This recent interview with Nick Tsangaris, owner of SpongaUSA, details the company’s history, product line and plans for growth.
Nick, thanks for staying up so late in Greece to do this interview.
Thank you for giving your readers an opportunity to learn about our new/old company, SpongaUSA, LLC. And, yes in Calymnos we are eight hours ahead of Jackson, Miss., where TileLetter is based.
What do you mean “new/old” company?
I’m glad you picked up on my comment! My family started in the sponge business long before I was even born. My great grandfather was a natural-sponge boat captain. Both my grandfather and father became natural-sponge traders.
In the 1950’s my father recognized the opportunity to move from natural sponges to synthetic sponges for a myriad of industries world-wide such as saddlery, paint, cosmetics, bath, pottery and of course the tile and stone industry. We built our first manufacturing plant here in Calymnos back in 1956. Calymnos was known as “the sponge-divers’ island.” The factory has been expanded a number of times since then, but we are still on the same piece of land my father started on. And while we are very much focused on the tile and stone industry in the U.S., we supply sponges to at least 25 other countries in virtually all the other industries my father envisioned back in the 60’s. He was quite a visionary and absolutely loves the sponge business to this day. As a matter of fact, even though he is in his 90’s, my father still likes coming to the factory nearly every day to tinker around. So as you can see, while SpongaUSA is relatively “new”, our roots are very “old” and deep in the sponge industry.
You are operating out of Greece, but I notice you are very fluent in English.
Thank you. While Greek is my natural language and it is the language I speak at home with my family and at the factory, at a very young age I learned to speak French as well as English. However, it was not until I came to the U.S. to earn my MBA at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., that I got pretty proficient in English.
Okay so back to the sponge business. So how did you originally get started here in the U.S. in the tile and stone industry?
In 1970 we introduced the Tile Grout Sponge in the U.S. through Hydra. That relationship went well until about 1991 when they decided to set up their own factory in the U.S. That left us without a U.S. distribution partner.
However, after meeting the Maggio family at Superior Featherweight Tools, we were soon able to establish a great partnership with them distributing our sponges along with the tile, stone, concrete and masonry tools they manufactured. Again that relationship went very well for a number of years. The Maggios are great people. Even after they sold Superior Featherweight Tools to Custom Building Products, we continued to supply our high quality Greek sponges to the U.S. market for a number of years.
As fate would have it, Custom Building Products decided to change their sponge source. Once again, I was left without a U.S. distribution partner. So having had such a great relationship with the Maggio family and knowing Rich had recently left Custom to start his own tool business (www.primo-tools.com), I contacted him. And as it turns out, he was exploring opportunities with Rick Baldini who had recently sold Aqua Mix, coincidentally to Custom. I wanted to do something a little different with my trading partners this time around, so in a relative short period of time, Rich, Rick and I were able to structure and capitalize SpongaUSA, LLC into a balanced partnership.
It has been a great partnership. One of the best things about our partnership is that while all three of us are strong-willed and individually capable of running the business, we work very well together as our skills are wonderfully complimentary. And we have a broad customer base in the U.S. that appreciates the craftsmanship in our Greek sponges. Since first introduced we have sold well over 40 million sponges here in the U.S. alone.
How difficult is it to have U.S-based partners while you live in Greece?
Truthfully it is not difficult at all –especially with the internet. Both Rich and Rick start their work days very early and I tend to work late into the evening, so we have our bi-weekly meetings as they start their day and at the end of mine. We use a great virtual office product called Go-To-Meeting. The three of us are able to communicate through the speakers and microphones on our computers, but more importantly, we are able to see what is on each other’s computer screen. Pretty cool! And now the service has expanded to include video so we can actually see each other while we talk and work. We keep meticulous notes and are great about following up. We also physically get together regularly. I come to the U.S. at least once a year for trade shows and both of them came to the factory last year.
With everything we read in the papers and see in the news about Greece’s financial crisis, is it a stable place to own and operate a business?
That’s a fair question. The reality is that Greece is going through some very difficult times right now, as are number of other countries — including the U.S. I personally believe our political leaders are trying to do the best they can to overcome the effects of our historical socialistic policies. I also believe that the majority of the Greek citizens understand that things had to change and for the most part they are willing to endure some of the requisite sacrifices.
