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The tile master: Nick Walker

YouTube clips of DJ sets in German nightclubs aren’t standard preparation for executive interviews but, then again, there are very few Australian businesses whose advertising jingles have become the cultural phenomenon that those of National Tiles have.

The company’s founder, Frank Walker, has developed something of a cult following, thanks to his iconic radio advertisements across the Australian Radio Network which, for more than two decades, have started with that famous, drawn-out “Helloooo”.

Such is the extent of his popularity that he is the subject of social media fan pages and has appeared on Channel 10’s The Project. Last year, he even went global when Australian DJ duo Mashd N Kutcher mixed in an entire National Tiles advertisement in front of a bemused audience of 10,000 people during a set in Berlin.

“They’ve certainly made us a household name,” laughs Frank’s son and company CEO, Nick Walker, when asked about the commercials. “There’s not a taxidriver or Uber driver in the locations where we have a presence that hasn’t heard of us!” His dad’s famous greeting has generated the type of success seasoned marketers can only dream of.

“Our brand recognition is first class and we are the envy of all our competitors, and even people from other industries,” he admits, adding that, “When our sales reps visit new building sites, they hardly have to tell the company who we are.” Yet, Nick will also be the first to tell you that the business is so much more than just one radio ad.

“Yes, we are well-known for those ads, but now we need to be famous for what we do, not just for who people think we are.”

“The challenge for us is education. Our stores are awesome, our web experience is great, the products are amazing and the price is red-hot. So yes, we are well-known for those ads, but now we need to be famous for what we do, not just for who people think we are,” he says.

As with many great stories, the catchy advert came about entirely by chance. “We couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do the voice over so Frank had to actually go into the radio booth himself to record the ad and he just sort of hit a chord,” he explains.

But, after speaking to Nick about much more than advertising, it seems like the commercials were the only thing that has been left to chance. Hard work, passion and commitment have seen this family business from Geelong grow into one of Australia’s leading tile and stone flooring supplier.

For Nick, the company has been a part of his life for almost as long as he can remember. “I was probably only four or five years old when Dad decided to leave his father’s business and branch out on his own,” he says. Even at that young age, he was aware of the “blood, sweat and tears” involved in running your own business. “We were living upstairs and the shop was downstairs,” he recalls.

“From seven in the morning until seven at night, I’d watch trucks turning up, along with tilers and customers. It was pretty much hands-on; even Mum would drive out and do the deliveries.”

While his strongest childhood memories involve being taken for spins around the yard on a forklift, his involvement in the family business became much more serious when he reached his teenage years. “From around 13 I would work school holidays and some weekends and, by the time I turned 17, I was working every weekend while my mates were out partying.”

Not that he has any regrets. “I loved it, helping out in the warehouse, driving the forklift, packing orders, loading and unloading trucks.” Plus, he was still able to squeeze in a social life, he laughs.

It was only natural that he would progress from the warehouse out onto the floor of a retail store in Grovedale before, at 18, an employee’s misfortune would turn out to be Nick’s watershed moment. “One of our key sales guys had lost his licence and my old man came to me and asked me to drive the employee around. He was such an asset to the business that he didn’t want to lose him,” he recalls.

For 18 months Nick chauffeured the sales rep from customer to customer and soaked up skills and learnings that would become the platform for his career progression. “I learned a lot by being on the road, talking to customers, doing deals, feeling the highs and lows of sales,” he says.

“You couldn’t have written a better script, to be honest. To be put right up in the coalface and to see the deals being done, it was a really good training ground.”

By his 21st birthday, Nick had already been exposed to a lifetime of business wisdom. Watching his father establish his own company showed him that “the buck stops with one
person”, he says.

“My old man used to get up really early. He used to work very long hours, so you have an admiration for that. You get to see what it takes – that interaction with suppliers and with customers. Just watching and observing, that is really invaluable.”

Added to these leadership lessons were the commercial ones that came through on the job sales experience. “I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but promise what you can deliver was probably the main thing,”

he says. But it wasn’t the only one. “People buy from people they like. They take it that you’ve got the product, they take it that you’ve got the price, but that whole connection, one-on-one with all the customers, that’s where we sort of win the day,” he explains.

When combined, each of these small commercial victories has played a part in 17 years of consecutive growth, 15% compounded. “Essentially every three to five years, we’ve been doubling the size of the business,” Nick says.

Such rapid expansion, while the envy of many, is also what he says has been one of the main challenges the company has faced. And, as National Tiles has entered uncharted geographies, finding the right people to fill the newly created roles has also caused its fair share of headaches.

“In each new state, we’re starting out with an unfamiliar business and brand, so getting people to jump on board, understand the story and where we are going is challenging,” he admits.

“Things like site selections, you win some and lose some, but really it’s the people who matter.” Today, National Tiles employs a staff of 400 across 36 stores in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. “It wasn’t that long ago that I feel like we only had a team of 50 or 60,” he says.

So what is his strategy to attract the right talent? “You’ve got to make sure the roles are right and that you can provide attractive opportunities,” he responds. “Also, we have to make certain we can pay as much as we can to ensure the people want to come and join.”

Yet, he admits that, when it’s all said and done, what matters most is career progression: “To be able to show potential employees a road map of where they can go in the future.” Fortunately, there’s already plenty of proof.

“We’ve got people who started off in warehouse roles who are now heads of operations, people who were working on the sales floor that are now managing multiple teams,” he says, adding that internal promotions, where possible, take priority. “Certainly when we do that, and new people join, you’ve got hard evidence to demonstrate what can be achieved.”

