in sharing their knowledge and expertise with their employees.

Briefly tell me how you came to enter the tile trade and what background in your youth – either in the classroom or in the real world – helped prepared you for the success you have had? 

Callewaert: I come from a long line of artists and my dad was an industrial contractor. I learned to work with tools at an early age. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew I wasn’t interested in college. Young and dumb, I was introduced to a great guy (Dave Brown) who took me on and taught me the trade. I didn’t know where that was going but I was learning the craft and all that goes into it.  Eventually I started looking at it differently. Quality craftsmanship is art. I found my passion.

Joshua Nordstrom of Tierra Tile in Homer, Alaska entered the tile industry through his love of pottery and ceramics. He has earned national respect for his artistic and highly-detailed installations. 

Nordstrom:I thoroughly enjoyed pottery class in high school, so upon graduation I purchased my first kiln. I had the opportunity to make some tiles for a friend’s entryway and quickly realized that there could be a market for handmade mosaic tile. I started off making tiles from scratch and firing them in my kiln. Over the course of a few years, I stumbled into setting tile and realized that if I became a tile installer, I could have better luck selling my art. A few more years went by and I stopped making my mosaics from scratch and started cutting factory-made tiles.

What is that you love most about being a tile contractor?

Callewaert: The challenge. It’s all about the challenge for me. Every project is different and unique.  Bringing the best design and installation to each project feeds me.

Nordstrom: The part that I love most about being a tile contractor is that every job is different and has its own unique set of challenges. With that, the job never gets boring and always keeps you thinking and on your toes, literally. It is also the only trade I can think of in the whole industry that requires you to think creatively on a daily basis.

What are the biggest challenges that you face as a small business owner?

Callewaert and his crew at Dragonfly Tile & Stone Works have gained a reputation with their clients for both design and installation excellence.

Callewaert: Initially for us, it was understanding all the nuances and unique requirements of our market, establishing our standards, and then staying true to that purpose.  At this stage, I’m all about passing it on, training the next generation.   Managing my projects to the standards we’ve set, WHILE training the apprentices and young setters can be a juggling act and there is cost involved.  

Nordstrom: The biggest challenge for me by far is constantly learning the business side. The work and artistry come very natural but learning the aspects of how to run my business properly and profitably proves to be a constant learning curve. 

About two years ago I changed from a sole proprietor to an LLC S corp. This has pushed a lot of new learning my way and I am trying to make sense of how all of the tax laws can benefit me and how it all works. I quit attempting to do my own taxes years ago and hired a professional. Every year I seem to be learning a little more. 

Another challenge for me is that I have always worked by myself. I am looking at 2020 to be the year that I can hire an employee full time. The thought of this makes me a bit nervous knowing that it will be up to me to keep them busy and that I am ultimately responsible for their stream of income when mine has not always been steady over the course of my career. 

Nordstrom’s glow-in-the dark octopus installation gained thousands of followers in the industry and on social media. 

How do you use technology to successfully install your complex projects? Computer software, template designs, scribing and cutting equipment, etc?  

Callewaert: I’m not a computer guy much. I draw pictures.  Sketches with pencil actually appeal to many clients. We use templates for most of our designs.  We fabricate our pieces using the template, then mount them and trace them onto the field for scribing. We use wet saws, grinders, ring saws, shapers and more, depending on the project. 

Creating artistic installations like this anchor by Joshua Nordstrom includes detailed planning and execution.  

Nordstrom: My technology is prehistoric in modern terms. It consists of using a search engine to research a particular project and then drawing the design to scale on graph paper. I like to use an overhead projector to scale the design up to the project size. I do the majority of my cutting on my wet saw with the occasional grinder cut for the hard-to-reach places. I try to be really aware in the design phase and patterning on how I anticipate making my cuts being sure that they are all feasible. With advice from Lee, I have just acquired a new ring saw that is opening up new doors for me, turning previously impossible cuts into possible ones. This one tool alone can shave off hours on a single project and help me make more money in the end. 

