A Kaldewei executive explains his company’s extensive commitment.

Robert J. Sapienza Sr.

Imagine a bathtub that will last 30 years but is so lightweight you can load eight or nine at once, nested together on one pallet. German-based manufacturer Kaldewei says the 3.5 mm steel enamel it uses for its bathtubs and shower bases is produced without pollution, recyclable and clean enough to eat off.

Supply House Timesinterviewed Kaldewei’s VP of sales, North America,Robert J. Sapienza Sr., to talk in-depth about green products.

Supply House Times: Please share some background information about Kaldewei overall and its North American operations.

Sapienza:Our products are environmentally friendly from cradle to grave, including the manufacturing facility in Germany, product components, life expectancy and recycling of the products. We are the only plumbing company in the world to be ISO 14025 certified and are also IBU (German green building standard) certified. Fusing together enamel and steel, the material for our tubs and shower bases is fired at more than 1,500 degrees F, into a unique steel enamel that is virtually indestructible. The process used in firing the product and the raw materials used are green. Steel is recycled and enamel is natural, basically the same minerals found in glass. The material is non-caustic and can be completely recycled. Eight or nine tubs can be stacked vertically on a pallet, nested together with cardboard and foam, for delivery. Our factory is green in terms of water efficiency. We do not create waste or pollution. We are always thinking about how to make something better, cleaner, stronger, and not hurt Mother Nature while doing it.

Q: Is the retail or wholesale market more receptive to “green” products? Does Kaldewei deal with buying groups or Internet retailers?

Sapienza:The green movement has crossed into both segments, but Kaldewei is more focused on the wholesale trade. Consumers are seeking green products but don’t know how to evaluate them. Plumbing wholesalers have a better understanding because of LEED. Retailers tend to focus more on the function being green vs. the product itself. They don’t look at the before and after, or savings in overall household costs, except for tax credits.

Kaldewei sells through traditional plumbing wholesalers and high-end kitchen & bath boutiques, but not through DIY stores or cash-n-carry outlets.

We are not currently involved in any buying groups but are evaluating and will probably be involved in the future. We want to align ourselves with the right partners.

We also have a small group of Internet retailers and one mass distributor. They are required to limit discounts and sign an IMAP letter to sell our product online. Any responsible manufacturer has to set boundaries to make sure his product is delivered and sold at a fair margin so the brick-and-mortar companies can compete.

We find that customers shopping for a bathtub or shower are more likely to go to a wholesaler versus shop online because they want to see and touch it.

Q: What are the demographics of the typical “green” customer?

Sapienza:They tend to be more upscale and invest more money up front in building. They are more socially responsible - seeking long-term savings and the ability to recycle. Kaldewei’s tubs can be recycled, plus we provide a 30-year warranty on our products. The bathroom can be updated with new tile or a new vanity or faucet, but the tub will stay in place.

Q: What product features do “green” customers consider most important?

Sapienza: They want definable, measurable green characteristics. We have third-party documentation that our products are green. They also want style and performance. Our designs are created by the Italian design studio Sottsass Associati in Milan, Phoenix Design in Stuttgart/Tokyo, and in-house. We look for timeless design.

Q: How much more are people willing to pay for “green” products?

Sapienza:There isn’t really one answer. Some green products have a simple payback, such as lower utility bills. The customer has to see the value and make a judgment. It’s a personal decision. If a tub will last 30 years and has style, that represents a value to the customer. In general people are willing to pay a little more to know they are doing something right for the environment and their living space without sacrificing style.

Q: Do low-flow environmental restrictions present any special difficulties?

Sapienza:Our products are bathing wells so flow is not an issue. We are conscious of how much water is needed to fill the tub and do not create super deep tubs. Because of the glass material of our tubs, they are safe enough to drink from, though I’m not recommending that. The surface is non-porous and anti-bacterial by nature. Nothing - including toxic chemicals - sticks to it. Our shower base offers no place for bacteria to hide.

Q: Are “green” products more advanced/accepted in other parts of the world than the U.S.?

Sapienza:In Europe and Asia where people have been confronted with energy issues, they have always had to think about water and energy consumption. The U.S. is starting to catch up, looking at how products impact the environment. You can’t just look at green as “low flow” but must look at the entire lifecycle of the product.

Q: To what extent does Kaldewei rely on new construction markets vis-à-vis renovations when marketing “green” products? Commercial vs. residential?

Sapienza:We look more toward newer type construction but we do a fair amount in renovation, too. Installing a long-life tub or shower base is an easy way to add a green element to your home that also offers style, utility and comfort.

Q: Where do plumbing wholesalers/distributors fit in Kaldewei's strategic plan? How much of a role will distributor showrooms play?

Sapienza:  Showrooms are the key for us and their people are really important. They must be educated so they are able to demonstrate the value vs. cost of our product. We find wholesale distributors have the best-trained sales staffs. We offer training seminars, lunch-and-learns and bagel breakfasts so they can become experts. Our product has to be on display in the showroom - it won’t sell from a catalog.

Q: What are some of the biggest obstacles to overcome - other than the economy -in achieving the most success with “green products” for Kaldewei?

Sapienza:The largest obstacle is awareness of green and alternatives - 3.5 mm steel vs. other material, such as acrylic, fiberglass or cast iron. Kaldewei has been involved in some high visibility commercial projects but is still establishing itself in the U.S.

Q: What is Kaldewei's outlook for business in 2010?

Sapienza:We anticipate wonderful success. We see expansion of our distributor base and hope to get more showroom space. Specification activity is very good. Wholesalers are starting to see business pick up. Kaldewei has had healthy double-digit growth this year and last year.

Q: How long will it take for U.S. housing starts to return to a “normal” level of home building?

Sapienza:The U.S. market is resilient and has a cyclical history. The upswing will happen. While 2010 will not be a perfect year, the market has hit bottom and is starting to go back up. This year we are tracking well ahead of last year’s sales.

Q: Any other comments from Kaldewei?

Sapienza:We are a growing company with a good network of reps and an expanding plumbing wholesaler sales base. The easy-to-clean steel enamel we use for our tubs and shower bases is popular with the hospitality market. We have more than 250 models available in the U.S. and have won more than 50 design awards. We have also benefited from the marketing efforts of our PR firm, Gibbs & Soell, in helping us establish an identity here.