Shannon-based Restoria Bathtub Company has quietly grown to become a bona fide Mississippi startup success story in a non-traditional way.
In somewhat ironic fashion, Restoria Bathtub Company has found a niche by applying 21st century polymer technology to Victorian-era design. Founded as a side business in January, 2001, the company’s sales footprint now stretches across North America and counts the world’s largest online retailers as channel partners. Through 15-plus years of ups and downs, the company has managed to innovate its manufacturing process, implement scalable capabilities, and achieve a competitive advantage in the face of stiff foreign competition.
In this first edition of MS Innovation Economy’s Spotlight STARTUP, we interviewed Restoria President and “Chief Craftsman,” Michael Mask.
MS INNOVATION ECONOMY: When people say “startup” the default is to think of a tech company. What was the inspiration that originally launched this manufacturing startup called Restoria?
MASK: Well, technology is certainly involved in our manufacturing process, but that has evolved over time throughout the life of the company. Originally the idea of something like Restoria came from a market need that I perceived. Prior to Restoria, I owned a flooring and tile retail shop, and did refinishing of bathtubs. Over the years we received hundreds of inquiries about buying the old Victorian-style cast iron clawfoot bathtubs. They were becoming exceedingly hard to find, and many times when you did find them – often used as a water trough for cattle in someone’s pasture – they were missing pieces of hardware that was impossible to match and replace. And the newly-manufactured cast iron models were expensive, out of most people’s price range.
I had some limited experience working with acrylic and fiberglass materials, and it just hit me one day. If people are unable to find a certain style of antique bathtub, let’s just start making reproductions. We can use modern materials to make them lighter and less expensive, but still conform to the Victorian-style many people like.
MS INNOVATION ECONOMY: So Restoria was founded as a company in January 2001. This was at the height of the first “Internet bubble,” when anything with a dot-com in the name was flying high. Soon thereafter we had a bubble burst and then 9/11. How did Restoria fare during the proceeding lean-years for startups?
MASK: For better or worse, Restoria wasn’t launched as an e-commerce or web-based concern. We have largely grown into that area, but in the beginning we were primarily selling to bricks-and-mortar kitchen and bath showrooms. We didn’t really feel the effects of the dot-com burst. In fact, it might have helped us in the beginning. I can’t say the same for the housing bubble.
MS INNOVATION ECONOMY: The financial crisis of the late 2000’s and early 2010’s that began with the collapse of home prices in 2008?
MASK: Yes (emphatically). Those were hard times. Up until 2008, we were posting steady year-over-year sales increases. When you hear the phrase, “the bottom just dropped out of it,” I really know what that means. New construction across the country stopped. Credit was increasingly difficult for most people to get, so home renovations stopped. Plus higher oil prices increased the cost of our materials and shipping costs. Manufacturing of this type of product overseas really ramped up and we weren’t able to effectively compete on price. There was about five years worth of “perfect storm” conditions for our business.
MS INNOVATION ECONOMY: What sort of steps did you take that allowed Restoria to survive?
MASK: Honestly, we didn’t know if the business would survive. We did what most all businesses do in times like that. We got into a credit line. We cut costs. We pursued some side projects that were outside of our core business. I can’t say if these measures were really instrumental to our future success or not. But I can say that the recession forced us to innovate our manufacturing process. Probably more than anything, that move set us up for the success that we’re experiencing today.
I like to think of Restoria as two startups. There was our initial launch which did well for awhile and then almost tanked. Then there was the “startup” that emerged after we innovated our manufacturing process.
MS INNOVATION ECONOMY: What was the nature of this innovation?
MASK: It was really based on trying to become more competitive with overseas manufacturing. For the most part, the quality of the overseas product was inferior to ours, but there was enough of a cost differential that they won in most cases. Our manufacturing process in the beginning was laborious and inefficient. And messy. We weren’t really set up for any kind of scalability. And the molds we use on our products were expensive to have fabricated, so new product lines, which we badly needed, weren’t an option. We knew that the key to having a competitive advantage was going to come from changing our manufacturing process.
We started investigating manufacturers of other products who used materials similar to ours. The speedboat industry turned out to be the biggest similarity. I talked with a few different companies in the industry and they were surprisingly forthcoming with their manufacturing methods. We contracted with an engineer in the industry to help figure out how to apply one particular method they used to what we did.
MS INNOVATION ECONOMY: Is this the method that you said you were told by one company wouldn’t work with your product?
