Pierre Thabet, president of Mirage: Focus on Leadership - Apr 2016
Interview by Kemp Harr
Boa-Franc, which manufactures Mirage hardwood, is deftly led by president Pierre Thabet, a man whose singular goal is to be the best at manufacturing hardwood flooring. Self described as “more of a country guy than a city guy,” he was born and continues to reside in St.-Georges, Quebec, located in what he refers to as an entrepreneurial region.
When he bought Boa-Franc in 1983, Thabet inherited only three employees. Six months later, a devastating fire leveled the building. Rather than walk away, he pushed to get the plant back in production. “I never thought about taking the insurance money,” he says. “I was 26 years old with plenty of energy.” The facility was back up and running in just 86 days.
Fast forward to today, and his three employees have multiplied into the hundreds, and Boa-Franc has become one of the top ten hardwood manufacturers in North America. Thabet’s tireless quest for excellence resulted in a 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Floor Covering Distributors, along with a great deal of respect as a leading force in the industry.
In addition to his duties as president of the company, Thabet serves as director of the board for both Canam Group and the National Bank of Canada. And on the weekends, he dons the title of grandfather to his ten grandchildren, with number 11 on the way.
Q: What motivated you to sell your steel framing business and purchase Boa-Franc?
A: I graduated from Moncton University in May 1978 with the intention to become a CPA and then start or acquire a business. It took only three days. My first business was a prefabricated steel wall panel manufacturer for commercial and industrial buildings. Started from scratch in 1978, we were hit hard by the recession in 1982 with 22% interest rates, which forced a merger with Canam Group in 1983 and no room for me.
Why Boa-Franc? Pure coincidence. With my past experience, I wanted a business that could produce year long, build inventory and sell from it. Even if Boa-Franc was an unprofitable mess, it was for sale, inexpensive and fit with my expectations. I had four kids and needed to make a living. I took the opportunity.
Q: Explain how your concept of GCS and your mission of “being the best at what we do” helps to get everyone focused and working together as a team.
A: In the early days, I was very hands-on, competitive, and continuous improvement was my obsession: more than yesterday and less than tomorrow. We have a business philosophy that I wrote in 1988 in order to facilitate the transmission of the values and the culture. I always had the goal to be the best in my field and work towards excellence, not perfection.
Our philosophy is simple and can be summarized by three letters, GCS, for Good Common Sense. We use the “feu sacré”—the eye of the tiger, the fire that burns inside—as the rallying expression to communicate the importance of working as a team to win the cup. It starts with good attitude, pride, sense of belonging, team spirit, attention to details, rigor, open-mindedness, continuous improvement and a sense of urgency. In summary, it’s the passion and desire to be the best in our industry.
Q: Talk about how your technical aptitude has helped shape the way quality hardwood flooring is produced today.
A: When I started back in 1983, I knew nothing about wood flooring, and in order to learn, I asked a ton of questions and challenged everything: Why this? Why not that? In the ’80s, we were making unfinished only. We started to prefinish in January 1990, when we launched Mirage, and it was a totally different game. We took a huge risk.
We had no choice but to be better than everybody else. What was on the market at the time had three coats and a big bevel, so everybody was sanding piece by piece. We went with five coats and a smaller bevel so we could sand a panel at a time, as if it was sanded on site. We were the first to do that. When others went to five coats, we went to seven, then ten. We were always a step ahead.
Q: Many would agree that building two companies and serving on the board of several others qualifies you as a motivated entrepreneur. What feeds this drive?
A: It’s again the spirit and the desire for continuous improvement, to be the best in our field. We have great people and they operate the daily business side. My role today is more of a mentor, and I still need to learn from others, which I do from my various activities.
Q: Explain your channel and branding strategy for Boa-Franc and Mirage.
A: Our intent from the beginning was always to produce the best hardwood floors, so we positioned our brand that way, promoting our quality and the attention to detail in every aspect of our production. The best channel to explain and represent that philosophy was the specialized flooring retailers who are knowledgeable and can take the time to explain to their customers why and how our brand is different.
