American Biltrite makes noise with rubber ‘game changer,’ groutable LVT

Home Inside FCNews American Biltrite makes noise with rubber ‘game changer,’ groutable LVT

August 31/September 7; Volume 30/Number 6

By Steven Feldman

American Biltrite has a rich, 70-year history of manufacturing commercial rubber and vinyl flooring products for the North American market from its Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada, facility. But now the company is seeking to increase its significance in the floor covering arena with a “game-changing” rubber flooring product as well as its first foray into the residential side of the business.

Innovation should be synonymous with the family-owned company now that Roger Marcus, who spearheaded a number of groundbreaking products as the president and CEO of Congoleum for two decades, is actively involved. Marcus is now applying that ingenuity to American Biltrite.

The first illustration of that is AB Pure, a rubber flooring product backed by a patented formulation that is warrantied against fading, one of the major drawbacks of rubber flooring. “Color is often a key driver of rubber flooring specs, but when exposed to light the product can fade over time,” Marcus said. “And because of that, manufacturers were inhibited to bring out the lighter, vibrant colors, because they would fade even more. It just happens that there is an ASTM specification for discoloration or fading that to the best of my knowledge no one in the rubber industry met.”

And with that, Marcus believes American Biltrite has “created the wheel” for the rubber flooring industry given that AB Pure meets that ASTM spec, backed by a 10-year warranty. While acknowledging that other manufacturers may offer lighter colors, “even with the potential problems involved,” he knew of no company with a product that either meets the government specification or will guarantee to hold its color in light for 10 years.

The secret sauce in AB Pure is a patented compound that significantly minimizes or altogether avoids the fading, Marcus explained. This formula allows American Biltrite to offer a full gamut of colors. “Clear, crisp colors will stay clear and crisp and won’t fade.” In fact, he believes AB Pure offers the greatest clarity of color of any rubber sheet or tile on the market.

This formulation offers a side benefit over some competing products, Marcus said. “Pure is more flexible than standard rubber formulations. If you fold it over, it does not discolor at the fold.” The recipe also allows American Biltrite to make long runs of single shade lots.

Despite the potential game-changing nature of the product, Pure’s cost is approximately just 5% greater than the standard rubber formulations.

According to Marcus, Pure represents an opportunity to increase American Biltrite’s penetration in a category that offers many benefits. “Probably most significant is the fact it is environmentally appropriate given there is no PVC or chlorine and is FloorScore certified. Second, it is a very low maintenance product. Third, it is softer underfoot than other resilient products.” He believes rubber flooring is not as “big” as it could be, particularly in health care.

Expanding into residential

Also in its embryonic stage is UltraCeramic, a groutable LVT that puts American Biltrite into the residential side of flooring for the first time. The product was launched in Canada last year and is now being primed to debut in the U.S.

Groutable LVT is a product near and dear to Marcus’ heart, given he was the pioneer of the sub-category when he launched the groundbreaking DuraStone, which transitioned into DuraCeramic, during his time at Congoleum.

“Congoleum started this LVT phenomenon with DuraStone. Since then, all areas within LVT have grown, from the 20 mil commercial product to the residential product with the thinner wear layer that goes into property management. You also have the groutable LVT segment, which includes products like DuraCeramic. It was groutable LVT that spurred attention to vinyl film products to be utilized in the industry. The cornerstone of the LVT revolution was groutable LVT.”

UltraCeramic is being marketed as “composite tile” and the second generation of high-end, groutable LVT. What makes UltraCeramic different? For starters, the product is stiffer than most of the other high-end groutable LVTs on the market to truly replicate ceramic and stone; it doesn’t feel like vinyl.

The magic of groutable LVT from a quality standpoint, Marcus noted, is to have a certain hardness that the consumer perceives is not vinyl but rather a composite product. “You will find no reference to vinyl in our marketing strategy. Marrying that hardness to a good, deep, well-defined rounded edge in a thick vinyl product is not easy. There are versions out there that have a far less rounded edge or are significantly more flexible than our product.”

Next, UltraCeramic is available in the more traditional 18 x 18 as opposed to 16 x 16. “Larger is becoming better,” he said. “When Congoleum created DuraStone, our equipment limited us from making any size greater than 16 x 16. Everyone followed suit. But 18 x 18 is the popular size in ceramic. The larger size matters, particularly when installed in a large space.”

The third differentiator surrounding UltraCeramic is its display system, which screams contemporary as well as being consumer and salesperson friendly. Each pattern in the line is showcased in a large format with actual samples of all available colors. Large room scene photography on the back of each panel helps the consumer visualize how the tile will look installed.

The center panel highlights key features of UltraCeramic with all nine grout colors presented at the bottom. Grouted and ungrouted tiles are featured at the bottom of the display, and at almost 7 ½-feet high it is visible from anywhere in the store.

“We’ve created a display that, in our opinion, is in a category by itself,” Marcus said. “It is both modern and attractive. It shows every pattern in a size larger than 18 x 18 so the consumer can witness the beauty of a groutable floor and the beauty of an overall edge treatment.”

Retailers enjoyed significant profit opportunities with DuraCeramic from the outset as the first product of its kind on the scene, and Marcus believes the prospects of similar high margins exist with UltraCeramic. The product will sell to the consumer uninstalled for $3.99 to as much as $4.99, which gives the retailer a solid 40% margin.

Retailers can also generate profit through installation as UltraCeramic is available only in a dry-back format. “It affords the retailer very strong margins on a high-end product and the ability to utilize and sell the installation,” Marcus noted.

Despite what many believe to be an oversaturated LVT landscape, Marcus said there is plenty of room for a product like UltraCeramic. “There are many companies in LVT, but it’s more of what I refer to as the ‘property management LVTs.’ The entire world is not into upper-end, groutable LVT. This is the product that has driven the LVT market and what retailers need to have today.

Aesthetics

Marcus believes UltraCeramic is the most authentic looking product in the market due to its PVC wear layer and rotogravure finish with urethane coating, which helps it achieve a perfectly balanced gloss level. “High gloss makes the product look plastic and fake; low gloss dulls the actual image.”

UltraCeramic launched last year with 35 SKUs designed by industry veteran Leonard Ludivico, who was responsible for creating the original DuraCeramic line as well as all Congoleum products for 40 years. The visuals do not stray far outside the box with a clear and distinct focus on naturals. The collection emulates all stones from granite to travertine to marble and everything in between in rustic, classic and contemporary styles.

Jim Deacon, owner of Deacon Flooring in London, Ontario, Canada, is one retailer who can attest to the superiority of the product since UltraCeramic is his No. 1, best-selling LVT. “It provides peace of mind for our salespeople and comfort for the homeowner because she knows she is getting a great product.” He added that his clients like having the option of grout or non-grout, which is not an option with ceramic. And with price points at 5% to 10% lower than competing products, it is quickly taking over the tile market.

“We sell it as a great alternative to ceramic tile because it’s not as hard or as cold,” said Glenn Matton, head of the installation sector of the business. “It’s true to form; there are no issues with it being dimensionally stable and it does exactly what it says [it will].”

American Biltrite is just now starting to market UltraCeramic in the U.S. It is in the process of finalizing some distribution agreements and methodically seeking wholesalers in other territories. “We will not compromise ourselves for purpose of speed,” Marcus said.

A full unveiling is anticipated at The International Surface Event 2016, Jan. 20-22 in Las Vegas.

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