An Educated Perspective on Selling Green

The Green Building Center crew brings a unique array of green building know-how to the Salt Lake City region


There's no single industry bootcamp that prepares every dealer the same way. Some folks start out sawing wood, others begin by repping for a materials vendor, and many simply apprentice in the family business. Just the same, Ashley Patterson's background seems quite unique.

Before opening The Green Building Center in 2002, Patterson earned a degree in Environmental Studies from Yale in 1991, and then worked in the non-profit world for a few years before going to grad school to study Environmental Health. Most people with that kind of resume go to work for enviro-groups, or government agencies like the EPA, but Patterson changed directions and went into the book business. During that time, she continued learning, taking classes in subjects such as photovoltaic solar, biodiesel, and straw bale construction. Ashley was fascinated by green building, but couldn't decide how she could fit that into her career path.

The answer came during a visit to Environmental Building Supply (now ecohaus) in Portland, Oregon. "I thought, 'Wow, what a cool idea to put all these green building products under one roof,'" she recalled. Within the previous two years, Patterson had been forced to order finishes and roofing materials online because there was no place to get sustainable versions of those products in Salt Lake City. "After seeing EBS, I believed that we could do something like that here, so I decided to give it a go."

In 2002, The Green Building Center opened in a 1,600 square foot location which they quickly outgrew as Ashley learned, often by trial and error, to become an astute green businessperson. Today's Salt Lake City store takes up 5,500 square feet, their newer Park City location uses 3,000 square feet, and the company also maintains an outside warehouse.

TGBC's inventory assortment leans heavily towards decorative and design products, rather than structural materials. That mix includes wood and resilient flooring, carpeting, finishes, paints, countertops, tiles, and wall panels.

"Flooring is our biggest product category, and that's probably true for a lot of green stores," Patterson points out. "I'm always looking for new stuff. We sell reclaimed and FSC certified woods, we sell Marmoleum, we sell some big floor-tiles, we sell the recycled rubber and cork."

Big-box and internet competition for flooring - even in bamboo, cork, and linoleum - has been heating up. But national chains aren't always tuned in to local markets, and that leaves ample room for service-oriented independents such as TGBC. For instance, engineered floors that are popular in Savannah and Syracuse might not do so well in Salt Lake City. "We've found that engineered flooring was a little tricky in our dry climate," said Patterson. "Unless the wear layer is really thick, it's difficult to make sure that you don't run into checking or other problems." By comparison, solid wood flooring can sustain 5 or 6 sandings, and Green Building Center customers have embraced that choice.

The company also sells wood flooring reclaimed from 19th century railroad trestles that once spanned the Great Salt Lake. "Trestlewood is gorgeous," Patterson exclaimed. And in Utah, it earns additional LEED credits for being regionally sourced.

TGBC's countertop selections send a powerful message: recycled products can be elegant and beautiful. "The recycled glass and concrete countertops from IceStone do the best for us," said Ashley. The company serves as state-wide distributor for the line, which is composed of recycled glass in concrete. They stock the line in depth, as they do with other popular counters such as Paperstone.

A young business faces scary choices: should you tie up your capital in warehoused inventory, or should you risk losing sales because you can't deliver the product on time? "It's a chicken before the egg sort of thing," Patterson has learned. "When you pitch a builder or architect on IceStone and they need 6 to 10 slabs, if you have to tell them there's an 8 week wait, they'll say 'What?! I was planning on 4; I'd better go with Silestone.' Playing that game is tricky, because you don't want to get yourself overextended, either."

On the retail side, Patterson's crew has developed a more effective system for connecting sales to installation. "It used to be tough seeing a customer come in, look at our stuff, pick out what they liked, and then find out their contractor ordered the material direct. We were never very good at connecting those dots," she admits. "Now we're much, much better at it. We have the infrastructure in place so that when a contractor calls we have a separate department for him, and treat him the way he deserves to be treated."

That involves pricing, of course... and Patterson thinks it's the most important lesson she's learned in running her business. "When you're brand new to the industry you don't understand who does the purchasing," she stated. "You don't understand who's expecting discounts and who should get them and who shouldn't. You shouldn't give the discount to the homeowner because then the contractor won't want to work with you."

