Portobello Plant Profile: Portobello America adds to the landscape of domestic ceramic production – Nov 2023

By Jennifer Bardoner

The way to Portobello America’s new plant is paved with country roads through rolling hills of Tennessee farmland. It seems a suiting place for the roughly one-million-square-foot ceramics production facility, not just because of the close proximity to raw materials the site provides, but because of the subtle link to the Brazilian-based manufacturer’s origins. It was originally sugarcane that drew Cesar Gomes into business, but, sensing a better opportunity, he closed that operation and began Portobello in 1979.

Portobello is the eighth ceramics factory to open in Tennessee. The state is rich with clay, which forms the base of ceramic production, and nearby are natural reserves of feldspar and other necessary minerals. In fact, all of Portobello’s raw materials are sourced from within a day’s drive of the plant-which will have an annual production capacity of 62.5 million square feet by the end of this year and close to that same amount added next year when the second, and larger, field-tile kiln is installed. The existing one is 200 meters long, and preparing the raw materials is the largest spray dryer in North America and the second largest in the world.

But Portobello America does not plan to sell only what it produces. The team has spent the last five years building out a network of customers while the factory was being built, servicing them with a mix of proprietary products from Brazil alongside those sourced from both international and U.S. domestic suppliers.

“The sales we were able to achieve are already more than what we produce,” says Portobello America CEO Luiz Felipe Brito. “But we never had the intention to only produce. As a company, we tend to outsource as much as possible, always complementing. What is good for us to produce, we produce. What is good for us to outsource, we outsource.”

The factory itself is also meant to be flexible. “One press and two glazing lines are more than enough to fill our kiln,” Brito adds. “We have three presses with three glazing lines. We have that to be flexible, to have more sizes at the same time,” he continues, explaining that the third line can be used for product development without stopping production and will streamline the process of rotating between different running-line products.

Flexibility is key to Portobello’s service model. In Brazil, its products do not go through distribution but through the company’s own 150 retail stores, keeping it close to end users and their evolving preferences. Meanwhile, near-constant inflation has necessitated an efficient supply chain and logistics model. That experience should prove useful as the manufacturer positions itself as more of a just-in-time provider here in the U.S., versus a mass producer with loads of inventory. Vice president of manufacturing James “Jed” Durbin says custom orders should have a turnaround time of six to eight weeks, and regular orders will be on a running schedule.

“In America now-and I think it’s going to be a major thing for the next couple of years-investment money is starting to be expensive due to higher interest rates,” says Brito. “In the past, distributors could have a year of inventory. Now, that’s cost prohibitive.

“We want to partner with our distributors. We don’t want to put a lot of inventory on them; it’s the opposite: ‘How do we streamline the process? You open more doors for me, and I’ll take care of that.’ And then we are going to be able to have a slimmer process where we don’t need to use that much money, but we can [both] grow a lot in sales.”

Distribution in the U.S. revolves around having the right inventory at the right price at the right time, and it’s an established model, with distributors typically stocking as much as possible. But Brito and Durbin say the distributors with whom they’ve talked see value in the model they’re pitching. In addition to the challenges inflation pose for them, more companies are going direct with their products, and the growing network of Floor & Décor distribution centers and online sales are changing the landscape.

Portobello leaders believe their greatest value proposition will be the small formats and mosaics that will be added next year, representing 12.5 million square feet of the overall 115 million square feet of capacity in phase one. In late December or early January, the company will start production of wall tile in a separate facility onsite, providing the opportunity for customers to source and develop complete product assortments, from a 2”x10” up to 48”x48” format. While Canada represents the only intended export country for the overall factory’s output, Brito says some European customers are interested in seeing what comes out of the small-format plant, noting the technology and the products’ ease of transport from the U.S. The press production line’s eight channels of color can be added to in the future, and texture and relief can be added through reactive or repellent ink. The Creadigit technology is capable of handling colorbody, and polishing will be done onsite.

That same technology will be employed in the main plant-the two will actually share the same product body material-where field tiles in sizes up to 48”x48” will be produced. Slabs will be imported from Brazil, though Brito says there is the possibility of producing them at this site in the future. The 95-acre property holds the potential for several plant expansions. Portobello’s former headquarters and warehouse in Pompano, Florida will be largely dedicated to products imported from Brazil. (The Cookeville, Tennessee warehouse has been closed and integrated into the new plant and headquarters, which also houses a showroom.)

“It’s a different market; it’s a different kind of distributor,” he says of porcelain panels in the U.S. “It’s much more dedicated to countertops than, necessarily, traditional flooring and wall. But it’s growing; it’s coming.”

This underpins Cesar Gomes Jr.’s opening remarks at the factory’s grand opening: “We didn’t come here to be an American company selling what we think is good in Brazil. We came here to be an American company run by Americans. This diversity will enrich our company a lot.”

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