Best Practices - July 2006

By Lis Calandrino

I was at the Builders and Remodeling Show in Troy, New York, when I saw Top Tile’s booth. I wasn’t surprised to see a flooring retailer at the show. What was surprising was that there were NO other flooring retailers at this large regional show, and that a large number of women had crowded around the display to speak with the obviously knowledgeable woman behind the booth.

That woman was Anna Albert, business partner of Ken Riddell and head of the installation side of the business.

Top Tile of Latham, New York was started in 1958 by Peter Lay. (Ken started working for Peter in 1990.) The original store sold most types of flooring.

In 1999, Ken decided he would buy the store. “I always loved the tile and stone business because of its beauty and artistic quality.” 

Shortly after the purchase, Ken phased out other floorings to focus on tile and stone, and took Anna Albert in as a partner. Anna, a tile installer and general contractor, had been a long time customer and friend.

The 2,000 square foot showroom and 5,000 square foot warehouse are still located at 892 New Loudon Road, a major state highway running through Latham, an upscale suburb of Albany. 

Despite the fact that Top Tile almost sits in the Home Depot parking lot and has a clear view of Lowe’s just down the block, this tiny showroom boasts over a million dollars a year in residential sales. That’s probably because it has a wide range of elegant and unique tile, stone, granite, marble and other natural flooring you can’t find in the big boxes.

With business like that, it’s no surprise the partners are looking for land or a building to substantially increase their showroom space, especially as customers ask more often for related products, like radiant heat (which they provide), or accent pieces such as glass and metal inserts and other fancy art work that can be set into floor designs.

Anna and Ken agree that business is growing in the higher margin part of the market, with customers bringing in photos and ready to go with ideas they get from HGTV. 

Customers travel to the store from other affluent areas such as nearby Clifton Park, Saratoga and Schenectady. Interestingly, Ken says he’s also started to see more people moving up from the New York City area visiting his store. So, it pays to be active and visible in the community, he says.

Ken is convinced that over 50% of the business is word of mouth, with many more buyers coming in off his Yellow Pages ad. He says the Top Tile website has been an important contributor, but he wants to update it so customers can design their floors online.

Reaching out to all customers is one key to Top Tile’s success. The two belong to the New York State Builder’s Association and the Capital District Builders and Remodelers Association, which sponsored the home show where I met them. According to Ken, those shows have resulted in orders for bigger showers, backsplashes and more rooms being converted from soft surfaces to tile.

Staying on top of the market means staying on top of the tile category, and Ken and Anna are devoted to keeping their knowledge up to date. Ken’s supplier list consists of distributors around the country that specialize in high end products, and he relies on the Tile Council of America for installation specifications that he follows to the letter. This way he knows that the flooring is being installed properly and that problems will be minimal, if not nonexistent. (One of his main concerns is that consumers are using more and more tile in their houses, so it’s critical floors be strong enough.)

The store employs two salespeople plus Anna and Ken, as well as four other full time and two part time employees. One of their installers is Ken’s brother.

Both Ken and Anna believe that a topnotch installation is one of the most important parts of the business. Anna is in charge of installation and shows up on every job to inspect and handle problems.

“The customer likes a woman’s touch,” says Anna, “especially when I’m doing a walk-through. I’m available if any problems occur.” The fact that Anna is the resident general contractor with a full supply of licensed subcontractors, plumbers and electricians is a definite edge.

“Sometimes we run into problems when we’re remodeling a bathroom and need a building expert,” says Anna. “I know what’s needed and have my professionals to back me up. This gives the customers a great sense of relief.”

The following are the tips they’ve developed on running a successful business despite the big boxes:

• Hire the best installers and install by the book. Anything else is not acceptable. Your business will grow or fail based on word of mouth reports of your performance.

• Be with the customer from the beginning to the end. Design the room with them, help them choose the colors and work the project through.

• Remember, you’re the expert, which means you have to know what you’re doing in every circumstance. Attend seminars; work with your suppliers around new techniques and products.

• Hire people who are knowledgeable and have an interest in the business. The people who work for you not only need to understand the technical aspects of the product, but ideally they should have some design ability.

• Always be on the lookout for new and exciting products as well as suppliers who can get these products to you in a timely manner. Customers are seeing products all over the world from their travels, and want you to have what’s out there. 

• Be prepared to grow. Look into computer design programs and toward attracting more professionals, such as interior designers for your customers, which will help you build your business.

Copyright 2006 Floor Focus Inc