From Middle Eastern sands to the hills of Dalton, Ga., Jeff Knott is arming himself with oriental rugs and taking on the world's' carpet capital with help from Saudi Arabian rugmakers.
Saudi Arabia-based Al-Sorayai Trading Group - an international manufacturer with about $240 million in annual sales, hired Knott a year ago to launch the Millennium Weavers brand in Dalton.
If things go well, he plans to expand to Canada and Latin America.
But first, he has to do well in the highly competitive and increasingly price-conscious U.S. market, which has hemorrhaged thousands of jobs in the U.S. recession as carpet demand fell sharply.
Knott said that with $11 billion in sales, the U.S. carpet industry has the capacity to sell $14 billion of flooring products. He's confident that he can take a piece of that pie, and he's bringing on new troops with more than 200 years of combined experience to make it happen, he said.
After a year getting the business ramped up, Knott already is talking big - acquisitions, mergers, alliances, and maybe even a few manufacturing operations.
And he knows a thing or two about business.
The British-born marketing executive spent two decades at Johnson & Johnson as the company's international marketing director, before joining Rooms to Go as the company's senior vice president of international operations.
He's also a author of a book, Navigating the Healthcare Maze, and created MedVision's cartoon mascot, Alfie.
Knott's wildly divergent experiences have given him perspective that can't be gained any other way, he said.
"The older you get, the more you get back to simple questions," he said. "When we're born, everything's very simple for us as a baby. We get closer to dying, we go back to that simplicity."
the sun never sets
Knott got his start in college, when he left England for Western Kentucky on a graduate assistantship in track.
"Back in those days, a lot of young people were leaving England," he said. "There's a spirit in the British people, you want to go out into the world. We're a small country, so we went to Europe, Africa and the Far East to find our fortunes."
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Knott avoided the eastern hemisphere and instead embraced the U.S., securing degrees from Western Kentucky, the University of South Florida and Harvard Business School before entering the business world.
He focused on starting new lines of business at Johnson & Johnson and Rooms to Go, developing the skills that he believes will serve him well at Millennium Weavers.
"As you get older, I think you take the experience of retail, and also the technical side of businesses, and you start to look more outside the box and look at things differently," Knott said.
Though he now has only a year of carpet experience under his belt, he feels his status as an outsider will give him a critical perspective on the industry that insiders lack.
"One of the reasons I'm doing this is I can look at carpet from the point of view of the consumer," Knott said. "Everybody's looking at it from within the industry, but when you bring someone in from outside the industry, it brings a certain amount of, 'Why don't you try it this way?'"
He aims to buck the inventory management trends popular in the carpet world by stocking more products in his warehouses instead of the just-in-time manufacturing and shipping processes most carpetmakers use.
Though it will drive up his costs, he thinks that the increased selection and response time will resonate with American consumers.
"Right now you're looking at one-month plus with the Shaws - they're making it after they get orders," he said. "We're being responsive by doing stocking programs. We just bring it straight in from the warehouse in what we call the flow system."
He lists his stocking program as a plus, but it's also a necessity since he's bringing in products from the Middle East. Producing the carpet after receiving an order would result in long delays as his products crept across the ocean in container ships.
Knott likes to look at the bright side, however. Instead of seeing the 12-man company as small in comparison to the tens of thousands of workers at his competitors, he calls it "nimble."
He sees size as an asset that gives him more flexibility, as he looks to contract with other Dalton-based suppliers and distributors.
"We're looking at doing local production here - looking at yarn, cutting and looking at various segments to bring in semi-finished goods and finish them here," he said. "We're planning dramatic growth in 2012."