RE-EMERGING U.S. STONE INDUSTRY: Optimizing the showroom experience
July 1, 2006
To feed its modern fabrication plant in Franklin Park, IL, Chicago Granite & Marble, Inc. has taken point-of-purchase merchandising to a premium level. The company's three â€œStone Habitatâ€ design centers - located throughout the Chicagoland area - have been conceived to inspire homeowners to use stone beyond kitchen countertops.
The fabrication business and first showroom opened in 1993 in Elk Grove Village, IL. Today, the company has three Stone Habitat design centers - in Elk Grove Village, Mundelein and Naperville, IL - and the plant moved to a 60,000-square-foot facility in Franklin Park in 2003.
According to Anik Narula, CEO of Chicago Granite & Marble, the goal of the Stone Habitat locations is to encourage homeowners to consider innovative and unique possibilities for using stone in their residences. â€œWe saw that there was a vacuum in the market,â€ he said. â€œConsumers were not seeing how they can use stone in their own habitats.â€
â€œIn the residential marketplace, we're doing a lot of fireplaces and Jacuzzis - whatever they can dream of creating in stone,â€ explained Raject Bhardwaj, project manager for Chicago Granite & Marble, who added that the retail locations also inspire homeowners to use more exotic materials. â€œBut unless you show them [what can be done in stone], it won't click.â€
The showrooms, which are referred to as â€œDesign Centersâ€ by the company, were carefully designed to offer ideas and inspiration to the clients without â€œoverwhelmingâ€ them. They feature an open, uncluttered layout where visitors can peruse stone materials as large samples or in elaborate vignettes that use stone in a variety of creative applications. For example, the Elk Grove Village location features carved fireplaces, striking bathroom designs, unique kitchen countertops and even a â€œEuropean Gardenâ€ setting, complete with a tile-clad fountain, mosaic walls and a floor of broken stone pieces.
At the Stone Habitat in Mundelein, designs also run the gamut from the moment one enters the showroom. A classic Tuscan kitchen vignette - with Noce, Gold and Cream travertine as well as Kashmir Gold granite slabs - stands at the front of the showroom to entice visitors as well as passers-by. And at the main entrance to the showroom, a large spa - featuring detailed mosaics and Blue Bahia slabs - stands as an example of premium high-end stone use.
The Mundelein location also has a broad range of kitchen and bathroom vignette designs - ranging from classic to contemporary - in materials such as quartzite, Jerusalem Stone, sandstone, tumbled marble and granite. Adjacent to the consumer showroom is a â€œLoftâ€ for architects and designers, which has a broad collection of samples in natural stone and decorative tile. The floor of the â€œLoftâ€ showcases a wide variety of tile floor patterns, and it also features workspaces where architects and designers can sit down with their clients, roll out their design plans, and determine the best material selections.
Chicago Granite & Marble's sales force undergoes continual training to learn about the company's collection of products - slabs, mosaics, tiles, etc. - as well as general business topics such as handling objections, teamwork, etc. â€œThe concept is that everyone then understands [the business as a whole] and gives better support and service,â€ Narula said. â€œThey want to exceed customer expectations.â€
When choosing slab materials at the Stone Habitat locations, consumers can select from three different collections - starting with the â€œClassicâ€ line and moving up to the â€œPremiumâ€ line and finally the â€œEliteâ€ line. When presented this way, people move up to the higher-end materials more than half the time, the company reports. In addition to natural slab materials, Chicago Granite & Marble has also begun fabricating some Quarella engineered stone, although it only represents a small portion of its overall work.
Typical kitchens in single-family residences are 60 to 80 square feet, with some projects being as large as 120 to 130 square feet. Following the examples set by the Stone Habitat locations, these projects also often include architectural elements such as fireplaces, bartops and other custom stonework.
In addition to residential work, the company also works on commercial projects, which comprise 40% of overall business. Very often, these projects are multi-unit high-rises in the Chicago area, with 10 to 14 units per floor. At the time of Stone World's visit to the facility, 1,100 condominium units were signed up for fabrication. Typical project sizes for multi-unit commercial projects tends to be 45 to 55 square feet per kitchen, although some penthouse projects are well over 100 square feet.
