Re-Emerging: Equipped to satisfy customer demand
â€œI've been doing countertops for 32 years,â€ said Murray. â€œI started in high school when I was 15. It was a summer job. That's when metal edges and Formica countertops [were popular].â€ From there, he pursued a variety of avenues, before beginning the flourishing Silestone business he runs today.
Early on in his career, Murray had also been a carpenter. He explained that one day he had a few friends over to work on his basement. â€œWe tore all the walls out, and I looked around and said, 'This would be great for making countertops,'â€ he said, adding that he stayed there several years with about six workers.
As market demands changed over time and the fabricator shifted the direction of his business, he remained true to one philosophy -- customer service. â€œCustomer service is always important,â€ said Murray. â€œIt is a big buzzword, but it takes more to figure out how to make that part of your culture and always focus on it. Just giving the customers someone to talk to is important.â€
With this ideology in mind, Murray has taken great measures to improve Counter Intelligence's overall system for processing jobs. Currently, the company works with 110 independent kitchen and bath dealers within a 60-mile radius of the Washington, DC, area. Additionally, it works with 40 Home Depots and Expo Design Centers, which comprise a total of 25% of the company's business. â€œThe market pushed us,â€ said Dick Dechant, sales director of Counter Intelligence. â€œ[Silestone] took on a life of its own.â€
Expanding the shopCounter Intelligence has been in its current location for the past 12 years. â€œIt is convenient to the [Washington, DC] Beltway and near our customer base,â€ said Murray. To keep up with the rapidly growing business, Murray has been renovating the 20,000-square-foot facility to accommodate more machinery, and make production more efficient.
â€œI'm in the middle of changing the production flow,â€ he said at the time of Stone World's visit. This will involve shifting the placement of machinery and installing a conveyor belt to make the fabrication process run even more smoothly. â€œI'm making all processes for cutting in one area,â€ explained Murray.
The shop is equipped with six Intermac CNC machines, supplied by AGM of Pineville, NC; a Lexta 36 GMM bridge saw, which is now serviced by Salem Stone of Winston-Salem, NC; a Marmo Meccanica LCV 711M edge polisher for processing backsplashes; and a bridge saw from Matrix Stone Products of Upland, CA. Vacuum lifters from Wood's Powr-Grip of Laurel, MT, are used to help move slabs around the shop.
In addition, Murray recently purchased two double-table Flow waterjets, and reinstalled a single-table Flow waterjet machine that had been previously purchased. â€œWe are expecting to do 2,000 square feet a day,â€ said Murray.
The fabricator explained that waterjets have proven invaluable when cutting L-shaped countertops. â€œWe used to have to work the inside corner by hand,â€ he said. â€œIt wouldn't make sense to have one if you were just doing straight cutting.â€ The waterjets are also practical when cutting a slab to conform to the shape of a wall that is crooked.
According to Murray, it took about six years for Counter Intelligence to expand to this capacity. â€œThat's when we started with Silestone,â€ he said. â€œWe needed a lot more power [in the shop], so we had to add new electrical panels. That was a big job.
â€œAnother challenge for us has been water use,â€ Murray continued, adding that this challenge was met with
a system from Water Treatment Technologies of North Hampton, NH. Also, to address the amount of water used during the fabrication process, the company has installed controllers to regulate the flow of water to the CNC machines. â€œThat has helped a lot,â€ he said.
The shop runs two 8-hour shifts daily, according to Murray. In addition to the areas with the large fabricating machinery, Counter Intelligence also has a separate area for handwork. Each workstation is equipped with two hoses that hang down from the ceiling -- one for water and one for air. â€œThis is so that there aren't any hoses all over the floor,â€ said the owner. The majority of the hand tools and diamond tooling are from GranQuartz of Tucker, GA.
To keep jobs organized in the shop, each Silestone slab that has been selected for a kitchen is placed on a cart that is marked with the scheduled day for installation. This ensures that the countertops are fabricated according to delivery dates. â€œI can tell if we are ahead or behind by looking at the flags,â€ said Murray.
Creating a paperless officeAt this time, Counter Intelligence completes between 30 to 35 kitchens a day. Murray largely credits this increased production rate to the JobTracker software program developed by Moraware of San Mateo, CA. â€œIn order to get to this level, we had to get on line,â€ he said. â€œWe are now a paperless office. There is no way we could have grown without this technology. Before it, everything was in a file. It was horrible. We had to do something.â€
Murray explained that it took about two years to get the company functioning as a paperless office. The JobTracker software was purchased about a year ago from Moraware.
Users of the program have dual monitors at their desks, which allows each of Counter Intelligence's three phone operators to look at the company's complete measuring and installation schedule for the day as well as the specific customer's information. The program allows the templaters and installers to enter site-specific details, which will be helpful to each other when completing their part of the job. â€œWe are trying to have better communication between departments,â€ said Murray, adding that there are 15 installation crews with two to three workers in each.
