The use of ceramics can be traced back to the ancient worlds of the Assyrians and Babylonians, but these versatile materials still hold an unrelenting appeal in the modern day world for their strikingly artistic and visual presentation and durability. Perhaps most importantly, ceramic tiles add beauty to any living space with a plethora of colours, finishes, shapes, and styles. New production technologies have made them a desirable option for builders, designers, architects, and homeowners.
Canadian ceramic tile consumption reached its highest point in 2017 as more than forty-three million square meters were installed in an over fourteen percent increase from 2016. Family-owned importer and distributor Ceratec has been part of that, serving customers with quality products for seventy years.
Ceratec was established in 1949 as St. Lawrence Ceramics, adopting its current name in 1973. It was in the 1980s that Vice President Jean-Paul Raiche acquired the company and had his four sons fulfilling various roles within it.
Ceratec’s product offerings include ceramic, porcelain and mosaic tiles for floors, walls, backsplashes for the commercial and residential markets. Each selection in its vast collection adds a unique representation of personal appeal specific to a selected living space.
“We sell mostly to the residential market which means floor stores [and] box stores,” says President Paul Raiche, who became President in 2007. “We’re also starting to get more into the commercial market which touches architects, designers, installers, and general contractors.”
The company has 220 employees at seven branches in Canada in Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, and Dartmouth. Quebec City operates as the administrative office and call centre.
Ever successful company will have its own unique challenges, and Ceratec is no exception. When asked about such issues, Paul shares that one of the most significant ones is finding employees, particularly in Quebec. “There’s a new competitive axis in the landscape in Canada and in the province of Quebec in particular. And it’s called finding employees. I’ve never seen so many signs saying ‘We’re hiring.’ The unemployment rate in Quebec City is 3.2 percent, and our population is aging, across Canada.”
He explains that, at one time, product, presence, and presentation were the elements of success. Now, however, it is more about acquiring and retaining talent, and as experienced tile installers leave the industry, fewer young people are training to replace them. “Because we have this demographic crisis, it’s harder and harder to get tile installers. They’re an aging bunch… The stores that we work with, they’re challenged by that, for sure.”
The backbone of any successful company is its staff, and Ceratec takes pride in its capable, skilled, executive team which is, “ever-morphing,” according to Paul. “What I look for in executives are very bright people who can bring intellectual property into the company, best practices, and frameworks… I have executives who are experts in most of the subjects that they touch… It’s important that I really have executives that are capable of living our values and bringing intellectual properties into our business that lasts.”
He indicates that collaboration is essential and constantly improving. “We are very disciplined with meetings, so we have a daily scrum,” to maintain connectedness, and company news is published weekly. There are also weekly and monthly meetings, as well as quarterly meetings where the executive team, “plan our next quarter in detail, and we’ll plan two to three quarters out.” All of this focused engagement is incorporated into a Lean Six Sigma tool called an X Matrix. “In that X Matrix you have our six big projects that we want to work on during the next three years,” he continues.
Ceratec strives to be seen as the employer of choice and recently entered the best-managed companies contest hosted by Deloitte every year. “We were one of sixteen that are going to the national finals,” shares Paul. “That’s really all about employer branding. So we focus a lot on social media [and] the different job platforms to brand our company.” The company also provides training for new employees via a complete introduction process that is reinforced by website information that they can access.
Paul says that Ceratec’s human resources department is a bit different from most companies in that it has a staff of four. “When I benchmark that against a lot of other companies, they don’t seem to have as many people.” He notes that human resources duties are often left in the hands of those in management. “Most CEOs, when they hire their first HR person, they see it as a cost. I don’t see HR as a cost. For me, it’s an investment. If you don’t staff up your HR department enough, you can’t move HR projects forward. You can’t build all these tools that you need.”
Ceratec maintains a close relationship with numerous dealers and thirty suppliers from Turkey, Spain, Italy, and China. “We bill, every month, eight hundred accounts, and we have 1,200 active accounts,” says Paul. “We buy in Italy what we can’t make in Turkey. In Turkey, I have OEM relationships. We take care of the product design, and I’m always there for a production launch.”
Ceratec has long-standing relationships with its suppliers and retail partners, and Paul has adopted a philosophy of effective and efficient business management based on Philip Kotler’s B2B Brand Management, a book that delves into strategic approaches to successful company branding for businesses that sell products to other companies.
For a business-to-business (B2B) company such as Ceratec to be successful, it must establish a strong foundation of customer service, trust, and commitment. “When you talk about B2B branding, it’s about information, efficiency, and trust. It’s not really a lifestyle issue when you’re doing B2B,” explains Paul. The company’s operations, inventories and strategic positions are, “all big advantages at Ceratec.”
Both customers and clients expect quality when purchasing products. Consistent quality leads to repeat business, and repeat business establishes a company’s reputation. Quality control takes due diligence, attention to detail, and efficient monitoring and assessing of systems. It is a continuous process with no room for error.
