Focus on Leadership: Thomas Baert’s global flooring career has taught him to value multiple perspectives – Feb 2022
Interview by Kemp Harr
Thomas Baert, president of resilient flooring manufacturer Creative Flooring Solutions (CFL)-a global manufacturer with an output of 50 million square meters annually from five manufacturing facilities-and co-owner of Domotex Asia, stepped into the flooring business over 30 years ago, working for Beaulieu America. Thomas’ flooring career has spanned three continents-Europe, North America and Asia-impressing upon him the value of diverse and multicultural-influenced thinking in business and in life. For years, Thomas has been a key source of information for us whenever we’re doing an article on the latest floorcovering innovation from around the world.
In April 2020, CFL, founded in Shanghai in 2004, announced that it would build its first U.S.-based manufacturing facility in Calhoun, Georgia. The company purchased 63 acres of land, invested heavily, and is now producing rigid core flooring at the site, with plans already in place to double its manufacturing footprint.
Thomas lives in Ghent, Belgium with his wife, Inge. He has three children-a daughter, Ella (21), and twin sons, Alexander and William (19).
Q: Like several of the other Belgian leaders in our industry, you came to the U.S. to work with Carl Bouckaert, but then moved to China to build the foundation for your company. Tell us about that early phase of your career-connecting with Carl and then choosing (and moving to) China to start your own business.
A: I was 23 years old, and my arrival in the U.S. was one of the best things to ever happen to me. Carl and Thomas Bouckaert and Piet Dossche-the leaders of Beaulieu America at that time - immersed me into true entrepreneurship. Their inspiration follows me to today. I fell in love with the United States; my conservative European education was altered into a “belief mentality,” “dream big.” I strongly believe that besides a good education, your first job is of utmost importance in the life of a young professional, the moment when you form habits and, if you are lucky, you may fall in love with the business world.
Q: You also own part of the Domotex Asia show. How did that come about?
A: During my five years traveling around the world selling American carpet, I regularly visited China. (Do you know that on every container we were selling, we loaded American flags that were used in promoting American carpet?) I decided to move to China at the age of 28.
When I told my colleagues that I had asked for a transfer to China, they looked me in the eyes and asked what I had done wrong. Everyone tried to convince me that I was making a big mistake giving up a very attractive job in the USA. I have to admit, there was a great level of hardship in the beginning-I arrived alone, with a suitcase-but I always believed that success is not possible without hardship, and that one day it would pay off.
One of the first things I noticed was that there was no specialized flooring exhibition in Asia. It was a great opportunity and privilege to bring the industry together in what we then called Chinafloor. We later partnered with Domotex in Hannover. The show is now the largest yearly hard surface flooring event in the world.
Q: You recognize that differentiation through innovation is what keeps the conversation about price way down the list of buying priorities. Remind our readers about the innovation your team has developed over the years.
A: At CFL, we have an extensive product development and patent team of more than 25 people, including PhDs and true industry veterans. Every week, at a fixed time, the top level of the company is sitting together to brainstorm on the future of products. CFL is the inventor or first promoter of several breakthrough technologies that are now key in our industry. One of the reasons we like the U.S. so much is that we share with our customers the passion to always question the status quo. Our customers are top notch; they are open-minded and hungry for the next innovation. Their dedication and success is transferred to us.
Q: A second differentiator in the fight against commoditization is branding. Tell us why it’s important, how you have approached it and where you go from here.
A: CFL is not a regular OEM producer like most of our competitors. We build brands, such as FirmFit, NovoCore, Tenacity, Audacity and Neptune. But also, with regard to branding, we have a clear and differentiated strategy. Brands are sometimes built by manufacturers to control their customer base. We see brands as a way to build value, together with our customers. Building brands is expensive, and in a world dominated more and more by social media, only efforts between manufacturers and distributors can build brands on a global scale. This requires a very close cooperation and discipline to share posts from north to south, east to west. The synergy and cooperating model between our customers and us has worked miracles. We don’t have many millions of dollars to create worldwide brands. A team of young and professional internal marketing people at CFL has proven to me what I could not believe in the beginning, that smart, young marketeers can now do what big corporations did with huge budgets.
Q: You recently reminded your friends and social contacts that cows don’t give milk. What was the message behind that story?
A: Getting milk requires hard work, every day. I have learned this mainly in Asia but equally from our U.S. team. A society should be built on meritocracy. We are a young company of only 17 years. I will never forget how established players tried everything to keep us out of the market. We believe we are only in the beginning of our story.
Q: You are inspired by different opinions and how everyone lives in their own truth. Can you elaborate?
A: I find the following very intriguing:
When I talk to CFL’s Western people living in Asia on the issue of Covid, they express that they are lucky to live in China, since they are not limited in what they are doing in these Covid times as there is very little Covid in China. Together with their Chinese colleagues, they feel safe and free-they don’t even have to wear masks-thanks to the stringent government regulations that have prevented thousands of deaths.
