Hearing Tom Marusak speak for any length of time the listener will pick up on two concepts that are important to him: innovation and alternatives.
As an aerospace engineer he concentrated on alternative energy systems
and products for both space and terrestrial applications. He sees
his transition to the window treatments industry as a founder of
Comfortex Corp. in 1986 as a continuation of his quest for developing
energy efficiency in residential structures—a quest first
realized through the development and marketing of Symphony®
energy efficient shades. Even while president of Comfortex Marusak
has been a member of the New York State Energy Research and Development
Authority, a position he held until just recently.
Providing window coverings retailers with an alternative source
for products and striving to create new products as well as marketing
and business practices has served the company and the industry well.
This focus has placed Comfortex among the industry’s top suppliers.
From this position, how does Marusak see the state of the window
coverings industry? “Stronger than ever before,” he
says. “The unprecedented expansion of the housing market over
the past five years has increased demand for all types of home decorating
products, including window treatments. Further, the proliferation
of product innovation, led by Hunter Douglas and its many subsidiary
companies including Comfortex, and the increased investment in product
advertising has increased consumer awareness for window treatments,
“Additionally, the number of distribution channels by which
window treatments are funneled into the market has increased in
recent years,” Marusak continues. “The maturation of
the Internet, the expansion of home décor catalogs, the emphasis
on custom home décor products in Big Box stores and the increased
professionalism of many specialty retailers have all contributed
to increased availability of window treatment products for consumers.”
D&WC: What factors drive the industry?
MARUSAK: Products, consumer
demand, technology and price all play a factor in the industry dynamics.
Clearly, products are the key factor that moves the industry forward
and determines its health and growth. It is hard to debate the fact
that over the past two decades honeycomb shades, sheer window shadings,
engineered composite wood blinds and shutters, and manufactured
Roman shades have dramatically changed the industry landscape that
was once defined primarily by mini-blinds and vinyl roller shades.
Price, of course, is the great economic tide that eventually levels
the field as product life cycles run their course and former ground-breaking
products eventually morph into commodities with renewed popularity
at the discount store level. We see this dynamic currently in play
with two-inch horizontal products of all types.
D&WC: What will be the biggest
issues facing the industry in the next few years? How is Comfortex
prepared to meet these challenges?
Marusak: The industry is becoming much more global,
with U.S. companies sourcing products from China and Chinese companies
initiating marketing efforts of their own in the United States.
This is a double-edged sword for both retailers and U.S. manufacturers.
Comfortex is no stranger to international business, as we have been
active in both exporting and importing. We will continue to leverage
our connections and understanding of the global window treatments
industry to capitalize on opportunities for growth through export
and, when practical, cost reduction through selective import of
components and materials.
D&WC: What role does Comfortex
play in the industry, and how did it achieve this role?
MARUSAK: The one word that best characterizes Comfortex
is innovation. Since our inception in 1986, we have built our company
from 12 people to over 800 people on the basis of three business
principles: Innovation, partnerships and employee development. Although
all three principles are important, we have always fueled our growth
by leading with innovation.
In 1987, we invented and patented Sunset™ and Starburst™
movable honeycomb shades for arch-top windows. In 1991, Comfortex
introduced Symphony, the first patented double-honeycomb shades.
In 1996, we developed and introduced Woodwinds®, the first wood
alloy (engineered composite wood) horizontal blind. Later, we introduced
Shangri-La and Stardust horizontal and vertical window shadings.
We are continuing to grow Comfortex through innovation this year
with the introduction of three new category products: Ballet™
Drapery Sheers, Fusion™ insulating Roman panel shades and
Overtones™ view control sheer roller shades. Over the years,
we have enjoyed receiving 24 WCMA awards for product innovation
(see D&WC, April 2006, page 24 for this year’s winners).
But technical innovation is not where Comfortex stops. We can attribute
as much of our growth to innovative marketing and business practices
as we can to innovative products. In 1992, we developed and introduced
the industry’s first branded retail fabrication program under
the Comfortex Composer Alliance moniker. Because all of our products
relate to a musical genre theme, the idea of fabricating, or composing,
a Symphony shade led to the idea of the Composer Alliance of independent
Recognizing the need for and the importance of brand power together
with our customer partners, we transformed the Composer Alliance
into a network of Comfortex BlindCrafter® Centers throughout
the country. Today, the Comfortex BlindCrafter Network enjoys over
300 locations throughout the United States. The BlindCrafter Web
site provides the nucleus for national marketing and promotion of
the Comfortex BlindCrafter Brand as well as its 300 locations.
