Mwanzi Green Building Supply • St. Louis, MO
Jermain Todd gave up a career in New York City as marketing director for a prestige green flooring brand to become a green building product dealer in St. Louis… with a few stops along the way. It's clear that Todd is enjoying the switch.
Ol' Blue Eyes tells us that if you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere. So when Jermain Todd moved his company from the Big Apple to the Gateway City last year, he brought a suitcase of confidence along for the trip.
Eight years ago, when he was just one year out of college, Todd became marketing director for Silk Road, one of the first brands of premium bamboo flooring supplied in the U.S. He had already developed an impressive resume through some key internships, and the company was eager to find an innovator who could help them to better establish their name in the marketplace. “Nobody really knew who Silk Road was back then,” he recalls, “so I began introducing the company to architects and designers all along the east coast.”
There were a lot of details to attend to: setting up newsletters, getting e-mail databases together, creating an accessible sampling program, and preparing the line for 3rd party certification. “I learned the ins and outs of how to promote a green product,” he told us. “And I really took to the environmental issues and the importance of sustainability.”
Inevitably, that role became sales oriented. By 2005, Jermain established an independent distribution company in New York City where he became the exclusive distributor of Silk Road for the eastern U.S. He named his company Mwanzi – a Swahili word that means bamboo.
For family reasons, Jermain and his wife relocated to St. Louis a year ago. “That freed me up from my contract, because in New York I could only sell Silk Road Bamboo. Which is cool, but I like a lot of other stuff,” said Todd. “Here we can sell not just bamboo flooring but anything else we can get our hands on that meets our standards.”
Mwanzi Green Building Supply occupies – for now – a small showroom in the Benton Park West neighborhood of St. Louis. A walk through nearby streets reveals a mix of 19th and early 20th century brick single and multi-family homes, businesses, schools, and manufacturing facilities, with mass transit readily available. Many structures have been elegantly restored to their original beauty, while others have aged gracefully, but there are also plenty of boarded-up and vacant buildings here. Yet this is clearly a neighborhood in revival – the very image of sustainability. “We've been really welcomed here; I couldn't have picked a better place,” said Todd. “With all the rehabbing and revitalization, there is so much opportunity here. It is already great to be a part of it.”
Contractors Come First
Mwanzi's storefront is located in a thoroughly rehabbed 19th century structure that originally served as a milliner's shop. The building earned a Silver rating from the Green Building Initiative, making it one of the first historic buildings in the state to be verified green. “Plus, it makes us the first green building supply dealer in the U.S. to operate out of a green certified building,” Todd boasts.
Most of design elements that customers see in the storefront are products that Mwanzi sells – the cabinets, flooring, countertops, and finishes. Jermain expects to expand the display area into a much larger adjoining space by next year. For now, he uses the showroom to meet clients by appointment, or to meet his clients' clients.
Todd doesn't just hang around hoping that customers will show up. “I'll visit, or my sales rep will visit, contractors where they're working. I'll drive down the street, see a jobsite, and pull over and introduce myself and hand out my card. People love that contact; we get a lot of clients and projects just from doing that,” he insists. “You want to get to know your guy pretty well and build on that personal connection.”
In New York City, Todd focused on architects.
But roughly two-thirds of Mwanzi's customers here are small contractors. “And that's what we love,” he declared. “It's the smaller contractors who keep dealers like us afloat. They might be doing Sue and Mike's kitchen today, and John and Sara's basement next week. There are a lot of rehab and renovation jobs out there, especially in this economy. 300 square feet here, 500 square feet there… it adds up.”
Despite coming from an architect-focused marketing background, contractors were Todd's target in St. Louis from the beginning. “I don't visit architects and designers because it's too easy to get lost in the system. You can spend months getting a product speced and then see it get ordered from somewhere else.”
At this stage of the company's growth, Todd uses his showroom primarily to introduce contractors to new products, and he encourages them to use Mwanzi as their own showroom when dealing with their customers. Todd is happy to serve as part of their sales presentation by answering any questions – about cork flooring, quartz countertops, or what have you – himself. “I think everybody has to figure out their own niche, where you're meeting the needs of a certain client base very well,” Todd explains. “I hope that we can serve our niche better every day.”
With Jermain's background, it's no surprise that flooring is a major part of Mwanzi's product mix. “Bamboo flooring is one of the major reasons people are even aware of green building,” Todd contends. “Silk Road was one of the first brands of bamboo flooring in the world and they, along with other brands of bamboo, were major players in the green building movement from the beginning.” Mwanzi supplies 4 lines of bamboo flooring, the broadest selection of brands in town. In addition to Silk Road, they feature Teragren, Grass Elements, and a house brand named Zi Bambu, which is available as FSC certified.
Todd worries that consumers aren't aware that there are legitimate quality differences between the established brands and some of the cheap knock-offs available from online vendors. “Getting people to understand the difference has been a big part of my life for the last few years,” he laments. “We tell people they have to do their due diligence. There are different grades of bamboo, A being the best, and then there's B and lower. The stuff that doesn't look too good or may have some defects, or is just soft because it's not old enough to lignify – because it was harvested in 2 to 3 years instead of 4 to 5, which would be optimal – can be cheaper.
