Capitalizing on a favorable market
Established three and a half years ago, Universal Stone of Charlotte, NC, has seen its sales rise steadily each year - mostly by word of mouth as it has placed an emphasis on quality and customer service. Today, the shop has grown to a production rate of 25 to 30 kitchens per week.
Universal Stone’s President and CEO is Hemant Patel, who had previously worked for a smaller shop in Charlotte, processing two or three kitchens per week. “I wanted to establish a larger operation,” he said. At the time of Stone World’s visit, Universal operated out of a 22,000-square-foot space, but it also purchased a 17,000-square-foot building next to its existing facility. It also has a separate showroom facility, which includes displays of stone, finished vignettes, ceramic tile displays and cabinetry. “We are representing various cabinet companies from North Carolina. We really want to be a one-stop shop,” explained Patel.
Slabs are cut to size on one of two GMM Eura bridge saws, which were purchased from Salem Stone of Winston-Salem, NC. “They cut fast, and they have really increased production,” Patel said, adding that the saws are also simple to operate. “One worker can operate both saws at once.”
Equipment in the shop also includes an Egar 323-4 CNC stoneworking center from Z. Bavelloni, which has its U.S. office in Greensboro, NC. The machine, which was purchased two years ago, is used for intricate edge processing. Complex edgework is also processed using a Thibaut T108 radial arm polisher from EuroStone Machine of Atlanta, GA.
For straight edgework, including backsplashes, the company uses a Montresor Luna 740 multi-head polisher, which was purchased from Salem Stone. Patel explained that this machine is particularly useful because his shop hones the bottom of the workpiece 1 ½ inches from the edge (3 inches for cantilevered pieces). The Montresor Luna 740 is able to execute this step automatically.
Stone is maneuvered around the shop using an overhead crane that is equipped with a vacuum lifter from Wood’s Powr-Grip of Laurel, MT.
Among the various processes done by hand, some sink cut-outs are completed using dry grinding. To control dust during these operations, Universal has dedicated an enclosed space that is equipped with a Veri-Dry dust collector from VIC International of Knoxville, TN.
The tooling and accessories used in the shop come from a variety of sources, including Braxton-Bragg of Knoxville, TN, Salem Stone and Z. Bavelloni. Because much of Universal Stone’s work is for new construction projects, all sink cut-outs are reinforced with rods to account for the house “settling” over time.
Water used in the shop is recycled using a system from Fraccaroli and Balzan (F&B) of Italy, also purchased from Salem Stone. These units are capable of efficiently separating stone particulate from the water used in all stone-processing applications - from sawing to edge profiling. The F&B units employ a combination of a low-cost flocculent (settling agent) and a simple mechanical filter press to provide “clean” water that can be recycled back to the workstations. “That system is saving me a lot of money per month,” Patel said.
Compression is supplied by a unit from Kaeser Compressors, Inc., which is considered to be the latest generation of technology.
The company has a total of 21 workers, including eight in the fabrication shop. Workers within the shop are cross-trained so they can perform different tasks and operate various machines. “All of our workers have stoneworking experience,” Patel said. “Many of them came up from Florida, where the market has slowed down quite a bit. We don’t want someone here just to polish; we want people with varied experience.”
The company generally operates on a schedule of 10-hour shifts from Monday to Thursday, with Fridays and weekends off. “My employees are the most important part of my company,” Patel said. “I wanted them to be rested and motivated to work hard.”
Universal Stone has three templating crews, which use LT-55 laser templating systems from Laser Products as well as cardboard templates for select projects. The cardboard templates are then digitized so the data can be fed to the CNC unit.
The company stocks over 300 slabs in house, and it purchases stone from local distributors as well as importing some material directly. Universal Stone’s work is a mix of exotic and basic materials, but Patel said that interest in exotic materials is growing.
On average, the kitchens fabricated by Universal Stone are 90 square feet in size, although Patel pointed out that residential projects usually include elements such as bathroom vanities, tilework (including stone and ceramic) and sinks. In addition to residential work, the company also does some light commercial work and remodeling. “New construction has slowed, so we don’t want to place all of our eggs in one basket,” he said.
Universal Stone sells within a 100-mile radius of Charlotte, although the bulk of its work is within 30 to 40 miles. According to Patel, 90% of the company’s business comes from builders and developers. “They bring their homeowner clients here, and we work with them,” he said. “Charlotte is a growing market, and we are focusing on quality and customer service.”