Let’s get the question out of the way that you all undoubtedly are itching to ask—is it a jungle out there for California transplant Steve Kroo and his Northridge decorative concrete business? Of course it is, but that’s never stopped this auto painter turned concrete mastermind before. If anything, this just gives the 44-year-old visionary a reason to crank up his innovative radar and center on what he can control.
It’s true, Steve Kroo once painted cars for a living, no doubt specialty designs and extraordinary finishes, though it wasn’t until Steve bought his first home in California did his bittersweet love affair with concrete begin. With an ultimate vision in mind, he attempted to do the work himself, certain he could save money doing so. To his credit he did attend any seminar he could find to help achieve this goal, limited and simplistic as was available eight years ago, and as you might imagine, Steve fell prey to the many pitfalls common to this industry when proper product knowledge is lacking. Since then, Steve has been on a quest to locate the best products and to educate and inform every installer of decorative concrete products that he crossed paths with. It is for this same reason that he conducts eight workshops a year, teaching concrete countertops and floors, and offering a product expo that provides a sampling of decorative concrete finishes.
Today, Kroo’s passion for concrete is stronger than ever and a full blown business inclusive of a 2,200 sq ft warehouse, four full-time and three part-time employees, and the original house that served as his concrete classroom—now doing double-duty as his showroom—literally. “I had an actual showroom at one point,” Steve explains, “but neither the location nor the product we sell was conducive to off the street foot traffic.” In fact, he tended to take clients to his elaborately ornamented home anyway, simply because it consisted of eight years worth of trial and error and unprecedented creativity, far more expressive than the samplings in his actual showroom. “It just made sense, especially in a lean economy to downsize and go with something that worked.” And with 5,000 sq ft of decorative concrete to absorb, his home was literally Steve’s showpiece—where his ambitions and creativity lived—why not utilize it as a showroom?
After eight short years building a customer base on reputation, referrals and strategic marketing, Concrete Jungle is now the go to place for many high-end decorators, architects and contractors alike. “We are fortunate to have what we consider to be the best products available,” says Kroo. “Many products that are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Development; a set of rigorous guidelines for the construction of environmentally sustainable buildings) products and specified on the ARCAT (provides building product information for architectural industries).” And on the contrary he states—“We are not salesmen, but we are individuals that are passionate about the business and are hands on. We are also a small enough company that we can make decisions and execute them faster.” And thus their successes in both the commercial and residential markets.
Kroo continues to oversee many of the contractors he has trained in his studio on actual job sites, stating that this kind of attention wasn’t always the case when business was booming. But now that he has the opportunity to do so, he sees the trend continuing. “Training invested with an installer is repeat business. These customers deserve special attention, especially compared to the onetime DIY customer.” ?? Another something he avoids, believing all of his products need to be fully understood prior to application. Do-it-yourselfers believe a two-hour crash course at a mass merchant is training enough. Not the case with the complex and somewhat caustic products necessary to construct the extraordinary creations and finishes limited only by one’s imagination.
Located roughly 25 miles northwest of Hollywood and Los Angeles, Concrete Jungle specializes in custom and difficult applications. Given the many unusual requests he gets, he is able to stretch his imagination and create limitless, one of a kind works of art. “We collaborate with anyone who is interested, often partnering with other installers to complete large projects that might not be attainable otherwise,” he says. “We cover a wide range of applications and enjoy a challenge.” It’s a great strategy for any smaller decorative establishment regardless of a bad economy or the like. In order to be successful, a retailer/installer must diversify enough to take advantage of existing business, no matter its shape or form. Individually a contractor can get by, but when joining forces all can succeed. In this respect the fine line between partner and competitor diminishes because a common goal has presented itself. It’s the difference between smart business and barely surviving.
The Internet, surprisingly, is still an underutilized selling and informational tool for the decorative concrete professional. “Customers should be able to have 95% of their questions answered on either the retailer or installers Web site and the rest clarified by the manufacturers site,” Kroo agrees. Concrete Jungle does not sell its products online due to DIY concerns, but does feature its product offerings. Additionally, they feature a photo gallery of their work and some background on the company and their general philosophies, all things important when attempting to gain the attention and trust of a potential customer.
“California has hundreds of different ethnic groups and consequently, hundreds of different ways of doing business,” remarks Steve. Flexibility is key. “Strive for perfection, know your products, build relationships and work your market.” Precisely what Concrete Jungle does, targeting the higher end businesses and homes ranging from $800,000 into the millions, which is their market, and exactly where they put their precious few advertising dollars. Though the mainstay of their business practices remains simple—Under sell and over deliver—it’s a Concrete Jungle motto, and perhaps the only common variable they can employ, considering diversity of the decorative concrete business.
Product diversity is also important but not to the point of confusion says Steve, “I already feel there are too many products on the market, especially sealers, but of those, the good ones all serve different purposes, so they are all needed.” And to this extent, he’s carefully chosen only products he has successfully used himself, including some of the sealers he’s alluded to but only after they have passed his own rather unconventional testing processes—driving over, dragging chairs and furniture across, and pressure washing them—it’s only these proven winners that are the type of superior products he distributes and uses, especially when teaching his comprehensive workshops.
Though Steve Kroo’s prowess doesn’t end there. Due to strict California environmental laws and eager to decrease his own carbon footprint (the total amount of greenhouse gases produced to directly and indirectly support human activities) on our world, Steve strives to do what he can to protect our natural world by streamlining “green” decorative concrete products while maintaining the integrity of the finished product. Not an easy balance at times, but one that has become far easier as less harmful, toxic products make their way to the market place. Being green should be a lifestyle for everyone, especially in California where the highest rate of waste and toxins permeate cities without escape due to the elevation of mountains surrounding them. Concrete Jungle is aiming its sights high in this direction, as many customers require them to receive LEED point dollars.
Another of Steve Kroo’s frustrations lies in the lacking support of some of his product manufacturers. If a retailer, in this case Concrete Jungle, is going to sell and all but endorse their product, manufacturers need to step up their game and provide localized training and the marketing material necessary gain the trust of the end user. In this the manufacturer has everything to gain and little to lose. Let’s hope some of them are reading this and taking heed.
Overall, Steve and his crew are excited to face the challenges of each new day. Kroo in particular has been gearing his sights on concrete furniture and has created pieces that are currently being featured in furniture showrooms. His conceptualized, one of a kind coffee, sofa, and end tables are just a few of his offerings, their sleek lines and complex finishes bringing an entirely different perspective to conventional furniture items.
And what final wisdoms can Steve and his talented staff impart on decorative concrete readers everywhere—“People are looking for something different than the tired look of granite, tile and the rest.” Give them what they don’t even realize they want.” Anything new and durable is going to stir interest in the average consumer, and such are the talents of the decorative concrete professional. All it takes is a little creative manipulation, something else the DC pro knows a thing or two about.