One on One with Jorge Aguayo
March 3rd, 2011

by Jeffrey Steele

Artisan tile is such a one-of-akind, hand-crafted product that it can very effectively differentiate a tile wholesaler. And one of the best in the business at providing unique artisan tile is Medley, Fla.-based Wholesale Tile by Aguayo. Showcasing artisan tile from across Mexico, Guatemala, Columbia, the Dominican Republic and numerous other countries, Wholesale Tile by Aguayo sells to approximately 200 tile dealers across the United States, and represents artists who are exceptionally skilled at making artisan tile. Heading the company is a man who is exceptionally good at marketing artisan tile, Jorge Aguayo. One might say artisan tile is in Aguayo’s blood. His grandfather founded Industrias Aguayo, a cement tile company in the Dominican Republic, in 1948. Despite the fact the company has always been a manufacturing enterprise, all its tile was and is hand made. Jorge Aguayo, 36, was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, where he was the oldest of four children of the son of Industrias Aguayo’s founder. He majored in industrial engineering in college in the Dominican Republic and after graduation went to work in logistics for a Dominican Republic brewery. He then joined the family business for a year, before relocating to the U.S. to earn an MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School in Evanston, Ill.

After 18 months in sales and marketing for ZS Associates in Evanston, he returned to the Dominican Republic and the family business. Earlier this year, he and his brother Raul assumed the helm of Industrias Aguayo, a company with about 115 employees and a 700,000-square foot facility, upon the retirement of their father. Industrias Aguayo had long sold its art tile to Nina Long, whose Tampa-based company was acquired by the Aguayos when Long retired, and was rechristened Wholesale Tile by Aguayo. The company’s headquarters are now located in Medley, Fla. In this One-on-One, Mr. Aguayo discusses artisan tile, how it is used and the distinctive creativity of art tile makers. He also voices his thoughts on how tile dealers can best showcase art tile to reap the greatest sales potential from this unique art form.

TileDealer: What is artisan tile?
Art tile is any tile that’s handmade and not mass produced. It is handmade, hand-crafted, handpressed and hand-glazed.

TD: What is its position in the marketplace?
Art tile has always been a niche product, a very specialized product, favored by people who are looking for unique or unusual design elements. There are people who use tile because it’s a necessity to cover a wall. But those who understand the use of tile as part of the design element of a space are those who use art tile.

TD: Is it growing?
In general, art tile has been following the overall market trends in terms of growth. The past two years, the general market for tile has been on a downward slope. We see it now bouncing back in the last three or four. It is tied to the new home market and to the renovation market. Because people cannot move, many have now decided to remodel. So you see the use of tile and art tile in renovation as opposed to new construction, which should be coming back this year. That is what we’re expecting.

TD: How has artisan tile fared in the recession?
It was hit as hard as every other aspect of tile.

TD: Who uses artisan tile and where do they use it?
Again, it’s people who are looking for unique and unusual elements in their designs. It’s generally used as a focal point of designs, because it is not an inexpensive tile. It usually will not be used, for instance, to cover an entire wall. You do see people go all the way out and create spectacular spaces with art tile. It will tend to be used, however, as a focal point. In a fireplace, because it’s a small space, the fireplace surround will be covered in art tile. A backsplash in a kitchen might use art tile. Or it could be used as accents in a larger installation like a bathroom.

TD: How can dealers include artisan tiles in showrooms?
The first thing a tile dealer needs to understand is this is not a volume product. You will not sell tens of thousands of square feet of art tile. So if you want to include art tile in your showroom offering, you’ll find so many options in terms of art tile, and you should look for one or more that complement your existing line. And you should look for one you feel will appeal to your existing customer base, because not all tile dealers are catering to every kind of taste.

TD: How should dealers merchandise artisan tile?
The thing about art tile is usually when you decide to carry a specific line of art tile, the artisan will sell you a full sample and board program. The artisan will have you buy a full package that includes samples and concept boards. As a dealer, you can’t simply display the boards you get from the artisan and art tile company, because that will not be as appealing to your customers as a board that you create from both the art tile and the materials you know are selling in your market. You want to complement the artisan tile boards with tile material you know will appeal to your customers. You should create your own boards or vignettes in which you mix and match your existing materials with the art tile. Or you should mix and match your hottest selling lines with the art tile. In addition, I always think you should put art tile on your windows when you do have windows. That’s because even though it’s not the tile that you will sell in tens of thousands of square feet, it’s so special and so spectacular that it will definitely capture customers’ attention and drive people into your showroom.

TD: Tell us why the artisan tile designer can “go out on a design limb” to differentiate him or herself from the competition.
They go out on a design limb because they can. Art tile is a form of self expression for not only the artist, but the interior designer and the homeowner. There are no rights or wrongs here. It’s what the creator wants to do. We all want to have higher sales. But the art tile creator is following his or her own inspiration. There will be customers who are as inspired as the artist, and will want to purchase the artisan tile for their fireplaces or backsplashes or bathrooms.

TD: Please discuss how artisan tile catapulted independent tile makers/artists into prominence in the industry.
Here in the Dominican Republic, baseball is really big. Kids follow not only the local baseball leagues made up of amateur players, but they’re also following Major League Baseball. They all want to be Albert Pujols or Pedro Martinez. But very few make it. The same thing is true of art tile. Many want to make it big in art tile. But very few do, and even the ones who do become design trend setters rather than becoming big players. Oceanside Glass Tile comes to mind. What they did with glass tile was to completely change the way of working with glass tile, and the way glass tile is used as a design element. But now all their stuff has been copied by the Chinese, and all the local producers in the world. So even though they don’t have this huge market, they are doing very well, and are looked to as the trend setters in this particular niche. As a tile artisan, you’re not going to be Bill Gates, but you can do very well for yourself. Sometimes you see people who become very successful, and their tile is selling in such substantial volume that they farm the production out to Mexico, and they return to simply working on the creative side of their business.

TD: What’s ahead for artisan tile?
Artisan tile is going to follow the general trend of the market. We’re all very hopeful for the next few years, and art tile is going to follow the general trend and things will get better for everyone. It’s never going to become a mainstream product. There are very few exceptions. One of the exceptions is cement tile, which is an individual class within art tile. It’s one of the few lines that we sell that has grown considerably over the last year. This was a product that designers didn’t know about and didn’t understand. And as people grow more comfortable with the product they’re inclined to use it more frequently. And they see the design possibilities in this very customizable product.

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