MASK: Yes, exactly. It’s called “resin transfer molding” or RTM technology. It is a a closed-mold process that uses a vacuum-sealed mold to infuse fiberglass with a specialized resin compound. It is quicker, cleaner, and much more consistent than our old method. I estimate that it cut single-unit labor time by 70% or more. It had been used in the boating industry, but like I said one company told us it wouldn’t work on our scale. With the help of some smart people, though, we figured it out. That one company, incidentally, was not located in Mississippi. The smart people were (laughing).
MS INNOVATION ECONOMY: And it is a “clean tech” type manufacturing method, correct?
MASK: That’s right. We didn’t enter into this process as an environmental initiative, but the process itself is essentially a zero-emissions one. That was a happy consequence. And we were the first acrylic replica bathtub manufacturer to do it. The process allowed us to to shift resources away from actual production and invest in development. Within a few years we were able to launch several new products and achieve a degree of scalability that wasn’t available to us before.
We’re 100% made in USA, and 100% made in Mississippi. And we sell across the North American continent.
MS INNOVATION ECONOMY: So innovation helped you to survive the “perfect storm.” What has it been like since the economy began to recover?
MASK: This is a piece about startups, well, I like to think of Restoria as two startups. There was our initial launch which did well for awhile and then almost tanked. Then there was the “startup” that emerged after we innovated our manufacturing process. You mentioned the bad “perfect storm.” As the economy began to recover, I think we got caught up in a “good perfect storm.” Innovating our manufacturing process allowed us to be priced competitively, expand our product line, and increase production capacity. We also were able to take advantage of factors beyond our control. Inflation overseas was pushing up labor costs which made imports more expensive. Oil prices dropped dramatically and then largely stabilized which helped with our materials and logistics costs. And perhaps more importantly, what had been the “wild west” of ecommerce had largely consolidated into a handful of major players. And these players were looking for domestic partners who were nimble and could work on a “just in time” delivery model.
MS INNOVATION ECONOMY: So Restoria shifted from being primarily a bricks-and-mortar supplier to an e-commerce channel partner?
MASK: In large part, yes. We still have valuable partners with showrooms who stock product, but the growth and now largest component of our business is in sales through web-based channel partners. Some of these e-tailers sell our bathtubs under the Restoria brand name. Others private label as their own brands. I don’t want to name any names here, but I can say that they are among the top web-based retailers and home goods stores in the world.
MS INNOVATION ECONOMY: That’s an interesting way to think of it – one company essentially going through two different “startup” periods. Your company’s main facility has remained in Shannon, Mississippi its entire existence. What advantages has that afforded you, and did you ever consider moving?
MASK: I’ll answer the second part, first. The only time I considered moving was during the lean years when we weren’t sure if the company would survive. And that wouldn’t have technically been “moving,” if you know what I mean. Our facility in Shannon was originally my flooring showroom. Since shuttering that operation, we have expanded and retrofitted the building to be more conducive for manufacturing. We also maintain a storage and molding facility on family land in rural Pontotoc County. We’re committed to two things – Quality products 100% manufactured in the USA, and keeping our operations in Mississippi. At one time we outsourced a portion of our operations to a foundry in another state. The development of our RTM process allowed us to bring this function in-house, as well. We’re 100% made in USA, and 100% made in Mississippi. And we sell across the North American continent.
You hear people talk about the low cost of doing business in Mississippi. Looking back on it, I’m not sure during the down times if we could have survived in a state with higher taxes or more punitive business environment. The collaborative atmosphere here has also helped to further the innovation that I mentioned was key to our eventual growth. I said I was surprised how helpful other companies and people were in adapting the RTM process. I’m not sure this would have been the case anywhere else. We have talent in Mississippi just as good as anywhere else, but here we’re more apt to help out each other, I think.
MS INNOVATION ECONOMY: The story of Restoria is a great startup success story. I guess two startup success stories, actually. Along the journey, does anything in particular stick out in your mind?
MASK: This is going to sound odd, and maybe a little off track, but one particular sale we made was, well, let’s say unique. We got a call one day from a prop house in California. The kind that supplies props for movies and TV shows and things. They were looking for a couple of clawfoot style bathtubs and needed them quickly. We shipped two out there. A couple of weeks later I saw our tubs on TV. See we have an original design to the clawfeet on our tubs, so I can always tell ours apart any others. So I saw our bathtubs sitting side-by-side on a television commercial overlooking scenic mountains.
MS INNOVATION ECONOMY: Wait…let me guess…
MASK: Yep. The now-famous Cialis bathtubs. The original tubs – and I guess the ones that logo was made from – are Restoria.
We felt there could be no better ending for the interview.
MS Innovation Economy is launching Spotlight STARTUP as a re-occuring feature on this site. If you have a Mississippi-based startup venture you would like to nominate to be featured, please contact us via our Twitter account, and use #MSstartup.