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Manufacturer spotlight: Uniboard striving to become retailers’ go-to supplier

October 9/16, 2017: Volume 32, Issue 9

By Reginald Tucker

 

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 9.55.42 AMLaval, Quebec, Canada—Uniboard is working hard to dispel the outdated notion that it is just a laminate flooring producer. With its recent foray into the engineered hardwood flooring sector and, now, the rigid core arena, the quality-minded manufacturer is seeking to establish itself as the go-to source for retailers and distributors seeking an array of well-made, hard surface products.

James Hogg, Uniboard’s president and CEO, sees it as a rebirth of the brand and a recommitment to flooring across several categories. “We were originally a laminate flooring company, but we have repositioned ourselves to become a flooring solutions company.”

Truth be told, Uniboard was indeed a laminate powerhouse during laminate flooring’s heyday in North America circa 1996–2000. During that time, Uniboard operated a manufacturing facility in North Carolina that produced products for Perstorp Flooring, which marketed the Pergo brand—the market leader at the time. At full capacity the laminate plant cranked out about 15 million square feet. But following a split with Pergo, Uniboard sold off its U.S. manufacturing assets and exited the American market. The company turned its attention to the U.S. market once again in 2012 after surveying the landscape for new opportunities.

“But we knew being in laminate was not enough,” Hogg recalled. “We knew we had to expand our offering to include other hard surface categories.”

Uniboard discovered it was in a unique position to do just that. With roughly 90% of its business focused on producing HDF panels for furniture producers and cabinet manufacturers, there was a tremendous opportunity to leverage its strengths and expand the flooring side of the business. Founded in 1992 and privately owned, the company operates five plants: one flooring facility, three panel operations and one binding facility—a chemical plant the company employs to develop products that bind the panels and boards together.

“We are the leader in thermal-fused melamine in the Canadian market,” Hogg said. “In fact, we are the No. 1 supplier of cabinet panels for all Ikea locations across North America and we sell laminate flooring to many of the home centers in Canada. We also sell our boards to other flooring manufacturers on a private-label basis.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 9.55.49 AMSo what does all this scale and manufacturing expertise mean for Uniboard’s customers and partners on the flooring side? Uniboard is looking to leverage that expertise to create innovative, high-performing products tailored to each regional and end-use market it serves for each of the different categories in which the company participates. The goal is to raise the flooring portion of its business—which accounts for roughly 10% of its sales today—to 25% over the next few years.

“The key is to leverage our core competencies in HDF coreboard manufacturing,” Hogg explained. “Not only are we one of the biggest producers of panels in North America, but we control the fiber species and the resin recipe of the boards—which helps prevent swelling and adds dimensional stability to the panels. This is a huge advantage we have over other board manufacturers.”

This manufacturing prowess is readily evident in Uniboard’s new engineered wood flooring offerings. The product is built on an HDF core platform but features a real wood veneer. The line is manufactured via a series of steps the company calls the Uni-Process method, a five-step proprietary process specifically developed for the engineered wood line. How it works: The process begins with its Unicore high-density fiberboard core, which is made from 100% pre-consumer, reclaimed wood fibers. Next comes the Uni-Bond process, which uses an exclusive thermally fused dry glue application that, according to the company, significantly reduces cracking and checking on the surface of the planks. The third step, Uni-Veneer, entails the hand selection of the top layer to ensure non-repetitive wood patterns. The engineered wood manufacturing process is capped off with the Uni-Finish process, which incorporates a non-toxic, hypoallergenic coating featuring antimicrobial additives along with an anti-yellowing UV inhibitor. All these layers are combined together, resulting in an ultra-high performance engineered wood flooring product.

“We are an integrated company, so we manufacture the core to our specifications,” said Don Raymond, vice president, sales and marketing. “Other boards swell and pull apart; our boards have stronger integrity. We’ve designed the core to meet the highest specification in the marketplace in terms of swelling, moisture resistance and performance. Other companies can’t do that. They have to buy some of the technology on the open market.”

Into the rigid core ring
Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 9.55.54 AMAs Uniboard researched the U.S. market to scout out additional opportunities beyond laminate flooring and engineered wood, it took a close look at the burgeoning rigid core sector. Given the company’s established expertise in coreboard technology, it saw yet another opportunity to leverage its scale and strengths.

Enter Geonyx, a new line of waterproof, rigid core flooring featuring a laminate veneer over a stone-plastic core (SPC). According to Uniboard, this combination surpasses the density and rigidity of both LVT and WPC, and boasts resistance to both heat and indentation.