If a young person wanted to follow in your footsteps, what is the path you would recommend? Working for someone like you, business training or classes, internet-based training, apprenticeship training in a formal program, etc. or a combination of all?

Callewaert: It’s a combination of all. You have to have knowledge of proper prep and installation methods first and foremost, and an apprenticeship with a qualified contractor that incorporates hands-on, online learning like the NTCA University, as well as classes offered by industry partners are all important. But learning from a skilled installer is in my opinion, crucial. There is nothing like that real-world experience. This a craft.  It has to be practiced. 

NTCA 2019 Tile Setter Craftsperson of the Year recipient Lee Callewaert incorporates art and technical precision into his creative installations.

Nordstrom: I recommend for a person that wants to follow in my footsteps to start with small projects and work your way up from there. Don’t start off by attempting something really complex because you may find yourself getting frustrated throughout the process and may not want to try it again. Be willing to take some risks and to challenge yourself. Make some sample pieces to show your clients. Try making something for yourself or a friend or family member at a discounted cost. Save bigger pieces of tile scrap, these will come in handy for future mosaics and to keep your overhead costs down. Be willing to take advice from others and accept criticism, good or bad. Keep a portfolio and try to show it to every possible client. Find a bookkeeper and a tax person. Save every receipt. Pay attention to the business side of things. You can be the greatest installer and have plenty of work, but by not understanding the business and taxes all you’re going to be doing is treading water. 

Jennifer Hoff, CEM, President Taffy Event Strategies

coverings logo

One-To-One with Bart Bettiga, NTCA Executive Director

Jennifer Hoff

I got to know Jennifer Hoff when Taffy Event Strategies, a full-service trade show and event-management company she launched – took on the management of Coverings, of which NTCA is part owner. The show has benefitted from her experience and excellence in show management.

Jennifer is active in trade show industry organizations including the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE), the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), and the Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO). She has served on the program committee and as Chairman of the Board for the IAEE Capital Chapter and has held various IAEE national positions including Board Director and Education Committee. She serves on the CEM (Certified in Exhibiton Management®) faculty for IAEE. 

Jennifer has spent her career producing trade shows and conferences. Most recently, she founded Taffy Event Strategies, which produces exhibitions and conferences including Coverings and ASPE-The American Society of Plumbing Engineers Expo. Prior to that, she worked with VP International to launch new events in a variety of market segments. 

She has also contributed to the Art of the Show, third edition, which is a textbook used in colleges and universities. In addition, she has instructed the Introduction to Exposition Management course at Northern Virginia Community College. During her trade show industry career, she has received several industry awards and accolades including the IAEE 2018 Woman of Achievement Award.

Jennifer has a Bachelor of Science from Virginia Tech in Production and Operations Management.

In 2020, Coverings will be coming to New Orleans for the first time in almost 20 years. What factors went into choosing New Orleans as the location, and what are the advantages of this venue as well as the challenges that your management team is facing to produce a successful show?

New Orleans is a vibrant city that offers Coverings a robust venue. Given the size of Coverings, there are only a limited number of convention centers that can hold the show. New Orleans enables us to expand the Coverings audience to a new part of the country and provides a new and fun destination for our loyal attendees. 

There are challenges for every show we manage and many times we can’t predict those until the show is moving in or out. Coverings is a very complex show from an operational perspective, so preplanning and preparation are critical especially in a new city. That being said, we have a great internal team and vendors we have worked with for quite some time, so we can collaboratively address the obstacles. In addition, our contacts in New Orleans have been easy to work with and they have been great partners. 

We are excited for Coverings 2020 being in New Orleans because the New Orleans Jazz Festival begins the last day of Coverings so it gives attendees the opportunity to not only attend the show but stay for the Jazz Festival.

Jennifer Hoff with the microphone, preparing for the ribbon cutting that marked the opening of Coverings 19.

What are some of the new or exciting programs that Coverings will offer in New Orleans this year?

We are excited to bring back the Installation & Design Experience. The Installation & Design Experience will showcase today’s best practices relative to a multitude of different tile installations, demonstrate why tile is a great product choice compared to other materials, how to become and find certified tile installers, and so much more. 

