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Christopher Velonis well remembers the day more than a decade ago when one of his salesmen – a rookie, no less – asked him to sign off on a credit application for a company that made something called an “up flush toilet.”
To Velonis, profit center manager, Peabody Sales & Service, the toilet looked more like an appliance. And he didn’t sell appliances. He sold fixtures.
The salesman wanted to buy three to test the market. One was already sold, but Velonis figured the company wouldn’t break even until a contractor bought the second one, which meant there wouldn’t be a profit until the third one went out the door.
Times were tight for the wholesaler at the time, which operates eight New England locations from its base in North Andover, Massachusetts, and Velonis didn’t think the two purchased for stock would ever sell.
“I fully expected to take a loss,” Velonis says. “I agreed to do it, however, because my father always said, ‘Don’t invest in inventory. Invest in people.’”
Today, Kip Brown, that newly hired salesman Velonis chose to invest in, still works for him, and Peabody has since sold thousands of Saniflo’s macerating toilets, plus the supply house now stocks every one of the company’s SKUs, which have grown to include 15 different products for the U.S. market.
“In the end, the only thing I was right about was that the Saniflo toilet is an appliance, and a great one,” he added.
We met up with Velonis in Paris last April, along with more than 60 other wholesaler personnel from 17 different distributors for a Saniflo-sponsored trip to the French capital for a sightseeing tour of one of the world’s most beautiful cities as well as a trip to one of the company’s nearby factories. Reps from two agencies and one contractor also joined the three-day journey.
It was the second time Saniflo had organized such a trip, a mutual thank you of sorts to early adopters, such as Velonis, who took a chance to promote Saniflo and, in return, enjoyed sales growth from a new product category.
“Seeing the entire production process first hand was an educational experience,” says Stephanie Cook, director of training and safety, Northeastern Supply Inc., which is based in Baltimore with 32 branches. “The size and complexity of the operation was eye-opening for me.”
Northeastern took on Saniflo 15 years ago, making it one of the first wholesalers in the country to stock the macerating toilets.
“The plug-and-play aspect of the product was appealing,” Cook adds, “and the profitability was attractive.”
She says Northeastern’s biggest win comes from selling a product that performs exactly as advertised, which tags along with Northeastern’s biggest challenge to show contractors another way besides breaking up a floor to install a toilet where no traditional piping exists.
“Our sales team has done an excellent job learning about the product, which has enabled them to show their confidence in how well it works,” Cook adds. “This confidence has been a factor in growing sales with Saniflo year over year. Our branches continually promote how well the technology works to the point that Saniflo is one of our most comfortable product lines to sell.”
Considering the number of PHCP industry visitors heading overseas, Saniflo split up the visits a week apart. For us, the trip started on Thursday, April 26, with most participants recouping that day after long flights to Paris.
The next day included a drive to the factory in Bregy for a tour and lunch. After spending about an hour traveling through French farmland in a bus nearly as wide as the village streets, the group was impressed by the extent of the factory.
The Bregy plant has been home to the grinders that launched parent company Group SFA and earned it an international reputation. This plant, originally opened in 1977, employs around 200 people and has the capability to produce 1 million macerating systems a year.
“We were very surprised that Saniflo makes every component, except for the metal components, that go into its products,” says Rob McAndrew, general manager and vice president, Vic Bond Sales, which serves central Michigan from nine locations. “Seeing the employees start with individual pieces of the motor, for example, and actually make the motor from the pieces, was definitely an eye-opener to the quality and pride that Saniflo puts into its products.”
McAndrew makes a good point since Saniflo has steadily invested in the ISO-certified factory to manufacture in-house what was once outsourced.
On this tour, Saniflo’s guests saw one of the latest additions to this manufacturing philosophy – circuit boards.
“The main idea behind producing our own circuit boards is first of all for quality,” says Herve Genoud, vice director of the factory. “Most manufacturers source their electronics from China and some quality problems could happen. A lot of the products we are developing, such as commercial grinders, will use the circuit boards for the alarm and control box. As we produce 95 percent of our products, adding the circuit board is just following the same direction to provide top quality products to our customers and avoid sourcing problems.”
Throughout the morning tour, visitors saw plenty of other examples of how Saniflo has vertically integrated the manufacturing done at Bregy.
Molds, for example, were brought in-house in 2004 and all quite literally start out as skid after skid of bags loaded with plastic pellets, which eventually produce final products, such as casings and lid seals. The process to make the motors was added afterward.
Meanwhile, a testing area was expanded in 2013, which was one of our first stops on the tour. There, a number of macerators and pumps are put through their paces 24 hours a day.
“My first impression as we drove up to the factory was that it was just another factory in the middle of nowhere,” says Ed Kovatch, inside sales rep based at Mid-City Supply’s Elkhart, Indiana branch, “but I was pleasantly surprised how it is arranged and executed. They seem to have the operation down to a science and very well organized. It is amazing that they make their own components.”
Many of the visitors in our group were also surprised to learn about the international scope of the company.
“It amazed us that they would set up for the production of their units to be shipped to the U.S., and the next week, everything had to be changed to produce products for another country,” McAndrew explains. “We saw literature and packaging in every language that they ship to. Their pride in their workmanship and quality showed in every step of production.”
After expanding in Europe between 1958 and 1995, Group SFA set its sights on the North American market. The company opened a Canadian subsidiary in the early-1990s, followed by an American subsidiary in 2000.
While the company’s main claim to fame may be the macerating toilets, from its inception, the company has expanded its product lines.
Most recently, for homeowners with high-efficiency boilers and tankless water heaters that produce a lot of condensate, the company offers both a condensate pump as well as a neutralizer kit that helps prevent corrosion and increases the pH of the acidic water before discharging it to a drain line.
