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Episode 52 – Building Materials and Brand with Michael Bustin



Jessica: Hi, this is Jessica with Build Green Live Green CaraGreen podcast on happenings in the green building space. Today we have Michael Bustin who's our guests. He is a long-time friend in the industry where we started out. Gosh, CaraGreen used to distribute your concrete and glass product Meld over a decade ago. And then after that, you left and went to the Republik, a marketing agency, and we worked with you again there on our Modern Surfaces brand. And then you've now moved over to Durasein and that's a solid surface brand that you've kind of helped rebrand.


So I wanted to talk to you about, kind of a lot of those things and the Genesis of your career. We've been trying to keep our employees engaged by picking a theme for the month. And the theme for October is adapt, which we've all had to do. You know, in this I guess, into a COVID era. So I want to talk to you a little bit about adapting and in your career, you've kind of adapted, you've stepped through these different companies and roles and focuses. Can you tell us a little bit about that and kind of how that's helped you land, where you are today?


Michael: Yeah. Well, first of all, hello, Jessica.


Jessica: Hello.


Michael: It's great being on your podcast. We've known each other for many years and since, you know, we talk a lot. This is the first time actually we're talking together on a podcast to share with others. So thank you for having me on. Yeah, I think as you know, my evolution, I think you know, as a career professional has always been spearheaded by entrepreneurship and in design or creativity and creative problem-solving. And you know, as you know back in about 1999, 2000, we started what I used to call a kind of modern-day concrete company where we specialized in, I used to call it cement-based composites on the verge of almost ultra-high performance, concrete material. And that idea of starting that was driven again by materials which I love coupled with design and again, being an entrepreneur and kind of, you know, controlling my own destiny. As you said, it was, I think, the mid two thousand or so when we united with CaraGreen when CaraGreen first started off and if you recall, we were working on–, was it Greenbridge?


Jessica: Yes. We did the first LEED; I think it was going for LEED Platinum. It may have come in silver. Yeah.


Michael: Yes, that's correct. So, and we received the call from CaraGreen and said, Hey, you know, you're making these materials; we're looking at a kind of recycled glass and concrete material. Can you do something like that? And you know, it was funny to me because we were making all these custom products and we made them in every size, shape and form and color. And we said, you know, on one side and we were very upfront with CaraGreen, we said, well yeah on one side, yes, we can make these because they're just big rectangles. And we've made a lot of rectangle before and circles and what have you. But on the flip side, you know, we've never made a product that went through distribution and fabricated by–


Jessica: Fabricators, yeah.


Michael: Fabricators.


Jessica: Yes.


Michael: And you know, so we, you know, we had our partnership and it was great. And it was around that time where we got, you know, we really had our eyes focused on sustainability. Remember back then 15 years ago while sustainable–


Jessica: Right.


Michael: Went on forever, you know, eco-friendly and green.


Jessica: Yeah.


Michael: It was all in Vogue, you know–


Jessica: Yeah, they were like “haha! Green!”


Michael: I know! I have to say, even, one of our materials, if you remember, one of our materials was called eco.


Jessica: Yeah.


Michael: And even I think our logo, we had a part of the identity for that material. We had a little green in it as well, and we tried to get away from that. But so yeah, so it was at that time we're really, we started focusing on sustainability you know, we were looking at what we were doing, and of course, there's a lot of hubbub around the production of cement and how much, you know, fossil fuels it takes and how much carbon emissions you know, producing concrete–


Jessica: Let me just mention that, because I think this is an important sustainability, that's an important learning point, I think for sustainable materials in general, you have this Portland cement issue, right, where it's so carbon-intense or energy-intense carbon intense. And then you've got recycled glass where it's pulling waste out of a waste stream. And so you've got these positives and negatives offsetting each other. And I feel like that's the great dichotomy of sustainable building materials is where's that balance. And I think it, at some point it comes down to, you know, aesthetics or, you know, what is important to you. But it's hard to balance those two things.



