Donato Grosser, TCNA president: Focus on Leadership - Mar 2016
Interview by Kemp Harr
Donato Grosser was hesitant to do this interview. Why? Because in Grosser’s mind, he is more of an idea man than a business leader. The fact is, however, that Grosser’s ideas have played a significant role in shaping the U.S. ceramic tile industry, and his peers characterize him as one of the most important men in the business. As Tile Council of North America president Eric Astrachan said when he presented Grosser with the 2014 Tile Person of the Year Award, “Donato is a scholar who has worked in the background for the last 40 years to transform the North American tile market.”
Italian born and bred, Grosser credits his success, in part, to lessons taught him by his father, who he says was a great businessman guided by an impeccable moral compass. Like him, Grosser uses his sense of right and wrong to guide him in conducting business.
Grosser has now spent more than 40 years living in the States, having first come here to marry an American woman. Grosser starts his days by reading both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and believes that the perspective he gains through his reading on the direction of societal trends benefits both his life and work.
Grosser lives in New York. He and his wife have two daughters and seven grandchildren.
Q: After earning an economics degree at the University of Jerusalem and an MBA at New York University, you went to work for Unilever in Italy. Explain how you went from there to the tile industry.
A: I came to America to get married, got a green card and went out looking for a job. It was January of 1974, in the middle of a recession. I went to Lever Brothers on Park Avenue and walked into the building. All the lights were off. There was only one office on one floor with the lights on, and I went there for an interview. Soon after, I saw that the company had recently fired 600 people, so I thought, that isn’t the place for me.
At home, my wife said, “You have already been going around for several months looking for a job. Why don’t you call the commercial office of the Italian consulate?” So I did.
The day that I called the Italian Trade Commission, they said, “We have someone quitting today, and we need someone to do market research in Italy.” I got the position, and it fit like a glove.
Q: What was your early role with the Italian Trade Commission?
A: In 1980, Assopiastrelle—the Italian Ceramic Tile Association, which is now called Confindustria Ceramica—launched a program to promote Italian ceramic tile in the U.S. in conjunction with the Italian Trade Commission, and I headed that program.
The head of the commission at the time was Dr. Lucio Caputo. He is a visionary, and I was very lucky to be able to learn from him. Dr. Caputo is one of the most successful businessmen in public relations that I know. Today, he is 80 years old and runs the Italian Food and Wine Institute in New York. He has enormous vision.
From him, I learned how to promote products, how to talk to people about business, how to talk in public, what to say, what not to say. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such a capable person. We are still friends today.
Q: For years, you’ve actively promoted the use of tile to architects and designers. What led you to understand that this was the best way to expand the size of the market long term?
A: A public relations firm hired by the Italian Trade Commission had the idea. Research showed that designers were the group of professionals most interested in new products and especially in the variety offered by Italian ceramic tile manufacturers.
In the beginning, the process was pretty disappointing
because we didn’t know how to do it, but then we started contacting chapters of the International Interior Design Association and American Society of Interior Designers.
We began hosting seminars with receptions all over the U.S. The Italian Association and Italian Foreign Trade Institute invested a lot of money in the promotion, and we created social, pleasant events, hoping that people would leave with a good feeling about our industry. Those were glorious years.
Q: How has the business changed over the last 40 years?
A: When we began hosting the seminars, we had to explain what ceramic tile was. Today, we don’t need to do that. Current conversations are much more technical. We have to explain the benefit of this type of tile versus that type of tile, when and where you can use particular products.
Q: I understand that you were instrumental in creating the exhibition that became Coverings. Tell me about that.
A: In Italy, we have Cersaie, a trade fair that is organized by manufacturers for manufacturers. In the U.S, there was no such thing. The National Tile Contractor Association (NTCA) had organized a convention with an exhibit, but the only people in attendance were members of the organization. They weren’t attracting the builders, the architects, and the other layers in the channel that are part of the commerce equation.
The industry needed something here in the U.S. like Cersaie, where everybody could attend—a real trade show, not a convention with an exhibit. So I approached the Cahners Group and said, “Listen, I know you organize shows, and you are in the design and decoration business.”
So we started a show called the World Exhibition of Ceramic Tile, which was owned 50% by the Italian Tile Association and 50% by Cahners. They wanted a guarantee of 300 booths. I guaranteed, and it was a success from the very beginning. So for a while, there were two U.S. tile shows. Finally, the Italian Tile Association merged with NTCA and the Ceramic Tile Distributor Association to form what later became Coverings.
