In recent years, two Korean-made brands of solid surface materials, Samsung Staron and LG Hi-MACS, have emerged as serious market players in the United States. Both companies are major sponsors of the International Solid Surface Fabricators Association (ISSFA), and offer products based on acrylic resins, as does the market leader, DuPont Corian.
DuPont itself has long been active in the Asian solid surface market, manufacturing Corian in Toyama, Japan and Ulsan, Korea in addition to its U.S. plant in Buffalo, New York. This past March, in a major development, DuPont acquired Guangzhou Montelli, manufacturer of Montelli, China's leading brand of solid surface material. Included in the acquisition are manufacturing facilities in two cities that now employ about 400 people. DuPont plans to continue and improve marketing in the People's Republic of China, and share marketing infrastructure between the two brands in that country.
Montelli is distributed in the U.S. as well, though DuPont has not acquired the U.S. distributor. Emphasizing quality products at an affordable price, the U.S. operation sells directly to fabricators.
I spoke with Louie Slape, owner of Slape Cabinets in Muskogee, Oklahoma. His company fabricates and installs several brands of solid surface material. Montelli is its best selling brand, because he says that the company offers good quality and customer service at a very competitive price. Slape is very pleased with his business relationship with Montelli.
In my opinion, DuPont remains the undisputed solid surface brand leader with Corian, outpacing other brands in name recognition among consumers, reputation, customer service and product quality. Inevitably, this has created market opportunities for overseas competitors with lower labor costs capable of producing and selling a good quality solid surface material at a lower price to a different market niche. DuPont's acquisition of Montelli allows the company to profit from this segment of the worldwide market as well, and is another example of the company's formidable business acumen.
The ISSFA also has ambitious plans for the future. It has launched a major consumer direct awareness marketing campaign utilizing the Internet that is intended to produce qualified sales leads directly to ISSFA members.
The association is working with Everycontractor.com, which will produce a new Web site for ISSFA that will debut in the fall of 2004. Using technology developed by Everycontractor.com, each ISSFA member company is being asked to complete a detailed company profile online that will identify every county and zip code in its market area, as well as its product lines and areas of specialization.
The campaign also involves working with the leading Internet search engines so that any end user asking for information about countertop installation or solid surface materials will be directed toward ISSFA's updated Web site. There, the consumer can easily find a qualified ISSFA member eager to do jobs in their geographic area, and the ISSFA member company will automatically be informed of that consumer's interest.
According to James Darois of Everycontractor.com, ISSFA has done a good job of education and communication among its members. The association now represents most of the best-trained and most experienced solid surface fabricators around. However, ISSFA, like trade associations in other industries, has been less successful in helping its members grow their businesses directly by putting qualified sales leads right on their desks.
For example, ISSFA's current Web site lists links to hundreds of member Web sites, but these are listed alphabetically, with no information about the various companies' geographic territory. It is difficult, therefore, for consumers to find an ISSFA member active in their metropolitan area unless the business name is already known.
The challenge is not a simple one. When I typed the phrase "solid surface fabricator" into Google, the leading Internet search engine, it told me that 12,200 Web pages were possibilities. I was pleased that the very first Google page contained links to this magazine and to my personal Web site, www.heaphy.com. However, ISSFA's Web site did not appear.
A second search for the very similar phrase "solid surface fabricators" in the plural listed ISSFA's Web site in the number one position. What a difference a single letter can make! My Web site and this magazine's also appeared near the top of the second list.
There must be hundreds or thousands of possible search phrases
that a consumer might type in an attempt to find someone qualified
to install countertops for them. A successful effort will mean that
ISSFA will pop up at or near the top of the list the majority of
the time, and that enough information about ISSFA will be presented
to induce consumers to click that link.
Everycontractor.com faces similar challenges of its own. Attempts to find a contractor online can lead to a plethora of competing Web sites.
At one time, I planned on listing links to every known solid surface fabricator on my Web site, and made considerable progress toward that goal. I grouped the listings alphabetically by state, and then by city within each state. I still respond to frequent e-mails from consumers all over the country asking for help resolving problems with solid surface installers, and do my best to offer useful tips.
Over time, I concluded that the task was too daunting for a small business like mine, and that a trade association such as ISSFA was the logical choice to provide such a service. I hope that ISSFA, in cooperation with Everycontractor.com, will be more successful than I in achieving that goal.
I urge every ISSFA member company to register for this new service. Fabricators who are not now members of ISSFA may also want to consider joining. The organization deserves your support. Visit www.issfa.com for information.