George M. Beylerian is multilingual. Not only does the 68-year-old, Egyptian-born entrepreneur speak English, French, Italian, German and Arabic, he also is fluent in the language of materials.
Beylerian, who introduced high-end, Italian-made plastics furniture to the U.S. market 35 years ago, has parlayed his intense curiosity and love of innovative materials and processes into Material ConneXion, a librarylike resource for inquisitive product designers, architects and engineers on two continents. Founded in New York in 1997 and expanded last year to Milan, Italy, Material ConneXion has been described as ``a petting zoo for new materials.''
It has carefully selected and cataloged some 1,800 entries and more than 3,000 physical samples, as well as virtual samples online at www.materialconnex ion.com, into eight different materials families. About 1,000 of those are displayed at any one time in its showrooms. Beylerian, who describes polymers as ``the backbone of our business,'' said a jury of professionals meets monthly to evaluate new candidates and accepts only ``the best of the best and the newest of the new.'' The independent vetting process adds value and credibility, he said.
Given the limited, 7,500 square feet of space in its second-floor office/library/gallery in Manhattan, the firm rotates out 25-30 display samples a month, replacing them with fresh finds, said Andrew Dent, an Englishman who serves as director of Material ConneXion's library and materials research. The company discovers its most interesting materials during its consulting work with clients, Dent said, and not all chosen materials must be commercially available.
``We sit at the crossing of the supply side and the demand side,'' hence the large X in the Material ConneXion name, Beylerian said in an Aug. 14 interview at his office.
Material ConneXion was born initially as a service to office-furniture maker Steelcase Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich., but its genesis began many years earlier. Beylerian, who graduated from New York University in 1961 with a degree in marketing and business administration, launched his own collection of luxurious and exotic home-furnishing accessories, including the upscale Kartell brand of Italian plastic furniture. In 1970, he created the Casa Idea sophisticated-lifestyle shop within Bloomingdale's, and in 1982, sold his plastics collection and business to concentrate on developing contract furniture.
In 1987, Steelcase acquired rights to the Beylerian name and hired him as a consultant before naming him creative director of its newly founded Steelcase Design Partnership, responsible for creating a design image for the group of companies acquired by the furniture maker. He served in that role until 1997, when he used his own money and a modest amount from Steelcase to found Material ConneXion in Steelcase's New York office. But before long, he said, the business outgrew the space, and he wished ``to break the image connection'' with Steelcase to broaden the fledgling firm's customer base.
Last September the company opened its office in Milan. Within the next 12 months, it plans to license new design centers in the United Kingdom and Germany.
It also would like to set up shops in Los Angeles and Chicago, but ``we cannot expand right now because of financial restrictions,'' said Beylerian, who noted that U.S expansion requires creation of wholly owned operations and hence a much greater capital investment.
For that and other reasons, the firm is wrestling with its business model.
Material ConneXion earns its revenues via a membership service - $450 a year for a single-user pass to access both the on-site library and its online virtual library, or $200 a year for Web access only. It also generates funds via consulting and corporate alliances that allow for exhibitions, matchmaking and product-launch events. Resin firms such as DuPont Co. and Bayer Corp. are among those that have staged product events at the New York site. Single-visit passes and multiperson corporate memberships also are available, but Beylerian would like to move away from the membership model.
``We're not interested in just making money by selling information. We really don't even want to sell memberships eventually, either. Because we want to give this information for free. But, we're not an address book - I can't be a sucker all the way,'' he quickly added.
He suggests that, chances are, customers who want a material supplier's address also want to make money, and, ``You have to pay for something.
``We haven't heretofore taken any money from the materials suppliers,'' he said, implying that all funding options are on the table now, since he is eager to expand the business faster than current finances allow. Beylerian has engaged a Boston consulting group to assess how best to raise funds for expansion.
He also would like to launch an annual materials conference, but at present that is just a dream. A couple years ago, he said, he steadfastly resisted expanding Material ConneXion's physical library in favor of a purely virtual one.
``I said I didn't want clicks without bricks. You can't have a scalable business without something built first,'' he explained. ``The dot-com financiers didn't understand that.''
But the operation ``now needs to kick itself up several notches,'' according to Beylerian. ``I will not operate this as a boutique concept. This is not about hype.''
He would welcome a well-heeled partner - someone like Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, perhaps - that shares his vision and passion for materials research. That idea is becoming more urgent now that he now is contemplating retiring from the day-to-day grind.
``I'm seriously considering stepping down'' as chief executive officer ``but I want to continue to be creative director, or something.'' Some continued involvement would seem necessary, as his appetite for information remains voracious. During the interview - in the midst of which the huge electricity blackout struck in New York and beyond - Beylerian consistently asked as many questions as he answered.
Dent, meanwhile, noted that he has seen a marked shift in the past several years in the role of materials choice in the product development process. Previously, he said, a product's design and form would take shape, and then afterwards those involved would say, `OK, what material will fit?'
``Now, increasingly ... the material dictates the form. So the materials consideration now is at the start of the project, whereas previously it was at the end,'' he said.
He added that his biggest frustration is the lack of willingness of risk-averse smaller companies to apply their materials to new markets. Part of Material ConneXion's role is to help such firms realize the potential benefits of branching out.
As for Beylerian, ``Our mission is to bring innovation to the marketplace. ... We make commerce possible by pushing the envelope.''