BINGHAMTON — On Sept. 9, 2011, Susan Jablon went underwater, not once but twice. That morning, she signed a mortgage contract with M&T Bank for the purchase of a building in Binghamton, which would serve as the new manufacturing plant for her business — Susan Jablon Mosaics, Inc.
Between Sept. 6 and 8, the region was pummeled with rainfall totaling 10-12 inches. The deluge from tropical storm Lee followed closely on the rainfall already deposited by the remnants of Hurricane Irene. The Susquehanna River rose to record levels and overflowed the city’s retaining walls, flooding downtown Binghamton. Broome County initiated a mass evacuation. That day, Jablon’s manufacturing building, as well as 25,000 square feet she leased in Vestal for inventory storage, was submerged in several feet of water. The loss totaled $400,000. While she had just secured flood insurance for her business, the contract didn’t take effect until 30 days after the signing. In addition to her inventory, machinery, and equipment, the flood also put her balance sheet under water.
“I was stunned,” Jablon recalls. “I had been in business for 10 years prior to the flood, and I knew that my creative designs in glass tile were popular. I had loved mosaics since my grandmother gave me a mosaic to assemble when I was five. Mosaics are always beautiful and bring joy [both] to the artist and to the consumer … Flood or no flood, I was determined to pursue my life’s dream and rebuild the business despite the fact that I lost everything.”
While she still has debt to pay off from the duet of the Irene and Lee deluge, today the business is thriving. Susan Jablon Mosaics, LLC was just awarded the “2017 New York State Small-Business Exporter of the Year” award by the U.S. Small Business Administration, one sign of her growing success.
“We have residential and commercial clients in a number of countries,” says Jablon, the company president, “including England, France, Canada, Russia, Japan, the Caribbean, China, and the UAE. I am currently working with a client in Sweden who wants glass tiles that glow in the dark installed in his swimming pool. The residential side of the business is our bread-and-butter: Glass tiles are popular in kitchens, on floors, in bathrooms, and yes, even in swimming pools … Our tile designs are also popular with commercial customers, such as casinos, schools, spas, hotels, restaurants, and airports. While our commercial commissions are far fewer in number than our residential sales, it’s not uncommon to receive a commercial order for $100,000. We are an internationally recognized design studio: The potential for growth both domestically and internationally is huge.
Today, Susan Jablon Mosaics owns and occupies a 37,000-square-foot building located in Binghamton and also leases 200,000 square feet in New Jersey to store inventory. The company occupies most of the space for its manufacturing operation, and Jablon’s daughter utilizes some space for a separate business where she teaches a variety of students how to create mosaics. Jablon’s staff includes 11 full-time employees, of whom Jablon and her daughter are the company’s designers. Founded in 2000 in a spare bedroom of Jablon’s house, the mosaics manufacturer generated $40,000 in revenue at the start. The company currently produces $1.5 million in annual sales. Jablon is the sole LLC member (owner) and recently received certification as a Women’s Business Enterprise.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Jablon says she was an early adopter of the Web and has used it to grow her business. “From the beginning, I have focused on creating brand recognition through unique ideas that can’t be duplicated. Most mosaics sold today are a commodity item, with standard shapes and muted colors. We offer a variety of shapes and vivid colors, which are incorporated into an online-software tool — the ‘mosaic tile designer’ — that lets the consumer create what he or she wants. It was a major investment, but it’s a key to customizing the design process.”
“Susan Jablon Mosaics also leverages the Internet through social media,” adds the company president. “We promote photo images of our projects and blog about glass-tile design. The company advertises on Google and converts 30 percent of the Google clicks. Contrary to what the experts kept telling me, we don’t advertise glass tiles, but rather the Susan Jablon name, which tells me there is strong brand recognition.”
Jablon is no shrinking violet. Back in 2002, a year after launching the business, she promoted her unique designs to national publications such as Better Homes and Gardens, Designer Dream Homes, Goodlife, and New Old House. She also appeared on the HGTV, TLC, and DIY networks and on several television shows, including “Rachel Ray,” “Kim’s Closet,” “Extreme Home Makeover,” and every season of “Hell’s Kitchen.”
“My efforts in promoting the brand didn’t cost me anything, and the exposure gave me the opportunity to meet a number of designers who were happy to specify my designs to clients.”
Running the mosaics company wasn’t Jablon’s first rodeo. “I worked in and ran businesses for others for 30 years before I started my own business,” states Jablon. “I worked at the Cornell [University] graduate library; then worked at Lourdes Hospital in human resources hiring staff. I … [garnered] experience in sales, marketing, and public relations at Security Mutual, and was the assistant manager at the local Barnes & Noble. On my 50th birthday, I decided it was time to strike out on my own and gave myself a present by forming Susan Jablon Mosaics. I began by teaching how to assemble mosaics and immediately had 300 students.”
“I can’t help myself,” says Jablon. “I’m always thinking of new ideas. In our tile-designing software, we already have thousands of tiles and more than 50 layout … [templates] to choose from. Recently, I was inspired by Tiffany glass to create a new, upscale tile collection with colors ranging from ‘Victorian Velvet,’ ‘Periwinkle Opal,’ ‘Butterscotch Honey,’ to ‘Periwinkle Opal’ … We buy container loads of manufactured glass tile, but I wanted to also work in handmade glass.
So I commuted to Corning [Glassworks] and studied the process. We now buy some handmade glass from Oregon, but we also manufacture handmade glass on site … I guess that makes me the research-and-development arm of the company.” Jablon’s creations have produced more than 3,000 stock-keeping units, and the number is growing.
Jablon reserves high praise for her employees as the real key to her success. “It’s hard to find good employees,” stresses Jablon, “who are mature at a young age and willing to work hard. Fortunately, over the years the company has hired and retained a great staff. They have learned the production process, and our employee longevity ensures our quality and consistency.
“This is a very competitive business,” contends Jablon. “Despite that, I plan to grow the company from its current sales [volume] to $2.5 million to $3.0 million. We have the talent, a facility with room to expand, and the option of adding another shift. My job is raise awareness of the brand, so we will stand out from those who offer a commodity item. What I need now is more time to work on the expansion and to spend less time involved in daily operations. For me, the answer is to hire an assistant. I know we can build up our residential and commercial sales, both domestically and internationally, and I’m not worried about running out of new ideas.
Despite the pressure of running her business, Jablon finds time to indulge her hobbies — soap-making and glass beads. “At age 66, I enjoy my quiet time,” quips Jablon. “I have always wanted to make soap, so off I went to the community college to learn how. Now, I come into the plant every Saturday and create handmade soaps which I sell locally. On Sunday, I come into the plant to make glass beads. Both of my hobbies are therapeutic. What started as hobbies, however, are turning into businesses. That’s the problem with being an entrepreneur.”