The Innovators Next Door
By Michael J. Langlois
Home, Garden & Leisure Magazine, April 2016
Germany-based Schluter-Systems is a global company with a product line that has revolutionized the tile installation industry. Thanks to an expanded manufacturing facility and North American distribution hub and a reputation for excellent employee as well as customer and vendor relations, the company has also proven to be an exemplary neighbor for Greater Plattsburgh.
Neatly surrounded by bustling warehouses off Pleasant Ridge Road in the Town of Plattsburgh, New York, sits a sleek, silver industrial modern office building. A modest-sized sign, equally stylish in its design, reads, “Schluter Systems: Profile of Innovation.” The simple slogan captures the story of how this German-owned company evolved into a worldwide producer of ceramic stone and tile installation systems.
The success of Schluter®-Systems success is due, at least in part, to a continuous stream of new products designed to solve difficult tile installation problems. When used together in a construction project, the products form a complete, intricate and practical tile installation system. The company’s adherence to such revolutionary product development has often resulted in criticism from a modern flooring industry that clings to preferred tile installation methods. Let’s be clear: Schluter does not deal directly in stone or tile. What they do, and have done well, is to develop and manufacture products that make a myriad of tile installation processes easier, quicker and better for professional contractors.
Rising to the Challenge
Werner Schlüter, as revealed in his corporate biography, had learned at a young age that he wanted to be a part of the tile trade. As a 12-year-old boy living in Germany, he was walking home from school when he came upon a master tile setter at work. Captivated by the man’s craftsmanship, the boy set his sights on achieving the tile trade’s highest esteemed rank. Schlüter went on to complete the required, on-the-job apprenticeship training and, at age 19, became a journeyman tile setter. Then, in 1966, the young tradesman began his own tile installation business, establishing Schluter Tile.
What happened next was to be the seed that would eventually germinate into the flourishing company that Schluter-Systems is today. In the 1970s, the now master tile installer was working on a particularly challenging bathroom installation which involved four separate thresholds. Up until that time, tile setters had simply accepted that the edges of installed tiles would be susceptible to chipping or breaking, resulting in a less than perfect finished product. The idea occurred to Schlüter to install a metal “L” bracket prior to placing the floor tiles. The addition of the “L” bracket not only served as tile-edge protection, it provided a clean transition to adjoining floor surfaces. Thus, Schluter®-Schiene, the company’s first product, was born.
“Most people in the tile industry recognized Schluter back then as a profile company,” said Andy Acker, Schluter’s Director of Education for North America. “The company made transition strips and finishing edges for tile when tile didn’t come with those products.”
Then, in 1987, Schluter released two products that would turn the modern flooring industry upside down. The first, Ditra, was a flexible “uncoupling” membrane rolled onto a floor prior to the installation of the tiles. The product mimicked the ancient sand-strata method whereby the membrane allowed movement between the tile and the substrate. The second product, Kerdi, was a pliable waterproof membrane applied to the substrate of wet areas followed by the direct application of the tile.
At first, Ditra was rejected out of hand by the flooring industry. Beginning in the 1960s with the development of thin-set mortar, the industry had moved toward a force-conductive bonding method, or “coupling,” of tile directly to the substrate. Although force-conductive bonding was adequate for tile installations in places with stable climates, it was not in regions where drastic moisture and temperature changes often resulted in cracked finished tile projects. Kerdi, a product that employed the well-known thin-set method, was scrutinized for its durability and waterproof properties. While Schluter viewed Ditra and Kerdi as new tile-installation “best practices,” the flooring industry viewed the products as essentially sacrilegious.
The products were considered a “disruptive innovation,” said Acker, which is why they were shunned by the flooring industry. “There was a status quo on how you should install tile. Then here comes Schluter saying maybe we should look at the ancient method of tile installation and understand how those work.”
In the mid-1990s, the company established modest facilities in Montreal, Quebec and Plattsburgh. As Ditra sales took off, Schluter quickly expanded its manufacturing and distribution capabilities at the two North American locations. The company was moving away from its tile profile-oriented past to embrace a tile installation-systems future. In 1990, it was officially re-christened Schluter-Systems. In addition to an evolving product line, Schluter-Systems was poised to add a critical customer support component to its marketing plan.
Passionate About Tiles
Since the advent of his Schluter Schiene, Werner Schlüter had followed a simple philosophy that became the company’s mission statement: to develop long-lasting relationships with employees, vendors and clients based on trust, autonomy and mutual support. The critics could no longer deny the revolutionary nature of the innovative products Schluter had brought to the tile industry. The company focused wholeheartedly on educating their customers about those products, and they hired professional trades people to do it.
“Mr. Schlüter is a tile setter and he hires tile setters,” explained Bryant Bouchard, Schluter’s Regional Manager for Education and Sales for New York. “We have been in the industry for a long time either selling or installing tile products. We were the guys who cared and did high-end, top-notch tile work. We are very passionate about tile work.”