According to Ashley Kent, marketing director for Chicago Granite & Marble, the growing definition of the â€œGreater Chicago Areaâ€ has provided an additional avenue for commercial growth. New single-family residences - either stand-alone houses and subdivisions with many homes - are being built on a continual basis in the expanding Chicago suburbs. As such, the company is working on projects that span across a 50-mile radius of the city, which reaches into Wisconsin and northwest Indiana.
Chicago Granite & Marble refers to its fabrication shop in Franklin Park as the â€œCustomer Fulfillment Centerâ€ (CFC), which controls everything from estimating to installation. All segments of an order can be tracked, and customers can know the exact stage of production for their project, explained Rajesh Bhardwaj, general manager of the operation. â€œWe want to work hand-in-hand with the homeowner,â€ he said. â€œWe let them spend time to select the slabs, and to mark the templates. Then there are no surprises.â€
â€œHaving our own factory makes us a one-stop shop,â€ explained Narula. â€œWe're not outsourcing anything that has to do with the stonework.â€ As an added value for customers, the company offers free sinks for large jobs, which also helps the fabrication process because they already have the sink dimensions programmed in their database.
In January of this year, Chicago Granite & Marble launched the â€œMasterCareâ€ program for its customers. After a countertop is installed, the company will maintain the stone for a period of time ranging from one to three years, using sealers and other products from Miracle Sealants Corp. The company is currently in the process of signing up previous customers as well as new ones.
Customer Fulfillment CenterEquipment in Chicago Granite & Marble's shop includes three bridge saws, a Marmo Meccanica HTO/1B from Marmo Machinery USA, a Park Industries Cougar and a third saw from Antonino Mantello. Slabs are loaded onto the saws using Manzanelli vacuum lifters from GranQuartz as well as vacuum lifters from Wood's Powr Grip, which are affixed to overhead cranes.
For sink holes and other complex work, the facility has two Intermac Master Stone CNC stoneworking centers from AGM, including the 1500 and 4000 models. The units can automatically process a broad range of shapes and edge profiles, and they can finish up to 180 lineal feet per shift. A jib crane is situated at each of the CNC machines so that workers can load and unload the workpieces without assistance, and so that the overhead cranes remain free for other activities within the facility.
For â€œround overâ€ and bullnose profiles, the company has a Pro-Edge III automated edge polisher, which can process 70 lineal feet per shift. Additionally, a Marmo Meccanica LCV 711 M is used for flat polished edges. Edgework is also completed as needed using a Marmoelettromeccanica Master 3500 portable router from Regent Stone Products.
Dust from the grinding process is collected with a Ghines Idrodos dust suction wall, purchased from GranQuartz, and the dust is removed from the shop with exhaust fans. Additionally, the water is treated with a GranQuartz Diarex Cyclone, which allows the shop to use recycled water for 70% of its operations.
The Customer Fulfullment Center fabricates an average of 12 to 14 kitchens per day, with a typical turnaround time of five days. The operation has 60 employees, including workers in the shop as well as templaters and installers. When hiring new employees, the new staff member is assigned to work under a more experienced worker for a period of three to six months.
After measuring a job, the company creates hard templates, which are scanned on a digitizing board, and the data is then submitted to the CNC machines as needed. Bhardwaj said that the company is looking to move to digital templating technology in the future, but he feels that the technology for plotters needs to continue to develop.
The shop itself is divided into four quadrants. The first is the slab stock area, which houses a broad range of slab materials. Customers can select materials from this area, and quality control inspectors review the material prior to fabrication.
After material is selected, the material then moves onto the second quadrant, where the slabs to be fabricated for the next two working days are stored on racks near the bridge saws. The machinery itself is located in the third quadrant, where slabs are cut to size and put on trolleys to await the next step in the process.
Finished jobs are stored in the fourth quadrant, where quality-control specialists check each piece and then clean and wrap the projects on an A-frame. The finished projects are organized based on their scheduled installation date for optimum material flow. The racks and carts, which are essential to the operation, were supplied by Groves, Inc.
The latest development for Chicago Granite & Marble is a complete redesign of its Stone Habitat location in Naperville, which was finished earlier this year.