Designer with a difference
From typography to flooring, Bob Tobe has redefined his “success.”
Photograph by M.O.D. Media Productions
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Just a few days after announcing at a media event that the East Madison Community Center was selected to receive a free workspace design overhaul as part of FLOOR360’s Design for a Difference initiative, Bob Tobe, CEO and owner of FLOOR360, reflected on what brought him here.
It was a moment he couldn’t have imagined when he first entered the business world as a 22-year-old owner of a typography business in Cincinnati, Ohio. Priorities were different then, he admits, and for 18 years he helped lead the company’s evolution into a full-service advertising agency.
At the age of 40, he sold the company to his partners and headed for Madison.
That’s where we pick up the story.
IB: Why did you leave a successful business to move here?
Tobe: I had an opportunity to work with my brother who owned and operated the area rights for Papa John’s Pizza. We opened and owned nine locations, five in Milwaukee and four in Madison, but my kids were young and I realized it really wasn’t fitting my lifestyle. After a year we sold the franchises.
IB: Quite a switch, from pizza to flooring.
Tobe: At the time, my ex-wife, Laurie, was working for Burkeland Carpet and I started researching the flooring industry. It’s huge — Warren Buffet owns Shaw Industries, for example — but I saw an opportunity to do things differently here. We came up with the Design Mart concept (bringing design-like businesses under one roof) and then sold portions of the building as retail condominiums.
IB: Obviously, it worked.
Tobe: Within four years, FLOOR360’s business increased from $1 million to $14 million. Last year we did over $22 million in sales. We now have 50 team members, two stores and another on the way, and we employ about 130 installers.
IB: And before moving to Madison, you didn’t know anything about flooring?
Tobe: I didn’t know Berber from plush, but I had business experience and surrounded myself with a team of good people. You can teach flooring, but I was more interested in the character and quality of our employees. If you get the best people, almost at any cost, I believe, it will pay off.
IB: How did the idea for Design for a Difference come about?
Tobe: I’m on the board of the International Design Guild, which partnered with Los Angeles designer Mark Brunetz to launch Design for a Difference in 2013.
I volunteered to do a nonprofit makeover four years ago, and Madison is now the largest makeover market, by far. Through Design for a Difference, the local community has helped the Center for Families/Respite Center, The Rainbow Project, and Centro Hispano.