Gerflor USA's Benjamin Bachman: Focus on Leadership - Nov 2015
Interview by Kemp Harr
At the young age of 38, Benjamin Bachman has already risen to the top echelon of the industry, serving as CEO of Gerflor USA. His career could easily have taken a different path, however.
Bachman grew up in France, and at 18 years old, he was excited about an internship selling copy machines, which included a company car and sales commission. But a wise university advisor—whom he’d never previously met—guided him to pursue a marketing internship with Gerflor instead. That decision set him on a course that has shaped his life thus far. After graduation he accepted a full time job at Gerflor to become the youngest sales manager in the company, and his career began in earnest.
One of Bachman’s first responsibilities was to grow Gerflor’s business in Western Europe and the developing markets in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, which served as fertile training ground for his eventual move to the U.S. “Working in very different markets really helped me understand how to be flexible and adaptable to cultural differences,” he explains.
He furthered his education with a master’s degree at INSEAD, the prestigious Paris business school that offers one of the top programs for international business in the world. Gerflor sponsored his attendance in the program, where he studied with professors and students from around the globe. “I was fortunate to have Erin Meyer, who is a renowned expert in the field of cross-cultural management in international business, as a professor,” Bachman says. “It really helped me understand how to best navigate the complexities of cultural differences in global business environments through leadership.”
When the opportunity arose to move to the U.S. and take the reins at Gerflor USA, Bachman volunteered, and he hasn’t looked back.
Q: You grew up in France and now lead a burgeoning business here in the U.S. What are some of the challenges and rewards, both culturally and professionally?
A: The immense potential of the U.S. market is a most welcome challenge. The tempo of business in America is very different than in Europe, but I tend to thrive on the excitement of the pace here. In Europe, particularly in France, marketing is very product focused, whereas here in the U.S. marketing is very end user focused. Also, while Gerflor is a very mature brand in Europe, we are not as well known here. Our sales and marketing efforts start in a more humble place here; we have to explain who we are. In many ways, bringing Gerflor to the U.S. is like starting over with an exciting new company, with the added benefit of proven products and innovation that have stood the test of time—the best of both worlds.
Q: Before taking the helm of Gerflor USA, you focused on Gerflor’s export business. How do those assignments differ?
A: First of all, coming to the U.S. wasn’t really an assignment; I asked for the job. The U.S. flooring market is very mature and more structured than in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In fact, the U.S. market is more sophisticated than the Western European market, mainly because it is so big. Organizations like Starnet, for example, where 600 people attend the spring meeting, don’t exist in other countries. And there are a few flooring magazines in Germany and the U.K., but not with the quality of your magazines. As another example, flooring managers who are 100% dedicated to one segment of the business, like property management, do not exist in Europe. That is unique to the U.S.
Also, the level of service expectation is very demanding in the U.S. In France, for instance, service means quality. It means very particular attention paid to very important customers buying very expensive products. In the U.S. service means your company is able to deliver whatever the customer wants at any time. Consumers expect service whether they’re buying an expensive product or VCT.
Gerflor is well poised for the U.S. market because we are solely focused on resilient flooring. We are not trying to be everything for everybody. Our marketing and services have improved considerably in order to match the American standards.
Q: Thanks to consolidation in the U.S. flooring business, you compete against some large players, and your focus is purely on resilient. How do you use these two factors to your advantage?
A: When competing with large companies, it is important that you create quality products. Gerflor’s product innovation spans several decades from Mipolam, the first homogenous floor in the world invented in 1937, to our recent invention of the only bio-based sheet floor available today. With more than 50 million square feet installed in the U.S. alone, our signature Taraflex Sports Flooring has also made us the worldwide leader in the indoor sports flooring category. By focusing on resilient, we believe that we can truly innovate. Three percent of our gross sales go back into R&D. The fact that 70% of Gerflor’s total sales comes from products that have been introduced within the last three years is proof of our commitment to our customers to provide continuous innovation.
After quality, it’s relationships. We are in the people business. We are building relationships to raise awareness in the design community, and I also rely on relationships with my mill reps. Since we are new in the U.S., people here do not know Gerflor’s reputation as well. We are changing that as quickly as we can, but relationships take time.
Q: How has Gerflor’s focus on sustainability affected its growth in the U.S. contract sector?
A: Our leadership in sustainability is definitely a critical part of our success here. Our customers appreciate that Gerflor’s environmental leadership is well documented and backed by every significant third-party certifying body in the world. I think our highlights here—where we really differentiate—include best indoor air quality. Also Gerflor has the only high performance homogeneous sheet flooring with the only 100% bio-based plasticizer in the industry. And the most successful initiative is simply training and educating our reps in understanding sustainability issues and being able to talk about it without falling into greenwashing, elevating the discussion. Our live training school with Holley Henderson, our sustainability expert, is a great asset.
Q: To grow your business, you need to build relationships with facility managers, specifiers, general contractors and subcontractors. How do you balance your focus?
A: It depends on which product in which segment. If you are selling LVT, for instance, I would definitely tell you to focus on architects and designers because it’s all about design, not as much about performance. We focus 33% on the designers, 33% on the end users and 33% on general contractors and subcontractors. Everyone is important. But when we are selling a product based on performance, we put more emphasis on the end users. They are the decision makers at the end, obviously, because they are the ones paying the specifiers and contractors indirectly. Taraflex, for example, is based on performance and not really design. When we came to this country, we focused almost 70% of our Taraflex sales effort toward the end user, and that’s why we are successful.
Q: To grow at the pace you’ve achieved, you have to be successful in hiring new talent. How do you get a sense during an interview about whether a candidate is a good fit?
A: No magic recipe, unfortunately. First of all, I look for passion. Anyone can list achievements. I look for evidence of passion. That being said, I also ask candidates to describe the details of their achievements, step-by-step. I am as interested in how someone achieved a goal as I am in the end result. I also do a lot of role-playing in interviews because it helps me determine whether or not someone will be able to react appropriately in a situation and be able to represent our company.
Q: What are the core characteristics of a true leader?
A: First, vision. Second, developing people; nurturing talent. Helping people discover their talents and how to best use them to grow in the organization. And third, work hard and lead by example. A leader should be more demanding of himself than he is of anyone else in the organization.
Q: It’s no secret that you try to work out at the gym on a daily basis. Talk about your philosophy on exercise and success.
A: To be successful, you must be healthy. My exercise routine also gives me more energy, which is very important as I am balancing my work and family life.
Q: Other than working out and family time, where do you spend your time when you aren’t focused on the job?
A: When I was younger, I spent a lot of time in museums with my family, and I am married to a ballet teacher, so I developed an appreciation for the arts. I also love to read. Reading is learning, and I just wish I had more time to read.
Q: Tell us about your key mentors or role models.
A: I discovered, almost by luck, the book Winning by Jack Welch in the business school library, and it had a profound effect on me when I first read it more than ten years ago. And I still use things that I learned from that book to this day, such as the importance of working with the best professional you can find and focusing on core segments and leadership.
Q: What advice do you have for young professionals who want to be successful?
A: It’s really simple: work hard, do more than is expected of you, be professional. Opportunities for success are all around us. It’s learning how to recognize those opportunities that take us to greatness. And if they can be passionate about what they do, what they sell, what they make, it should make them amazing associates in any organization.
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