Designer with a difference

From typography to flooring, Bob Tobe has redefined his “success.”

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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.



IB: What’s your company’s investment?
I estimate we’ve donated over $100,000 each year in time and services, but the Madison community has really embraced it, as well. Last year over 100 local businesses donated more than $600,000 toward Centro Hispano’s makeover, not including time. Everything is donated in-kind. Thirty-eight designers, who might normally compete for business, came together to help in the planning process. The movement is growing, and frankly, the publicity is priceless.

IB: In what way?
It’s been a godsend! Younger workers love companies that give back, and while many companies can’t find employees, we can. In fact, they’re finding us, and I believe it’s because of all we’re doing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these past years also have been the best for our company in every measurable way.

IB: What’s surprised you along the way?
Madison changed me. I came from a different culture in Cincinnati, but the Madison culture redefined my definition of success. It’s not about money or cars or the size of your house. It’s about happiness and having a balance in life.

IB: What would you like execs to know, considering your new definition of success?
That if you give back, you’ll be rewarded tenfold in every aspect, whether it’s your personal life or your business. It’s awesome to help others, and the impact it can have on people’s lives is empowering.

It’s changed me as a person. I have a comfortable life, but the most successful thing I’ve done in my career is heading up Design for a Difference in Madison, and I hope it continues long after I’m gone.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.