Group SFA’s expanding manufacturing capabilities, including injection, extrusion, electronic and motor applications, were key to the development of the 24 subsidiaries the company operates worldwide with an extensive network of importers and distributors.
Later that night, everyone was treated to a dinner cruise along the Seine River. Throughout the outing that rolled by famous sites, we heard plenty of “war stories” every editor is likely to hear during social time spent with PHCP industry players.
For example, if Northeastern Supply was one of the first U.S. wholesalers for Saniflo, then it has Rob Weed to thank for it. Weed and his brother Ed run Weed-Studnicky Associates, Baltimore, and started repping Saniflo in 2002.
“It was completely unknown in our territory,” Weed says of the macerating toilets. “No one was coming into any of our wholesaler accounts, probably not any wholesaler, because they didn’t know it existed. They didn’t have a clue.”
The agency started to promote Saniflo with little more than rudimentary counter mats and built its own displays. Agency reps traveled to PHCP industry events and even went to home shows to drum up interest from consumers, too.
“It was unbelievable how quickly this line grew for us,” Weed adds.
Weed says wholesalers love the system because the profit margin is great and plumbers love it because it saves on labor and, of course, offers a solution to the end user over the more traditional route of sewage ejection.
Although Saniflo’s solutions was relatively new to contractors, Weed says, once contractors saw how it worked and tried it, they became committed customers.
In fact, one of those contractors was on our trip. Paul Derosa, Westville-Crest Plumbing & Heating Inc., West Haven, Connecticut, was the only contractor in the group, and came as a guest of BENDER, a distributor also based in West Haven with seven locations.
“When I first saw this I didn’t know how it could possibly work,” Derosa says. “Here you have a small pipe and it’s carry sewage. I thought for sure I’d have problems.”
Those problems never happened, and Derosa ventures a guess that he’s installed more than 60 at this point.
“I’ve never gotten a callback on a Saniflo ever,” he adds.
Overcoming the objections Derosa may have had remain the prime challenge and, therefore, the prime opportunity for many of the wholesalers we talked to.
“The only problem is the bias and skepticism I showed the first time I saw the product,” Velonis says. “I assumed it did not have the value proposition that a traditional cast-iron sewage ejector does. This is the same skepticism shared by many trades people.”
Everyday, however, Velonis thinks more and more trades people are evolving.
“They realize that to make money they need to create the best value proposition,” Velonis says. “This means if the customer wants to turn their garage into a rental Airbnb suite than it is incumbent on them to create the best value to accomplish this. And that is probably going to mean not tearing up the concrete. It may mean that the best solution that will get the job is the one that comes from the person who thinks outside the box and uses the Saniflo solution.”
Cook agreed that the challenge and opportunity rest on reaching contractors not familiar with Saniflo.
“They have been breaking up the floor for years and don’t know that Saniflo offers a solution,” Cook explains. “Our opportunity is to educate our contractor customers about how Saniflo technology enables them to sell the solution of installing a bathroom nearly anywhere with the least amount of labor. The Saniflo product can help our customers sell more jobs.”
Cook and Weed both said the marketing and sales help from Saniflo has greatly improved over the years and both give the credit to Regis Saragosti, who shortly after the Paris trip was promoted to North American CEO for SFA Saniflo after serving 10 years as CEO of Saniflo USA.
“Regis has an eye for marketing so that really changed when he came on board,” Weed adds. “The sales literature improved by leaps and bounds. Posters and signage and banners, we had never had that before,” Weed adds, “The detail that Regis spent on this is significant.”
These detail have also helped Weed’s agency grow as Saniflo adds more products for the American market.
“Now when people flip through Saniflo sales literature,” Weed says, “they can see that Saniflo also offers gray water pumps, above-the-floor lift stations and self-contained toilets. All the stuff that they had no idea that the company had.”
All of which is much better than the counter mat Weed started out with.
“It was amazing to feel the passion that Regis has for his company,” Cook adds. “To hear him talk about where the company is now and where he wants to take it in the next five-plus years was inspiring. We will continue to grow with Saniflo year over year.”
After the evening’s cruise, Saniflo’s guest were able to enjoy one more day in Paris. As with most of these trips, the camaraderie was a big takeaway.
“This was my first time to Paris, or France for that matter,” McAndrew says. “We had an awesome time. We loved sitting at the outdoor cafes, taking in all of the history and talking to the locals. And meeting other Saniflo distributors from across the U.S. was definitely an added plus to this trip. We enjoyed conversation with them about Saniflo and how business was going in their part of the country. Of course, getting to spend time with Regis was an added bonus.”
Saniflo’s guests had another day to enjoy Paris on their own and travel back on April 29, but many such as Kovatch and his wife, Beth, elected to spend a couple of more days in Paris.
“The trip itself was fantastic,” Kovatch told us upon his return. “Saniflo did a great job of showing us their operations, and also Paris. We enjoyed the group, it is enjoyable speaking with other distributors. For me, personally, I have become our company’s Saniflo champion.”
The visit included personnel from the following wholesalers: Ahead Sanitation; BENDER; C&R Building Supply; F.W. Webb Co.; Mid-City Supply; Northeastern Supply Inc.; Peabody Sales & Service; Plimpton and Hills; Plumbers Supply Co.; The Portland Group; RAL Supply Group Inc.; Schumacher & Seiler; Security Supply; Standard Plumbing Supply; Supply New England; Vic Bond Sales; and VP Supply; and reps, The Walter F. Morris Co. and Weed-Studnicky Associates; and contractor Westville-Crest Plumbing & Heating Inc.