When sending us off to somewhere less than salubrious, our late, greatly missed Publisher Henry used to tell us ‘Well, it’s a day out’. Today we’ve travelled to somewhere much less than less salubrious (as it were).
We’re in the beautiful Cotswolds to meet with Karndean Designflooring’s amiable International Head of Product Management Steve Curry – and as we travel through this picturesque part of England it really does feel like a day out.
Karndean Designflooring is of course the leading global luxury vinyl tile (LVT) supplier. Established 40 years ago in the UK, Karndean now employs over 300 people worldwide, supplying realistic wood and stone effect flooring via a network of mostly independent retailers in the UK, USA, Australia and a growing number of other countries throughout the world.
Steve is happy to treat us to a bite to eat as we chat about his career, the market and all things Karndean, and the first thing we can’t help but notice is that his accent clearly isn’t local. ‘I’m from Newcastle originally,’ he tells us. ‘I left when I was 24. I always wanted to do something involving languages and business. My further education was business studies with languages and then management studies with languages. I always had an ear for languages – and I’ve always thought I’d rather be working in Rome than Rotherham (no offence to Rotherham).
‘When I left college I didn’t have any real work experience, so I just needed to get out there. I had a couple of sales roles, which were generally building materials related. That wasn’t a deliberate choice – I was just looking for the right company and the right role at the time. It didn’t matter to me what the product was. The first was an engineering company – and that was an export related role – but it was an assistant office based role. It was great, but I really needed some front-line sales experience, working with customers.
‘…I’ve always thought I’d rather be working in Rome than Rotherham (no offence to Rotherham)…’
‘I then got a job in Leicester, which is when I emigrated away from the North East! That was selling building materials and fixings. I did that for a couple of years, travelling around the UK, meeting distributors and doing a lot of selling basically – although I always kept an eye open for a job that would allow me to travel a bit more, that had an international role.
‘A job then came up at Bonar Floors. I managed to get myself into the export sales function looking after Scandinavia. I didn’t speak any Scandinavian languages – I speak French and German – but the role got me in to a really good company. I spent a lot of time in Scandinavia – and it was fantastic, it was just what I wanted.
‘I then took on a business development role, moving into areas such as Turkey, Qatar and Yemen – which was quite groundbreaking at that time. Yemen was the back of beyond. I really enjoyed it – although I always came back with a bad stomach!
‘I then got a real break. Bonar Floors distributed through Karndean in Australia – and had done for 20-odd years. Karndean was our biggest account and I took that on. I then had the opportunity to relocate to Singapore to look after our Asia-Pacific region, including Australia. So I spent three years in Singapore – which was amazing. I loved it there – it was a real eye-opener for me and I think it’s still a really privileged lifestyle as an ex-pat.
‘I was then promoted and moved back to the UK, first heading up the export function and then taking on the Sales Director role for the entire company. I spent 12 years there in total and I really enjoyed it.
Following a management reorganisation at Bonar Floors, Steve felt it was time to move on. Mike Walker, the owner and founder of Karndean, called Steve up to talk to him about heading up the company’s then-fledgling US business. ‘I discussed it with my wife – and we were up for a new challenge, so I said ‘Why not?’’ Steve recalls. ‘We emigrated to the States in 2000 and got out there on the road. Myself and a handful of colleagues got the business going, but it’s such a huge market and we quickly had to split the States between us. I got to know Pittsburgh really well – it’s a great city and is perfect for serving the Eastern states. We’ve now got facilities in Pittsburgh, Las Vegas and Dallas and have enjoyed a great deal of growth out there.
‘Designers and specifiers want something now – or at the very latest tomorrow. You have to remain focused on that – and be able to consistently provide the right products.’
‘I spent three years in the States, although the idea was always to come back to the UK and to work here – which brings us neatly to Steve’s current role as International Head of Product Management. ‘It took time, but I think we now have genuine credibility and a strong portfolio of products, colours and formats,’ Steve considers. ‘We develop new collections globally – so we will gather input and feedback on trends and gaps from all of our global businesses, Australia, the USA and the UK.
‘It isn’t always easy – you can find that the top seller in the UK doesn’t sell in Australia and vice versa, for example. You have to cover all those bases. It is a challenge.
‘I think one of the great advantages is that a lot of other companies are not just LVT or designflooring companies – they try to cover everything and always have a lot of plates spinning. The challenge for those guys is focus, whereas we live or die by what we do.
‘Designers and specifiers want something now – or at the very latest tomorrow. You have to remain focused on that – and be able to consistently provide the right products.
There is a real global market out there and the US is getting far closer to Europe in terms of flooring trends. You have to be careful not to generalise, but I think there is still a lot done here in the UK that drives the way forward in terms of design and trends, and we enjoy a part of that.
‘We take our inspiration from nature – from woods, stones, ceramics…everything. We don’t look too closely at our direct competitors. I don’t think we need to.
‘We have a great deal of experience in this business and we have a real passion for what we do. It takes us a long time to get a product right – but we don’t want to be quick and cheap. We really do deliberate over everything we do in terms of product development in order to get it absolutely spot-on. I think that really sets us apart. It can be painstaking and even painful. It takes a number of us a very long time looking at new floor designs before we get things right – but that’s ok. You only have to take a look at our new Art Select Stones collection to get an indication of what we can do. What is it they say? No pain, no gain.’
Well, our day out, and our chat with Steve, has been all gain and absolutely no pain