Michael: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. I was thinking about that before our call too, I was thinking about, you know, sustainable materials and carbon footprints and all of that stuff. You know, as you've been looking at, you know, I saw your introduction today of your solid colors of direct, you know. I know a lot about Durat and I know a lot [inaudible 05:29] surface, and I know the evolution of Durat with CaraGreen, and it had me thinking it's like, you know, certain ways about–. Do you still, you know, is it still because you might be losing some recycled content..is it still categorized and where does it still fit into the green category?


Jessica: Well right and we're kind of jumping, we're jumping into a solid surface. And, you know, I think, you know, the healthy story, I, our evolution has been green to sustainable, to healthy. So healthy has changed. It changed a lot this year. And so for us, we're positioning some of our products like solid surfaces as healthy surfaces. And we can talk more about that, because I'm sure we'll get into that when we get to Durasein, but that is part of it. It's seamless and you don't have these grout lines and things like that. And also it's made locally and you can optimize within lengths. So, there's not as much waste. So again, there's always the trade-offs and it's just getting the opportunity to tell the story where you let people decide which levers they want to pull and which ones are the most important to them.


Michael: Right. But yeah, so we'll jump back to a solid surface in a bit. You know, so with Meld, you know, again, as you know, it was you know, we went through the great recession and quite honestly you know I started the business from credit cards. And I had an opportunity to exit and I did in 2012. And you know, I think one of the most exciting points of the, of my business was, you know, as when I sold it wasn't very long after that, then the business again was then sold to landscape forms; landscape forms being probably one of the world's largest manufacturers of very high-end site furnishings. Definitely, the only one in the world that has, you know, a backbone of very beautiful design.


Jessica: Totally.


Michael: That was a huge accomplishment to know that we, you know, started from credit cards, got to a point where 120 at the time, a $130 million world company bought the business. From there I, you know, I took off a little bit of time. I did a little consulting and my wife said to me, are you going to go back to work? And we, you know, we can't live off of, you know, what little you have, you know, much longer. So I took a hiatus and I took a complete 180 and I jumped into it, I said, you know, it made sense for me to stay in the building construction, architectural materials world. But I was always enamored by the brand, in the power brand. And I said; you know I am going to do something totally different and stepped into the world of strategic marketing and branding?


Not really, I mean, I knew what I knew about marketing, and one of our successes and why we were purchased was because we built up a great brand. We had proprietary material and there was a lot of public relations and communications where we were published a lot. And landscape forms mentioned that like you guys were everywhere all the time. But for me, with jumping into solid, you know, jumping into marketing because of the power of brand, and I really wanted to learn how brands can influence, you know, companies, you know internally. And then how that translates then out to the consumer or the target audience.


Jessica: Well, I think that was interesting to me too, is I, kind of, I was coming back from Hong Kong, my hiatus and running caravan when you were, you know, getting into and kind of had both feet in with the Republik and what I really enjoyed. And we would go to our lunches and kind of brainstorm and strategize as you kept involved with the building materials world. You were still connected to it because it was your, where you came from. And I think he approached and, you know, did get clients in that space and, you know, and got some, you know, big accounts that way. 


So you kept connected to it, but the stories you would tell me about these awesome initiatives that the company did would be maybe for a vodka company or for a delivery company, or a packaging or a moving company, just some, all these different things, but all these really creative ideas. And you would just get so excited when you told those stories. So it was really neat to watch you kind of really get, you know, entrenched in this new world and fascinated by it, but still maintain a connection to the built environment; if you know what I mean.


Michael: Yeah. Well, I think it's part of me. My entire life, my dad was in specialty construction, his whole life. And so as a kid, my dad was in construction. At 13 years old, my dad said to my brother and I hey kids don't have any plans for the summer when school gets out, because we're going to build your mom a house. And at 13 years old in upstate New York with a hammer in our hands and kit, we had this big log house 2200 square foot house. My dad says we have to get this thing weather-tight before the wintertime because we have to be out of our other house and we have to have this thing weather-tight, so we can heat it because if not, we're going to be thrown on the streets and we're going to freeze our butts off, right.


So at 13 years old, but I used it as a joke at the time I hated it. And I wanted to be with my friends and watch television or whatever. And we built the house from sunup to sundown. And if at any point we were tired and, or goofing off as a kid. My dad's like, you want to go home? No problem going home. And home was 17 miles away. It was the school of hard knocks. And at the time I thought it was terrible but it really influenced me.


