Exclusive: Jason Surratt shares his vision for Tarkett
tarkett recently named industry-experienced Jason Surratt as president of its residential division. The appointment represents a departure from the revolving door of presidents from outside the industry in recent times. Surratt, who brings a strong manufacturing and product background to Tarkett, was recently recognized by: FCNews as one of the 35 under 40s making their mark in this industry.
Surratt recently sat down with FCNews publisher, Steven Feldman, to discuss the opportunity and task.
Tell me about your career so far.
I have worked for most of the larger flooring companies, starting in Honeywell’s fiber division, then moving on to the manufacturing side, starting with direct flooring supervision for Shaw’s commercial division in their carpet tile plant and working through operations management. After spending about a year outside the flooring industry at an IT company, I came back into the flooring industry at Mohawk with product development on their commercial team. I was with them in various roles for about eight years and eventually took over their custom design and development for commercial and hospitality. I left for a career opportunity at Phenix, where I was put in charge of their entire product development and design. Shortly after the Mannington acquisition, they wanted to split my role into two parts: true category management, P&L leadership and design. I thought more of that real P&L ownership would be good for my career, learning more about the business side of things than just the design and development aspect.
What makes this job attractive to you?
For starters, Tarkett has an excellent reputation in the industry. That, in combination with the enormous opportunities within their housing company, made this a very attractive position for me. The company has the parts it needs to make great strides in living, and I’m excited to be a part of that journey.
Tarkett has historically sought leaders outside the flooring industry; their tenures were often short. Is it fair to say that Tarkett would do better to have someone who knows the industry in this leadership role?
Flooring is a very tricky industry to understand especially the intricacies of going to market and some of the things we do compared to other industries. I think it’s very hard for an outsider to understand, and it’s a very strong relationship-based market. So having those relationships with those retailers and distributors — and understanding what’s important to them — is a plus. I think retailers appreciate someone in that role who understands the whole — from the nuts and bolts of how it’s made to how it ships and all the interactions in between. I think an insider could be more successful in this role because he’s not trying to get to know the company and the industry and the people below him. It’s one less thing to learn.
You are a product and production man. What skills do you bring to the table that will make a positive difference to Tarkett?
My overall understanding of flooring goes through all the processes up front prior to sale. Knowing how to efficiently create exciting new aesthetics and designs. And then just trying to bring more of that differentiation through the voice of the customer and understanding where the market is trending. We are going to build a strategy around the wishes and needs of our customers.
How involved are you in sales and marketing?
My philosophy is not to micromanage and let my team and their talents shine through. I’ll help lead and steer a strategy for where we want the business to go, how we want to get there, and I have a talented team that is well positioned to perform those functions.
How did you identify Tarkett’s strengths and weaknesses as a competitor, and did your first few days here dispel all those impressions?
I didn’t fully understand our capabilities within our miscellaneous business. In previous positions, I may have looked more into this company for the carpet, LVT and other hard surfaces categories. So I think that could be an important differentiator for us to really have a total floor solution, including accessories, such as wall plinths. It’s good that we have that whole portfolio to be one source for our customers.
What do you think were the weaknesses of this company as a competitor of Tarkett?
I felt that their overall carpet portfolio or presence in residential carpet could be stronger. I definitely felt where Lexmark once was, they probably lost some ground in the takeover. So that’s an area where we can definitely improve and grow within the market.
Once you’re settled in, what are some of the first things you’ll tackle?
I try to come in with a fresh mind and not just to use what I’ve done successfully in other roles in the past. I try to give at least 30 days before I say, “This is the mark I want to put on it.” I still need time to hear from my entire team and our clients to understand what they see as opportunities and determine what we need to focus on to achieve success.
Tarkett has picked up some solid distributors lately. Talk about that.
Ohio Valley Flooring and FlorStar are certainly strong distributors and give us a much better presence in their respective markets. I think that’s something we’ll be striving for in the coming years – looking for the right partners within distribution and trying to build a stronger footprint across the country.
What’s your take on Surfaces? Will Tarkett participate in 2022 and beyond?
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many questions about total exhibition space and number of shows, but for me, for the private sector, Surfaces has always been the best opportunity to showcase your latest products. It has always been a destination for retailers. So right now the plans are to be there in January. I don’t foresee that we won’t be going in the next few years unless there is a huge drop in the number of shoppers.
You’re from Mannington, which has always had a strong presence at Surfaces. A lot of it has to do with Jay’s Bargain Basement. Is that something you would like to replicate?
As I said before, I try to come in with a fresh mind and not just focus on what I’ve done successfully in other roles in the past. That said, it is certainly possible. We’ve had short discussions this week and that hasn’t really happened in the past. I’m not sure yet of the reasoning for or against it in the past, but if we have the right opportunity and there are end products we can use, that’s something we would try to replicate.
Under your leadership, how does Tarkett compete with the Shaws, Mohawks, Armstrongs and Manningtons of the world?
When you compete against the larger companies, you have a cost disadvantage. We know we are not going to compete on cost. So it’s really about bringing unique competitive advantages and differentiation to the market, be it systems or tools for the RSA, or unique aesthetics or innovative technologies within a product type that is at the forefront of other companies.
How do you help the retailer make money?
Having the right merchandising, having the right products, having the mainstream media and marketing and sales tools that make it easy for them to understand what the product is about, why it’s unique and why they’re bringing it to the customer want to sell. It’s really creating a package that excites them.
Are you looking for high-level personnel?
Right now I’m focused on understanding my team and our goals and drivers. We will work together to develop a long-term strategy and continue to grow the business. Those activities will determine whether and where we need to add roles to the housing market.
Talk about short and long term goals.
In the short term, I want to understand who my team is and what its strengths are. I want to understand our total portfolio compared to our competition. And then understand our footprint in the market and where we have opportunities to improve. I think there are some areas on the map where we don’t have a lot of brand presence. And we have to look to support that and get our name in the field. In the long run, I have lofty goals where Tarkett is out there with all the bigger residential factories. To get there, we need a lot of growth.
If I told you that you would grow 10% next year, would you be happy?
I hope we will grow more. With the way the housing market is trending and with the number of new homes, I would like to see us grow faster than the rest of the market and gain market share.
I’m sure Tarkett has supply chain issues related to SPC. Do you have any short-term ideas to alleviate these problems?
We are evaluating every opportunity because we feel the same pressure everyone is experiencing, from container availability to resin pricing issues. It’s definitely the craziest market I hope to see just once in my entire career.
Do you expect to make your own SPC domestically?
I think we need to grow our business to make it financially viable and cost effective. But certainly given Tarkett’s overall footprint and domestic LVT business in the commercial sector, I’d assume we’d prefer to manufacture our own goods if that would allow us to be more competitive in the market. I’d like to be big enough to do that at some point down the road.
If I put 12,000 shopkeepers in this room and gave you five minutes, what would you tell them?
It would sell them because I took this position because I am excited about the opportunity. I am excited about our team. I am excited about the leadership above me at Tarkett. Everyone here is passionate about growing our business. And the only way we can do that is by helping retailers grow and make money.