When I talk to CFL’s Western people in the U.S. or Europe, they feel mercy for the people living in China, who are living in strict, zero-tolerance Covid restrictions, which makes them feel more free in the West.
Could it be that the truth is very relative and depends on what perspective you look at things from? Perhaps, in many cases, there is no ultimate truth. Could it be that we all are partly affected by our own truth and the propaganda that surrounds us?
Q: You are making a bold move to build one of the largest multilayered flooring factories in North America in Calhoun, Georgia. Why do you think this is a wise move?
A: The world has changed. Geopolitical tension and pressure to build a more sustainable world obliges us to manufacture closer to our customers. We became the largest exporter of SPC and certain multilayer flooring worldwide in record speed, but our mission is now to become a global producer. We have entered the U.S. to become a big producer, reflected in the land size we bought and buildings we have built in Calhoun. We are here to stay and contribute to the local economy. Setting up a factory in Covid times has not been easy, but we have an incredible team on the ground in the U.S. We are grateful for what the U.S. is giving us and will spare no effort, working hard to deserve it.
Q: Please offer your insights on where the rigid LVT category is headed. For instance, will non-PVC constructions push out PVC? And how will non-commodity products distinguish themselves from entry-level products? Will innovation continue to accelerate, or will it transition to small-scale improvements like we see in carpet these days?
A: PVC is not a bad product. From its uses in medical appliances to flooring, PVC offers great benefits to humans. It is the bad habits of humans that need to be changed. We urgently need to build a thorough recycling system to gradually become cradle-to-cradle. In the meantime, we can use our end-of-life product in manufacturing flooring or in other different industries. Moving ahead, no post-consumer product should go to landfills.
CFL will become a leader here and challenge the status quo. We are very passionate about sustainability and are already making great progress in our efforts. We will spare no efforts here to change the industry and will organize same-minded people in the effort. I challenge everyone to wake up and become sensitive to this issue, joining us to change the world.
Q: You always seem to surround yourself with smart people, and you are quick to introduce them. How do you find these resources and get them to buy into your strategy for success?
A: CFL is the product of a generation. Post-Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, a world was opening up. CFL’s founders were raised and educated in very different worlds. This is still reflected in our team, which, for the most part consists of especially open-minded people who have traveled or lived in different places around the world. This creates a very special culture. It is not always easy, since it is easier to work with people speaking the same language and with similar views on subjects. The diversity in our group is a big asset and attracts young talent. I strongly oppose the political propaganda going on with different continents criticizing each other. Business is a great peace creator. Our group now employs 4,500 people, and the number of nationalities represented in our team would indicate that we are a multi-national corporation.
Q: Whom do you consider your mentor, and what did they teach you?
A: Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning, a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you’d better be running.
This is the poster above my desk, which I received from my first boss.
When I moved from the U.S. to China, I took with me a slogan board saying, “Nothing stays the same. We either get better, or we get worse. Let’s get better!” The slogan is still hanging in a meeting room.
Q: What is your secret to success?
A: This question about success makes me feel uncomfortable. Feelings of success risk making us complacent. More importantly, I don’t feel successful, but CFL and its people are!
If there is one thing that I attribute the success of CFL to, it is the unique ability to combine the best of the West and East. It is incredible what continents can learn from each other. How much stronger are we if we find the model to cooperate together? I have been lucky to have lived and worked on three continents and formed partnerships with partners that complement each other so well.
I am reminding each of us of the unique opportunity yielded in combining the strengths of Europe, Asia and the United States. Nobody will convince me that protectionism, as recently propagated, is the solution for the world’s problems. This does not mean I am naïve; I believe in a level playing field.
I hope that this message can come across to our younger generation again. Instead of locking yourself up, go and study abroad, travel the world. Learn to put yourself in the shoes of others, and you will realize that the propaganda of our own world is not the reality.
Q: How do you balance the demands of work with the other important aspects of living a fulfilling life?
A: Ask my wife, she will tell you that I am not doing a good job in balancing my life. I am passionate about open and honest discussions between people; expressing vulnerabilities in an honest, confidential and trusted group gives me great adrenaline. I have a difficult time switching that off for small talk. Business is such a nice game because we meet people, but let’s not take ourselves too seriously, please. It’s only a game, and we will all end up in a box with six planks.
Q: What advice do you have for the young people who strive to follow in your footsteps?
A: We live in unique times. The opportunity is for those who can bridge cultures. Don’t listen to the propaganda that is around you; don’t let yourself get locked up in your own truth. Most likely, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Escape from your comfort zone. Your skills and talents may be normal at home, but when you go abroad, they will help you excel.
Q: Why is it that several of the key leaders in this industry are originally from Belgium?
A: We Belgians just love this industry too much!
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