 And I look at that opportunity and I use it now as a joke where Hey, what were you doing when you were 13 years old? I was building a house. So, you know, so materials in my education in engineering you know in my experience in construction management, you know, all of that and then, of course, materials in design, it was always there. And you know, as you know, there, the A&D and the C you know, construction world while there is advances in technologies and materials and systems, or whatever, the way things are done from a marketing and a branding perspective are still very archaic in my opinion they're very traditional.


Jessica: And I think that's a good segue to how you ended up in this current role, because I if my understanding is correct, you were approaching, you know, the company about, you know, marketing needs that they may have, and in doing so, you know, they were like, we need this guy. Like, he understands all this deficiency. So it gave, you got this great opportunity to take all this experience and put it back into, you know, the building, a building materials company.


Michael: Yeah. It's a funny story. And you know, I had, it took me a while to build up where I was, you know, in the Republic. And I love the world of advertising marketing. It's a much different world. And you know, I was getting paid well. And you know, I enjoyed meeting all types of businesses and all types of people. It put a lot of things in perspective where I found out that when I had my own business and you know, this from experience, sometimes you go home, you're like, I don't feel successful, you know, and you say that because you're working your butt off and you look at your bank account and you're like, damn, I should be making 10 times amount. I, unfortunately, I,  always equated success with money.


And you know, I realized that when I was talking to all these people from startup companies to multi-billion dollar companies, was that they all had the same problems that we have, you know. They have employee issues, they have financial issues, they have communication issues.


Jessica: Yes.


Michael: And so to me, that was, you know, that was very exciting. But, so I was yeah, I was looking through, actually the ISFA magazine. And I saw this ad from Durasein and I looked at it and I came off of trying to land a partnership with a Chinese tire company.


Jessica: I remember this.


Michael: Yeah and there was an American CEO. And one of the things that he said was you know, Chinese business people, one of the number one things on their mind is brand–.


Jessica: Yeah.


Michael: Quite understand exactly what it means, but.


Jessica: [Inaudible 14:16]


Michael: Exactly but you know, you've lived there. So it's a whole different mindset, business, culture, everything. So I saw this ad and I don't know what, you know, what kind of poked me to give them a ring. So I sent them a little, you know, kind of intro marketing package. And I looked up, you know, the name of the CEO, you know, Ms. Lowe. And I sent this to her. And not knowing anything. And then weeks later, you know, get a phone call you know, that you know this person, through a mutual friend this person was maybe looking for something. Wasn't quite sure what you're looking for. Now I was invited to meet with the CEO. And I thought I was going up to him like, wow, this is like–


Jessica: This is my brand, yeah.


Michael: Like, I'm going to go up there and sell some marketing services.


Jessica: Yeah.


Michael: And at the end of the conversation, pretty much at the end of the day she said, you know, Hey, when are you going to come work for me? And I'm like, Whoa I'm just up here saying, hello, you know, and trying to, you know, maybe peddle some marketing services, you know? And so you know, after a number of conversations and the opportunity that was presented coupled with where I was personally in life you know, executing on my personal purpose in life, helping people be successful and in some of you know some of her, what's the word I'm looking for? You know, she struggled very hard to come to America to make this a success. And some of the stories she shared with me I felt it was my duty to help her realize her dreams in America.


Jessica: Well, and you knew the market and, you know, and I'll be, you know, frank about some things that I was aware of the brand at the time. Because you know, I also, you know I was on the board of ISFA as recommended by you. And I was working with some of the Durasein people and I remember one of them came up to me and said, what are we doing wrong? And I just, I remember saying, you're stacking your company with these ex Dupont people. And there's no, it's all this retrospective understanding of how to market a solid surface. And I feel like you've really come in and this is rare for a Chinese company, honestly, from what I've seen in the ones I've worked for to actually let someone run with it.