Q: How did you become involved with the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF)? Why do you think this organization is crucial in the growth of the tile business?
A: I joined CTEF a few years ago as a representative of the Italian Tile Association. The role of CTEF in the ceramic tile market is very important. In the past few years, ceramic tile consumption has expanded at a fast pace. In a sense, ceramic tile is not a finished product until it is installed, and the rising demand for ceramic tile requires a sufficient number of professionally trained and knowledgeable installers. While the “invisible hand” of the free economy may spur people to enter the market as tile installers, tile installation has become a field for specialists. Once, tile was installed with a mud bed and almost any good bricklayer could do the job. Today, the variety of materials and methods require substantial knowledge.
After working with the organization and its then-leader Dave Gobis for a while, I came up with an idea: we can’t do just education here. To qualify this education, we have to give certification to installers. If there is a certification, it will become a public thing, and people will recognize and use certified installers.
If we’re only doing education, we’re not quite doing enough. I helped them see the importance giving certifications to the people they were training.
Q: Enacting change can be hard, yet you have been able to accomplish big things. What’s your secret?
A: Sometimes that light bulb goes off in your brain, and you think, “This is what we can do. This is the answer.” But then you have to try to convince your peers to change their ways to get the results that are needed.
There is a lot of work in convincing people; sometimes it takes a year or two to convince a group. But it’s better to enact change through consensus than force.
Q: Tennessee will soon be the home to seven large tile factories, four of which are owned by Italian companies. Are you concerned that capacity might soon exceed demand, and how might that impact the business?
A: There is a possibility that capacity will exceed demand. That is why manufacturers need to have solid financial foundations in order to survive during recessions.
Q: Today over 30% of the tile distributors in the U.S. are controlled by manufacturers. What impact is that having on the business?
A: Some manufacturers are expanding their own distribution as a defensive move. Manufacturers that sell through their own wholesale showrooms can better forecast future trends and budgeting. In addition, it is easier to make experiments in launching new products.
Q: In your opinion, what distinguishes Italian tile from tile produced in other countries?
A: The main advantage of Italian ceramic tile producers is that they are the first in designing new products. New design requires new technology and new machinery. The ceramic tile district around Sassuolo, Italy is a unique concentration of entrepreneurial spirit, manufacturing and knowledge.
Q: What career advice do you have for someone who is just entering the business?
A: If you want to do something, do it. When you are young, you have to try everything in business. If I have any regret, it’s that when I was young I was not daring enough in making some decisions, but that is the way I am made.
Q: Who besides Dr. Caputo played a role in making you into the businessman you are today?
A: I learned most of my instincts in dealing with people from my father. He was the founding manager of a factory in Milan, an incredible salesman, an incredible psychologist and a person who could tell in short order if a person was sincere and could be trusted.
He was the first one to set up a franchising system in Italy, choosing people from outside of his industry just because he knew ‘this is the right person.’
After coming back from graduate school in New York, I kept asking my dad, “Tell me stories about your life, how you dealt in business.” When I was 20 years old, I thought my father was the greatest man on this planet.
Q: You always appear to be amused when I run into you. What is the root of your positive demeanor?
A: My father told me, “Always put things in a positive way; don’t put things in a negative way.” There are times when you are trying to solve problems that you have to address the negatives, but when you talk to people, you convey positives.
Q: What do you do in New York for entertainment when you aren’t focused on work?
A: I like to read, to study, to get ideas and to learn from the people who wrote great things in the past. I have many of the classics in my personal library. Every morning, I start the day by reading both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It takes me a lot of time. They have basically opposite editorial opinions, and I feel it’s important to get to know the thoughts of both sides. In business, you have to know how people think and adapt your business model to society if you want to continue existing.
Q: I notice that you often wear a Mets hat. Are you a fan?
A: The main reason I wear a hat is because I’m bald, and I look much more distinguished with a hat than without.
If you look at the pictures of people in America after WWII, everybody wore a hat. President Kennedy was the first president to give inaugural speech without a hat on, and from then the hat business was ruined. I am trying to resurrect the hat business. If the bald people unite in wearing hats, maybe we can get into the hat business again. I actually prefer a Borsalino hat.
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