Indio's Swisstrax Dresses Garage Floors

Swisstrax: Plastic Tile Floor Swisstrax plastic tile floor continues to expand through rough economy. Quality of plastic tile floor makes this possible.

INDIO, CA - Dec. 8, 2008 – Randy Nelson was 19 and in need of a change of scene when he left Sacramento for a job in Switzerland. On the ride from the airport, Nelson muddled through a conversation with the man who picked him up. He asked if the girls really were like he imagined — all blondes with bright blue eyes. “No. You're thinking Sweden,” the man said. “You're in Switzerland.” It was all cows and clocks for the rest of the drive. “I wanted to come home so bad after that,” he says with a laugh. Good thing he didn't.

That was 1984 — about a decade before a Swiss businessman would develop a use for plastics for a plastic tile floor that would launch Nelson's career and, eventually, his own company. Nelson is the president of Indio-based Swisstrax Inc. The company manufactures an interlocking plastic tile floor that can spruce up a garage but are tough enough to withstand the weight of an airplane.

From the office on Fleming Way, the company distributes to customers in 26 countries. They contributed to the $3 million in sales in North America last year alone, and Nelson says business is up 30 percent from last year. With sights set on growing his business, Nelson has secured partnerships with well-known names in the racing and car rental industries. He's branching into residential business, too, and is working with Martha Stewart Living. Plus, he might be on an episode of “The Tonight Show” soon. He just finished a project with Jay Leno and his Big Dog Garage. He sat down with The Desert Sun to discuss how he's growing his business in a tough economy.

QUESTION: How did Swisstrax come about, and what was your role in developing the business?

ANSWER: We came across this product of a plastic tile floor in the early '90s, which was a development from a Swiss gentleman that sold garden furniture. He wanted to have a nice patio. Obviously with the wet, cold weather it was hard to get coatings and all. So they ended up developing a plastic tile floor so they could put them on to patios, and they came to us to manufacture it for them. Since he was mainly interested — and still is today — in the Swiss market, he asked us if we couldn't develop the program and start to export the plastic tile floor. Nine years and six months after I came to Switzerland, I took over running the company, the Swiss division. So after about seven years of that, I decided to move closer to home. My mother lived out here (in the desert), and my wife wouldn't leave Switzerland unless I could guarantee her sunshine.

What's in the tile?
Polypropylene — a polymer. It's very similar to the same material in your car bumper and gas tank liners. It's a very high-tech, impact-resistant plastic tile floor. The plastic tile floor goes from minus-25 to 150 (degrees) before the properties of the plastic tile floor are impacted. It's a very pliable material and long-lasting.

You started out in Cathedral City when you came to the desert?
Yeah, it was this small office above a liquor store in Cathedral City. It was really a small hole in the wall, but I never earned so much money per square foot. (Laughs.) I spent about a year and a half there and started bringing in plastic tile floor products from Switzerland, stacking them in the local self-storage area. From there, I took a big leap and went to a showroom on Perez Road, where they're all tile-mongers. We started the sales and really just local business. We did a few shows, Ron Baron's Home Show. I did Keith McCormick's Car Auction. After about a year there, we moved to Palm Desert to a larger showroom and warehouse. We stayed there for about a year. Then we were growing so fast that we had to look for new facilities, and we landed here in Indio.

And how are you doing in the current economy?
Like I said, we're up 30 percent from last year. I'm still kind of disappointed because it could have been 50 to 60 percent if the economy hadn't slipped. But our export market of the plastic tile floor is still holding up regardless of the high dollar. So we're really pushing in areas which you wouldn't think you couldn't explore from the valley. It doesn't really matter where you're placed because so much is done on the Internet today. You could be on the moon and still sell a plastic tile floor product if you had an Internet connection.

It helps to partner with companies known nationally. How did you do that?
The first thing I needed to do was to get our name out there. The easiest way to do that is to piggyback off bigger names that are known in the plastic tile floor industry. Hendrick Motorsports (a sponsor for NASCAR teams) ordered our plastic tile floor products off the shoot, and I said, “Hey, we'll be your supplier,” and they were fine with that. Avis came to us through a radio interview. They liked the plastic tile floor product so much they took it nationally. Bobby Unser (three-time Indianapolis 500 champion, author and airplane pilot) I met up in Wisconsin, at an air show. He wanted to do his hangars, and we struck a deal. We're working on deals now with Snap-on, and now we've attracted the attention of the big boys. But not necessarily are we going to go big box. Maybe local, maybe selling plastic tile floor through companies like Costco, maybe Sears. But we're not going to Wal-Marts, Home Depots. I refuse that.

Big box is great in the sense that it gives people choice and affordability, but not necessarily does that go hand-in-hand with the quality. I'm not interested in stack 'em high and sell 'em cheap. If you want to weather the storms of the economy like the one we're in today, then you better have a plan set and stick to that plan. My philosophy has been: Buy local. As much as we can, manufacture everything local. Everything we buy is made in the U.S.A., and we will stick to that.

What's your end goal? When will you know you've achieved success?
When we've got plastic tile floor products out there functioning still after the 12-year warranty and we're a national brand. If you look back and can be proud of what you've done and people along the way have benefited from it and you can look people in the eye, then I think that's successful.

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