On our little island of Calymnos we are a bit insulated from some of the things you see in the news regarding Athens. At our factory, our employees are very hard working; they take great pride in the quality of their craftsmanship and have been with us for a number of years. I believe the average tenure of our employees at the factory is around 25 years (not counting my father) and some of them are even second generation, meaning the mother or father worked with us.
So how can you produce a sponge 6,000 miles away and be competitive with domestic sponge manufacturers or Asian manufactures for that matter?
We have several things going for us in that regard. First and foremost is the quality of our sponges. Our Premium Grout Sponges are made of an exclusive high-quality, polyester-base material design specifically for the tile-and-stone industry. We utilize a proprietary “gas-explosion” or “thermal” reticulation process to create the optimal number of open cells, while assuring highest level of durability. The reticulation process involves the placement of a “base bun of foam” in a very large vacuum-pressure vessel. The vessel is evacuated and filled with an explosive gas mixture. The gas is ignited and a controlled-flame front passes through the foam. To use an analogy, think of the base material as if it were a French window pane. With gas-explosion reticulation, we break all the glass to make it porous, but the wood frames are not affected. The benefit of gas-explosion reticulation process is a smooth, clean polish sponge cell which provides the maximum absorption, retention and release of water and sand for faster and better grout clean-up.
Many domestic sponge manufacturers and most of the Asian sponge manufacturers utilize a chemical- dip reticulation process. Continuing with my French window pane analogy: in the chemical-dip reticulation process, the chemical cannot differentiate between glass and wood. The chemical attacks the entire base material, so a trade-off or compromise must occur between opening up enough pores and weakening the sponge. In additional being less porous and less durable, chemical-dip reticulation also tends to harden. SpongaUSA’s gas-reticulated sponges can be both soft and strong. Now I would not be able to say that if I did not have test result to support my position. We have posted results on our website www.spongusa.com detailing our superior comparative water absorption and release. New independent test results are just being completed that further validate our superior water absorption and release, and also demonstrate the superior strength and durability of our sponges.
It sounds like your sponges may in fact be high-quality, but what about price, especially in today’s difficult economy?
That is another good question. In most cases, the initial purchase price of our Premium Grout Sponges, for example, is going to be a few cents more that other sponges. But over the years, quality contractors have recognized and appreciated how much better our sponges perform. And with better-performing sponges, the job of cleaning newly-installed grout is both easier and faster. Not to mention that SpongaUSA sponges are more durable and longer lasting. So while the initial purchase price might be slightly higher, SpongaUSA provide much more value as they work better and last longer.
Okay, but it still feels like it could be a hard sell in today’s tough economy.
I am not so sure it is as much a tough sell as it is a recognition that not everybody purchases the top-of-the- line products, such as our Premium Grout Sponges. For a long time we resisted introducing a lower priced chemical-reticulated sponge like the domestic and Asian manufacturers. But after a while we realized that there could be an opportunity for our “Cadillac” and “Chevrolet” sponges, so we introduced our Economy Sponges. They work well and are very competitively priced. We still sell significantly more of our Premium Sponges than we sell of our Economy, but we have both versions available to meet more of the market demands.
That makes sense. But I also noticed some specialty sponges on your website. Tell me a little bit about them.
Well for years we really only sold our Premium Grout Sponge for virtually every type of job. But as cementitious grout formulas evolved with the addition of latex additives, not only were they stronger and more durable, but in some cases the installation clean-up got a little more difficult. That’s when we developed our Scrubber Sponge. We were the first manufacturer ever to bond a white scrubbing pad on one side of a Premium Sponge. With the Scrubber Sponge, not only do you have an absorptive and durable sponge on one side, but you have an abrasive scrubbing pad on the other side. This is especially helpful when /if grout gets a little dried on the surface of the tile or stone surface. And the abrasive pad will not harm or scratch the tile or stone surface.