And that is what Ms. Lowe has let you do. And that is what I have the ultimate respect for is that it hasn't been, hey, what do you want to do? No. It's been take it and go. And I've watched it with Durasein and I've watched the brand totally transformed. I've watched you pick up these social media people that are a perfect fit. They're not trying to use existing collateral and make it fit. But they're really kind of taking, you know, taking the brand and your outward face is spot on and is, in my opinion, is exactly what Durasien needed, you know, to really make a mark in this market.


Michael: Yeah. Well, thank you that, you know, it's awesome to hear. As you know what we're selling, for the most part, is solid surface. I mean, you're selling very exclusive materials that are very proprietary, that are very unique, but when you get into solid surface, whether, again, whether it's a hundred percent polyester, whether a hundred percent acrylic, anything in between, we all know it's a commodity has been around for 53 years.


 It's a commodity, but so, you know, Nike shoes are a commodity and at one time they were number two and Nike doesn't sell shoes. You know, Nike sells an experience, you know, Nike sells athleticism. And so we, while we might, while our most of our people might say, we have better material, maybe it's less expensive. Maybe we got better colors or whatever the story is.




So what? So does everybody else? So it really comes down to, you know, one establishing a brand and, you know, that I'm a fanatic about brand and most people, even most marketers especially in our world, a lot of them that I met really don't truly understand the essence of what brand means.


Jessica: Yeah.


Michael: And it's more than just the typical, the trade shows and the business cards and the websites and the logo and the colors, you know, it's much more than that. And before anything can happen, whether it's hiring people, whether it's executing, whether it's sales, whether it's operations, business planning, anything, you have to have some foundation. You have to define your values and you have to define your brand personality. And as you know, your value prop, in your, and if you have a brand purpose, you know, and these things are in your key messaging, what is your messaging?


And once you have them, you know, it's one thing and I've been through this when I was younger, when I had our business, we hired somebody to give us this. And I didn't know what it meant because the brand back then was to me, was logos and colors and everything. And, but when you truly, when you see how these words, these simple words on a paper, when it's true to who you are, and it's very authentic and you're not lying and everybody, so you've put yourself in a box pretty much, and you execute against these things over and over again.


 And sometimes to us, it might seem repetitious, but to the outside consumer target audience, they might not see it. You know, they might see it the 10th, 15th, 20th time down the road. So it's just being true to who you are. It’s understanding how you differ from the competition. You can't, you know, this is what happens in our industry. Everybody looks at the competition and everybody thinks that because somebody's pivoting and doing something successfully, that they're going to be successful and they have to do it, not understanding why they're doing it. And does it make, it might make sense for them, but not us.


Jessica: Right. Or they don't even give them a time to see if it's going to be successful. So, one of the things that I noticed, you know, you talk about a brand and I think when you're revamping a brand, like, you’re saying, it's you know, it hasn't been around long enough to have this legacy behind it. But I look at brands like Corian and watching them try to pivot, and they are under decades of being a grandmother's countertop, you know? So they're really having to try to, you know, rebrand themselves.


 And so that's been an interesting thing. Lapitec is another big brand that we represent. And this is where I think we actually contribute to our partners. So when they came out, their tagline was a “Prestigious Italian surface”. So here's the problem with, you know, Asian and European companies sometimes that don't translate. When you tell me you're a prestigious Italian surface, I see dollar signs, right. So they've recently rebranded in the last year and now their tagline is “Naturally Italian”, much better. Right, but they did that quickly. Right. They didn't wait and say, well, that's what we are. We're prestigious, you know, they adapted and they adapted to the global market, which I think brands need to address these days. And you need to make sure that the translation of your tagline doesn't mean something negative. Right.


Michael: Yeah, absolutely. You know, and you know like, Lapitec, Durasein when I started with Durasein underneath, it was 100% pure acrylic solid surface.


Jessica: Compelling.


Michael: Yeah, but so see the issue is though, is that we all know we're selling products. Nike doesn't say, Nike, the number one sneaker in the world, or the number, you know, they don't say sneakers athletic wear, you know, it's–


Jessica: No, they make social statements and people–


Michael: Just do it is messaging, key messaging that they deliver over and over on. Key messaging to life, you know? So the problem with most, you know, at least what I think, you know, what I feel the problem with most material manufacturers okay, is that they're too product-centric. You have to be people-centric.


