Episode 56 – Forecasting Surfacing Trends with Special Guest John Topic of Willis Distribution


Jessica: Hi, this is Jessica with Build Green Live Green, I'm with CaraGreen, and we are a building materials supplier for sustainable building products. And today we are talking to John Topic, who's the director of marketing and communications for Willis, who is another large distributor in the West Coast and Canadian market, who recently we found out about through a mutual product that we carry and today we're here. We're happy to have you here, John.


John: Yeah, I'm very excited to be here as well. I am a newbie at a podcast, so I am very excited to be part of this.


Jessica: Great. Yes, it was a couple years ago where another kind of industry person that we've worked with mentioned to me the idea of a podcast and we've had kind of a lot of fun doing it and exploring different avenues. And talking to you is one of the first times we've actually interviewed another distributor, so I'm really excited to kind of hear your take on the market. We can kind of get a little focused on what's happening on our side. So, tell us a little bit about Willis, what you guys do, kind of maybe a little bit of the background of the company and how it came to be and how you ended up there.


John: Sure, absolutely. So Willis, we described ourselves as curators of premium design materials that provide solutions to both interior and exterior applications. Our purpose in the market really is twofold. We have responsibilities and relationships with our fabrication network. And on the other side is working with residential and commercial designers and architects. On the fabricator side, we provide training and certification for some of our globally branded building materials. We work with them to bid and secure projects and basically drive opportunity to their doors. When we're speaking to designers and architects, our curated collection really allows us to offer various material solutions to virtually any of their project in space without any bias. We have a lot of different materials in our toolbox, I'll call it. So we'd like to assist the designers just to select the right material solution for their application.


We like to think that we're partners of theirs as they go through and design spaces that require horizontal or vertical materials such as Corian solid surface, Corian quartz, Lapitec sintered stone and so on. Willis has a long history. We've been in the industry for over 45 years now. I think this year we're celebrating our 54 years. Willis has a long history. We started about 54 years ago distributing products that were part of the plumbing industry, so toilets and faucets and sinks, and really it wasn't until Ron Willis, our founder, really met with the DuPont folks and brought Corian solid surface into the Canadian market, and really we've expanded from there.


Jessica: So, I see that Corian is kind of like one of the underpinnings of your business. We carry a solid surface too, which is Durat. It's a bit more boutique-y obviously than Corian that doesn't have DuPont behind it. But we have seen a shift and an attention drawn towards solid surface, kind of mid-pandemic I'll call it. Do you see a similar trend with Corian? I'm sure you've seen it go through a lot over the last 54 years; it went from being kind of the countertop of choice to kind of having to redefine itself as from a designer standpoint. What do you see the impact on this new reality that we're in on solid surface as a surfacing material?


John: Yeah, great question. And certainly solid surface in general, as a material, like you had mentioned in the 70s and 80s, it really was material of choice when consumers really had laminates to choose from for a countertop and then Corian was invented and then started hitting the mainstream in that era and everybody just jumped on it. Certainly we've had a lot of different materials enter the marketplace since then, from granites to quartz, and now I think we're starting to see new materials being introduced into the marketplace. But to answer your question, yeah, I think the need for a clean groutless material for a consumer and even commercial applications has really elevated over the past 12 months. Certainly, people want to keep their countertops and surfaces as clean as possible.


And with a surface like Corian solid surface, it being non porous, it really offers the consumer a great choice to keep their countertops as pristine as possible. It being non-porous, doesn't allow mold and mildew to set in and grow, so it's a really great opportunity. I think what we're starting to see more and more Corian solid surface or solid surface in general is on shower walls. We're starting to see a lot of fabricators really playing with the material and creating 3d applications with it. One fabricator and really a pioneer that comes to mind is Mario Romano from MR Walls.


Jessica: Yes, I know Mario.


John: You know Mario?


Jessica: Yes I do.


John: Located in Southern California, he really is leading the way in bringing technology, nature and to really create some outstanding projects.


Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. He's really a visionary and I've seen him speak a couple of times and I met with him at an ISFA meeting we had last year, and he's just really kind of a remarkable individual. And just looking at some of the designs that he's done for MR Walls and some of the facades even, in exterior applications is really compelling.


