Covering a growing market
October 12, 2006
When Jeffrey Bennett was in college, little did he realize that a meeting at a placement center on campus would indirectly lead him to own a successful stone fabrication and distribution business. Sixteen years ago, Bennett opened up shop with only his experience, $20 and a fax machine to rely on. Today, he runs a 24,000-square-foot fabrication facility in Eugene, OR; a retail store in Medford, and he recently opened a 30,000-square-foot showroom and warehouse in Portland - all under the name Bennett Stone & Tile Co.
â€œWhen I was going to college, I went to a placement center on campus and saw that they were looking for help at a warehouse,â€ explained Bennett. â€œI went there for an interview, and I asked them what they sold.â€ According to Bennett, the company explained that they only sell stone and tile. â€œSo I said, 'I'm not sure why you need more help.' I had never heard of natural stone back then. The manager liked my dry sense of humor, so he hired me.
â€œLater in college, I went to work for a distributor in Eugene,â€ Bennett went on to say. â€œI helped them grow their company, and then, after I graduated, I left the industry completely and went to work for Goodyear Rubber & Supply. I went from working as a salesman in a design showroom to selling conveyor equipment to rock crushing plants. It was a great experience. I felt like they were paying me to be educated on how to run a big business. After a year, I started my own company.â€
Bennett explained that he learned a lot about the stone industry by reading and researching. â€œI started [my company] because of my experience in the distribution end of it,â€ he said. â€œIt is still what I am best at. I didn't come from a tile setter or fabricator background. Slabs were totally new [at the time] - no one within 100 miles of Eugene was fabricating slabs. Fabrication shops were coming from Portland to do it. I started sub-contracting, but the guy didn't really want to grow.â€ And as a result, Bennett opened his own showroom and fabrication shop in 1995.
â€œI saw the upward trend in terms of growth and popularity for natural stone,â€ he said. â€œIt increased even through the recession of the '80s. It's a wonderful product. There is so much creativity, and it is constantly evolving - especially in the last 10 years. I've seen almost a vertical climb.â€
The fabrication shopIn 2003, Bennett Stone & Tile outgrew its original facility in Eugene, so Bennett purchased a 2 1/2-acre site, where he built a large showroom, warehouse and fabrication shop. He invested in two Marmo Meccanica bridge saws, three Marmo Meccanica edging machines, a water filtration system and dust collection system - all from Marmo Machinery USA of Southfield, MI. Additionally, tools and accessories are purchased from Braxton-Bragg Corp. of Knoxville, TN.
â€œThe edge profiling machines are quite phenomenal,â€ said Bennett. â€œThey can bevel, profile and polish up to 30 lineal feet of stone per hour. This speed allows the shop to take on more work with confidence - like the 'Tour of Homes,' which we had to supply material and kitchens to a dozen custom homes within a two-week period.â€
And, the fabricator is equally as happy with the performance of the bridge saws. â€œOur saws are laser guided and computer controlled,â€ he said. â€œThey can make multiple cuts within 1/1000 of an inch. Waste is minimized, and slabs can be used to their maximum potential. They have increased our production substantially.â€
Bennett explained that his decision to purchase equipment from Marmo Machinery USA was made after speaking with Phil Mularoni, the company owner. â€œI met Phil in Italy in 1998, and he was telling me about his machines. He told me to come visit him when we got back [to the U.S.], and he'll show me [how they operate]. I bought my first machine and was nervous, but he said there is a program that allows you to go in and see how many lineal feet was run through the machine. He said to do that in six months, and call him if I wasn't satisfied. Sure enough, after six months, I went into that program, and I was astounded at how much we had run through the machine in the last six months.â€
Currently, Bennett Stone & Tile employs 10 workers in the fabrication shop in Eugene as well as two templators and six installers at that location. Additionally, the company works with 10 sub-contractors who install countertops in other parts of Oregon.
Templating is done with 3/16-inch plywood that is cut to exact dimensions on the jobsite, according to Bennett. â€œCurrently, we do not have digital templating equipment, although this is under evaluation,â€ he said.
Principle marketsThe primary markets for Bennett Stone & Tile include Mid-Willamette Valley, eastern Oregon, southern Oregon and the greater Portland area. The company's sales are split evenly between slabs and tiles.
â€œI do a lot of market research before going into a new market,â€ said Bennett. â€œIn each region, the company operates a little differently. Eugene is retail driven. It's a very competitive market. We sell directly to the public - working with homeowners.
â€œWe are the central hub in Eugene on a variety of levels,â€ continued Bennett. â€œBecause of my experience with distribution, we import a lot of our own materials - primarily from Brazil, Mexico and Spain. We don't sell slabs to any fabricators within 100 miles, but we also distribute stone and tile. It's a very large part of our business. I find that in areas where there are several companies in competition, people eventually settle into their own grooves. We've settled into a groove focused on the residential market.â€
In 2003, Bennett opened a retail location in Medford to further capitalize on a growing region. In particular, this business is contractor-driven, according to Bennett. â€œPeople pick out [what they want] in the retail store, and we refer them to a tile contractor. Then the tile contractor places the order and purchases the material,â€ he said.
The location in Portland, which opened in June of this year, will offer natural stone as well as Cambria® quartz surfacing material and an exclusive tile line from Roca Ceramica as well as other tile products. â€œPortland is going to be really interesting,â€ said Bennett. â€œIt's different then Eugene and Medford. We are not selling fabrication work. We refer customers to local fabricators. They have welcomed us and are buying quartz slabs. We don't want to compete with that.â€
Customer-serviceWhile Bennett Stone & Tile supplies material or fabricates stone countertops for numerous residential projects, the company also works on commercial jobs. Among some of its recent installations are 10 slabs of Cambria® quartz surfacing material for the ticket and display tops for Shaw Art Gallery in Baton Rouge, LA, which was sub-contracted through Newood Display Fixture of Eugene, OR; granite countertops for a gourmet kitchen, reception area, wine tasting room and cheese bar at Sweet Cheeks Winery in Oregon; and a granite countertop for the reception area of Oregon Mortgage Group.
According to Bennett, customer service is a top priority for the company, and it offers a lifetime warranty on all of its countertops. â€œWe have thought about it,â€ he said. â€œWhat if someone said that after five years their house has settled and the seams on their countertop popped? We look at it as if it is our countertop; and we are the caretakers for life.â€
As for the future, Bennett plans to continue to focus on the production of high-quality stonework as well as the expansion of the Portland showroom and warehouse. â€œI feel so fortunate that I have crossed paths with so many successful people,â€ he said. â€œIt definitely is a key of a good, stable, growing company - to surround yourself with good reliable people and reward them.â€
Bennett Stone & Tile Co.Eugene, OR
Type of work: primarily custom countertops for residential projects
Machinery: two bridge saws, three edging machines, a water filtration system and dust collection system - all from Marmo Machinery USA of Southfield, MI; tools and accessories from Braxton-Bragg Corp. of Knoxville, TN
Number of Employees: 28 in Eugene location, 5 in Medford, 4 in Portland, 10 sub-contractors