One – on – One…with Michael Mariutto
 
January 1st, 2007

“We concentrate on giving impeccable service, along with a focus on product design.”

By Jeffrey Steele

January-February 2007

It can be said with conviction that Michael Mariutto was born to the tile business. As a member of the fourth generation of his family to work in the industry, he started his education in tile at an early age. That headstart served him well in a career that has taken him from a manufacturers’ representative to world-renowned tile designer and founder of Mediterranea, his own multi-national tile production and design firm.

Not long ago, Mariutto sat down with TileDealer for a lengthy interview, in which he talked about his lifelong fascination with the tile industry. In this One-on-One, he discusses the uniqueness of his company’s business model, identifies the important emerging countries in tile design and production, and reveals how Mediterranea strives to meet the distinctive needs of American dealers and distributors of tile.

TileDealer: How did you get started in the business?

Mariutto: The tile business runs deep in my family’s heritage, spanning four generations in the industry. My great-grandfather came to the U.S. from Italy as a mosaic and terrazzo craftsman in 1912. During the span of five decades, Mariutto and Sons became recognized as one of the most prominent tile contracting corporations in Florida. Needless to say, I was introduced to the tile business from early on, setting tile in the summers and learning about the overall business, and was hooked.

I went to school at the University of Miami, and received my business degree in 1986, with my dream to make a career in the tile business. After graduation, I went to Italy in June of 1986 and worked for the tile manufacturer, Impronta. While working at Impronta I studied all facets of the tile industry, focusing my attention on manufacturing and exports to the U.S. market. I also studied the Italian language and became fluent.

In 1987 I returned to the U.S. and founded Architectural Imports Inc., a manufacturers’ representative firm representing two Italian tile manufacturers for the Florida market. I started with very little and it was a rough beginning, but I really worked hard at it and as time went on I was able to pick up additional factories with products geared toward the American market. By 1995, the business had taken solid ground and was doing quite well. At that point I began designing tile, everything from size to color, surface texture, glazing techniques and glazing styles. I followed all the different realms of design of the product. That’s when my business evolved and changed, and I became more of a designer than an agent.

As I began designing the products for the manufacturers I was representing, the tiles I designed became highly successful throughout the U.S. Over the next five years we took it to the next level. In 2000, we launched the Mediterranea brand, a high-end brand I conceived with product dedicated solely to the American market.

Architectural Imports now represents our products nationally, not just in Florida, and we’re producing tiles under the Mediterranea brand in six countries for the U.S. and Canadian markets.

TileDealer: What makes your business model different—and how did you come up with that idea and develop it?

Mariutto: As an agent, it was my duty to bring and sell a product to a distributor regardless of whether it was right for the U.S. market or not. Under the Mediterranea concept, I am bringing designs I am confident in for the U.S. market, and am able to choose from the best factories in each country to deliver the right combination to succeed here.

I am not limited by one or two factories’ capabilities or price points, but have virtually limitless options and possibilities. For example, we are currently producing tiles in six different countries under the Mediterranea brand. [Those countries are] the U.S., Italy, Spain, Argentina, Brazil and Turkey.

What makes us very unique is that we’re the only company that has formed strategic alliances with manufacturers on a global scale with the sole purpose of bringing the right products to the U.S. market. We’re able to pool different technologies from different countries and factories, each having unique technology and methods. Therefore we offer our customers a lot of diversification in the product line.

What’s also unique is that all of the products we’re pulling together are offered under one brand. There’s not one single factory anywhere in the world that could pull together so many diverse technologies and product lines, in terms of the sizes, equipment used and pricing structures. We have products that range from middle to very high end. The strategic alliances with a variety of factories worldwide that we’ve put together under one brand is really the key to our uniqueness and strength.

TileDealer: Why is the U.S. so hot right now in production, and why is it the best country to have production in?

Mariutto: First, the level of the design and sophistication of the look of U.S. based products has come a long way. The investments made in technology in many of the U.S. production facilities in the past five years have been remarkable, and that has given them the ability to make incredible products that rival many of the top Italian producers.

Second, U.S. distributors are always in the dilemma of how to maximize their space and inventory dollars. When they import products they have to bring in enough to cover the possible sales for the next few months, as lag times from the overseas factories to their doors can be significant. This causes them to have to tie up more inventory dollars and warehouse space. If they can get a great-looking product from a U.S.-based production facility at a competitive price, they can keep much tighter inventories and get a lot more turns per year.

Lastly, right now in Europe, the energy costs are extremely high, and the low U.S. dollar has made imports from there more challenging for the U.S. market.

That has opened the door for the U.S. manufacturers. They’ve been able to increase their sales dramatically during this period due to those factors.

