Focus on Leadership - Aug/Sep 2011
Interview by Kemp Harr
It was while working as a designer in the early ’80s that Patti Fasan, in the midst of sketching a copy of an old marble floor mural, discovered her passion for tile. Pursuing that passion, she founded p.a.t.t.i., an education and consulting firm for the ceramic tile industry. Fasan’s seminars offer an unbiased approach to the ceramic tile industry, providing education on all aspects of the industry, including the history of the material, specification, sales strategies, sustainability and style. A mother, a wife and an avid learner, in this month’s Focus on Leadership, Fasan talks gender, motherhood, distribution and her icons in the flooring industry.
Q: In college you started pursuing a teaching degree but then changed to design. What motivated that change?
A: Since my early teens, I assisted in teaching ballet classes for my dance coach, and it just seemed like a natural progression for me to become a teacher. In university I quickly realized how many different options were open to me, and I enjoyed a very diverse field of study. The university offered a bachelor degree in integrated studies, and once I visited the school of architecture studio classes, I was hooked. It didn’t hurt that my future husband was enrolled in architecture either.
Q: How did your design background help you find success in the early part of your career?
A: Creativity and design vision are easily integrated skills, which can help you succeed in almost any career. My first few jobs after graduation were in banking—hardly a design oriented position—but I found my studies helped me to see opportunities and solutions not always apparent to others. Luckily, I quickly landed a position in residential design.
Q: You have spent much of your adult life teaching and socializing with designers. What role does gender play in the success of the designers you’ve met—if any?
A: It’s an interesting question, and the answer, for me, is a mixed one. Architecture and building science are definitely male dominated professions, and I believe men cut little slack when it comes to listening to anyone—but especially to a woman if she is not technically savvy. Unfortunately, I believe some men’s first judgement might be, “What can this woman possibly teach me?”
Women professionals will, in many cases, be even tougher on a female consultant. However, I like that challenge from another woman. I know they are serious and that once I’ve earned their trust, they are incredibly loyal advocates. The early lesson I learned is to make sure the facts are accurate and do your homework. Design professionals want and need technical expertise and sound advice.
Q: Why were you drawn to the world of tile?
A: When my family moved to Vancouver from Ontario in the early ’80s during that other recessive period, design jobs were few and far between. One job I landed had me on my hands and knees sketching details from a very old marble mural floor installation. The client wanted to replace this historic masterpiece with carpet but wanted me to duplicate some of the more unique zodiac motifs into the design of the woven wool carpet. The more I sketched, the more enchanted I was with the skill, the craftsmanship and the history of ceramic tile. If you think back to the ’70s, we just didn’t use tile in that way, so I started to look up information on ceramic tile and muralists. I was just captivated. The mural told a story in each minute piece of tessera. My journey into the world of stone and tile began there, and I have really never strayed since then.
Q: The ceramic tile industry is deeply rooted in Europe, and most of the big manufacturing firms in Italy and Spain are run by men. Why do we not see more women in leadership roles within these companies? What are these companies missing by not having women among their leaders?
A: Generally, it is true that few women have been involved at a senior level in European ceramic tile manufacturing. Obviously, there are some basic cultural differences, and it is much more difficult in a strong patriarchal society for women to advance. Slowly but happily, Europe is beginning to let down some of these barriers. I believe a significant reason has to do with the ceramic industry psyche moving from a construction based industry firmly into a fashion and innovation based industry. Employing women on the team gives manufacturers insight into the shopper who traditionally buys finishes for the home; looks after, maintains and cleans the home; and shares a common vision with other women on trends and fashion. Women are also the “mother of invention,” and their creative flexibility has initiated many of the new directions and innovations we have seen in the market over the last three to five years.
Q: Talk about your career path that led to your current role as advocate for increasing the use of tile as an interior flooring surface.
A: Working as the sales director for a major West Coast distributor and dealing with architects and designers on a daily basis eventually became somewhat frustrating. I just didn’t think North American professionals really understood the product: its functional value; its environmental benefits; and the amazing scope of selections available outside the U.S. On returning from Europe each year, it was depressing to see the path North America builders were choosing.
I became an advocate for a build-for-life philosophy. A building designed for a 25 to 40 year lifespan only to be demolished and rebuilt is, in my opinion, an initial false economy. With short-term planned obsolescence there are no cultural, historical or environmental benefits or value. These are not buildings we fall in love with or try to preserve and protect; they are just cheap temporary band-aid solutions that when amortized over their lifecycle are horrendously costly.
Starting Professional Attention to Tile Installations, p.a.t.t.i., gave me a forum to share a different point of view and hopefully open up a dialogue with the A&D community. Information on ceramic tile is always explained in technical or construction oriented terms, rather than design oriented terms. I want to help other A&D professionals understand ceramic tile.