Q: Why do you think focusing on wood flooring only is the best strategy versus selling a line of LVT or laminate products?
A: As I mentioned previously, our intent was always to make the best hardwood flooring available, and for us to do so, we need to stay focused on that task 100%. If we start selling and producing other flooring categories, we could lose that focus, risk diverting from our initial objective and therefore dilute our brand promise.
We’d rather be the best at what we do in a niche segment than be an average player in all segments. We are wood experts, not floorcovering experts. The highway is occupied by giants like Shaw and Mohawk. We have to stay away from the highway.
Q: How do you stay in touch with the salesperson, who can convince consumers to buy your product, even though you sell through distribution?
A: We have many RSA [retail sales associate] training sessions throughout the year with our own sales force, which is in constant contact with them. Our mill tour program, which has been running for over 20 years, brings close to 1,000 people each year to our plant for training and staying up to date with our latest developments. We also have e-blasts and a quarterly newsletter to keep in touch. Last but not least, our distributors and their sales forces do a great job in the field keeping the RSAs up to speed so they can properly counsel their customers.
Q: What advice do you have for consumers who are considering a faux wood floor versus the real thing?
A: I would say, take the time to look and study all aspects of both products, and they will see that over the product lifespan, wood is not that much more expensive—and they get the real thing. It’s like leather and leatherette. When new, they look similar, and leatherette is much cheaper. After some time, you really see the difference. There’s nothing like the real thing.
Q: How can the decision to buy flooring be made easier for the consumer?
A: Good question, as it is a complex purchase for many people. We try to provide the best, simplest and most accurate information in all our marketing tools. Our new website is a testament to that, where we tried to simplify the process of information gathering for the consumer as much as possible.
Q: What effect is the currency exchange rate having on your business?
A: Not much, since we are naturally hedged at 95%. Most of our lumber and materials are sourced in U.S. currency.
Q: What are the fundamental differences between the Canadian and U.S. hardwood markets? How do you approach the two differently?
A: There are two main differences. The first is that wood is much more widely used and sought after in Canada than in the U.S. Culturally, it is a floorcovering material that people will look at first when thinking of their flooring. So obviously that does help us in our approach, as there is less consumer education required.
The second difference is that the way the markets have evolved, there is virtually no distribution in Canada for hardwood flooring, as most manufacturers have gone direct to the retailers for various reasons. This does have its pros and cons. On the positive side, we can develop a closer relationship with our customers, which is an excellent thing. The downfall to this is that it requires much more in-house sales personnel to take proper care of these same customers.
In the U.S., we decided 25 years ago to go through distribution and align with the best in each area. We consider them as partners and have been very loyal. We expect the same loyalty in return. It’s a model under attack and we must work as a team to win the race.
Q: What do you look for in people you choose to hire?
A: Their attitude, work experience, values, teamwork, cultural fit and chemistry.
Q: How do you balance the important elements of your life?
A: I have the privilege to have a great family. My wife took care of the kids while I was building the business. Today, we have grandchildren, and I try to transmit our values on the weekends. So I still work hard during the week and enjoy the weekends with family and friends.
Q: Whom do you consider your mentors?
A: I had many indirect mentors during my career: business and philosophy books, business leaders, movies, peers, friends, training sessions, shows, conventions. If you’re eager to learn and play to win, you do what is required to achieve it. In the early ’80s one of my indirect mentors was Jack Welch, former CEO of GE. I read just about every book he wrote. I didn’t apply everything because GE was a multinational business, but I took many good ideas. I took that in your field, you have to be the best. Also, books like Good to Great and movies like Rocky or Rudy. Have you read Gung Ho!? Read it. It is exactly what we do.
Q: What is your favorite activity to relax and decompress?
A: Power walks, tennis, golf, cutting trees, hunting, Sudoku, card games, crosswords and football games.
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