The feel-good effect of Made in Italy | by Roberta Chionne
Sam Giunta, who arrived in Australia from Agira (Enna, Sicily) when he was 9 years old, was honoured with the Pioneer Award at Cersaie 2022. A passionate promoter of his Italian heritage, he founded Classic Ceramics (Importers) Pty Ltd in 1972 following his first visit to Saie in Bologna the previous year. Today his company has a staff of more than 50 people nationally with offices, showrooms and warehousing in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and he still believes that “It doesn’t only have to look good, it has to feel good and be Made in Italy”. In this interview he tells us about his success story and his view of the evolution of the Italian tile industry.
Mr. Giunta, Classic Ceramics has a long history dating back to 1969. Could you outline the main steps in its development?
I started out in the industry in 1969 when I opened my first showroom with two employees in Leichhardt, a suburb known as Little Italy due to its cultural background and Italian influence. The company’s head office has continued to operate from this original location for more than 50 years. In 1971 I took my first trip to Bologna for Cersaie, then known as Saie, and on my return from the fair in 1972 I founded the company Classic Ceramics (Importers) Pty Ltd and began importing ceramic tiles from Italy. Over the next ten years, I travelled extensively around Australia to promote and raise awareness of Italian decorated tiles and began distributing tiles to all major Australian cities. In 1978 I built a new state-of-the-art showroom in Leichhardt, which opened in 1979. It was designed by an Italian designer and fabricated in Italy. Over the following years, I expanded the business by opening other showrooms and offices in Melbourne and Brisbane. From 1990 onwards, I expanded our sales strategy to service retail and commercial projects in addition to the wholesale sector. As the ceramic tile industry was evolving, it was necessary to redesign a new and more advanced state-of-the-art showroom, which was once again designed and fabricated in Italy. Today, in 2022, the company employs over 50 staff nationally with offices, showrooms and warehousing in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
On your website we read that “by 1978 Classic Ceramics had established itself as one of the most recognisable importers and distributors of quality Italian and European tiles”. Could you give us a phrase or a motto that identifies your company philosophy?
In recent years, to counter the influx of product from many other countries, our motto has been “It doesn’t only have to look good, it has to feel good. Made in Italy”. In other words, although there are a lot of imitation products, having the original product from Italy makes one feel good.
You undertook your first trip to Bologna for the Saie Tile Fair in 1971. How has the exhibition changed over time?
Fifty years is a lifetime. In the seventies most factories were independent boutique entities, with limited groupings in the industry. There was no digital technology as we have now, which has contributed to the commoditisation of the product. Artisan designers created unique designs, giving each factory a greater degree of differentiation. Today, high-resolution digital scanners copy natural and other products, and digital printers print the images, taking away much of the skills and creativity of the individual artisans and designers of yesterday. Sadly, product and design differentiation has decreased over the past 50 years, creating new challenges for the industry. Whereas the Fair once consisted entirely of Italian manufacturers, the exhibiting companies are now much more diverse and are based in countries all over the world.
In 1997 you won the Assopiastrelle Award, becoming the first-ever non-European distributor to be honoured with the award and still today the only Australian distributor to have received it. What was your philosophy at the time and how has it changed in recent years?
Back then we were offering exclusive products which were unique and different from other Italian tile manufacturers. Over the years this has changed with the introduction of digital printing.
Today, we distinguish ourselves by promoting Made in Italy products with original designs and reputable, good quality material.
Who are your clients? And what do you see as the most important aspects of customer service?
Although the end buyers are usually tilers, builders, etc., the initial exposure of our product is to the specifiers such as designers, architects, developers and retail clients. Successful marketing depends significantly on before- and after-sales service, including warranties, cleaning regimes and technical information for specific applications, especially in the boutique end of the market. Comprehensive service to clients is of paramount importance, adding to our credibility and giving the customer a greater degree of confidence.
What is the current economic situation in the Australian construction industry?
The substantial government stimulus during Covid and the war in Europe, which have resulted in substantial increases in energy costs and supply chain disruptions, have combined to put upward pressure on prices. As in other countries, to dampen demand and reduce inflation, the Australian Reserve Bank is increasing interest rates. The unfortunate flow-on effect is a slowing economy and major challenges to the construction industry in the short to medium term. I believe that with vigorous, ongoing promotion of the Made in Italy brand, our boutique target market for Italian product is anticipated to be less impacted than the overall market.
What do you see as the main ceramic tile trends in Australia today?
Architects usually lead the way in sustainability in the industry. Therefore, sustainable and eco-friendly production processes are increasingly becoming the focus. In addition, floor tiles are now larger with 1.2×1.2m becoming increasingly popular as well as larger slab formats for wall and other applications. Just a few decades ago such sizes would have been unimaginable. It is obvious that technology from different sectors, such as tile manufacturers, glue manufacturers, equipment manufacturers and skilled tilers, have all played a part in this evolution. There will always be a market for smaller tiles and mosaics. And although natural stone will always be popular, the market for digitally scanned and printed porcelain tiles and slabs is expanding rapidly mainly due to the cost advantages, the benefit of low maintenance and environmental reasons.
What are the intended uses of the ceramic tiles you distribute?
Italian ceramics are primarily directed at the mid to high-end clientele, i.e. residential, lifestyle projects at the boutique end of the market, mainly in the hospitality sector and including hotels, restaurants, clubs, pubs, aged care facilities, high-end retirement villages, etc.
You have always chosen to sell Italian products. In your opinion, what are the factors that contribute to the choice of Made in Italy tiles?
Italy is known for its designer labels in fashion, prestige cars and great food, so the association is also extended to tiles as the Italians are innovative when it comes to design and set the trends which other countries try to imitate and follow. Made in Italy is a symbol of status that I choose to promote strongly. I am also passionate about promoting my heritage.
What should Italian companies do to raise their approval level within your country’s distribution system?
While brand awareness is heavily promoted in the car (Ferrari, Lamborghini) and clothing (Gucci, Armani) industries, little or no promotion is undertaken by Italian tile manufacturers. I understand that with the large number of Italian ceramic factories, there is a degree of fragmentation and it may not be economically feasible to promote individual factory brands. However, if the governing body were to promote “Made in Italy” or “Italian Ceramic Tiles”, I believe that such a promotional campaign would surely have a positive impact on the overall demand for Italian ceramics in Australia, which would in turn follow through to individual factory brands. Confindustria Ceramica should organise expos/exhibitions in Australia and all other parts of the world to promote the Made in Italy branding, which could be financed through some sort of a levy from Italian manufacturers based on their square meter production.
Some Italian tile brands distributed by Ceramic Classics: