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‘I see entrepreneur in every Indian’

A risk taking entrepreneur, one of the most respected Belgians, Chinese mogul, flooring expert, investor, chocolate lover – Mr. Thomas Baert, co-founder and co-owner of DOMOTEX Asia, the largest wood flooring event in the world is a truly a multifaceted personality. In a off-the-beaten-track interview to Modern Woodwork, Mr. Baert opened up on several topics including his entry into Chinese market, his struggle, his views on Chinese and Indian markets to name a few. Excerpts.

 

Modern Woodwork: Congratulations on successful completion of yet another edition of the world’s largest flooring exhibition – DOMOTEX asia/CHINAFLOOR. How fascinating has been the journey of the show since the past 20 years? What prompted you to begin a show on flooring and that too in Asia?

Mr. Thomas Baert: Thank you for visiting DOMOTEX asia/CHINAFLOOR 2019. It has been a wonderful journey of over two decades and I still remember our first exhibition held in a small hall in 1999. At the turn of the millennium, the show proved to be an opportunity for many manufacturers/traders working in the densly populated geography. As far as the subject of the show is concerned, I was highly focused on the topic of flooring since the beginning of my career. Before moving to China, I was working with Beaulieu of America as Vice President (Export). For business, I had to visit China frequently. I could forsee the opportunities in Asia – particulary China in the ‘90s. The current President of VNU Exhibitions Asia Mr. David Zhong had just set up a company alongwith his wife and I approached him with the concept of an exhibition on flooring. Though we were criticized for the concept from a quarter of the industry, we received support from Belgian Carpet Manufacturers who were looking at China for exports. And thus the journey began.

“India is certainly a land of opportunities and I see an entrepreneur in every Indian. This is phenomenal.”

-Mr. Thomas Baert, Founder and Co-owner, DOMOTEX Asia

MW: Why flooring and why not a show on the entire woodworking industry?
TB: I believe in focused industry exhibitions. If you look at other horizontal shows – e.g. Building and Construction Shows – catering to many subjects at a time, the exhibitor did not get required attention. For an industry that is big enough as flooring, a focused show makes more sense. This was our way of looking at it to get respect in the market and we believed that the right focus gave more legitimacy to the concept.

MW: On the personal front, what motivated you to move to China – a country that is almost 9,000 km away from your hometown in Belgium?

TB: I am a Belgian and was living in the USA at the beginning of my career. I had to visit China on a regular basis to sell carpets. During these business visits, I realised that the carpet market in China was very small. Then I decided to go into hard surface category which was much more exciting. At the age of 28, I ventured into import and export of hard surfaces in China and eventually grown my base there.

MW: How would you compare the current opportunities in China with those when you started in the ‘90s? Is there a significant difference?

TB: I believe there are immense opportunities in this field in China, India and anywhere in the world. In my opinion, there is no such thing as ‘late entrant’ in the market. The opportunities are definitely different than they were twenty years ago; but an opportunity is an opportunity. In my opinion, for people who have guts and who are willing to take some risks, moving to China, is still a great opportunity, in every sense.

MW: Innovation must be the key for developing a business in the Asia Pacific region. What kind of research went into establishing your flooring brands here in this region?

TB: Yes, innovation is the main driver allowing for our business to grow. We’re very proud to have been able to create the environment allowing us to continue on that path and this was done through :

1. R&D
Creative Flooring Solutions (CFL) continues to invest in R&D and is widely known to be the innovation leader from China. The old school still seems to believe that China is only a place to produce low end/entry level products. We have a different approach. The need for automation in the West has typically resulted in standardization and commoditization of products. We believe that the value creation starts from differentiation. Smaller machinery and being physically at the center of the world’s supply chain, eastern China, is allowing us to innovate quicker and at lower cost.

2. Team & Culture
We have pulled together a team of experienced high level passionate professionals from different horizons and different nationalities (we have people of more than 15 nationalities), each bringing their own piece to complete the puzzle. We believe this is how ideas form.
At CFL, the environment is one of constant development where emphasis and reward comes to those who push the business forward through their ideas, passion and enthusiasm.

MW: Tell our readers more about your brands and their expanse.

TB: FL has worked to build a brand message of innovation, reliability, and flexibility to the market.
AtroGuard is a water-resistant laminate offering designed to compete directly with LVT, WPC and even some rigid core products. It’s not 100% waterproof, but it has advantages the resilient category doesn’t have.
FirmFit also strongly believes in speed to market when it comes to innovation. This requires a good alignment between production and distribution. A strong partnership with the FirmFit distributors is therefore crucial to success.
Our aim is to have worldwide coverage of our brands Firmfit, Atroguard, Novocore and Audacity by the end of 2019 and we are soliciting quality distributors for that.
The last innovation, Tenacity, a new waterproof engineered stone. This new product was introduced at DOMOTEX & Surfaces 2019.
Tenacity as the pinnacle of the waterproof category, featuring advantages of a newly developed Rigid Mineral Stone Core: waterproofness, rigidity, unmatched wear resistance and superb stability.