There is no more shining example of this than Nick himself. After nearly 20 years of employment (and undoubtedly many more as an unofficial member of staff), he was made CEO in 2012. With his inherent knowledge and vast operational experience, it seems anything but a platitude when he says that “leading by example” is the value he upholds the most.

“We do behave like a big corporate company, but we’re first and foremost a family business and understanding our roots is what helps drive us forward. We’re fair but firm and give a lot of autonomy and treat people with respect,” he says, before explaining that putting himself in the other person’s shoes is part of his daily management routine.

“Whether it’s someone in my team or someone on the floor, or a supplier or a customer, it’s essential to try to have a bit of empathy and understand what they are thinking and what their needs are. Obviously, I have a business to run and with it comes commitments, but the more you can understand the people in your business, the better position you are in,” he continues.

As well as being the first choice for everyone from DIYers to developers, the company motto – ‘to be our suppliers’ number one customer’ – highlights the importance the business places on looking both ways in the supply chain.

“We also work very hard to make sure we are right up there as our suppliers’ best customers and, therefore, be in a position to use that to have win–win outcomes” Nick explains. “If we are just customer number 100 or 200, we’re not really that important, so we try to make sure that we are the key customer of every supplier we have.”

As Nick talks about his supplier relationships, it becomes clear how integral these longstanding partnerships have been to the overall National Tiles success story. While he points out that the company doesn’t work with hundreds of suppliers, those it does have, it deals with on a daily basis.

“Therefore, communication and trust are crucial,” he explains. “You’ve also got to like the people you’re dealing with,” he adds with a smile.

Shared values and a similar history also help, such as he has found with Mapei, a “terrific” Italian adhesives, sealants and chemical products manufacturer, which celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2017.

“The company is like us in that they are a family business that has grown into one of Italy’s biggest,” he says. “We were one of their first customers when they came to Australia more than two decades ago and today we’re its largest in the country.”

Along with “good chemistry from day one,” Nick reveals a collaborative spirit that has proven to be mutually beneficial. “We workshop, we try to understand the market and we’re always looking for win–win solutions,” he explains.

Although he acknowledges the importance of remaining commercial, he does believe that the secret to such longstanding partnerships is to never take your customer for granted. “I think a lot of businesses do, even with their biggest client,” he says. Two of its most enduring supplier relationships, Adroit Insurance & Risk and Bay City Forklifts, can trace their debut back to the early days in Geelong.

“They are always offering solutions, their service is always spot on, their prices are always in the market and when we need assistance, they are the first to help us out.” Unsurprisingly, he says a business like this he has never taken to tender. What else impresses him? “Promising what you can do and smashing it out of the ballpark,” he answers enthusiastically, especially when it means National Tiles has the edge on its competitors.

“We work with a tools and accessories company called Roberts Designs and its team is always scouring the world, looking for the latest and greatest things they can bring to us,” he explains. Not only does this save Nick’s business valuable time and resources, but it guarantees all-important speed to market.

Nick’s search for the best products for National Tiles takes him around the globe on buying trips to countries such as Argentina, Italy and Spain. Annually, the company imports more than 3,000 containers of stock – the equivalent of three-and-a-half million metres of tiles.

While statistics such as a stock holding in excess of A$20 million and annual sales of three million square metres of tiles attest to the incredible success this family business has achieved, the past decade or so has seen some important behind-the-scenes decisions made about how the company is run.

“We established a board eight or nine years ago and I think that has certainly put us
in a very good place,” he says. “We’ve been joined by some very good non-executive board members from outside the industry who have challenged me and Frank, and I would say it’s been one of the best decisions we’ve made.”

As has the introduction of a five-year strategic plan, the first edition of which coincided with his move to the C-suite. “Of course, opportunities come up and some things work out and others don’t, but certainly having a robust plan that you can refer back to in conversations has been instrumental in helping us grow,” he says.

This plan, he says, is “refreshed every year just to make sure it’s relevant and that we’re on track”. And, while there may be some “dark clouds on the horizon” for the industry in general, Nick believes his business is currently in a sweet spot, with strategies in place to assure continued growth despite the construction slowdown affecting the eastern states.

“There are other products that we’re looking at within the business. We’ve launched our timber category and there are benchtop categories, such as porcelain, that we’re looking at. We’re also starting to roll out our installation offering,” he explains.

“Now it’s no longer about buying tiles at one outlet and then hiring someone else to lay them. Today’s consumer wants a full-service offering so we’re working on that,” he continues. There is also obvious territorial expansion.

“We’ve got bucketloads of opportunity, so it’s actually a case of which ones do we really focus on and do well, instead of trying to do too many.”

“We’ve got a lot of white space in New South Wales that we’re going to go and get and we’re not represented at all yet in Western Australia.” In fact, it would seem that there is almost too much potential. “We’ve got bucketloads of opportunity, so it’s actually a case of which ones do we really focus on and do well, instead of trying to do too many.”

There are a few initiatives to be sure of, however – and they won’t involve changing radio (“It’s tried and tested so we’re not going to mess with that,” he assures us).

“We put a stake in the ground about a year ago where we stopped having sales every week and we moved more to an everyday low price (EDLP) model, by just delivering the best price that we can to the market. We’re going to continue to make sure the business is running as lean as it can, without compromising service, range or product quality,” he concludes.

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