Paste Group: high quality products and customer care | by Roberta Chionne
“Right from the beginning, our philosophy was to look after our customers in the same way that we would like to be treated ourselves,” says Bartosz Szablewski, director and co-owner of the Polish Paste Group, which he runs together with his mother Beata Szablewska. The company, founded in 1993 in Poznan (Poland), deals mainly with architects and private customers and offers them the very best Italian products.
Mr. Szablewski, could you outline the key steps in the Paste Group’s development?
The Group was founded in April 1993 by three owners based in Poznan. At that time Poland was beginning to open up to a free market economy after years of communist rule. It was also a time when Polish ceramic manufactures were just starting up or reinventing their production activities, so there was plenty of demand for tile imports. Italy was the natural place to look, but we also began cooperating with German and Dutch producers. Two years later, only one owner remained at the company and that was my father Andrzej Szablewski. Things were pretty hard at the beginning and at the time he was renting a small building with a warehouse. But there was such strong demand for good quality products that we were able to sell almost everything we imported.
Our philosophy right from the beginning was to offer our customers high-quality products and service. We looked after our customers in the same way that we would like to be treated ourselves and continue to do so today. We also pride ourselves in taking care of our employees. We have always had a team of around 5-7 people, which makes us feel like we are all part of a family. Two of our colleagues have been with us for over 20 years! We are very proud of our workers and do our best to maintain the highest standard of customer service. After 12 years in a small, rented building, in 2005 we moved to a much larger new showroom in Poznan, where we could display our beautiful products much more effectively. But selling is not the only thing we do. We also support projects to help people restore or build their homes and last year we also provided support to Hotel Emocja in the North of Poland.
Paste Group distributes tiles and bathroom equipment, with a particular focus on ceramic products. Today’s tile production technology is highly advanced thanks to digital printing, which offers many advantages and makes products look extremely realistic. I often hear from my customers that wood or marble imitation tiles look so perfect that it’s really hard to tell them apart from natural materials. And thanks to the production of large slabs, we can cover walls or floors in sizes of up to 160×320 cm, creating an almost joint-free covered surface that looks very natural, beautiful and convincing. Porcelain tiles in particular offer architects a lot of potential to create the most ambitious projects, but at the same time we offer a wide range of more traditional ceramic tiles and regular sizes. We work with smaller manufacturers who focus on shapes, 3-dimensional products and original forms and structures. I would say that the only limit is our imagination. Working with the best Italian manufacturers gives us a lot of pleasure and satisfaction and enables us to offer the most innovative and well-designed products.
What kind of clientele do you cater for?
We deal with all types of clientele. We sell a lot to private customers but also work with clients involved in large projects such as hotels and shopping malls. Our portfolio includes projects for hotels, schools, restaurants, shopping malls, etc. After years of working closely with manufacturers, we have gained a lot of trust and a great deal of knowledge. Today I consider it a privilege to be able to work directly with the world’s largest producers. This also enables us to prepare wholesale offers for regional showrooms in western Poland. Our team is highly flexible, so we are able to satisfy even the most demanding customers and projects. Our Polish customers live and do business all over the world, so we deliver tiles globally, especially to different European countries. The furthest our tiles travel is to the Bahamas, where we will definitely open a showroom one day.
Architects and designers are very important for us. Half of our team is responsible for working directly with them and we are still improving our offerings and services. We deliver samples, catalogues, products, offers, textures and everything else needed to complete a project. Our showroom is also mostly geared to architects, so we have a large library of tiles, many single pieces, decors and mosaics for creating patchworks and choosing the best options. We would like to begin organising training sessions to educate architects about social media channels and websites and find customers through the web. We are also thinking about holding a course with a highly experienced labour psychologist which might be useful in everyday work. We also think about the young architects of the future. We teach young people about certain basic aspects of ceramic tiles that are important when it comes to carrying out a new project. We are always willing to provide information and are very happy when architects visit us.
What are the most important aspects of your customer service?
In my opinion, the most important thing is to offer the highest possible standard of customer care and to be able to adapt to our customers’ specific needs. For example, this may involve proper product presentation complete with all important details and assigning dedicated staff to each customer/architect so we can really understand their expectations. For some customers delivery time is very important and in some cases materials need to be delivered within a week. Our strength lies in the fact that we deliver directly and can ship materials from Italy on a weekly basis.
Another key point is that we offer a wide range of different products, which is why we frequently change our showroom display. We have 2 floors with a surface area of 500 square metres where we showcase products in a library, including tiles on display racks, as well as kits for architects. The showroom was designed around 15 years ago but still looks very fresh and modern. We have a nice open space made of wood, metal, glass and concrete. It’s important to have a good quality space when you are offering high quality products. Every factor is important to make the best impression.
How are you dealing with Covid?
Covid-19 has impacted many Polish companies. In some sectors, having to stop means losing business very rapidly. When Covid first broke out in Poland, I sent all my employees home for a couple of weeks to protect them and their families. I worked in the office on my own and tried to look after everything. Of course we had a smaller number of orders and customers, so I could handle it. It wasn’t easy and there were many things we couldn’t deliver on time, but I never closed our doors to customers who were looking for products or wanted to place an order. I know Italian companies were struggling, but throughout almost the entire period we were able to ship products without major problems. If I can’t deliver to my customers, there’s no point in receiving orders. I really appreciate the close cooperation we have with many Italian sales representatives and factory owners.
In my opinion, the Polish construction industry is not in a bad situation. You can see many new buildings such as hotels, large apartment buildings and private buildings in the south of Poland, where we have mountain resorts, as well as in the north at the seaside, although colleagues who travel a lot throughout Poland tell me that they don’t see many new projects starting up. So on the one hand the current situation is quite good, but on the other hand we can’t be sure about how new projects will develop in the future.
What are the main ceramic tile trends in Poland?
Polish customers love wood imitation products and I would say this is the best-selling category. For a number of years, imitation concrete tiles were very popular. I think that over 50% of the products in our range are grey or similar. Now I see that we are becoming more and more open to colours, different structures with a 3D effect or surfaces that look just like sand, wood, minerals or quartz. Another major trend is that of large slabs, which can be used as floor or wall coverings, ventilated façades or tabletops. I think this kind of product can compete strongly with natural stone and marble. Our customers are becoming increasingly aware of beauty and devote greater attention to new interior design. I see more and more customers cooperating with architects, which I think is a very positive development.
Why do people choose Italian ceramic tiles?
Italy has the largest number of ceramic tile manufacturers, some of the best designers and the highest quality machines. If you think about the world of design, for example fashion, cars, furniture or lighting, many of the best companies are Italian. At Paste Group we mainly work with architects and private customers and offer them the very best Italian tiles. It’s true that on projects we also sell Polish and Ukrainian products, but we mostly focus on Italian tiles because of the wider range of colours, patterns, sizes, special decors and extra elements. Italian tiles are well-designed products that look almost entirely natural. So if you want to deliver the best solutions to your most demanding customers, you have to choose Italian.
What should Italian companies do to raise their approval level within your country’s distribution system?
Many Italian companies are well known in Poland, partly because it is easy to meet them at trade fairs like Cersaie and they are also willing to organise direct meetings at their factories. To raise their levels of approval, I think they should focus on product presentation. It’s also sometimes important to have product in stock. Perhaps it would be good to have warehouses in Poland to be able to deliver to the end customer within 24-48 hours and also to try to compete on a certain price level. Poland is an emerging market with a lot of potential for new projects.
Main Italian brands distributed by Paste Group: