One – on – One… With Robert Briggs
 
January 1st, 2006

 

By Jeffrey Steele

January-February 2006

“ China will replace almost everyone else in both tile and stone.”

How hot is the market for Chinese tile? The only conceivable answer is “sizzling.” According to the latest import figures, dollars spent on Chinese tile imports skyrocketed 114.6 percent in the 12 months ending in September 2005. In actual units shipped, the percentage increase stood at a staggering 122.6 percent. The next nearest competitor? Mexico , with 27.4 percent.

For insight into this white-hot commodity, TileDealer invited an experienced importer in that marketplace, Robert Briggs, to sit down for a candid One-on-One. Briggs, the vice-president and general manager of Granite & Marble Resources in Chicago , has imported Chinese tile for more than a dozen years. In this illuminating interview, he explains the reasons for the rise of the Chinese market and describes how he goes about locating high-quality, reliable suppliers.

TileDealer: How long have you been selling Chinese tile? Briggs: We have been importers for about 28 or 29 years. And China started coming into the equation around 1992 to 1994. That was precipitated by the Chinese inviting the Italians to swap product for equipment. As the Italians were invited to sell stone machinery to the Chinese because they had lots of stone quarries, and the Italian machine makers knew that the Chinese had stone to quarry, it took a millisecond for the equipment makers to realize this was a good deal for them. The ceramic evolved out of it, because many of the ceramic companies also make stone equipment. What really put the Chinese in the marketplace was the Italian equipment, and with that they were making a bona fide product immediately.

When the Italians sell you equipment they also make Italian engineers available to you over a period of years, and that basically guarantees product worthiness. Of course, there was already a world demand for ceramic and natural stone. Over the years that has increased. The Chinese now can make huge, 2-by-4 and 3-by-3-foot ceramic tiles that they now clad buildings with. What’s happened is the Chinese are using their own higher-end product, originally made for the Italian and European markets, and are using it in their own applications in their own country.

Our specialty within the Chinese market is mosaics. We have the largest collection of high-end stone and glass mosaic products imported from China in America . In our case, we have taken the traditional process and reversed it, in that we send products from Italy , Spain , Indonesia , Egypt , Turkey and Israel to China to fabricate. We kind of do what the Italians used to do.

But instead of using Italy as a fulcrum for products from around the world, we use China to fabricate those products. We are currently doing the Ritz-Carlton condominium-hotel project here in Chicago , cladding bathrooms with marble originated in Italy , but cut to size in China . TileDealer: Is quality consistent? Does it measure up to the U.S.?

Briggs: The answer is that with China , you can go on a scale from one to ten. There are some ones and some tens. It depends on where their marketplace is. If their market is an emerging country in the Third World , most of the time China is selling lesser-quality goods than they would to NATO countries. Every once in a while, a buyer may feel they have a deal from China that’s too good to be true, and most of the time it is. China has some of the highest quality, and some that at best is mediocre quality. And it’s buyer beware.

A low price most of the time does not mean good quality. In my dealings with China , I go to the most expensive people. You not only must have a quality product, but you have to have continuity of product—product that you can get again and again.

That’s why it’s difficult to just decide to go to China and suddenly do business. It’s not easy. There are so many stories of people going there and getting hoodwinked. You really need to know who you’re dealing with, how long they’ve been in business, whether they have Italian, Chinese or Japanese machinery. There are probably 20 questions you need to answer.

TileDealer: How do you differentiate between Chinese tile in style, quality and price?

Briggs: You’ve got to start it by realizing installation and labor in the United States is very expensive. So whatever technical aspects of the tile, i.e. in square (if one side is 11-7/8 inches, all three other sides must be exactly the same), or in calibration of thickness (you can’t have 8 millimeters on one end of the tile and 10 millimeters on the other end, because it won’t be flat), make it easy to install are the aspects you want to pay attention to.