John: Yeah, it's really exciting to see fabricators kind of looking at the material and not seeing any boundaries and limits to it and really pushing the boundaries to create something different in the marketplace.


Jessica: Yeah. I think it's an interesting time because as we shifted away from solid surface or Corian, Durat or whatever, well, I would say mostly Corian, I think people shifted away from Corian to granite and then it went to quarts. And the idea was that granites was… I combine them granite and quartz. It's just one category now. Granite was seen as this prestigious material and then it became commoditized. And similarly, quarts to some degree was in that same boat and solid surface was kind of left behind. And now this idea of using it as a design tool is really interesting because even with the Durat that we carry, we have a fan deck of 720 custom colors, and you can get anyone you want and we can turn it around a couple of weeks. So, it's really kind of fun to give designers these toolkit items. And I think solid surface really kind of has reinvented itself in that way. And then, as you're sending your kids back to school, and hospitals are redesigning, and workplaces are redesigning, I think you're right, that there's this need for this easily cleaned, visually obviously clean surface. And I think that we will see a resurgence in that market because of it.


John: I think so too. And what we've noticed and we've done a lot of work and I'm sure you have too in the healthcare systems. But where I'm starting to see designers, well, not designers, but governments and private sector really paying attention to is long-term care homes and retirement homes. I think that's a space where maybe it was, let's say, it was forgotten, but maybe it wasn't as a high priority. And I think what COVID brought to the attention of all of us is that these are spaces where we really need to pay attention to, what those services look like and how they perform on a daily basis.


Jessica: That's a good segue, I think it brings me to, you know, I wanted to talk a little bit about quartz, but I feel like that conversation has been beaten to death to some degree. I kind of think we can almost skip over that piece and get right to the sintered stone, which is how we kind of came to cross paths. We brought on the Lapitec brand several years ago and we've worked with several other distributors, and when Willis came on it really was the first time that I had seen a company that had the marketing presence and valued marketing the way that we did when it came to this brand. So, can you talk a little bit about how you think sintered stone plays into that kind of post COVID era? It's also this evolution of quarts and why you as a company said this is the product and this is the brand that we want to bring on?


John: Yeah, absolutely. I'll, start with a wise man once told me “As goes granite, so will quartz”. So we saw the evolution of granites in the eighties and nineties really peak. And then courts started coming into mainstream for the consumers because it had a lot of great value propositions. And one big one was it was non-porous, but you never had to seal it again. I think the new kid on the block that we're all starting to see is this new category of sintered stone or high performance porcelain, really starting to enter the marketplace. It's been a few years, but I think really over the past six to eight months, we're starting to see a lot more branded materials come into the market and offer that to designers and consumers.


How we came to notice the sintered stone market was back in 2018, we went to EuroCucina which is a design fair or a trade show in Milan, Italy. That's where manufacturers of every major kitchen cabinet company would go and show their new products. And it is just a massive, massive show. It literally takes you two or three days to walk the entire floor. And when we were there, we did not see, or it was very hard to find a material or quartz on a countertop. Everything was either Lapitec or sintered stone product. So that really piqued our interest and said, “Okay, there's a shift coming”. Europe has started; we need to kind of catch up because it's coming to North America. So we did a little research and trying to vet out a manufacturer that we thought would line up with Willis's values as well.


Defining ourselves as curators of premium design materials; that right there kind of defined who we like to do business with. So obviously, it needs to be a premium quality product with premium raw materials. They have to be a global brand in our portfolio, our DuPont and Kohler, Lapitec now and ARPA, so those are global brands. Sustainability is also a very important thing that we looked at, corporations that respected the environment, not only in their manufacturing, but in their marketing and how they kind of go to market. That was a very important part. And honestly, sometimes it just comes down to good relationships, you know that gut feeling where you have your first initial conversations and you go, these are the partners we want to work with. They've got a long term vision. It's not a one-year two-year outlook, it's five, 10, 15, 20 years, what's the market going to look like beyond next year.