“The goal was to create excitement around the Uniboard brand,” Raymond said. “We have essentially reset and repositioned the business in terms of what sectors we want to participate in the market. Our engineered wood flooring line was the catapult, followed by Geonyx with the SPC core. We want people to come to Surfaces and say, ‘Wow, look at what they have. It’s not just laminate; it’s a variety of products and it’s not just me-too products.’ ”

Early indications suggest Uniboard’s customers will be pleased. Tapis Beaver, a Uniboard distributor based in Montreal, recently previewed the new engineered line and has high hopes for its potential in the marketplace. Already a longtime distributor of Uniboard’s laminate lines, Tapis Beaver is quite familiar with the manufacturer’s overall approach to product quality, high standards and service.

“We work more on the laminate side than any other product,” said Stephane Leveille, president, Tapis Beaver. “We placed around 150 displays since last December, and we sold about $1 million or more worth of product. We don’t have any complaints about the product. The quality is very good.”

Citing Uniboard’s innovative approach to manufacturing—as well as the proximity to its operations and customer base—Leveille hinted that there may be an opportunity to take on the new engineered hardwood line down the road.

Les Bois de Plancher PG, another Uniboard wholesaler, also sees the potential of the new engineered wood line. “We position the product for projects such as new high-rise apartments or contract commercial projects,” said Martin Emery, vice president. “It seems to fit the needs and requests for Canadian-quality made products as an entry-level hardwood product. We have a good feeling as to where they are going with it.”

As it refocuses on the U.S. market, Uniboard is working to shore up distribution. To that end, the company has tapped Gilles de Beaumont, a 40-year industry veteran, to spearhead efforts to get top U.S. wholesalers on board with the Uniboard brand. Given his stellar reputation throughout the industry, in addition to his expertise in strategic planning, operations and product management, he has the formula, and the pedigree, to help Uniboard accomplish its goals.

“Due to my relationships in the industry, I can help Uniboard determine the best channels to focus on,” de Beaumont said. “We have approached about one dozen distributors in the U.S., and we hope to have 10 lined up by Surfaces 2018.”

 

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Manufacturer Spotlight: DuChâteau stakes its claim at the high end of the market

January 2/9, 2017: Volume 31, Number 15
By Reginald Tucker

Cutting-edge design and innovation are the hallmarks of DuChâteau’s high-end offerings.
Cutting-edge design and innovation are the hallmarks of DuChâteau’s high-end offerings.

While some manufacturers are content to play the “me-too” game, competing in the realm of commodity hardwood flooring products, DuChâteau is taking a different tack. Instead of chasing the low-margin, small-profit end of the business, the San Diego-based producer of oil-finished European oak products has its eye keenly on upscale, high-profit offerings.

“We’re committed to quality design and aesthetics,” said Misael Tagle, DuChâteau’s CEO and co-founder. “The DuChâteau brand focuses on European wood flooring—oak being the most predominant—with a hard wax oil finish. The brand has a European aesthetic—starting with the name, of course. It’s a look that’s exclusive to DuChâteau.”

When developing the various styles, textures and finishes for its hardwood flooring lines—especially the company’s signature Atelier Series— DuChâteau looks to the logical source for inspiration: Europe’s highly stylized fashion industry. “Branding and marketing is a big deal for us,” Tagle explained. “We take a fashionable, sexy and edgy approach, which is very much in line with European marketing.”

As opposed to taking the obvious cues from within the flooring and interior design sectors, DuChâteau’s objective is to set the pace in terms of both style and innovation. Hence the association with established labels that might appear on the glamorous fashion runways in Paris or Milan. “We identify with upscale brands like Armani, Dolce & Gabana and Versace, to name a few,” Tagle explained. “When you think about products, ask yourself who makes the best watches, cars or clothes? Europe is at the top of their game and that’s who we’re going to follow. That’s what the DuChâteau brand stands for.”

So what does that mean, exactly, for distributors and retailers serving the floor covering market right here in North America? For starters, it translates to higher profit margins for DuChâteau’s partners across the supply chain. And when you’re talking about exclusive products that carry a high price tag, everyone along the supply chain stands to make a good profit.

“With our products dealers can make more money,” Tagle said. “We offer great value and design innovation at a price point that ensures retailers will be successful. We’re not the cheapest out there, and we don’t want to get into that category. We have the brand recognition in the market, and people appreciate the quality of our products because of that.”

atelier-diablo_project2It’s an approach that DuChâteau’s customers clearly appreciate. Amit Shoval, regional sales manager for National Blinds & Flooring, San Francisco, services clients that develop high-end projects in the Bay Area. He has recommended DuChâteau’s products for various installations, including high-rises, upscale single-family homes as well as wineries in Napa Valley.