The National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA) will be conducting live demonstrations in the lounge area, where trained and certified crews will educate attendees on the proper installation of large-format tile and gauged porcelain tile panels and slabs, as well as the importance of substrate preparation. Lunch, happy hours, giveaways and a game show in the late afternoon will also take place in the lounge. 

CTEF will be showcasing the features and benefits of the Certified Tile Installer (CTI) program and its importance to qualified labor as found in the TCNA Handbook and also contained in the Avitru (formerly ARCOM) MasterSpec for construction specifications.

A new feature for Coverings 2020 includes a Brand + Business Building Zone where attendees can get a professional headshot taken, create a video pitch for their social media channels and website, and amplify their profile across the web and social media for promotion. These business-building resources are complimentary to attendees. 

Special programs and events are also being planned, such as guided tours for attendees, product giveaways, lunch, happy hours, and customized games featuring ceramic tile-related content. This expanded and vibrant area of the show floor will be a great hub for learning, sharing best practices, and networking.

Also new for Coverings 2020 will be Tiler, Coverings’ very own EventBot. He will be available via attendees’ smartphones to answer any questions about Coverings. 

Coverings will focus on three key tracks relevant to today’s industry professional: Installation & Fabrication, Workforce & Profits, and Materials & Trends. Coverings’ robust educational offerings span all industry segments. Individually designed for every type of learning need, Coverings’ education keeps attendees current in today’s highly competitive marketplace with many offering CEUs. And, Coverings is still one of the only events that provides all learning benefits at no cost.

Representing Ceramics of Italy at Coverings 19 with Jennifer Hoff (second from left) are (l. to r.) Danielle McWilliams of Novita Communications, Luciano Galassini, Deputy Director of Confindustria Ceramica, and Kristin Coleman of Novita Communications. 

There are many local, regional and national shows and events. If someone was to pick one event to come to, why should it be Coverings?

Although Coverings is specific to tile and stone, it is unlike most trade shows due to a large number of international exhibitors, which gives Coverings a unique personality. Many of the booths are installed with tile and beautifully display the latest trends and technology. Given the international nature of Coverings, there is plenty of wine, espresso, pasta and paella on the show floor, as many of the exhibitors provide this type of hospitality in their booths. And the entire Coverings event is complimentary, including the educational sessions. Coverings has a robust education program offering CEUs that is completely free.

The tile industry has experienced market share growth for many years, but recently has experienced some concerns in losing sales to competitive products in key areas where we think tile should be the preferred choice by consumers. What role do you think Coverings should play in addressing this industry issue, if any, and what is your management team doing to support this?

Coverings is helping to facilitate a campaign to educate the industry regarding tile versus other competitive products. Our team has been supporting this effort by engaging with the campaign to help to move it forward.  

In addition, we feature the benefits of using tile throughout the promotion of the show. Our monthly newsletter, The Coverings Connection, provides stories and videos about tile projects – installation as well as trends – and promotes the use of tile. The content and programs developed for the show incorporate the benefits of tile and why it is the preferred choice. 

Jennifer Hoff (far left) celebrates with Freeman and Floor Managers after another successful Coverings. 

Michael Kephart, President American Wonder Porcelain

One-to-One with Bart Bettiga

Michael Kephart, President
American Wonder Porcelain

While attending Total Solutions Plus in Nashville recently, I had the opportunity to tour the American Wonder Porcelain plant with its president, Michael Kephart. This state-of-the art plant that opened in 2017 and employs more than 200 people in the Nashville area, continues the trend of international investment in domestic tile manufacturing plants on U.S. soil. There are many distinct advantages these manufacturers enjoy, and this is especially true recently with the impact that tariffs have had on imported ceramic tile from China. 

Kephart was hired as president to oversee the development of the plant and to strategically launch the products into the U.S. market. He is uniquely qualified to lead this operation, with many years of experience in production and product development in the tile industry. While we toured the plant on an enjoyable fall Tennessee day, Kephart and I took the opportunity to chat about producing tile, strategy, and the tile industry.