In my opinion, for people who have guts and who are willing to take some risks, moving to China, is still a great opportunity, in every sense.

-Mr. Thomas Baert, Founder and Co-owner, DOMOTEX Asia

MW: On the resources front, how do you compare the quality of natural, human and all other resources available in the western countries than with those available in the eastern part of the world – specifically in Asia?

TB: There is no doubt that the center of world business is increasingly pushed towards east. The supply-chain is here as well. This allows us to innovate quicker and at lower cost. In terms of people, we are a global company, as such need a global perspective so we see massive value in not one or the other but having both westerners and Asians work together. Diversity brings more diverse ideas and that is the principal that applies as we are building our team.


CFL:
CFL is a leading flooring manufacturer in China.
Co-founded and co-owned by Thomas Baert and Woody Zeng in 2004 in Shanghai, CFL has grown into ‘the flooring innovator of Asia’. CFL is headed by a very dynamic CEO and co-owner Tom Van Poyer who is bringing the best of the West and East together. By producing high value added products at attractive prices CFL is able to offer unique value to its customers worldwide with production units in China, Taiwan and Vietnam. CFL has grown into a big family of 2,600 employees headed by a mix of foreign and Chinese management staff, combining years of technical flooring expertise.  


Lamett:
Lamett has production units in Europe and distribution across Europe and Asia. With Bruno Descamps as its Europe President, the Lamett brand name was first used in Sweden in 1985 as one of the very first laminate brands on the market. In 2004 the brand experienced a revival and since then, the range includes laminate, multilayer parquet, solid parquet for the high-end residential market segment and for the demanding project market. Lamett parquet and laminate is currently distributed in over 40 countries worldwide.

MW: In one of your earlier interviews you had mentioned that you can create a good story when you combine best of the two worlds. You have proved this right by creating an empire in China with your western roots. What do you think about India as a potential market? Haven’t you thought of developing another base in India?
TB: India is becoming more and more important for us, our presence in terms of sales and brand awareness is increasing year after year. And we are sure that in the future the importance of India for CFL will keep growing, becoming one of our main markets in Asia.

MW: One of India’s premier government schemes – The Prime Minister Housing Scheme – promises ‘Housing for All’ by 2022. The government is poised to provide own-house to over 1.3 billion population. This looks like an opportunity for the entire woodworking industry. How can one seize the best from such an opportunity?
TB: I don’t believe in having a ‘market of billions’. This concept doesn’t exist. One must make segmentation of the market before evaluating the business potential. Different segments have different needs and require different products. India is a diverse market. Businesses must look at customizing the products for local conditions. Humidity is a concern in India. So, one needs to build products that are workable in the market and also look at the price point that is affordable. On the larger perspective, in my opinion, human kind is evolving and want more comfort than what their parents used to have. Hence, India will also evolve with time and generate more demand from the woodworking industry. This demand will primarily put Indian woodworking machinery sector in focus. Indian manufacturers and entrepreneurs must encash this opportunity.

If the importance of India keep growing, we will consider the possibility of entering Indian flooring exhibition space.

-Mr. Thomas Baert, Founder and Co-owner, DOMOTEX Asia

MW: India’s largest woodworking exhibition is spread over some 65,000 square meters. Your take on this. Are you thinking of coming into this space in India?
TB: If the importance of this market keep growing, we will consider the possibility to attend to this exhibition.

CFL is known for its innovations. In 2018, CFL launched FIRMFIT™ – a revolution in waterproof vinyl wood flooring, offering water resistant luxury vinyl wood look flooring. FIRMFIT™ is 3-times more rigid than the regular LVT.

MW: What are your views on the current status of the global flooring industry and its future?
TB: Flooring industry is changing at a gigantic pace with innovative launches every year. Customers are being able to change their product assortment in a reduce period of time adopting the most innovative products generally provided with solutions on marketing and logistics which can contribute to the company’s success.
From our perspective, we believe that now that we have a model where we can truly provide the most innovative products anywhere in the world allowing our customers to reduce the time to market and become leaders in each of them.

MW: What is your advice to Indian woodworking industry?
TB: India is certainly a land of opportunities and I see an entrepreneur in every Indian. This is phenomenal. However, India is still seen as a ‘consumer’ or import-oriented market by the world. Whereas, China is an ‘export-oriented’ market due to sheer scale of its businesses. A proper marriage of China and India can do wonders, not only in the woodworking sector; but in every other sector. India must look at China and vice versa. The only challenge I see here is personal trust. One needs to develop a personal trust to do business together. So, my advice to Indian manufacturers and entrepreneurs is – build the trust and conquer the world!

 

Questions by:
Amit Tekale

With inputs from:
Aparna Mansabdar,
Shantikumar Mansabdar