“That's the stuff some of these companies are bringing in, and they'll tell you it's A-grade but it's not,” he continued. “You cannot sell the stuff they're presenting as A-grade at the prices they offer.”
To satisfy those cost-conscious buyers, Mwanzi offers their own brand, Zi Bambu. “We're honest with people; we tell them it won't be the quality of Silk Road or Teragren or Plyboo,” said Todd. “We think that gives them a better deal than if they just go somewhere that has bamboo at a low price, but no one tells them what they're actually getting.”
There's a secondary benefit, of course. Offering competitively priced bamboo gives Mwanzi the credibility to sell their premium brands as well. By offering their lower quality budget line at $1.99 and then pricing their higher quality product at $3.99 to $4.99, they give customers options they won't find in other outlets. “We're really fine with whatever choice people make,” says Todd. “We don't want to price ourselves out of any job. Money is tight right now, and for some projects the lower price is right. Giving people those choices is part of what we should be doing as a company.”`
Of course, bamboo isn't the only flooring available at Mwanzi. They carry engineered hardwood flooring from Kährs which is available with a variety of eco-certifications, including FSC. “And they have an Eco-core line of engineered floor with a recycled high-density fiber core that is low VOC,” Todd stated. “It's engineered, easy to install, deals with moisture very well, and we can get it in a wide range of colors and widths.”
At the same time, Mwanzi supplies its own private label of unfinished FSC flooring called Ozark Ground which is harvested and milled less than 250 miles away. “I'm grateful there's an FSC forest nearby,” Todd remarked. “And their pricing is amazing,” he exclaimed.
Ceramic and porcelain have been real contractor pleasers. “We carry several brands, and what's cool is the price points for sustainable products are no different than non-green choices, and aesthetically they are just as good,” Todd believes. “A lot of our contractors really push it because they make more money on ceramic installations. And from our perspective, porcelain is something you aren't going to get at Home Depot or Lowes, or even at many flooring dealers.” Mwanzi features Ergon, Marca Corona and Iris Ceramica from Italy, which offer low-VOC tiles with recycled content. Closer to home is Florida Tile, which is Greenguard Certified; Laufen, which is FloorScore certified as non-toxic; and Crossville, which is SCS certified for recycled content.
Mwanzi rounds out its flooring choices with cork from Qu-Cork and Expanko, and a line of recycled PET carpet from Shaw which is CRI-Plus certified as non-toxic.
More than Floors
Mwanzi's kitchen display showcases a hot mixture of Todd's favorite countertops and cabinetry. As it happens, he's no fan of the granite. “Granite has this sort of automatic quality image with the public, but I'd really like to take people on a tour of the fabricators we work worth,” he chuckled. “A lot of these guys will tell you they'd love to see granite disappear. Working with it is a pain, it wears down their tools, it's porous, and it cracks.”
Todd believes that quartz will be the next ‘big thing' in counters. “In my opinion it will eclipse granite because the material is very easy to fabricate, you get better consistency, tighter seams, and the price points are coming down,” he noted. “For the homeowner, it's non-porous, so you can even leave spills on it for weeks and then just wipe them off. Quartz is our second most abundant natural resource: water is first, then quartz is second.” Mwanzi supplies Greenguard certified Cambria and CaesarStone quartz.
Mwanzi also supplies paperbased countertops from Richlite and Paperstone. “We carry both because they really target different markets,” said Todd. “Paperstone does not require that their slabs be handled by a certified fabricator, so we can just sell the slabs and you can fabricate it yourself with a tablesaw, router, or circular saw, and cut out all the labor costs. Richlite wants more control over the finished product, and you do have to use one of their certified fabricators, which means there's an added cost.” The company has just started supplying EcoTop, which is a 50/50 blend of bamboo fiber and FSC certified paper.
Realistically, Mwanzi is the place for great looking counters, including Vetrazzo's glass blend, Squak Mountain stone, and Greenguard certified Corian from DuPont.
Marketing for the Future
Many small dealers avoid brands that are carried by big box stores, but not Todd. “We can compete with Home Depot, Lowes, and Lumber Liquidator, too,” he said. “It's competition that makes us all strive to be better. That's just a healthy part of being American. We push each other and the consumer benefits.”
At present, Mwanzi gets ESP (Environmental Stewardship Program) certified cabinets from Diamond, but plans are in place for their own line called Greenhaus Cabinetry. “The cabinets will use the materials that we sell, from our PureBond Hardwood Plywood for the boxes and drawers, to SkyBlend Particle Board as well as some Kirei Wheatboard MDF, FSC hardwoods as well as salvaged hardwoods for drawers, non-toxic glues such as Titebond-II, and non-emitting coatings,” said Todd. “The cabinets will be completely green, all our waste will be recycled, and we're hoping to launch that at the end of the summer. All made here, and we're targeting an affordable price point.”
And while he expects to expand his present location soon, Todd is already planning for a second showroom. A lot of work, and some clever marketing, will happen first. “We have a database of over 10,000 e-mail addresses,” he revealed, “and we send out e-mail flyers of promotions and new products. And as far as the whole social media thing – facebook and twitter – we definitely use the non-traditional ways to stay in touch with people.
“There's always something cool and innovative happening here,” he grinned, “and the test for us is always, what's the best way of getting the word out?”
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