It was Acker and Bouchard who, in the late 1990s, began appearing in Schluter-produced how-to videos for the Ditra and Kerdi installation methods. In 2001, a conventional two-stage floor and shower drain assembly called Kerdi-Drain, which allowed a watertight connection when used with other Schluter waterproof membranes, was introduced. By 2003, the company had successfully developed a complete waterproof shower tile installation system. The how-to videos expanded to include Kerdi-Drain and Kerdi-Board, yet another innovation involving quick, easy tile-ready elements utilizing waterproof panels. When Schluter added hands-on tile installation workshops for distributors, retailers and contractors at its own facilities, these locations became known as “campuses.”
“We have a non-traditional method of sales,” Bouchard said. “We can’t just sell our products. We have to educate people. We prove every time we do a workshop. People leave our workshop, and they’re hungry to buy our products.”
Rather than focus exclusively on Schluter products, the workshops educated the participants on tile installation best practices. Designed to be a mix of more theoretical classroom learning and a practical, hands-on approach to training, the workshops are engaging as well as informative. Now comprising two 2-day sessions, they have grown to include Schluter’s full line of tile installation products. In session one, master tile setters introduce participants to a wide range of Schluter products. They then discuss the importance of waterproofing beforehand and the principle of uncoupling during the application of the tile to the substrate.
Session two is advanced and builds on the theory and product knowledge acquired in session one. The goal is to challenge participants to tackle more complicated tile installation projects. Interior and exterior tile applications are discussed and participants construct whole tile projects to understand all aspects of an installation system. Schluter hosts more than 200 workshops each year in North America. In New York State alone, the company conducts on average 20 workshops per year.
“People who attend these workshops will not come out as master craftsmen, but it’s a way to get their head around the new products constantly being released,” said Roland Sherman, owner of Tile By Design in Peru, New York. “People need to touch and feel products to get an understanding of how they work.”
Roland and his wife, Laurie, have 33 years of combined tile project design and installation experience. They’ve built their North Country business working solely on challenging, one-of-a-kind and high-end tile installation projects. When Schluter was developing the advanced second-session workshop, they asked the couple to help lay out the course curriculum. By tapping into a select few local professional tile setters, the company learned how best to present products to participants with varying skill sets. The workshops, in Laurie’s view, also offer an opportunity for professionals to “catch up” on the latest industry trends.
“We’ve met a lot of great tile installers from all over the country,” she said. “It’s nice to get feedback from them on issues or problems that they’ve had with an installation and how they worked on a solution.”
While Schluter’s non-traditional offering of product education has helped to attract new customers, it is the firm’s very traditional approach to customer service that has been key to retaining them. Many companies today have chosen to cut costs by employing automated product support, but Schluter has maintained a personal touch. Customers inquiring about product installation can consult Schluter’s user friendly-website or vast video library or pick up the phone and talk to a human being. Representatives are trained to ask a series of questions designed to guide the customer in the right direction. More difficult tile installation queries are directed to knowledgeable technicians who, if need be, will visit the customers in the field. This approach to customer service is in the company’s best interest, according to Laurie Sherman.
“You can have the greatest product but, if it’s not installed right, there could be a failure that reflects on Schluter,” she said. “The biggest goal [for Schluter] is to get people to discuss problems so the installation is done once and done right.”
Defined by Innovation
The company’s philosophy toward quality customer service is paying off. Since the introduction of Ditra, Schluter has enjoyed a steady increase in its annual earnings. It has expanded its inventory, sales and technical support subsidiaries to more than 30 countries. Headquartered in Iserlohn, Germany, the company employs nearly 1,100 people worldwide and recently added Reno, Nevada as its third North American facility. The Plattsburgh facility has now expanded to 750,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space where it produces Kerdi-Board and acts as the company’s North American distribution hub.
The success of Ditra and Kerdi, added Acker, largely had to do with Schluter simply bringing the right product to market at an optimal time. For thousands of years, master tile setters developed methods that solved challenging installations associated with solid stone structures. Times have changed. Such factors as the skill of the work force, the time contractors have to complete their projects and the use of modern construction materials played a significant role in the sales of these products.
“The products really addressed the big challenges of putting tile in today’s building environment,” Acker explained. “There’s nothing wrong with the older methods as far as performance. We are basically addressing the needs that are in the industry currently. The reality is that there’s hardly anybody around who knows how to do those old tile installation methods.”
The fact that Schluter has remained a privately owned company has also played a key role in the company’s ability to remain consistent with its mission statement. Since private companies don’t have to disclose financial information, they can focus on long-term growth instead of making sure shareholders are getting their quarterly dividends. Private companies don’t need shareholder approval for operational and growth-strategy decisions made by the company, as long as that is stated in their corporate documents.
“The nice thing about being a privately owned company is that you don’t have stock holders that expect dividends,” Acker said. “We’re not only innovative with our products — we are innovative in how the company is run. We can fully support our product line. We can fully support the people who are selling, installing or designing tile projects.
“We’re also innovative with the way we’ve come to the market with training. Schluter is willing to make the investment and reinvest into the company. It’s key to our success — it defines who we are.”
Michael J. Langlois is a freelance writer living in Peru, New York. To see more of his work, please visit northcountrywriter.com.
Photos courtesy of Schluter-Systems