By Jeffrey Steele
When Sylvie Atanasio joined Country Floors about a year ago, she made no small plans. She and general manager Charlie Duncanson teamed up with one large goal in mind: “Returning it to the glory days was the whole lure of joining the company.”
‘The attraction of coming to Country Floors was back in the day, it was number one,” she says. “It was the Versace of tile.”
Five years ago, in the deepest nadir of the Great Recession, Atanasio launched a new line of tile and stone, AlysEdwards. “Instead of coming up with custom, high-end $150-a-square-foot product, I created products that looked and felt custom, but were ready made, in stock, on the shelf, could be shipped within 48 hours and cost just $26 a square foot. I called it ‘ready-made custom tile.’”
In four years, the line went from zero to $1 million a month. Though it had been unveiled at the worst time, February 2008, “in retrospect, it turned out to be the best time, because competitors stopped bringing in anything edgy or innovative,” Atanasio says.
In the 12 months she has been at Country Floors, she has designed 14 new lines, which are about to be unveiled at Coverings. “But the biggest thing is, when I left AlysEdwards, I wasn’t sure if clients who said they would follow me, would,” she recalls.
“But when the first five lines came out, I did a road trip. It was the first time in a while I felt nervous. Every old customer I went to see signed on as an authorized dealer, to buy into the program. There wasn’t a single one I asked who said ‘no’ to me.”
Tiledealer: How would you describe the creative philosophy of Country Floors?
I don’t know what the creative philosophy of Country Floors is. I can only tell you what my creative philosophy or mission is.
My creative philosophy is to create and bring forth new and cutting edge designs in both luxury tiles and natural stones, whether they are my own designs, or designs that are created by other artists exclusively for Country Floors.
My commitment is to bring forth beautiful tile and stone products. It doesn’t matter if they’re old world or modern. Country Floors has a responsibility to stay progressive, and I a duty to uncover and discover new talent and products designers crave.
TD: What sets Country Floors apart from competitors?
The biggest distinction between Country Floors and our competitors, besides designing and developing high-end decorative and handmade tiles, glass tiles and mosaics, is owning the quarries.
We own our own quarries and the largest stone processing plant in Turkey, and now in Tunisia. We are the direct source, whereas my competitors are just buying from a factory and importing.
TD: What is your own background?
Seventeen years ago I opened my own boutique showroom and found out the hard way that all the desirable lines were taken and that with no clout, no one would give me the time of day.
That forced me to start designing and contract manufacturing with a small artisan studio to make proprietary lines for me. I have learned the tile biz through trial and error. Over the last 27 years in this business, I have made and lost a lot of money. And I have learned to consistently evolve and change to fit the market.
Talking about the industry: real diamonds or cubic zirconia?
TD: How do you see stone faring vs. ceramic and porcelain?
Asking me how I see natural stone faring against the new ink jet technologies available in porcelain tiles today is like asking how I think real diamonds are going to fare against cubic zirconia.
The new porcelains that are being produced today are beautiful, the technology is truly amazing and it will allow the ceramic tile industry to capture a larger segment of the hard surface industry.
But in the end, nothing compares to natural stone! Given the choice, and depending on the application, I would pick the real thing, just like I wouldn’t wear cubic on my left hand either.
TD: What is your own personal design philosophy?
I am not sure what my personal design philosophy is. I know what my mission is, and that is to design beautiful tile products at every price level. Don’t get me wrong, I love designing for the luxury high-end market. But not everyone can afford to spend $50 to $100 plus per square foot. I like developing products that look and feel expensive, but that are affordable to the majority of people. They’re still willing to spend money, but they need to see value.
TD: You’ve designed some custom lines for various manufacturers. What is your process for doing such designs?
I have privately labeled for several large companies, including Marazzi, Florim USA and Arley Wholesale. I recently organized collections for Kolher and Crossville Ceramics If I told you my process I’d have to kill you. Just kidding. My success in designing for other manufacturers is that I really listen to what they want and their vision, and then I design what I think that means.
TD: What would you like to accomplish as a CTDA board member?
During my time as a board member, I can help strengthen the voice of the CTDA, so that we are seen as a network of help not just for the tile distributors, but really the tile and stone industry as whole.
The CTDA is a place to be educated on the most current style trends, new technology concerning tile and the products used to install them. CTDA should be thought as a network of help, a lifeline.
I liken it to the AAA Motor Club. When you have a flat tire, what do you do? First you say to yourself, “&@*%#!”
Then you say, “I need to call AAA to fix my flat.” You never say, “Hmm, I think I’ll fix it myself.” That’s what CTDA should mean to everyone in our industry. It’s a place to turn for help.
TD: What are the most exciting issues for the industry?
Trend wise, I think the textures and the 3D patterns being done in stones are very exciting. The mixed media being used in water-jet patterns, the new thin, large porcelain tiles, and the continued advancement of the ink jet technology and recycled products continue to be on the forefront of what is being developed.
As far as hot topics are concerned, I think a big one is how e-commerce sales are re-shaping how we do business in the tile industry. How that affects tile distributors nationwide and the philosophy of protected territories is a major issue.
The CTDA has formed a task force to address these very issues, and I suspect that at the Total Solution Plus 2013 conference, there will be seminars addressing the Internet and social media.
TD: You’ve been described as something of a firebrand; are there any positions you advance at odds with the industry?
Firebrand… true. I am very provocative, and people think I’m crazy or pure genius, and I’m not for the faint of heart. I am very passionate about having more women executives and business owners get involved in the tile industry. The demographics of our industry have changed quite a bit. Let’s face it, the tile industry, like construction, has always been a male-dominated industry. But there are more women doing business in the tile industry than ever before, many running very successful business.
I would like to see more women join and actively participate in the CTDA, as well as other industry organizations.
TD: What is your forecast for the tile industry over the next couple of years?
I think the business will continue to improve because the American people are getting used to the economy. They realize life must go on, and tile distributors and retailers have adjusted their business models to be competitive in today’s market. Let’s face it, if they haven’t changed their thinking by now, they’re probably out of business.
TD: What will it take for the tile industry to come all the way back and forge ahead of its past successes?
I think to be successful now, companies must re-invent themselves entirely. They can’t afford to rest on their laurels and reminisce about how successful they once were.
I think you need to think novel and act entrepreneurial. More important than having the coolest products, or the best price, or the most aggressive sales staff is exceptional customer service! I have found that if you have stellar customer service people will flock to you and stand in line to do business with you. If you have their best interest at heart they will follow you anywhere because they trust you.
Sylvie Atanasio, Creative Director
COUNTRY FLOORS, Los Angeles