It was in a residential basement in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1975 that husband-and-wife team Manu and Rika Shah founded M S International, Inc (MSI). From those humble beginnings, though, the company has grown to become a leading source for countertop, flooring, and hardscape materials in the United States, with 19 distribution centers across North America and a staff of more than 1,000.
Raj Shah on His Move From Wall Street:
“I worked on Wall Street as an investment banker for almost seven years, but after going through the financials of hundreds of businesses, I quickly realized the dynamics of our family business were very strong. At the time, MSI was primarily a natural stone importer and distributor. The industry was ripe for increasing volume and making it a product for mass appeal.
At the same time, natural stone had very little risk as it relates to technological obsolescence, age did not bother the product, and it was part of the American Dream to have granite countertops and natural stone floors. My parents had built a company with a very solid foundation, and thus I believed there was a significant upside to joining the business.”
The Shahs’ sons Raj and Rup joined the enterprise in 2003, and they’ve since led the company from the importation of rough granite blocks from India to the distribution of a full line of natural stone slabs, quartz countertops, porcelain and ceramic flooring, natural stone flooring, mosaics, and hardscape products, including stacked stone and pavers. Raj—who came to the business after a stint on Wall Street—and his brother took the torch from their parents several years ago, and they now import from 37 countries on six continents and maintain approximately 70 million square feet of inventory in North America. Here, Raj explains how the company has evolved with the times by capitalizing on new technologies and adapting to the rise of microtrends.
An Old Industry in The 21st Century
MSI’s success has always hinged on the quality of its product line, its mastery of the complex logistics of its industry, and its finely tuned sensitivity to changes in consumer tastes and design trends. In all of these areas, though, advances in technology have fundamentally improved the company’s capabilities.
“Our business strategy has not changed from the beginning, which is to continuously seek ways in which to make our products more accessible and affordable,” Raj says. “Technology is one of the tools that helps enable this.”
Years ago, new technologies in mining and processing enabled the mass production of natural stone products, upping the overall supply, reducing costs, and generally broadening the spectrum of customers who could afford such offerings. And, today, real-time information about the products allows MSI clients such as builders to check and follow orders constantly, even while material is at sea. Each individual slab in the MSI inventory can be viewed online, ordered, and tracked as if it were a book or CD being purchased from a large retailer.
MSI has an in-house IT team of approximately 40 people, who are charged with building and implementing the company’s information systems and the hardware that goes with them. According to Raj, while “IT systems can be purchased or developed, a big part of our success is related to the discipline of the company in entering information and making sense of the output.”
MSI has always attended industry trade shows such as Coverings, Cersaie, and the Builders Show, but it also branches out and attends fabric and textile shows in Paris to stay connected with larger trends in design. However, Raj says, the rate of change in the design world has increased rapidly in recent years, largely because social media has allowed such a proliferation of idea-sharing that “trends are no longer market-specific but individual-specific.”
This has led MSI to continually increase the breadth of its product offerings, which today stands at more 5,000 unique SKUs. And what are the top sellers in 2015? Raj says that MSI’s lines of quartz countertops, its engineered marble for shower walls, and its porcelain floors are particularly hot right now. In the coming years, “we may see transformations in surfacing which include porcelain for countertops,” Raj says. “On the flooring side, digital printing will enable new looks and sizes that were never available in the past.”
MSI’s business has grown during all 40 of its years, including those during the recent recession. With its finger on the pulse of consumer demand, it looks poised to maintain its pace for years to come.