Aside from the proven quality and unique aesthetic, Shoval also likes the diverse range of offerings. “The DuChâteau lines can work both ways—either very modern or historic looking,” he explained. “People who live in the high-rises tend to go for that more modern look, with a lot of grays and whites and bleached wood. But in the old Victorian properties like the ones in Napa Valley, they’re looking for more of the reclaimed style of flooring. I always find it easy to recommend something in the DuChâteau line for the clients.”

Shoval is not alone. Others who have also specified the DuChâteau brand have been pleased with the results. “The line product continues to be a leader in product design and catches the attention of designers and flooring showrooms throughout the country,” said Craig Badolian, owner, BI Design Studio, El Dorado Hills, Calif. “They stay on the forefront of fashion and innovative designs in floor coverings and beyond. DuChâteau has always intrigued us and our clients with refined marketing and sophistication. It’s fashion first with DuChâteau even with the way they represent the product and the company in general.”

 

Points of distinction
To further differentiate its products from many of the mainstream offerings available today, DuChâteau focuses on the distinguishing characteristics. For instance, products in the Atelier Series are treated with environmentally friendly, all-natural hard wax oils that include sunflower, soybean and thistle oil, combined with natural waxes carnauba and canella for a low-sheen, matte look. The finishes also contain tiny silicone dioxide (glass) beads, which make the floor more resilient while accentuating the wood’s natural character and aesthetic.

“Products in the Atelier Series do not contain aluminum oxide or polyurethane finishes like the typical 3- or 5-inch products you see out there,” Tagle said. “Our focus is on the hard-wax oil visual, which provides a rich patina and refinement as it ages.”

The only exception, he noted, is the company’s American Guild brand, which made its U.S. debut at Surfaces 2016. The line, which is geared toward the middle of the market, features a polyurethane/aluminum-oxide finish and is more in line, aesthetically speaking, with the tastes of U.S. consumers.

“We know a big part of the U.S. market is polyurethane/aluminum-oxide finish, so we created the American Guild brand for consumers there,” Tagle explained. “The branding and marketing is all geared toward the U.S. aesthetic mindset as are the finishes, designs and looks. Also, this is more of a price-sensitive product.”

Again drawing comparisons to the fashion industry, Tagle said the American Guild collection is more in line with Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren or Polo, whereas DuChâteau-branded products such as the Atelier Series relate better with Armani and Dolce Gabana. “Where DuChâteau is high end, American Guild is more mid- to high end. The lines don’t compete with each other and it gives us an opportunity to open the market.”

Expanding capabilities

Part of the reason behind DuChâteau’s flexibility when it comes to product development is the fact that it maintains control over its manufacturing processes. The company operates several production facilities, including one in San Diego —where The Atelier Series is produced—and two other plants just across the U.S./Mexican border in Tijuana, where its doors, wall coverings and display systems are produced.

In addition, DuChâteau has developed a line of LVT/LVP products that Tagle says are doing “phenomenally well.” The company also recently began manufacturing porcelain floors at one of its plants. “We’re innovating not only in terms of how we go to market but how we design things,” Tagle added.

Not one to keep still, DuChâteau also plans to launch a furniture division and add rug-cutting capabilities to complement its offering in other categories. It’s all part of Tagle’s vision for DuChâteau to become an iconic luxury lifestyle company. “When we started we were basically a wood flooring company,” he said. “But we’ve evolved to the point where the products consumers buy from us can now outfit a large portion of the home. We’re offering wood flooring, vinyl, porcelain, doors and rugs, and they all tie in together under one roof.”

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Manufacturer spotlight: Alston puts its own spin on the traditional engineered format

October 24/31, 2016: Volume 31, Number 10
By Reginald Tucker

It’s rare that the inspiration for a breakthrough in the manufacture of an engineered hardwood flooring product comes from a distributor. But that’s precisely what happened in the case involving Swiff-Train and Alston, one of its vendor partners.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-4-53-39-pmAs the story goes, Swiff-Train and Alston— a China-based hardwood flooring manufacturer with U.S. distribution headquarters in California—met at Surfaces in Las Vegas and again at Domotex Asia to discuss a collaboration on an engineered product line that would be outside the scope of Chinese imports that were subject to strict anti-dumping duties. The challenge was to devise an engineered platform that deviated from the traditional three-ply layered construction—i.e., veneer, core and backing—while still providing strength and stability associated with engineered products. So with pen to napkin, so to speak, the owners of Alston—Alan Chou and Sunny Zhou—along with Jason Train, vice president of sourcing and marketing, Swiff-Train, together sketched a rough prototype of a two-ply engineered product that would change the game.