Color-coding is also a very important feature of JobTracker. The company is able to assign each area such as Washington, DC, and Northern Virginia with a specific color, and make sure that the installation team assigned to the project makes the most sense from a geographical standpoint. â€œBy using colors, we can visually move jobs around,â€ said Murray. â€œThere are also other visual clues.â€ For example, jobs in green have been confirmed with the customer, ones in black have been scheduled but not confirmed, and jobs in blue signify that the measuring has been completed.
Additionally, the program provides other key features that help to produce better efficiency. These include a script page, which the phone operator uses to ask the customer specific questions that will be useful to the templater installer. Also, each templater has a tablet PC that allows the customer to choose the specific color of Silestone and the type of edge that they want for their countertops. Their selections are marked with a big red check mark so that there is no confusion in the choice that was made.
â€œThe only information not on the computer is the job survey, which is filled out by the installer,â€ said Murray. â€œIt is the way that we can communicate with our problems.â€
Digitizing templatesFurther adding to the high-tech structure of the business are 10 Faro digital templaters. â€œThis has really taken us over the top. Each measurer has one of these, a travel PC and a tripod,â€ Murray said, adding that templating had been done in a traditional manner in the past, with the templater taking measurements and then cutting a hard template from strips of plywood. â€œThe templater had to go out [to the job] and measure, and he had to be somewhat of a carpenter.â€
In using the Faro digital templaters, the â€œFaro Armâ€ is placed at a stationary position at the jobsite, and the arm is maneuvered as needed to collect all of the relevant data for a particular project. It works at an extremely high level of precision, and can record intricate details of a space.
Each measurer downloads his information for all projects at the end of the day, and the information is uploaded to Counter Intelligence's FTP site. The â€œFaro fileâ€ is then put into a CAD program. â€œThere are 30 to 35 jobs waiting in the morning,â€ said Murray. â€œOne of the things that we have struggled with [in the past] was that customers didn't have a template to see. Now, we can draw lines and curves, and show them.â€
The final drawing is done at the office where the sinks are put in. Once completed, the final drawing is sent to quality control for review.
According to the owner, the
Faro digital templaters not only
ensure precision, but this sophisticated equipment also saves time and increases production. â€œWe went from [one person] measuring three jobs per day to measuring four jobs per day,â€ said Murray, who added that this total is multiplied by the 10 templaters on staff, raising production even more. â€œIt has helped tremendously. There are other ways to do this, and we tried all of them. We don't have any physical templates any more.â€
Since Counter Intelligence fabricates jobs for other certified Silestone suppliers that still make hard templates, it keeps one Faro templater on the premises to record the data from these templates. After this step, the projects are processed the same way as projects templated directly by Counter Intelligence.
RestructuringCounter Intelligence is comprised of 150 employees, of which 40 work in the shop. This differs drastically from the 20 workers that Murray employed only five years ago. With such a significant growth in staff, the owner is taking time to restructure various areas, which will ultimately improve production, customer service and employee satisfaction.
â€œOne of the things that I have always focused on is production,â€ said Murray. â€œI am learning that I can streamline things and focus on processes rather than day-to-day functions.â€
Murray explained that most of his employees were hired with little, if any, experience. It started with one person who brought someone in from his church, and then it grew from there. â€œPretty much no one had experience -- even the installers,â€ said Murray. â€œThey were all very intelligent and trainable.â€
To make sure that his business is reaching its potential, Murray recently hired a consultant to advise him on improving Counter Intelligence's office structure. â€œI didn't have an office manager [before],â€ he said. â€œI didn't have expertise in that area. [The consultant] has really helped out a lot.â€
The consultant has suggested ideas such as dividing the company into smaller departments, and creating managerial positions. Also, she has stressed the importance of job guidelines for each position. â€œLetting people know how to advance and what skills they need [for a specific position] is a big help to give incentives,â€ said Murray.
Through the various programs and incentives now offered at Counter Intelligence, Murray demonstrates that he sees the value in investing in his staff as well as the technology. Improving upon the skills that his employees can provide will only strengthen the customer-service aspect of the business.
As a result, Counter Intelligence has begun offering English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to its employees on Saturday mornings. â€œThey need to be able to communicate with customers in the field,â€ said Murray. â€œEveryone is signing up. It is nice to address problems in their community. It helps both of us.â€
Marketing strategiesAs the success being experienced by Counter Intelligence proves, the market demand for Silestone has shown significant growth in recent years. Cosentino, the product manufacturer, has heavily invested in marketing the material -- including a commercial spot at the two-minute warning during this year's Super Bowl. Ads promoting Silestone have also been placed on 600 buses in the Washington, DC, area. â€œWe can't really gauge yet [if it is working], but we hope that it is effective,â€ said Murray.
Counter Intelligence also markets Silestone to architects and designers at in-house training seminars, and it also conducts seminars at its Home Depot locations. This provides a great opportunity for the company, since Home Depot holds many seminars, and every six months there usually are new faces. The company also has plans to focus some attention on the commercial sector, and it recently hired a salesperson to concentrate on this area.