Focus on Leadership: President Carl Delia leads Emser with compassion and positivity - May 2021
Interview by Kemp Harr
Carl Delia is the quiet man at the helm driving Emser’s rapid growth in the builder, specified commercial and retail replacement sectors of the flooring business. He has been described as one of the kindest leaders in the industry and has been with the privately owned company for 35 years, promoted from general manager to president in 2016. In his leadership role, Delia has excelled at blending the vision of the Emser family members with his own strategic vision. If his responsibility of guiding the company through strategic planning, operational excellence and customer centricity is arduous, he certainly doesn’t show it.
The Chicago native, who attended graduate classes at Pepperdine, contends that success means having a good attitude, being a good listener and leading by example. His positive demeanor has helped him navigate a slew of hurdles over the years, from tariffs to earthquakes, and it helps guide him on the road when he’s enjoying cycling in his off time.
This year, he will celebrate 45 years of marriage to his wife, Judy.
Q: How long have you served as president? Did you think at the time you joined the company that you might end up as president?
A: I have served as president of Emser since 2016. Previously, the role was as general manager since 1989. Functionally, the responsibilities have not changed substantially. However, the sense of responsibility to guide the organization through strategic planning, both short and long term, is of paramount importance.
Q: Tell us what drove you to leave Chicago for Los Angeles to join Emser back in 1986.
A: A former boss with whom I worked in Chicago offered me a position running one of the divisions that he had recently purchased in the Los Angeles area. The company was sold one year later, which resulted in the opportunity of a lifetime with Emser. I’ve never looked back.
Q: What best prepared you to handle this
A: Over the years, there have been many situations that provide a variety of challenges and opportunities. These include port strikes, tariffs, natural disasters (including floods, earthquakes and fires), factory disruptions and many other situations that provide the experience to adapt quickly and recognize that regardless of having a plan you must adjust as needed. It is important to recognize that in business there is much grey; it is not always black and white. What sets us apart is the ability to be nimble and to make sure that our customers are always at the forefront of our priorities.
On the other hand, there are many major successes that show diligence, hard work and a true desire to achieve will most often come true. We have enjoyed many valuable relationships with our customers. One of our philosophies is that what is good for our customers is good for Emser. It is through this type of attitude that we, as a leadership team, are able to succeed in our roles.
Q: We know the story about the five brothers whose first initials are the basis for the company name. Out of those five, who is still active in the business, and what is their area of focus?
A: Unfortunately, one of the partners passed away in 2004, but four of the original founders are still active in the business, as is the next generation. They support the business with focus on oversight, global activities, business development and real estate. Their experience and guidance are invaluable, but they also support the entrepreneurial spirit and offer autonomy, which has been a foundation of Emser since its beginning.
Q: Is one of your roles being the person who drives the expectations of the ownership group through the organization? How do you facilitate that?
A: Emser’s leadership team rivals the talent of any growth-oriented and successful company, regardless of industry. The team brings deep experience and credentials that helped drive the company to the success we have achieved. Though we are a privately held company, the expectations are that of a public company. The expectations are to achieve double-digit sales growth and maintain respectable profits.
Q: Considering that Emser started out in the rug and real estate business but now has a focus in the tile and stone business, what is the company’s core competency?
A: The company’s focus and strength are twofold. First, it’s to continue to support a diverse product line (primarily tile and stone), which is widely accepted among our customer base as fashion-oriented yet practical, innovative and trend-setting, and representative of the range of desired price points. Secondly, it’s to continue leveraging our capabilities in navigating logistics that are often affected by global and political policies and events, which, at times, are complex and intricate.
Q: What is Emser’s competitive advantage?
A: The core of our competitive advantage is rooted in our entrepreneurial approach to running our business-the philosophy that I mentioned earlier, what is good for our customer is good for Emser. We remind our team to never walk away from a sale, but instead to always seek alternatives and creative solutions for a win-win.
Q: At some point in time, Emser’s core customer focus shifted from department stores to the builder segment. How did that come about?