“There were other types of two-ply products out there on the market but none were dimensionally stable,” recalled Alan Chou, president of Alston. “The mindset at that time was to develop a platform without any limitations in terms of quality and performance.” What Swiff-Train and Alston came up with was a two-ply engineered product that features a veneer atop a core comprising a row of sawn fillets (see diagram). The rows of fillets are flanked by perpendicular beams that provide stability. Incredibly, the design does not incorporate a traditional backing layer.

As a result, this product was ruled by the Department of Commerce to be outside the scope of the current Anti-dumping and Countervailing case and is, therefore, not subject to any anti-dumping duties, which is currently around 19%. In addition, this invention also qualifies for zero import duty, an additional savings of 8%.

Chou likened the design to an “I” beam construction. “We took out the bottom layer but on the sides of the core we turned it and use what we call an edge beam that runs parallel with the veneer. Then we have the fillets in the middle that run perpendicular to the two beams. By doing that, we solved the problem of the product not being balanced. The edge beam solves the horizontal movement, whereas the middle layer stabilizes the veneer. It’s really simple when you think about it.”

Jason Train, who Chou says was responsible for his inspiration and the idea to eliminate the third backing layer of the traditional three-layer format, is hesitant to take the credit. “I’m not an engineer by any means; it was more timing than anything,” Train explained. “With everything that was going on that year with anti-dumping, it required people to put their heads together and think outside the box.

What Alan and Sunny created was something that’s unique and really just a great, stable engineered product.”

Actually, it’s more of a “hybrid” engineered-solid product. As Chou explained, “It’s an engineered product that still installs like a solid—you can staple it or glue it down or even float it.”

In terms of the person who actually brought the design to fruition, Chou—whose expertise is in architecture, building and design (he’s also a certified flooring installer and NWFACP wood flooring inspector, by the way)—credits his brother Sunny Zhou, who has a structural engineering degree from the University of California Irvine. Together, the brothers own a manufacturing plant in China where they have been making hardwood floors for more than 20 years. According to Chou, the facility is ISO 9001:2012 and ISO 14001:2017 certified. “Our product lines are 100% FSC certified, compliant with CARB NAF and do not contain added formaldehyde,” Chou stated.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-4-54-41-pmChou applied for the patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for this two-ply engineered hybrid product in 2012, and the company reports it has been awarded with the Patent Number: US9,340,984 in May of this year. Chou holds the U.S. patent; his brother Sunny owns the patent in China.

Market impact
So far, Swiff-Train, which conducted a soft launch back in January, says the response has been positive. “With this line, Alston has bypassed the entry-level category and moved to a better product with better veneers and a great offering of species. Now we’re trying to get more of our people to concentrate on the Alston product line.”

On a broader scale, Swiff-Train believes the new Alston two-ply product addresses the pricing volatility often seen with solid wood floors. Given the fact that this is considered an engineered product that features the thickness of a solid and can be installed as such, that age-old price fluctuation issue shouldn’t be a factor. “Nationally a lot of people are moving away from solids to the engineered platform,” Train said. “That’s where Alston has an opportunity to take over some of that wood share that was solid. By using this platform it gives retailers the reach that most solid products don’t offer.”

Train also likes the product’s potential for installation beyond the home. “It’s a product that’s sold very easily from a residential standpoint, but it has huge potential for commercial business. Alston uses thick wear layers—sliced from sawn veneers that are 4mm thick—which is definitely a plus for the commercial sector. Then there’s the environmental story; Alston ruled out of the CARB-2 testing which speaks volumes. There are very few products that are out of the scope of CARB.” Furthermore, this product is also exempt from the upcoming EPA regulation TSCA-Title VI.

More importantly, the new line also provides retailers and distributors with profit opportunities. According to Alston, the new two-ply line retails in the vicinity of $7 per square foot. The product comes in three collections—including a 100% hand scraped line, a smooth line and a wire- brushed oil-finish look—and is available in five stock species: oak, maple, hickory, mahogany and walnut in ½- to ¾-inch formats. However, Chou said the plant is equipped to produce the product in acacia, red oak or exotics. “Because the foundation of the product is so stable, we are able to make it in any format or species.”

From an industry-wide perspective—particularly as it pertains to anti-dumping regulations—Chou believes the hybrid line is poised to make an even greater impact. “I think you will see a lot more people trying to do the two-ply method now that the doors are partially open. Nobody thought a two-ply would work because they don’t think it’s stable. But this changes everything.”