One – on – One…With Stephen Powers
 
May 1st, 2006

 

By Jeffrey Steele

May-June 2006

“It’s not having more dealers every year, but finding ways to better serve them.”

Artisan tile manufacturer Trikeenan Tileworks has generated some major national buzz over the past few months. First, the 15-year-old New Hampshire company’s booth captured the “Best in Show” award at the May 2005 Coverings exposition, besting some 1,200 other exhibitors. Soon, Trikeenan’s owners began appearing on the nation’s TV screens, on shows like This Old House, Bob Vila’s Home Again and others set to air in 2006.

Recently, Stephen Powers, who with wife Kristin founded and owns the company, sat down with TileDealer for an in-depth interview. In the enlightening One-on-One that follows, Powers recalls the early days and rapid growth of Trikeenan, discusses the company’s working relationship with tile dealers, and expounds on the design trends likely to emerge in coming years.

TileDealer: Tell me about Trikeenan’s genesis and evolution.

Powers: My wife and I are both graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design. Kristin’s degree was in ceramics; mine was in printmaking. We met after we’d graduated, and we were both working at a restaurant. Kristin had convinced the owner that at the same price as cheap tile, she would make hand-made artisan tile for the bathroom of the restaurant. I was intrigued with the whole process, so I just volunteered to help her out. It was just a very cool process. We had no tools, no studio. It was just an adventure in tile. We had a moped, and we transported dry tile across town to a friend’s kiln, fired it and transported it back to the apartment on a moped.

At that point, we decided this is something we both wanted to do. We became a couple, started making tile and eventually married. We began making tile in the basement of our house, really rudimentary, pounding it out on small frames—just learning about the craft of making tile.

Fifteen years ago, there were very few people making art tile. We started taking it around to people selling tile, first to Boston. It was an interesting time, because it was so new. We got a little bit of encouragement. We did Coverings, which at that time was called the International Tile and Stone Exposition, out in Anaheim, California. That was really when we jumped off the cliff. At that time—1992—there were maybe two or three other art tile studios exhibiting at the show.

We grew pretty steadily. In the early years, we tried to hold down the growth. We tried to keep it somewhat manageable, and as a studio environment. We had a young family, and had to keep a manageable life. We averaged between 50 to 75 percent growth a year, but on a small base. It’s been evolutionary. We moved from a studio to an old mill building in 1997. Within three years, we’d grown out of that, and into our current location, a bigger mill building.

Today, we sell coast to coast, with some accounts in Canada. We have about 130 dealers nationally. In the last five years, we’ve averaged 15 to 18 percent growth per year. We have about 35 employees across the company, and by and large, we train them ourselves.

TileDealer: Trikeenan has had some significant national exposure lately. How do you go about getting that kind of publicity?

Powers: We were on some HGTV shows, and on This Old House on PBS. And we’ll be on Bob Vila’s Home Again show. I think there are a number of factors. I think we make great tile. It’s different, unusual and special, and people respond to that. We certainly make a concerted effort to obtain exposure. We value that; it’s a great way to get your message out.

It’s not always easy to quantify dollar sales after a show airs. We do analyze our Web site, www.trikeenan.com, and have tools to basically decipher where people are coming from, or where they’ve seen us. We can tell if someone has come from the This Old House Web site to our site, for example. We do get jobs from local people who come right to our showroom.

But we also see increased traffic from our dealers. We take the hits to our Web site after the show airs, and funnel them to our dealers.

TileDealer: Trikeenan was awarded “Best in Show” at Coverings last year. What enabled your company to capture that award?

Powers: In total, there are about 1,200 exhibitors at Coverings. So we were incredibly honored to be recognized. We really felt the booth we had at the show reflects our product. I designed the booth, fabricated it and built it myself. We don’t farm it out to a trade show booth firm.

Our booth has got to reflect our tile, and our philosophy toward our clients. So we felt it was an honor for our booth to be recognized, because we’re competing with some of the finest companies in the world, many of them much larger companies. Your booth has to not get lost in the crowd, on the floor of the show. That was our main goal: to get people’s attention. And we felt it really did that well.

You see more art tile companies every year, and you see many of them at Coverings. The Tile Council of America does a great job of encouraging people to participate in the show.

TileDealer: How can dealers leverage the publicity a manufacturer receives, or create their own?

Powers: One thing we definitely do is keep our dealers informed about the coverage we receive, so they can be aware of it if a customer asks. We also send high-resolution imagery out to our dealers in digital form, so they can have a wide repertoire of installation shots, enabling them to expand on their own customers’ visions of what they want.

As the publicity starts to snowball, we’re making significant changes to our Web site, as it pertains to our dealers. We’ll be adding additional tools for them, to enable them to capitalize on the publicity we’re receiving. We do see dealers starting to use our product in promoting their showrooms. As the exposure grows, [dealers] want their clientele to know this is where you can source the product. So as we get more publicity, we’re having more dealers use our product in their own advertising. Generally that’s an independent activity. Often, we’ll have dealers ask us for images or photography we can supply, and we certainly are happy to cooperate. It’s not having more dealers every year, but finding ways to better serve them. That’s our mantra.

TileDealer: Trikeenan seems to have captured some interesting and timely design trends. What are some of those trends, and why do customers respond to your tile?

Powers: When we started out, we did a lot of sculptural relief tile, and hand-painted tile. That served us well in the early years. But what we found is there is so much [of that] out there, clients wanted to see more interesting patterns, sizes, colors and textures. So now we’re doing more dimensional brick sizes and a whole line of mounted mosaics, which is really where the growth has been in our company. In terms of how we see these trends, I go around to showrooms, see what people are responding to, talk to dealers and read the trade publications.

Having our own showroom is an added benefit, because we’ll often do tile for people as a special request, and then that style will be rolled into our line. Ultimately it comes down to our aesthetic judgment. Does this fit with what the Trikeenan look is? You can have your ear to the ground, and respond or react to trends. But in the end, some of the things we offer that sell the best would not be on the list of this year’s hot color. They buck the trend.

TileDealer: What is your process for staying on top of design trends?

Powers: We look around a lot. We look across industries. We’re looking at industries like the furniture industry. And we don’t just look at America. My wife grew up in Europe, so we have a certain connection to a European aesthetic. But we always try to translate that into our product looking like it’s coming from an American perspective. And that’s tricky, because people don’t always view tile in America as having a rich tradition and history. But there’s quite a lot there. There’s actually a lot of depth in American tile history. And we try to blend the best part, or what we like in the American tile lexicon, and bring a more modern sensibility to it.

TileDealer: What other ways do you work with and support your dealers?

Powers: Training our dealers is big. One of the most effective things we do is hold seminars in our factory and showroom. We invite dealers to come and spend the weekend making tile in our factory. We take them all the way through the whole process. It results in a really complete depth of knowledge in the possibilities of Trikeenan.

We also get to personally connect with the salesmen, and that’s really valuable. They come from all over the country. At our last seminar, we had people from New Orleans, San Francisco and New York. They love Keene. We host them all weekend long. We take them to dinner and have a reception for them. Then we have two full days of tilemaking and tile selling activities.

TileDealer: Where do you see tile trends going in the next year? And the next five?

Powers: Most tile companies will look at this high-end market as the place where the growth is headed. So obviously, we’re trying to be smart about that, too, and position our company where we can take greatest advantage of that growth. I think that is longer term.

TileDealer: What’s next for Trikeenan?

Powers: We’re really working on a program to make our products more accessible to greater numbers of people. It’s a function of looking at a new price structure for our products, and increased volume to keep up with the growth.

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