When the company requests tiles from its suppliers, who have their own quality standards in place, “We always want it to be stock material before we ship the stock,” says Paul. When stocks are shipped, they are inspected by Ceratec according to its own quality controls and standards. “Generally, with Spain and Italy, we rarely run into problems.”
Annually, Paul travels to Cersaie, Bologna, Italy, for the International Exhibition of Ceramic Tile and Bathroom Furnishings. This trade fair is one of the world’s largest with close to thirty-five countries bringing more than nine hundred exhibitors to showcase the latest technologies, trends, and products.
The five-day event attracts architects, contractors, designers, retailers, and others with a vested interest in the ceramic tile industry. This event is a great opportunity to, “learn where the tendencies are going.”
There, Paul will visit design studios to choose his various designs and colours that he will take to his manufacturer’s laboratory in Turkey. “I’m always there for first production,” he says.
Working in close partnership with its thirty suppliers, Ceratec upholds its commitment to environmentally-sustainable tile solutions for both the residential and commercial building sectors.
“We have some products from Italy that are made from pre-consumer [post-industrial] recycled materials. I haven’t heard of any ceramic tile manufacturers that use post-consumer recycled goods. Tile is pretty inert stuff and extremely durable. We can expect lifetime performance from a tile installation.”
In addition to their other attributes, ceramic, porcelain, and glass mosaic tiles enable easier cleaning without resorting to harsh, toxic chemicals, making them an environmentally-friendly option.
“It’s a very inert product. You have water, fire, and earth mixed together. The Italians are amazing at consistently improving and creating technology… the greatest amount of intellectual property for ceramic tile production and manufacturing is out of Italy… It’s not just the manufacturing of tiles; it’s the manufacturing of equipment to make tiles.”
Ceratec values the customer and client satisfaction experience. Indeed, the company acknowledges that an invaluable source of data is derived from gauging client responses. This information about how its products and services are perceived is then used to give a true competitive advantage.
One of the means through which the company can assess the user experience is again through internet survey tools that can accurately depict any feedback or opinions from the all-important end user. Twice a year, the company conducts a survey with its clients. “We can gauge our products, logistics, service levels, representatives, and our customer service,” says Paul.
The company is also currently engaged in an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) directly with clients and owners of floor stores. SWOT analysis proves to be an invaluable resource in Ceratec’s planning process so that challenges can be overcome and opportunities can be realized. In effect, this resource functions as a precursor to effective decision making, as through SWOT, the company can formulate its strategy for the upcoming year.
Paul defines the user experience as “the intersection between technology and culture,” further explaining that this intersection becomes, “the user experience. Your culture is your brand, especially in a B2B context.” Every facet and department of Ceratec has a role to play in how it makes a customer feel, and the company has embraced technology to enhance this. “The culture of your business is extremely important,” in customer experience, explains Paul. “Using technology going forward, we have to develop a [user experience] that is very, very simple for our clients, so that they can interact with us electronically. And we do have a B2B platform that our clients’ are using to place orders.”
Ceratec’s warehouse management system (WMS) incorporates Prophet 21 software, which has been specially designed for distributors. This software gives a better understanding of ever-changing customer preferences, increases efficiency and productivity, and provides inventory control and management, among its features.
“We are currently working on a new website that will be appealing to Architects and Designers. Various types of tiles can be viewed, classified by colour, shape, style, size, price, and whether they will be applied to floor or wall, interior or exterior. The company also has a responsive website, “Ceratec on the go,” that grants technical information, real-time inventory, product characteristics, room scenes, and prices to make decisions much simpler.
And recently, Ceratec built a relationship with a start-up technology company with a focus on augmented reality (AR). This interactive experience overlays computer-generated information atop what the user perceives of his or her real world environment. “We just signed an agreement with them to start to deploy their technology on our new website,” says Paul. Unlike virtual reality (VR), AR superimposes various information, such as images, sounds, and text, on a user’s real-world environment.
Paul says the AR technology, in its first level, will be used to allow one to view an image of a tile and, “see the texture come in and out of focus as well as the colour. So it’s almost like holding the tile in your hands.” He explains that with level two, one can see the tile image, “as a 3D object. That will allow commercial specifiers to inject those into their rendering software and really save them a lot of time as well as provide texture which just doesn’t exist right now.”
In the spring of 2019, Ceratec will be celebrating its seventieth anniversary. For this event, the company will flying in staff from across the country to Quebec. “History, for me, is about good stories and things to learn from,” Paul says about reaching this milestone. “They are part of our DNA. What really counts is today and the future.”
And as for that future, he shares that he would like to see Ceratec, “go beyond $100 million. Right now, I think I have the right structure in the executive team… We have a value proposition that we put together for the commercial market that I think is a game changer.”