Jessica: How many stone shops are called something granite and marble–


Michael: Absolutely.


Jessica: Or granite. I'm just like you put your– you immediately named yourself into a product category.


Michael: Absolutely. Funny, but going back just a tad. When we came up with the name for meld, I was looking for a name and while there were others, there was, you know, your buddy Rose, I worked for buddy roads concrete. There was concrete works. There was, you know, this, that, and the other thing I said, no. I want a name that's kind of vague one word because one word was cool back then, and something that had deep meaning to it, you know we're melting is the blending of materials. So we're going to blend material to make this modern-day concrete. We're going to blend our materials with other materials to make finished goods and on and on, you know, and people do they get stuck in product-centric mode–


Jessica: Yeah.


Michael: Realize that automatically, then you're putting the product first and it's nothing else and nowadays, I just heard something today, you know on a webinar. And you know, these experts were talking about, you know, kind of the workplace and everything. And, you know there's, you know, the big buzz word was culture. And what they're saying now is you know, how do you create a culture within an organization? And that leads to the people, okay. The people nowadays, because we're working, you know, in the office, out of the office, and most people don't want to go back to the office. They're starting, employees are now evaluating the employer to make sure that there's a, that they believe in the culture. Is the importance of providing a safe environment, a clean environment, do their values align–?


Jessica: Yes.


Michael: Because they might be pivoting looking for new places of employment. It's not because of money anymore. Now it's about values. Do you care about me, you know, are you authentic and transparent, and do you care about me.


Jessica: Let me tell you something that I think is a really interesting data point. So we, our last three hires at CaraGreen are three young ladies that were at a Clean Tech Summit where I spoke about our company culture. And they all came up to us afterward and asked, I want to work at this company. And I think it's really interesting. And it says a lot. And I think that you're absolutely right. You've got to create, I was talking the other day, we, I was referring to it and this came up in a couple of other meetings as well, like emotional capital emotional salary, right. Because people need to be brought into the concept of what the companies out there are doing. And if you're just a product that doesn't feel good about that, you know, I want to be behind something, a ause.


And a lot of these kids that are coming out of school now, they want to be part of a cause and you have to give them that. And culture does that and brand does that in this whole, brand is an ethos and that's where you’re existing when you're in that job. So that ethos has to be something that you're comfortable with and it dovetails with your values. So I think what you're doing there is great.


Michael: Yeah.


Jessica: We're running a little bit long, so I think we'll kind of need to wrap up. But so yeah, I mean, so I'll let you wrap it up here.


Michael: I think you know, he had some initial questions or a lot of them, you know, and you know, I think also, you know, I'll touch a little bit more on brand because I think brand is so important and people, you know, business owners, they worry about the product. They worry about, you know, experts. They worry about, you know, this not noticing and they don't have a foundation of which to build off of. And like you said, you hired based on brand. We just hired just last night, two nights ago; we just made an offer to a global sales director based on–


Jessica: Yeah.


Michael: Brand. When we were making decisions and some of the things we've done including partnering with a material bank, partnering with mortar, we, the value prop in the messaging of material banks so aligned with our written down purpose and our value prop. I went to our CEO. And when I said, I know it costs a lot of money, but we have to do it because our brand says we have to do it.


Jessica: Yeah.


Michael: And the decision was like that, there was no question. Mike, if you believe we need it and it's been one of the best things that we've ever done. So, you know, it's, you know, brand is important you know, in the growth of a company. For the health of a company, for the culture of a company, once that's, once you have that figured out internally, and you have your ambassadors internally, once you resonate to the exterior outside the world target audience, it becomes much more transparent, much more believable and actually easier.


Jessica: Yeah, I agree. And, you know, again, we've used some of those platforms to Mortarr, Source, Material Bank, Construct Connect, Insight, and isquaredfoot. So, you know, we're you know, it's really exciting to see where this industry is going and it's nice. Because I think you're kind of like us, you know, at the forefront of some of these platforms. So I think that's great. Well, thank you for joining us today. It's always great to catch up.


Michael: It's Cool, awesome.


Jessica: This is Jessica with Live Green Build Green.

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