D&WC: How has this sector of the
industry changed since Comfortex first began?
MARUSAK: When Comfortex first focused our growth
strategy on retail fabricators, the sector was fragmented and embraced
little if any brand identity. Today, Comfortex BlindCrafter Centers
represent a unified alliance of professional independent retailers
that advertise and professionally merchandise a broad product basket
of Comfortex products. Through the BlindCrafter Program, the retail
fabrication channel has transformed itself from a private label
subculture to a prominent, high-quality market channel that serves
consumers with expert knowledge and high-quality innovative products.
D&WC: What accomplishments or
programs are you most proud of?
MARUSAK: Conceiving and launching the Comfortex
BlindCrafter Program is the one accomplishment of which I am most
proud. Equal to that is the sale and integration of Comfortex into
the Hunter Douglas group of companies. Being part of the largest
and most successful company in the window treatment industry brings
personal and professional gratification to me and to the entire
Comfortex management team. Our role and relationship within the
Hunter Douglas Group has enabled Comfortex to grow as a company
and the management team to grow professionally in ways that would
not have been possible for us on our own.
We believe that we complement the strong brand image developed by
Hunter Douglas by providing quality products and services to a variety
of wholesale companies, retail fabricators and retailers that choose
to pursue private label and alternative brand positioning. There
will always be competition in the industry, and we are happy to
provide alternative sources of products to those customers that
seek competitive positioning.
D&WC: Have there been any surprises?
MARUSAK: In 2000, we initiated the WindowConnection
Web site designed to sell product online through retail fabricators.
Despite our high hopes and extensive planning, we learned that the
U.S. market is wide and diverse, making it difficult to sell products
on a Web site through retailers located in various market regions.
Prices that worked well in the Northeast did not work well in the
South. Within a year, we morphed the site to one that no longer
sells products to consumers through retail fabricators, but rather
educates customers about Comfortex products and establishes in-home
shopping appointments for BlindCrafters.
On the other hand, when Comfortex purchased Verosol USA in 1997,
we inherited a newly launched Roman shade program for which we had
low expectations for growth and survival. To our pleasant surprise,
the Serenade Roman Shade program has become one of our most popular
and rapidly growing success stories. We have been enjoying nearly
double sales growth each year in this category for the past five
years. Now with the 2006 launch of Fusion insulating panel Roman
shades, we expect this category to explode with growth.
D&WC: Who are or have been some
of your greatest influences in business, or in the industry specifically?
MARUSAK: My original career started with General
Electric in the aerospace industry. Consequently, even though I
consider myself an entrepreneur, I hold large corporate enterprises
in very high regard. With this in mind, I have always marveled at
the way the late Jerry Fuchs had the foresight and intuition to
build the foundation of Hunter Douglas’ long-term success
on the basis of a start-up enterprise that developed and introduced
what is arguably the window treatment industry’s most successful
product, Duette honeycomb shades.
Building on that initial success, Marv Hopkins developed Hunter
Douglas into a marketing powerhouse with brand awareness and quality
recognition the world over. Even if I were not part of this organization,
my respect and admiration for these two industry giants would be
the same. It’s just that much better to know that I helped
to build a company that attracted the attention of the best-run
company in the industry to acquire us and to encourage our independent
growth and development.
D&WC: What are your personal goals
MARUSAK: I mentioned that Comfortex’s success
has been built upon innovation, partnering and employee development.
I suppose that my business passion is to see the third leg of our
mission building block, employee development, fully blossom.
In our annual business plan, we define employee development as creating
a corporate culture in which each employee has the opportunity to
realize his or her full creative and professional potential. We
try to attract the best and the brightest and then encourage them
to grow creatively and professionally. Sometimes this requires that
we break down barriers within the company to accommodate personal
In the long run, I hope to see Comfortex fully actualize the employee
development aspect of our mission statement, whereby we attract
and grow a management and supervisory team that is recognized as
one of the very best in the industry.
D&WC: Where do you see Comfortex
heading in the short-term and the longer term? How will it get there?
What is your role in these plans?
MARUSAK: Comfortex will continue to drive innovation
into the market. We are introducing three new category products
this year and two more next year. We believe these new products
will spur significant growth for the company over the next five
years. Additionally, we have a number of exciting product concepts
undergoing early stage R&D.
The world is leveraging technology to quickly transform many product
markets and window treatments are no exception. We are exploring
advanced materials, including nano-structures and solid-state light
sources to fashion future generations of products to integrate with
windows to control light and energy and enhance room décor.
As a former aerospace engineer turned businessman, I hope to continue
to develop the strategic direction for Comfortex over the next decade