September 5, 2016; Volume 31, Number 6
By Steven Feldman
When Karen Mendelsohn was named senior vice president of marketing for Mohawk Industries, the company gained an incredibly experienced, accomplished executive who has spent more than 30 years building brands, the last 27 at building products behemoth Masco. She brings a fresh perspective to flooring after spending most of her career involved with products such as cabinets, plumbing and faucets. FCNews publisher Steven Feldman recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mendelsohn to gain an understanding as to who this executive is and how she plans to raise the bar at Mohawk.
Who is Karen Mendelsohn?
First and foremost, I am a mom, a wife, a daughter and a sister. This is the foundation upon which everything else is built. And if I didn’t have my family support system as a fundamental part of my life, I couldn’t have actualized myself in the professional world to the extent I have. I am an accomplished, driven, competitive businessperson. I like to win—not just for myself but for the larger entity and the people around me. I take a great deal of pleasure in not just the win itself but in the process of getting there and the collaboration, coaching and mentoring of the team.
What would you say is your greatest professional achievement to this point?
When I joined Masco Corporation in 1987, I joined an organization that was operationally driven and financially focused. Masco measured success against itself. Did we beat our budget? Did we exceed last year? What we accomplished during my tenure was to build on that internal orientation, develop the bench strength, hire the talent and strengthen the competencies so that when I retired, we were still operationally driven and financially successful but had a really strong view to the market and were extremely customer driven. We took an internally focused orientation, built on that and led from the market back as opposed to operational competencies out.
What attracted you to Mohawk?
First and foremost, the people. The people here are very real, down-to-earth, driven, entrepreneurial and accountable. They are also family oriented and balanced. The second thing is that I felt I could make a difference here. With Mohawk, as amazingly successful and high performing as it is, I saw the opportunity to add real value and bring a step function change in the way the company goes to market and how we see ourselves. It is a more significant challenge to take a business with the performance Mohawk has, particularly in the last couple of years, and then take it to the next level than it is to build on a business that is not performing well. So that challenge is exciting to me. And I felt my particular set of skills and experience is something that could significantly contribute to that step function change in our business.
Thoughts on becoming the highest ranking female in the history of this company? Does it come with some degree of pressure?
I don’t think of myself in that way. I see myself as a business professional with a strong skill set in strategy, marketing and eBusiness, and I think every one of our jobs has its own set of pressure. Having said that, I feel an enormous sense of responsibility, not pressure. I feel a responsibility to represent our primary consumer in the conversations we are having at the executive level and help this organization embrace diversity by having a first-person understanding of our target consumer. And I also feel a responsibility to be a role model for all the young women who aspire to lead in the building products industry, specifically at Mohawk. I feel a responsibility to share with them what I’ve learned the hard way and create an environment where they can one day be in my role, maybe even the CEO role.
In your short time here, what have you discovered the Mohawk brand represents?
Mohawk represents confidence. What we hear back from the market and what we aspire to be is not cocky but confident in everything we do—risk taking, decision making, brands, the way we go to market and the value we provide to our customers. This is not a brand driven by ego. But it is a brand driven by a certainty of leadership that is incredibly powerful and compelling, and something that touches people at an emotional level, which is what a brand is all about.
What else have you discovered about the company?
It is an $8 billion Fortune 500 organization that operates like a small business, which is very refreshing. This business is so lean and flexible and without bureaucracy and lacking in hierarchy, which is atypical of most large corporations. I think that is extremely impressive given the overall complexity of the business today as we have evolved into a complete flooring solutions organization as opposed to our roots as a residential carpet company.
How have you spent your first few months here?
First, getting to know the people. Understanding them on both a professional and personal level. Building relationships up and down and across the organization. Going to almost all of our plants, mills, design labs and anyplace else where I can learn more because I come to this business with a number of things, but without any flooring experience. It is important to learn the business so I can have a voice at the table. In the last month, we have been in strategic planning, so the timing could not be better. It’s been an extraordinary opportunity to learn the business at a strategic level and see how all the parts and pieces come together.
How will you add value to the company?
I think one of the strengths I bring is I’m not from the flooring industry. I have extensive business experience in plumbing, paint, cabinetry and other building products and services. They all have similarities to flooring in go-to-market strategy, common customers and consumer experience. So I have bigger-picture perspective that’s relatable. But the fact that I’m not as familiar with flooring gives me the luxury of seeing things a little differently and asking the “why” questions. So I can see things from an outsider’s perspective but with an insider’s understanding of the different forces in the market that have come to bear on the business. Also, my entire career—even before building products—I have been in a brand portfolio management role. I worked on many Procter & Gamble brands at an ad agency. At Delta Faucet we had a number of brands, and we certainly had a number of brands and businesses at Masco. I have a lot of experience in managing a brand portfolio so that all assets, which include our brands, come together in a way that provide advantages and benefits to customers and all stakeholders in the value chain and all stakeholders can make money.
Talk a little about your philosophy regarding building and maintaining a brand.
I see brands as assets, just as we would look at our mills or plants or machinery. Brands are assets that require maintenance just like our hard assets do. Brands require an appropriate amount of investment in order to get a return. I look at brands as assets that need to be utilized but not worn out or overextended. It’s a powerful concept because it guides a lot of my decision making with how we resource. Where do we put our talent, time and resources from a marketing perspective? That is why I position myself as a businessperson first with a lot of expertise in this area.
Is marketing and brand building synonymous?
No. They are intertwined but not synonymous. Marketing is a rational function that has a number of tools and vehicles, especially as we move into this digital age. Brand building is about emotional connectivity. Brand building should be inspirational and aspirational. It should connect through channels to the end user and give you an advantage for reasons that are not purely logical. We don’t buy brands for the reasons we think we do. Brand purchasing is absolutely an emotional decision. It’s not just about advertising or logos or taglines. It’s about value, behavior and culture.
Talk a little about the challenges of working for a company with multiple brands like Mohawk.
I don’t see it as a challenge; it’s an opportunity. It’s actually a luxury when you have a portfolio of brands that you can simultaneously drive for marketplace advantage under one banner.
Mohawk has always been the most creative company in this industry with its promotions. Can we expect that to continue?
Absolutely. Those are what we call our extraordinary campaigns and are something we are known for and are part of the brand value proposition. It is part of the emotional connectivity. It’s what our retailers get excited about. It’s what differentiates us in the marketplace. There is no doubt in my mind that our campaigns will continue. I am fortunate to be part of a team that has that muscle already built.
Thoughts on cause marketing. How important is that?
Cause marketing is important for a number of reasons. First, a company’s values and behavior in its communities and the world are extremely important. From an employment perspective, my experience is the younger generation of associates we hire really do care about the core values of a company. And you can drive a great deal of loyalty through your outreach to the community. I also think it’s one of the values that’s extremely important to our next cohort of consumers—the Millennials. So as we look at the next wave of flooring purchasers who are entering the marketplace for the first time, it becomes part of the purchase decision. It may not be No. 1 or No. 2, but it’s definitely there. And if done well and authentically, it can become a big part of your social strategy, which has a lot to do with how you drive purchase and preference exponentially in the social space.
Five years from now, how will the world view the Mohawk brand under your stewardship?
The world will see Mohawk as a really cool brand that “gets it”—that our brand is where I want to shop, delivering solutions to how I want to shop, when I want to shop and has the breadth and depth of products for all my flooring needs. Whether I’m a consumer, architect or designer; whether I’m buying a home for the first time or remodeling; whether I am 30 something or 50 something, our brand has relevance, stickiness and value.