Holten Impex International

Distributing high-end tile around the world
Written by: 
Erica Berry
Produced by: 
James Logan

Holten Impex International (Holten Impex) is an established leader in the import, export and distribution of high-quality floor and wall tiles. Located in Aurora, Ontario, Canada, the company has province-wide responsibilities in distribution support and nationwide responsibilities in dealer support for some of the world’s most respected names in the tile industry, including: Schluter, Kiesel, Unicom Starker and Mosa Tiles (Mosa), a partnership lasting over 30 years.

Since its founding by Ton Holten, Holten Impex and its chain of retail stores, Tilemaster, has become a staple in the design and architecture community. Over the years, its dedication to supplying high-quality products and providing exemplary customer service has driven demand throughout the province and has supported the company’s decision to open additional retail locations in Barrie and Kitchener, Ontario, as well as a wholesale warehouse in Aurora. The company now employs 52 people.

Holten Impex International

Dedication to customer service

Holten Impex, which supplies floor and wall tiles directly to general contractors, architects and designers, also provides the necessary materials and tools for installation, including complementary products, such as decorative profile edging and in-floor heating systems. As a high-end provider, the company believes in supplying only top quality products and has established long-lasting relationships with its vendors.

In order to track its 95,000 yearly transactions, Holten Impex relies on Oneir Solutions (Oneir) point of sale software. Since 1985 the company has put its trust into Oneir, a Canadian-based company, which stands out amongst other software systems because of its compatibility with Canadian address formats and tax reporting forms.

“We’ve looked elsewhere, but Oneir consistently delivers everything we need and they understand our goals from a business point of view,” says Ton. “The software provides a dashboard that gives us insights into what products we are selling, as well as an individual transaction history for each of our clients. If a customer comes in and wants the same tile they bought five years ago, we can look in the database and see if we still have it – it’s a very helpful tool for customers and allows us to provide the best service possible.”

Customer service and innovation continues to be a hallmark of Holten Impex and with its team’s extensive product knowledge and logistical expertise, the company is able to provide strong technical support to customers.

Ton’s son, Ron, who is now the company’s part-time technical consultant, played a pivotal role in set-up and management of Holten Impex’s high-tech system.

Whether supplying products for large commercial specifications or for distribution, Holten Impex is committed to satisfying customer requirements. “Every transaction is comprised of three elements: price, product and service,” Ton explains. “It doesn’t matter what order, but they all need to be in the equation and we are dedicated to providing the best of all three.”

Holten Impex employees develop sharp sales skills and in-depth industry and product knowledge through rigorous training and education programs. Because product offerings are always changing, the company also provides on-going training to its current employees. Ton believes his team members should have equal, if not more, knowledge of the products and business landscape than the architects and designers they work with – allowing the team to anticipate needs and provide pre-emptive solutions.

“Customer service creates repeat business,” says Ton. “It’s easy to provide competitive prices and quality products, but a commitment to consistently delivering top-notch customer service isn’t something every business does. Making great service part of the Holten Impex experience is just another key to our success.”

A leap of faith

Originally from the Netherlands, Ton, an entrepreneur, and his family sold their Dutch trucking company and moved to Canada in 1980. Only knowing two people in their new home, the family was ecstatic when only one year later the exporting manager for Mosa contacted Ton with a business proposition.

At the time, Mosa, headquarted in Maastricht, Holland, was exploring opportunities to export and distribute its products in North American architectural and design markets, and Ton’s situation fit the bill perfectly – he was familiar with the company, a Holland native in need of work.

Although Ton had previous experience moving tiles from Italy and other European countries, thanks to his trucking operation, he had never sold the products before – but that didn’t stop him from trying.

In 1981, Ton and his family opened Tilemaster, a 7,000-square-foot retail store in Aurora where they sold an array of tiles, including Mosa and other international brands. As more manufacturers and architects began to discover Holten Impex’s unique inventory, 4,000 square feet were quickly added and tiles were sold locally and worldwide, as well as to a number of restaurant chains, such as Pizza Pizza, Country Style and McDonalds.

“Architecture and design are Mosa’s strength in Europe, so those were the markets we were trying to penetrate,” says Ton. “When we first started, it was like fighting elephants. We were a small company doing what the big guys do – and doing it very well. Architects and designers saw value in our products and we have been working together ever since.”

To service the wholesale and distribution markets, Holten Impex was incorporated in 1990 and a logistic service was later added to serve to European suppliers, which over the years has grown to include new contracts and equipment. Holten Impex’s wholesale division operates from a 60,000-square-foot warehouse with cross dock facilities and a small fleet of trucks in Aurora – not far from the place where it all started.

The Holten family took a brief hiatus from retail sales, selling the Tilemaster store in 1989 and then reclaiming the retail division in 1993 when Ton’s oldest son, Dave, joined the company.

Using the same high-end suppliers, the new Tilemaster store moved from its original 11,000-square-foot building in Aurora to a 40,000-square-foot, European-looking showroom across town. The fresh start allowed the company to better target design-oriented consumers and architects, which sky-rocketed its sales – prompting the company to open a 15,000-square-foot retail store in Barrie.

In 2011 the company celebrated 30 years in business and opened a 25,000-square-foot Tilemaster retail space – its third store – in Kitchener to commemorate the achievement.

International support

Holten Impex, which caters to architects, local buyers and smaller retail stores, often travels to work hand-in-hand with clients and reveal ideal materials for each project. The company has supplied high-end tiles and cements to projects around the world, including luxury retail stores, boutiques, national brands, restaurants, municipal buildings and hospitals throughout Canada, as well as in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Colombia and the United Arab Emirates.

Uniquely, the company creates its own demand by holding Lunch & Learn seminars at architectural and design firms, which highlight Holten Impex products and service offerings.

Over lunch, Holten Impex introduces new products, provides technical updates and highlights project references. Information on Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), sustainability and how products confirm to the stringent norms of North American and European specifications is provided, as well.

“I look forward and don’t worry about the competition,” says Ton. “I compare my business philosophy to driving a bus: you sit high, your name is on the side so you have to be careful, but if you’re smart you’re looking five or six cars ahead so you see what’s coming. That’s how I look at business.”

While most companies faced economic hardships during the recession, the company did not lose sales, but did experience market fluctuations – most notably, increases in the international and renovation markets. Ton and his family attribute the company’s continued success to its dedicated and knowledgeable staff, most of who have worked with the company since its beginnings.

“Without the support from our team and manufacturers like Unicom Starker in Italy, Kiesel in Germany, Schluter in Montreal, Mosa in The Netherlands and even the Business Development Bank of Canada who financed our buildings, we would have nothing,” says Ton. “Building long-term relationships based on trust with our personnel and suppliers have allowed us to succeed. When we are working together towards the same goal, moving forward is a lot easier.”

To move forward to the next phase of business development, Holten Impex is working on establishing a management team that can take on the responsibility of corporate expansion. “The suppliers want it, and they deserve the profit and geographic reach – they have supported us for years,” Ton says.

As a successful family-owned and -operated business, Holten Impex International has been doing what it does best for more than 30 years while integrating new technologies, sales initiatives and products to keep pace with the progressing industry.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Commercial Insurance Brokers Inc./ Interre Insurance
Kielsel Bauchemie GmbH
Nuheat Industries Ltd.
Onier Solutions/Vigilant
Total Lift Company Ltd.
Unicorn Srl