Another grout evolution was the growing popularity of epoxy grouts. Manufacturers have made them so they are much easier to work with than when they were first introduced. But even with the wonderful improvements with epoxy grouts, they are still a little more difficult to clean-up than cementious grouts. That’s why we developed our Epoxy Grout Sponge. It was designed to be much more abrasive than even the white scrub pad we bond to our Scrubber Sponge. Our Epoxy Grout Sponges will still not scratch or harm the surface of tile or stone, but they do a great job of cleaning epoxy grout from the surface of the tile. The sponge itself also cleans up will for multiple uses.
My partner Rick Baldini has a background in the sealer business. He really likes our Sealer Sponge. We designed it to be very dense and highly absorptive so it will hold a lot of sealer, which helps make the sealing project go faster. The sponge itself is very smooth so when used with a coating sealer, it minimizes any surface bubbles or fish-eyes. Our Sealer Sponge works equally as well with water-, solvent-, or acrylic-based sealers.
We have one more sponge in our line we call our Float Sponge. With this product we bond a hard grout float material to one side of a grout clean-up sponge. Primarily for the DIYer and/or small jobs, the Float Sponge can be used to install grout much in the same manner as grout is installed with a traditional grout float. Then the Float Sponge can be flipped over and the sponge side is used to clean and tool the grout joint. You would be surprised how many of the Float Sponges we sold to DIYers through a major home center.
That’s quite a wide range of sponges. How are you getting the word out about all the products you offer?
We would like to think that our website will help a lot. And the fact that you said you saw the variety of sponges on our website is encouraging. But we do not think the website alone will be enough.
So, we engaged a display-design firm out of Atlanta called Retail One to help us address the issue. They were great at listening to us and understanding our concerns. They even did their own market research to help us design a display system that we are calling the “Right Sponge for Every Job” display. After a number of prototypes and with lots of input from a number of our customers we created a display system that we think will do a great job of communicating our sponge offering. Retail One came up with an eye-catching corrugated display with large color pictures and easily-understood text that helps distributor showroom personnel as well as contractors determine the right sponge for every job! They also developed feature and benefit cards that are attached to each of the displays.
The system affords us the opportunity to print our customers’ logos right on the cards to help personalize the displays. But probably the coolest feature the display system has is that it is modular or flexible. Our customers can use a half-round display that is 39” X 42” X 22” and holds 274 sponges or they can use two displays back to back as a full round system. The latter option obviously requires twice as much space, but it will also hold twice as many sponges. We really think this display system will be a tremendous help as we build our brand of the “World’s Greatest Grout Sponges.” We also have the more traditional wire rack and sign that we find works well in warehouse locations.
Is there anything else about SpongaUSA that you would like our readers to know?
Yes, thanks, there are a couple of things. Well, we like to think we listen to our customers and adjust our products offering accordingly. We have a great distributor customer in Southern Florida, D&B Tile Distributors, and they asked us to come up with bags that hold multiple sponges. We now offer our Premium Extra Large sponges in multi-pack bags of three or 12 sponges per bag. We thought it would be “cuter” to put the sponges in bags that look like scuba diver bags. We are so glad we listened to D&B, as they now buy several bales of the 12- piece multi-pack sponges on a regular basis. We also have other customers that like the multi-packs for their large contractors.
We had a couple of other customers, Tiles International in New York and Mid- America Tile in Illinois that liked both our Sealer and Epoxy Grout Sponges, but they found that the volume is not as great as our Premium Grout Sponge. They asked if we could provide both products in smaller quantity bales. So we created mini-bales of 100 sponges each for both products. We still have available the full 400 piece bales of our Epoxy Grout Sponges and 500 piece bales of Sealer Sponges, but we are now selling the mini-bales to a number of customers. It really helps the “turn and earn” equation.
Any final comments?
Yes three quick ones: There are a few sales territories still available for quality independent reps, so if what we discussed here about SpongaUSA is of interest to any of your rep readers, we would like them to contact us. Second, we are had a great showing at Total Solution Plus in Arizona last November and plan participating again in 2012. Third, thanks for taking the time to learn about SpongaUSA!
For more information on SpongaUSA, visit www.spongausa.com or phone 949-766-5105.