Petersburg company uses wholesale route to expand internationallyMarch 01, 2012 6:00 AM
by Martha Steger
Photo by Adrienne R. Watson
Design and production businesses need not set up multiple U.S. or international showrooms to expand. Taking the wholesale route and vetting retail outlets is one way to cut expense and risk. At least that has been the recipe for success for Appomattox Tile Art (ATA), a Petersburg company that expanded its international exposure by establishing a relationship with a London business in 2010.
By then, the 13-year-old company had seen business drop by 25 percent — a decline that began in late 2008 during the recession. While international sales make up less than 10 percent of ATA’s revenue, the company’s strategy of seeking growth in the global economy has paid off. “We were crazy busy last year,” says owner Cindy Haynie.
Her interest in mosaic tiles began in 1990 when she and her husband, Sean Haynie, honeymooned in Greece. They were inspired by the ancient mosaics they saw during their trip. Nine years later in 1999, the Haynies — with Cindy’s sister, Nikki Benninghoff — took the leap into the wholesale mosaic-tile business. “Mosaics are made by hand using a variety of tools, stone and glass and laid out to match a pattern,” explains Cindy. Taking the design from an ancient doorway in Rome to a contemporary home or office requires a lot of work.
Petersburg — home to Cindy’s family — proved an ideal business location with its low space-and-labor costs. The couple located their business in a 45,000-square-foot beaux-arts building in Old Towne. Over time, it evolved into a multimillion-dollar wholesale operation with more than 70 U.S. outlets. Then two years ago, it affiliated with an overseas showroom — Ann Sacks, in London’s Chelsea Design Centre.
The outlet, part of the Kohler Interiors Group, sells products made by ATA for Dubai as well as for English-countryside projects. Ann Sacks sought out ATA through its U.S. contacts.
Custom-made of different kinds of marble, travertine, granite, limestone and glass, mosaic tiles appeal to a high-end customer. Prices can range from $5,000 for a floor to $750,000 for an entire room. “Some people order five pieces of $10 material, and some people order 400 feet of $350 material,” says Haynie. “Every project is unique and individual.”
ATA’s sales break down to about 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial. The most common residential use is in kitchens and baths; the dominant commercial use is for lobbies, atriums, bathrooms and institutional artwork.
Even before its affiliation with the London showroom, ATA had international clients, including a Russian senator (a $750,000 job) and Middle Eastern sheiks. “The mosaics business is a really small industry,” says Haynie. “Word-of-mouth spreads quickly.”
She credits innovative production techniques and zero-environmental impact as reasons for the company’s success. “In more recent years we’ve invested in technologically advanced machinery. The mosaics are still hand-made, but the specialist operating the machinery can save us time in the cutting process.” Haynie says.
Computers also have been helpful in design work. Still, at the end of the day, mosaic pieces must be dry-laid by hand to make sure the design is oriented correctly. “After we’ve cut material for a design, we gather and repurpose leftovers for another design. We don’t throw anything away,” notes Haynie. She describes their “Bohemian Green” line as “all post-industrial material — the standard-bearer of our environmental policy.”
Despite the drop in business starting in late 2008, ATA’s wealthy clientele was in a position to purchase artisanal products. At its height before the economy’s crash, ATA employed 45 artisans. In recent years, that number fell to 35 before rebounding last year. Haynie expects to see the staff back to 45 by the end of this year.
To showcase their product, the Haynies have participated in a large, annual U.S. trade show, Coverings, for the past 13 years. In Las Vegas in 2011 and in Orlando, Fla., this year, the show attracts 40,000 designers, showroom owners, architects and others.
With ATA’s international search for stone and design-inspiration from fabric woven by old textile mills, Cindy Haynie travels the world on business. A lot of that travel has been to Italy: “Italians have always been at the forefront of the industry – plus there’s the cache of Italian marble,” she says.
Varieties of handmade glass often come from Mexico “and sometimes China,” she adds. ATA also uses limestone and granite purchased by a third party from Virginia’s Lynchburg area. Except for the occasional use of Vermont marble, the Virginia-quarried stone is the only U.S. stone used.
THE ECONOMY: Despite the presently unsettled financial conditions in Europe, London’s economy boasts a wide range of service industries as diverse as telecommunications, banking and tourism. For anyone looking to start a wholesale business with international as well as national markets, Cindy Haynie stresses a thorough vetting of retailers: “The U.K. really doesn’t have any issues that we don’t have here.”
TRAVEL: One of the 15 largest cities in the world, London is a metropolis known for the endless variety made famous in its literature (“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”). The easy-to-use tube or underground train easily transports visitors to major attractions such as the British Museum, the Tower of London, the London Eye — and the Victoria and Albert Museum for those interested in decorative arts.
THE ECONOMY: Petersburg remains a transportation hub with interstate highways 85, 95 and 295, and U.S. highways 1, 301 and 460. Military activity has expanded at nearby Fort Lee, home of the U.S. Army’s Sustainment Center of Excellence as well as the Army’s Logistics Branch, Ordnance, Quartermaster and Transportation Corps.
TRAVEL: As the site of the longest siege in American history under Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s stranglehold near the end the Civil War, Petersburg is especially rich in Civil War heritage. Its Old Towne also engages visitors with a wide variety of boutiques, galleries and restaurants as well as music and theater.
WHERE TO STAY: Business travelers choose among competitively priced, national-brand hotels in the Petersburg area, as well as bed-and-breakfast inns such as the 1890s High Street Inn.
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