There’s no telling what colour or pattern of tiles adorned the Fitzroy cafe the day Campbell Stott met up with National Tiles boss Nick Walker for a coffee. As the hours passed and the conversation became more animated, the incidentals slipped away and Campbell – former Managing Director of Dan Murphy’s – was left with nothing but opportunities. “Obviously I knew a little bit about National Tiles and, of course, the famous radio ads,” Campbell tells The CEO Magazine.
“But Nick was really passionate about the business and what the family had built, and the potential it still had to really grow and thrive in the industry.” Nick’s enthusiasm was a clear indicator to Campbell of a business with a strongly aligned culture and values.
“It’s so important that a business has those things,” he says. “And after speaking with Nick for a couple of hours, I became very interested in exploring the opportunity a bit further.” That was two years ago. Since then, Campbell has built that chat into a career as CEO of National Tiles.
“It’s been a pretty extraordinary ride,” he says. “Coming into the business, I felt strongly that we had to become much more customer-centric, so we’ve done a lot of work putting a terrific customer program in place.”
The addition of Campbell to the team was a significant milestone in the story of National Tiles. Frank Walker, Nick’s father, established the company in 1979. In the decades that followed, National Tiles’ radio advertisements became an Australian icon thanks to Frank’s distinctive delivery. Behind the scenes, however, Nick was working hard to usher the company into the digital age through an online sales platform.
“He had a lot of foresight a few years ago to build a strong digital platform,” Campbell says. “And it wasn’t easy because a lot of people didn’t think you could sell tiles online. The feeling was normally that the customer needs to see the tiles and touch them to be able to buy them.” Undeterred, National Tiles pressed on. “A lot of good work was done,” Campbell says.
“We were able to really lift the capability of our digital offering in terms of imagery, in terms of the speed of the site and in terms of being able to have a seamless transaction experience for our customers during COVID-19.” The pandemic dramatically altered the business world. Campbell admits National Tiles entered a state of uncertainty.
“There was this moment of not knowing whether the business could continue to exist in its current form.” But then, an unexpected side effect: as people were forced to stay at home by lockdowns, their housebound minds turned to renovations. “People had a bit of time to make a decision about whether the bathroom or the kitchen they’d lived with for 10 years or so is what they wanted to live with for the next 10, so we started to see a big appetite for building work,” Campbell says.
“We navigated through a very challenging first six months trying to keep the core of the business together and, ultimately, help our clients – be they builders or DIY customers – complete their projects.” And this is where National Tiles’ digital face lift came to the fore. All of a sudden, Campbell says, the company’s customer engagement evolved. Customers went from a disembodied voice on the radio imploring them to buy tiles to jumping online and starting their renovation journey.
“Instead of being in our showrooms they were on our digital platforms, finding inspiration in products and design.” It was a fundamental shift for the business. “Our online capability went from being merely nice to have to an absolute essential part of our business model. We were able to double our online business in 12 months,” Campbell says. The pandemic required businesses to be agile and to better utilise digital assets than ever before. Working together in such an environment, Campbell believes the National Tiles team formed a new culture.
The voice of the customer has never been more important to understand how we can improve. We’ve been very focused on that, and i believe we’ve still got a great opportunity to build stronger relationships with them.
“We were doing the very best we could in some really challenging times,” he says. “And we’ve come through, touch wood, in pretty good shape.” Using the robust National Tiles online portal, customers can research exactly what they need. Once they’re virtually sure, the company then sends physical samples out to complete the picture. “Our samples quadrupled in volume throughout COVID-19 and our website traffic hit record highs,” Campbell says.
“I think our customers were – and are – quite into the opportunity to shop differently, and we offer an end-to-end solution. The ecosystem is complete.” With showrooms closed for months in both Sydney and Melbourne, National Tiles invested in its regional stores.
“It’s been very challenging being open and closed, but I think you’ve just got to find ways around that, and certainly using our digital platforms has been a saving grace in many ways,” Campbell says. The recent opening of a model store in Hobart was another, and the beginning of a greater plan to expand beyond the chain’s 38 existing stores “We’re looking at opportunities to grow more stores around Australia and become a truly national business,” Campbell says.
