Interview with Dan Emmel, Owner of Tile By Design, Inc.
TXD’s Branding and Website Manager Lynsey Moseman sits down with Owner Dan Emmel to discuss the challenges of doing business in the age of Amazon-style tile distributors.
Lynsey: We are seeing more design professionals going to Material Bank (MB) for product selections and samples, especially on the commercial side. Do you expect that trend to continue?
Dan: Yes! We receive monthly updates from the domestic manufacturers and importers that we work with, and the Samples Sent Lists are getting longer. I also see that there are over 80 tile and stone companies that have partnered with Material Bank—up from about 50 two years ago.
L: TXD does a lot of commercial work. Is there a reason TXD hasn’t partnered with MB?
D: I want to start by saying that I understand why they have been so successful. They have made an important part of designers’ work quicker and easier. Some of our clients have eliminated their product libraries and then there was the pandemic and the added convenience of ordering samples from home and after hours—an Amazon-style success story.
L: What’s not to like about that?
D: Well, I would say that construction is a team business and I see that owners and contractors are greatly inconvenienced by the new way of doing things. Speaking for my industry only, about two thirds of MB tile & stone partners are regional importers who are re-branding products to conceal their identity. This commonly leads to a specification written for the benefit of a supplier on the East Coast. The next thing you know they are shipping tile across the country when the very same tile was available locally. Over 90% of the time it’s available locally! We would say that green sampling and green building are two different things.
L: I can see how reducing transportation distances reduces environmental impacts and costs, but how are owners and contractors inconvenienced?
D: Owners and contractors receive a range of benefits from local suppliers: prompt and reliable service, credit, free product storage, staged deliveries, support for their trade organizations, education & training…. How many options do owners and contractors have when they have paid that East Coast supplier in advance and when the supplier is looking at their project as a one-shot deal? Maybe they need a jobsite inspection, and they can’t get one. The project is delayed, and the designer and owner settle for less. We hear the contractors complain about not getting their phone calls returned, not knowing or trusting the person they are working with, needing to get more warehouse space….
L: But TXD does a lot of out-of-state work. How is that different?
D: On those projects we are working with a local architect. Our sales team puts relationships first and they have taken the time to get to know their clients. For a large project, the designer may visit our showroom to save time and select 10 or 20 different products. Sometimes they email and ask us to pull together some options for a particular design concept. In many cases, we can groupage the resulting orders and ship them direct to the contractor or the jobsite—storing materials, when necessary, to accommodate their schedule. When there is a problem, we are willing to get on a plane and help them fix it, because it’s not just a transaction to us. We remain focused on the relationship and on building trust.
L: We are getting more sample orders on our website too.
D: Yes, and the customers have thousands of products to choose from. We’re not nearly as comprehensive or convenient as MB, but our clients know where their products are coming from and can reduce costs and project management problems. The typical importer is putting less than 3% of their products on MB, as an experiment, and there are over 80 suppliers already. So, the inefficiency of multiple sources and shipments are baked into their system.
L: How has MB impacted the residential side of the business?
D: For us, not so much. The luxury single-family home and the penthouse suite most often involve a designer and homeowner visiting the showroom. The focus is more on the quality of the shopping experience. We end up supplying tile for vacation properties and other homes all over the country and filling up a truck or a shipping container for a single residence is not that hard to do. That said, we are also seeing more residential designers try MB. As you might guess, there are a lot of success stories and a few horror stories too.
L: I frequently read about new technologies and the disruptors who achieve success by focusing on their customers’ pain points and coming up with creative solutions. Material Bank has accomplished that.
D: Yes, they have, but how often don’t we all embrace an exciting new technology or service and then discover, over time, the downsides. MB is just getting started. In the future, they may decide to work with manufacturers only, prohibit re-branding or take other actions that would identify local resources, benefit all the members of the construction team and have a positive environmental impact. Or maybe they’ll follow the Facebook model and owners and contractors will have to start pushing back. We’ve seen that occur on larger projects. Sometimes designers or contractors reach out to us. We can usually help them identify the “mystery tile” and save them some money.
L: Final thoughts?
D: I keep coming back to the TXD business model and our values and priorities.
- Trust is not easy to come by.
- Holding our industry to higher standards is everyone’s responsibility.
- Promoting sustainable products only and passing on LVT and the rest.
- Utilizing renewable energy, subsidizing hybrid & electric vehicle purchases, gardening and tree planting. It may cost us a little more, but it’s worth it.
- Working with local businesses and supporting local non-profits strengthens our community in so many ways.