Jessica: Yeah, I completely understand that and I think that was when we first started working with Lapitec at CaraGreen, we were looking at that sintered stone category and we were kind of grappling with the sustainability story. And we knew it was there, but we'd always been stuck in this recycled local reclaimed world that was kind of dictated by lead credits. And we had to pull ourselves back a little bit and say, “Okay, this is a hundred percent minerals. This material has no resonance as binders. It uses basically geology in a lab to create this compact matrix that's basically manmade, volcanic rock.” And we really kind of started embracing that story. And then when you go on the factory tour, which I'm sure you've done, and you look at kind of the end of life of these sintered stone materials, the durability, the cleanability, the reduced amount of detergents that are required; the whole sustainability story just keeps growing. And for me, I'm really excited about Lapitec's commitment to go silica-free because that is… even when they created Lapitec decades ago, in their mind, they knew this silica crisis was coming. And you see it in Europe now that the lawsuits over there, and it's just now making its way to the US. And I just love the attention that they put towards that, and now it's just one of their major initiatives for 2021.


John: Absolutely. And that really touches on that point of what I mentioned of their long-term vision. It wasn't what could we bring to the market tomorrow, but knowing they couldn't get there tomorrow or next year, they did have a long-term vision. The one great thing that and one of my favorite stories of Lapitec where their manufacturing plant is located is right beside a working dairy farm. So you can just imagine how clean their plant needs to be in emitting any CO2 out of their stacks or in the water to be able to work and live beside a working dairy farm, really tells a story right there. And it's one thing where the product work well for Willis, but how does it work with our fabricators? And that silica story, I think is just a growing story. That's going to be a major concern and importance to fabricators who choose to decide what materials they're going to manufacture and work with in their plants and think about their workers and how safe is the product that they're cutting every single day and making sure that their employees are healthy and go home healthy every single day.


Jessica: And I think that kind of plays into a trend that we're seeing, which is as much as the world mocks Millennials, they are becoming the new home buyer. They are becoming the new specifier. They are the architect, they're the designer and they are smart and they went to school and they learned about sustainability and impact. And now that everyone's relegated behind a computer, they're doing even more research and they're starting to uncover some of these things that are not just what is my installed product do, but how did it get here? And people are starting to look into the backstory of some of these materials and they're getting educated on these things. So I think it really makes sense for companies like you and I, and for fabricators that are our customers, to be able to point to a product and say, “Yes, there is a worker health issue, and here's a product that has done something to remedy that.” Me as a fabricator, here are the practices I've put in place, but I've also partnered with companies like this, like Lapitec sintered stone that are coming forward with a silica-free line and have a line now of silica free products that do not have that impact or not causing silicosis to installers or fabricators or production people.


John: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I think the consumers these days are looking to connect with brands. It's not just about the price, it's, “I want to feel connected with that brand, be-it a coffee maker or a cell phone, or a jacket that you're purchasing, to materials like your countertops and materials in your shower, and outdoor furniture. The consumers these days are looking for that connection with that brand. And I think Lapitec certainly brings that story and connectivity to consumers.


Jessica: Well, that's great. Well, I'm excited to work with you in Willis and kind of joint marketing efforts and help elevate the Lapitec brand, but across the United States and Canada, and really just be mutually successful as we build not only the sintered stone product category, but the Lapitec brand.


John: Yeah. It's exciting times for us manufacturers, designers, fabricators, and ultimately consumers who now have another choice to really impact their design and their space.


Jessica: Great. Well, thank you. And before we sign off here, can you give us your website and the best way to reach Willis if our listeners want to, and also Instagram handle or any other social accounts you want us to follow?


John: Absolutely. I think the best way for anyone to learn a little bit more on who Willis's and the curated products that we offer into the marketplace, is just to go to www.4willis.com. You land there, and you'll have all the links to our social media pages, Facebook, Instagram you'll be able to connect through there. And then if you wanted to speak to somebody, we've got convenient links to connect with our sales team and me at the head office if anybody wants to.


Jessica: Awesome. Thank you so much, John. Thanks for joining our podcast.


John: Thank you very much for the opportunity.


Jessica: This is Jessica with Build Green Live Green.