“At the same time, we’re really working on our team, our offers and our range, and making sure that we deliver a great customer experience every time.” In particular, the team is, in Campbell’s words, National Tiles’ most important asset. “Our people are our most precious resource, and we really make sure we look after our team,” he says.
“Coming out of COVID, organisations are facing a wave of mental health and wellbeing challenges, so it’s really important we work closely on helping people through what’s been a very challenging time, making sure they can grow and develop in their own careers and also enjoy the opportunity of seeing the business do well.” On the other end of the people spectrum is the customer, who enjoys a focus of their own. “The voice of the customer has never been more important to understand how we can improve,” Campbell says.
“We’ve been very focused on that, and I believe we’ve still got a great opportunity to build stronger relationships with them.” That starts with a firm grip on industry trends, which requires a keen eye on happenings overseas. “Trends in tiles and flooring are often two years ahead in Europe and the US to what we see here, and each state has its own nuance,” Campbell explains.
“In Sydney, there’s a high demand for European tiles, particularly terrazzo; texture and colour really seem to resonate. In Hobart it’s timber flooring and large format feature panels, and in Victoria colourful subway tiles for DIY splashbacks are having a renaissance.” Overall, he adds, the national taste is for colour and vibrancy. “We’ve moved a bit from the greys to a lot more colour and life, and I think you’ll see that trend continue.” Success also involves an understanding that tiles aren’t an impulse purchase.
“In many ways, buying tiles and flooring is a big decision for customers to make,” Campbell says. “It’s a big change, and we’ve got a responsibility to make sure that product is the very best it can be, not just in terms of look and feel, but how it inspires our customers to finish off their homes with us.”
Which is where National Tiles’ formidable network of partners and suppliers comes in. Created and enriched over four decades and counting, National Tiles’ extended family provides a quality range made up of the best products from all over the world.
“We’ve always been active in the overseas markets, walking the factories, looking at all the shows and building key relationships with suppliers.” One such supplier is Mapei, one of National Tiles’ premium brands. Headquartered in Milan and with a history spanning 80 years, Mapei is considered a global leader in the production of adhesives and specialty products for the building industry.
“We’re the largest distributor for Mapei, and we have a deep connection back to when their current National Sales Manager Paul Buckley called on one of our first stores in Geelong,” Campbell says. Locally, National Ceramic Industries Australia (NCIA) is one of National Tiles’ key suppliers.
“NCIA, which is based in Newcastle, is the only manufacturer of volume in the country, and we work really closely with them in terms of production, planning and support,” Campbell says. Very close, in some cases: “We were there with the team from the ground up, when the designers and factory manager literally slept on the factory floor in Maitland, New South Wales,” Campbell says.
We’re looking at opportunities to grow more stores around Australia and become a truly national business.
“Today, we’re proudly one of the biggest distributors of NCIA tiles in the country, and we specify the fantastic ‘made in Australia’ product in all our sales proposals to the biggest and best builders in the country.” Relationships like these, Campbell says, are the fabric of National Tiles. “There are good days and bad days, like anything, but we always try our very best to help each other to get the best outcome for the customer.” In the decades since Frank Walker started National Tiles in a tiny Geelong shop, countless customers have received such an outcome – sometimes on more than one occasion.
“What we find is that the people who have had a great experience with us either do it again in another property, or their children’s properties,” Campbell says. “When you build trust with customers, they see you as a life-long partner. When you’re trusted, you can build by word of mouth.” This runs in tandem with National Tiles’ continuing efforts to improve the brand. “We really believe in relentless improvement,” Campbell says.
“We just want to keep getting better in everything we do. This business has been going for more than 40 years based on the relationships we’ve built, relationships that last a lifetime.” Campbell says it’s an honour to be a part of such a success story. “They’ve built everything we are off the back of relationships, hard work and a unique brand message,” he says. “Not many messages survive 30 years on radio, and fewer still are as fondly remembered by the public.”
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