If I’m not at shows or teaching—my absolute passion—I’m researching, thinking of ways that we can elevate ceramic tile, in North America, to an art medium, the way it is seen in the rest of the world. We have a scrap-and-build mentality in the U.S., so we never have anything we can treasure. That’s where we need to get to: loving what we build, respecting our architecture. If we want to have buildings that last for hundreds of years, we have to use materials that will last for hundreds of years.
Sustainability is building well. Building for life. It’s not price. It’s not replacement. It’s doing it right the first time: design it right, build it right, get quality installation. We think we’re saving money by building poorly, but we’re not—not in any way, not historically, not environmentally, not from an aesthetic point of view.
Q: Based on industry consolidation and the Internet, do you think distribution will still play an important role in the tile industry in the future?
A: Yes, I think distribution and distributors should and can play an important role in the future. But I think some changes in profile, scope of work and mindsets need to take effect. The answer to this question could be an essay, with my view partially biased due to my background in distribution, but, in many ways, I think distributors have not received the credit they deserve. They are an invaluable partner to the many small retailers across North America—the small independent specialist, who truly knows how to sell quality product to the user or specifier, design unique settings and facilitate a lifelong installation of ceramic tile, porcelain and stone.
In my opinion, the distributor’s role is very different from a retailer’s. The distributor has the financial assets and buying clout to purchase large quantities of inventory stock. They should have a design-based purchasing team, who are specialists in trends, fashion and buyers sentiments. They should be the liaison between manufacturers and support industry education to keep their retailing components up to date on the most current technologies and innovations. They should have a team of architectural and design representatives in the field, who are technical experts on the products in inventory and who are able to promote the brands, garner A&D specifications and educate retailers on new product items and industry standards. I believe these are the core strengths of a distributor.
With this type of support, the small retailer can specialize in selling and closing the deal. In order for distributors to do their job and properly manage the financial risk of large inventories brought in to facilitate smaller retail operations, they need the loyal support of their retailing partners. Retailers cannot display every distributor’s free sample boards. I think they have to commit to a few select distributors, who provide them with all the value added services they cannot manage financially, or from a man-power position, on their own.
The water is so muddy now that trust and loyalty are in very short supply and a clear distinction of core competencies and prime client targets no longer exists.
Q: You have recently won several awards and accolades from within the tile industry. To what do you attribute your success?
A: I sincerely believe in the product and our industry. I am passionate about reaching every audience, and I am diligent in my research. I have always been an optimist and firmly believe when you know better you do better.
Q: As a woman, what dimension do you bring to the decision making process?
A: I am a learner at heart. There is nothing I enjoy more than investigating a topic I know little about. I think my biggest joy would simply be to return to school and proctor courses. I am open-minded and bring a variety of points of view to the table, and I am patient—an attribute every mother learns one way or another.
Q: How do you think the professional experience differs for women and men?
A: I think there has been more professional and social camaraderie among men in our industry. In the past, I think camaraderie among women occurred less because we were so outnumbered, but that is changing as well. Women in the construction industry and our industry have banded together and created support groups that work to encourage others into the field. Every day I meet more women who have broken through the ranks, and their encouragement and mentoring of other women is inspirational and rewarding.
Q: Tell us about some of your frustrations as a woman in the business world.
A: Very few actually, but I do tire easily when politics or the status quo stand in the way of solutions. Travel can also be a pain—no one to explore with or have dinner with. Dining alone is dismal, particularly for a woman in a strange city.
Q: What do you consider your greatest career success?
A: Having the guts to open my own business and persevering through good and bad times.
Q: Who played a key role in making you who you are?
A: Maria Font, the co-owner of the distributor I worked for. She did not believe in the word “no” and encouraged me to say “yes” to every opportunity life presented. Her motto was always “have energy to explore the unknown.”
Joe Tarver. I listened to him speak many times, and his respect and admiration for the people he worked with and the products he talked about was so genuine and believable. He was honest, thoughtful and passionate—all the things I aspired to be.
Barbara Schirmeister from Crossville, a designer, another woman, a rare model in the early days.
Inma Roca from Tile of Spain, who believed education was important and trusted me to deliver it. She is the epitome of passion and modeled an incredible work ethic.
Q: How do you balance your family life and career?
A: It is always a delicate balance when both parents work, but it was much more difficult when our son was young. I’m blessed with a very hands-on partner, who believes in my independence and success as much as his own.
Q: As you look back on your career, what—if anything—would you have done differently?
Q: What does the flooring industry need to do to improve?
A: I think we need to discuss cohesion. Instead of several countries each vying for their own position of power, a more unified approach to the industry as a whole needs to be tackled. The industry needs a central clearinghouse of information. At the moment, there are too many voices and not enough clear, general and transparent information.
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