TileDealer: How does working in six different countries give you a unique perspective?

Mariutto: I get the chance to see the different technologies, business cultures and approaches to the market on 4 continents! It enables me to see trends forming more easily and be ahead of the curve as things are changing.

For example, you might have a strong dollar in Turkey, but a weak dollar in Brazil. Shifting focus to keep up with the ever-changing currency value fluctuations, allows us—and our customers—to be covered in all areas.

Another factor with regard to this diversification of countries is technology. We’re able to focus in on the strengths of our partner factories, zeroing in on the unique capabilities each one has. In a sense, we showcase the talents of each of our partner factories, matching the right product with the right manufacturer.

That’s key to Mediterranea. We design a product we know will be hot for the U.S., but we have to find the right factory with the right technology in the right country to make this product the best it can be.

TileDealer: What do you see as the emerging countries for tile design and production?

Mariutto: What I’ve been seeing is that Brazil and Turkey especially have invested a lot in technology and are catching up with Europe. Most of the technology in the tile industry comes out of Italy, as does most of the innovation and new equipment. But there has been a lot of investment lately from Brazil and Turkey, as well as the U.S.

They’ve been investing heavily in the newer technologies: glazing equipment, presses, double-pressed technology and dry glaze applications. They are also increasing capacity as their demand is growing. As they understand better how to put those technologies to work for them to create the right product for the U.S. market, they are becoming a force to be reckoned with for Europe.

TileDealer: What do you see happening technologically in tile around the world?

Mariutto: What I could say is right now, the technology in the tile industry around the world has been fairly flat. There have not been a lot of new, earth-shattering innovations, such as the milestones of the past when they moved from double-fired tiles to single-fired tiles or from the single-fired red-bodied tiles to the white-body tiles and in more recent years to the very popular porcelain-body tiles.

The porcelain tiles over the last five years have dominated the American market, and the growth curve on these has increased immensely with the final end users of tile today asking for porcelain tile. This stagnation in major innovation has allowed time for the emerging countries to catch up technologically. What I am seeing is a move nationally to larger-format tile and more modular tiles as well as rectangular tile.

TileDealer: How would you characterize your company’s experience in Turkey as part of CTDA’s trade mission?

Mariutto: Most of my organization attended the trade mission but I was unable to attend myself. They thought the mission was incredible and love participating in all CTDA events.

As we already do business with Turkish manufacturers, we were very happy to see so many U.S. distributors get a first-hand experience of the quality available from there. We learn a lot through our participation in CTDA and believe it is a great asset to the U.S. distributor. It is one of the better tools to keep a pulse on what is happening in the U.S. market.

TileDealer: What do you look for in designing a product specifically for the U.S. market?

Mariutto: The first thing I look for is something that will be unique to the market, but at the same time possesses certain characteristics common with successful products in the U.S. I like to start with a unique concept, but tweak the idea to be made successful in the U.S. Matching the look with the right size format, determining what type of edge, the number and types of colors, type of body (through body porcelain, double pressed, glazed, etc.) are some of the considerations necessary.

To give an example, normally successful products in the U.S. have some degree of shading and contrast within the tiles. It’s also very critical that you pinpoint the color palette very carefully and work the colors until they are 100% perfected for the U.S. market.

TileDealer: What do you see as important to the American tile distributors and dealers?

Mariutto: Great design targeted specifically for this market is something we have already talked about. Additionally, proper marketing to bring that product to market and the service they receive, not only from the factories, but also from a local customer service staff [is imperative].

It is important in today’s market to have a U.S.-based office and staff that is multi-lingual and understands the American distributor’s needs. We concentrate on giving impeccable service, along with our focus on the product design.

Also, being able to offer the distributors and importers diversification of products they need—a sort of one-stop shopping mode—[is essential]. They need to know that the investment that they make in bringing a product to market will pay off for them. Through Mediterranea, they can accomplish a lot of their needs working with one brand.

Another important factor is having material available to ship, whether it is domestic or import. We consider the importance of having material in stock, and ready to deliver on time and quickly to customers.

TileDealer: What’s ahead for tile over the next five years? Ten years?

Mariutto: First of all, looking at that question for the U.S. market, I definitely see strong and continued growth from large manufacturing groups developing production within the United States. I believe there will be a strong trend of larger manufacturing groups from Europe—Italy and Spain particularly—that will be either acquiring production or distribution within the United States, but more likely constructing manufacturing facilities here in the U.S. I believe that will continue to go forward.

The only thing I could add is that I would expect over the next five years prices of imported ceramic tile will continue to increase in the U.S. market, due to the higher energy and transportation costs involved.

SOURCE:

Reach Michael Mariutto through Paul Young

Architectural Imports

305-718-5091

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