A: In 1986, the company had its fifth branch under construction in Phoenix, Arizona. Interestingly, there was a major focus on commercial projects that not only included department stores but also hotels and office buildings. At that time, our projects included Tiffany’s, Hilton hotels, the legislative office building in D.C., and numerous department stores.
In 1989-1990, a major recession affected commercial business with projects virtually coming to a standstill. During this period, several national homebuilders were getting hold of the market and growing the residential homebuilding business. Emser adapted and began focusing our efforts toward this market. As a result of the rapid rise of the homebuilders, our experience with commercial and sales out of our growing number of branches, Emser experienced hyper-growth for over a decade. Fortunately, most of these relationships exist to this day.
Q: Emser sources from over 75 factories in 20 countries. How do you select your supply partners?
A: There is a formal process for factory selection with an emphasis on production capabilities and product quality protocol that must be adhered to and is monitored. There is a keen awareness of sources of factory labor, and this is also a critical consideration in the selection process. As part of our partner selection, we make sure that all factories are following fair employment practices and do not tolerate child labor or other unethical practices.
Q: You’ve been characterized as the nicest, kindest leader in the floorcovering business-calm, never flustered. How did you learn to stay so cool?
A: I’m not sure that I always meet this complimentary assessment; everyone has their moments! However, something I always try to remember is that our teammates want to do their best and want to be treated fairly and with dignity.
Growing up in Chicago, I have keen memories of words my parents would say speaking of their work experiences and how people should be treated. They impressed on me the need to be sensitive and honest, fair and unbiased.
Q: Who are the mentors that helped you become who you are?
A: There are two mentors that helped to shape me. The first and most important would be the Emser partners, especially Edward. I would never be able to perform without their support through their philosophy and viewpoint on life and how people should be treated. The second mentor was an uncle who was a successful businessman in Chicago; as I was growing up, he exhibited great kindness and care that I never forgot about. His example always is at the forefront of my mind.
In an effort to give back, three years ago, I became involved with a program through the University of San Diego Entrepreneurship program, School of Engineering, as a mentor to seniors working on their final project. Along with another mentor, we have established a Starpoint Award, rewarding funding for student innovation with projects that improve social, health and/or environmental conditions to continue their research. This has been an immensely rewarding experience.
Q: After you joined Emser, you attended Pepperdine for graduate classes. Tell us more about that experience.
A: I attended Pepperdine in 1994 and 1995. One of the most vivid memories is of the day that the initiation class commenced. It started with an offsite session that began early Friday evening through Sunday afternoon at a bed-and-breakfast in the mountains of Southern California. Everyone gathered in a room Friday evening and was seated waiting for someone to come in to lead the session, and deliberately, no one showed up. Unknowingly at the time, the intent was to determine who the natural leaders were that would take control. For me, it brought about an introspective look at attributes and skill sets that leaders typically exhibit.
Q: What characteristics do you look for when you add additional people to your team?
A: Our values are stated through our INSPIRED acronym-integrity, no ego, service, partnership, innovation, recognition, excellence and development.
Q: What is your secret for keeping all the balls in the air between driving the company’s goals, family time, exercise and sharpening the saw?
A: The secret is to stay balanced and focused. I have been lucky to have a wife, Judy, who has always been supportive throughout my career. We will be celebrating our 45th anniversary in November. Though I try to be sensitive to family balance, I have always had tremendous support to do whatever is best for the business.
Q: I hear you are an avid cyclist. Tell us more about that hobby.
A: Biking and exercise play a major role in my wellbeing. I was diagnosed with heart disease in 1994 and have successfully managed it thanks to exercise. Biking along the Strand at the beachfront that extends about 40 miles roundtrip is the best experience ever.
Q: Are there parts of Chicago that you miss in Los Angeles?
A: We moved from Chicago 35 years ago. Though the city is currently going through a rough time and may not have the most positive reputation, it is still a beautiful city. Most of my family is still living in the metropolitan area. While I miss them, I do not miss the cold weather! Sometimes, knowing they’ve just experienced a snowstorm, I will call a relative and tell them I got sunburned at the beach. No comment on their response!
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