A couple years ago, Patterson enticed someone to join TGBC who had a lot of operations experience but had also owned a handyman business for a few years. That know-how helped the store develop better systems for dealing with contractors. And after the company added Dale Bard as an outside sales rep, the Professional Sales division started growing at a pace that seems likely to outperform the retail side. Ashley gets a little involved in that herself. "I do that more with the architects and designers; I'll start to develop the relationship, and then introduce them to our outside salesperson," said Patterson, who is a LEED-AP. "I don't have as much luck with the builders, which is probably still more of a man's world in that respect, so I pass them on to Dale and if they can't get ahold of him, I'm always available for backup."

Outside sales has revealed a new set of challenges, including the scarcity of product samples and marketing materials. "I think this is something the green market is just starting to figure out, both on the retail and distributor levels, and on the manufacturing level," Patterson said. "We have to do the same thing that conventional guys do, and we have to get samples free of charge to the architects. We have to have outside reps. We need to have good installers. We have to really know our products and how to sell them."

But marketing aids are a particular bugaboo. "I see a lot of companies who can never provide enough samples, they don't offer a showroom display so you have to build your own, and I always say to them, 'I can't believe you don't want to manage the way your products are displayed,'" said Patterson. "They think you can get by with 5 or 6 boxes of samples, but we need hundreds. There are 600 registered architects in this state."

Patterson singled out Forbo, which makes Marmoleum flooring, as a good supplier to work with. "They have a great display, their product is fairly priced, they have excellent brochures, they have a sample program, they have an installation training program so you can get your installers trained," she said. "They do it all better than anyone else."

And she's pretty happy with American Clay as well. "They've never provided us with a display, but they're good about samples, literature, and workshops, and they've been aggressive at creating brand awareness," said Patterson. "As a retailer, that's something we've really appreciated."

On the paint side, Yolo stands out at TGBC. "Their displays are great, and they've created a brand awareness and a buzz about their product that makes it a little easier for the retailer to tell people how this paint is different than what they can buy at Home Depot," said Ashley. "And people gravitate towards the palette."

A new contender in countertop sales here is Torzo, both for the product itself, its sustainability, and the marketing package. "It's at a price point that allows you to compete with low priced countertop options," said Ashley. "So far, I've really liked working with the company; these guys get it. They know what they need to do - get a distributor several hundred sets of samples - and they understand that it won't result in immediate sales. They know it's going to take a little time and a little money to get a product established."

Another hot product category is lighting. "We're trying to lead the ways in LEDs," Patterson declared. "It's a good consumer product, and it's also a good builder and remodeler product. With where the economy is, much of today's market is based on remodeling. Many of our customers come in and say, 'We're planning to remodel and we're wondering what we can do green.' Well, there may not be that much, besides the finishing products, compared to building with SIPs, adding a metal roof, getting more efficient windows, or putting up solar panels. But they can do lights and appliances.

"We're a stocking dealer for the LR-6 Cree LLF," said Patterson. "It's the best product we sell. Six Denny's in the state just outfitted their restaurants with them. I use them in both stores, and the light is lovely. They're super-efficient, we've had no flickering issues or anything weird, and they dim."

It all comes back to education. In-store workshops have always been a big part of getting a product line established with customers. Topics vary from presentations on green kitchen remodeling ideas, to geothermal, to indoor air quality, to hands-on participatory demos showing how to apply clay plasters.

All that requires a knowledgeable staff, and Patterson is quick to lavish praise on them. "The smartest thing I've done is hire people who are not necessarily experienced in this field but are really, really smart," said Ashley. "Andrea Heidinger, our Salt Lake City store manager, initiated the workshop series, and she does a phenomenal job. Mike Heidinger, her husband, works on our website, manages the flooring, and he's really taken us to a higher level on our finishes. Dale Bard, our outside sales guy, has taken us to a different level in the marketplace.

"The guy who does the magic of keeping our operations together is Eric Anderson," she continued. "Cale Berg, who does all our shipping and receiving, has totally revamped our purchase order and inventory system."

As for the future, Patterson envisions taking hold of the Salt Lake City marketplace and maximizing The Green Building Center's place in it. "I don't think we've come close to its potential," she declares. "There's plenty for us to look forward to."

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