Beauty, color and texture are in the eyes of the beholder. These other aspects are black and white. And the more aesthetically astute buyers in the United States are more conscious or more aware of the aesthetic desires of their particular marketplace. So that buyer is buying black-and-white issues first, and secondly his awareness of the aesthetic expectations of his consumer, either a builder, a designer or the ultimate consumer. The black-and-white is inviolable; if you don’t have that, it’s garbage. You could spend all that time and money getting something—with the consumer waiting—then have to throw it out when you open it up because it’s garbage.

TileDealer: Is Chinese tile subject to any kind of absorption standard testing consistent with porcelain tile from the U.S. and Italy?

Briggs: Yes, for the higher quality companies. That’s because if you don’t meet these standards, the product should not be sold in America . I’m sure they’re selling products in Paraguay or Colombia that haven’t been tested. We in America have very strict standards regarding absorption. I don’t know of any respected importer who would not be aware of that, because there’d be a failure and they’d be asking for a lawsuit at some point.

TileDealer: How much do various regions of the U.S. import?

Briggs: Chinese tile is more popular on the West Coast, simply because it’s closer to China . And you have Chinese-Americans and Chinese expatriates who have opened up businesses from Seattle to San Diego , and are marketing Chinese products because they have easier access to it than I would. They speak Mandarin and Cantonese, and they have relatives in China who can inspect for them.

In the ceramic business years ago, many of the importers in the U.S. were Italians, because they spoke Italian and they had relatives or friends back home who could inspect for them. The Chinese are simply following that example.

That’s a product of the melting pot that is America . First they bring themselves and their money here, and secondly, they realize there’s a market in America for the indigenous products of their homeland. And that’s been played out for centuries in this country.

TileDealer: How will rising fuel costs impact delivery costs?

Briggs: The U.S. is the number one consumer of energy, but I think China is now number two or three, and someday will be the largest. They’re still in what I call the Gold Rush capitalist stage. The cost of fuel has increased in China over the last year, and that has precipitated a very small increase in the cost of Chinese products. But the cost of energy is a world barometer. And as the cost of fuel increases in China , it won’t affect their products any more than it will other countries’. The real story regarding cost of tile is not energy, but labor. China is coming out of an agrarian society in the 21st Century, whereas others did it in the 19th or 20th Centuries.

I know from talking to my friends in China that labor is asking for higher wages. Workers are asking for more. So the real impact in China is what will happen to their labor market. Currently they’re paying labor like Indonesia or Vietnam is paying, when in fact their economy is 20 times the size. How long can you pay the wages of nations that are pipsqueaks in comparison? I don’t think they can do it very long. The cost of ceramic, though, is heavily machine driven, so it will probably rise less than those products that are heavily labor driven.

TileDealer: Do you ever get tile from China that is broken or damaged in shipping? Do the shippers make good on it?

Briggs: In my case, almost never. That’s because I have been there as an importer of Chinese tile for a long time. In the case of a tile importer who’s more of a newcomer to China , it’s going to happen more frequently. Then it’s a test of that relationship, like the first blowup you have with your wife. The importer must know he’s receiving a saleable product, and if he doesn’t receive a saleable product, he’s heading for a very quick divorce. No importer can sustain his business without being able to deliver reasonable customer expectations. As for making good on broken tile, I’ve heard it both ways. That’s why it’s always buyer beware. Check out the supplier, find out who he has sold to and go visit his factory. That’s what I do.

TileDealer: How about the timing of Chinese tile getting through customs?

Briggs: There are problems getting almost anything we purchase through customs. I have problems with Turkey, Israel , Indonesia , Pakistan and China . We live in a time now where unfortunately the professional importer in America has to deal with the political reality in our country. It impacts my business and my customers, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

TileDealer: What’s the future of Chinese tile in this country?

Briggs: If you’re in the tile business, you have to realize that eventually, just as the car replaced the horse, China will replace almost everyone else in both tile and stone. If you’re going to be competitive in the year of 2006 and beyond, it’s imperative that you develop relationships with people like myself who are already there, or make a very intensive investment in time and money over years to develop that relationship yourself.

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