What are the advantages you see of producing high-quality porcelain tile domestically in Tennessee and how have you taken advantage of this in today’s competitive market?

The technical aspects of delivering high-quality porcelain tile to the U.S. market from Tennessee are as normalized today as ever. The domestic production materials are stable and plentiful, the vertical sources for design and application are localized, the energy source is among the lowest in world cost level, innovation is where innovators are, the latest modernized equipment is readily available and domestic ceramic unit production scale has and will continue to grow. Capital intensive projects like tile factories require market demand and acceptance, segment growth, great teams of people working hard and smart, mix management, patience and a little luck. Heavy, large units are most effective produced closest to the customer base desired.

Explain your strategy towards growing your market share. Do you sell through independent distribution, specialty retailers, etc. and how do you see this evolving over the next few years?

We started our company with a simple but unique message. We are the “brand behind the brand” in the market. We worked to promote our customers’ brand as the prevailing factor with our tile in the box. The tile distribution market is changing and evolving quickly in the U.S. We are invested in manufacturing, not end-use promotion. Our assets are centralized to leverage this concept and not compete with the distribution or retailer unlike most of our competition. We believe the need for promotion, education and presentation of the broad use of ceramic tile today and in the future requires localization and investment to reach the end user or specification driver residentially and commercially.

What investments in technology are you making to continue to manufacture products that will appeal to consumers, specifiers and designers. What trends do you see developing in popularity, including patterns and sizes, and types of finishes that can be applied to porcelain tile?

American Wonder Porcelain has invested significantly in technology and resources to develop sophisticated, high-styled, market-driven products. We are innovating with glaze, graphics and finished surfaces to develop a realism and versatility in tile that energizes our customer. The “skin” of our new tile surface can be as smooth as satin yet react with high slip resistance when wet. The gloss of our polish is glass-like transparent, yet resistant to chemicals and staining. Clean rectified edges with mono-caliber matte, polished and honed options allow for wall and floor alignment with low maintenance versus natural stone. Combining digital graphics with new surface options, all in square or plank units up to
24” x 48”, we provide great value to our customers and capture the style and trend imagination of the market.

What are the biggest threats you see to growing tile market share and what is your company doing to address this?

The biggest threat to growing ceramic industry market share is ourselves (and LVT growing faster)! With an unprecedented tariff action pending against China for our U.S. tile industry, we must act to gain the domestic customer’s confidence as cost-effective, capable and reliable suppliers of the most sustainable, durable and fashionable floor and wall product on the planet. We have long been an industry “behind the curtain” with imports driving the development of our U.S. market and other floor and wall material options more heavily promoted than ceramics. Investment has been made and more will be made to grow a U.S.-based sustainable ceramic tile industry, supplying the U.S. consumer. Our retail and distribution customers are presenting tile in more creative and visually inspiring ways. Internal industry promotions such as “Why Tile” through TCNA are gaining traction to promote the positive sustainable facts of ceramic tile. More needs to be done. More industry alignment among the major labor, distribution and technical affiliations in the U.S. working with our international affiliations is needed to unite around promotion of ceramic tile features and benefits to the consumer. The current LVT category growth is certainly impressive. The plastic products, however, are simply not comparable in technical quality, sustainability, durability and safety with high-quality porcelain tile. It is exactly what it is.

How does American Wonder Porcelain Tile support the installer to ensure your innovative products are installed correctly?

American Wonder Porcelain is proud to support all of our industry affiliations in labor, distribution and technical services. We have doubled our Platinum Level commitment for 2020 to CTEF for certification of high-quality labor. We participate in the TCNA Technical Committee with labor for higher-quality standards in tile production. And, in 2020, we will host an NTCA training seminar supporting labor. All of the wonderful tiles we produce and our valued distribution and retailer may stock are unproductive in the warehouse without high-quality labor to install and light the torch of fashionable sustainability for our customers with ceramic tile.