Strategies for success in the fabrication sector
In the late 1990s, I was asked by a high school friend to help install some kitchens for a granite shop that he managed. I owned a small home remodeling business that was slow at the time, and I was looking for some “busy work.” We spent the next month installing a few kitchens a day. The more I worked with granite, the more I was drawn to the allure of natural stone. I closed my home remodeling business and went to work for that granite shop full time. Over the next several years, I worked my way from installer to measure tech. I spent a few more years measuring and developing a templating system that we still use today. Meanwhile, my friend Matt, who had gotten me into the business, moved off to another company. This opened a position for me in the office doing bookkeeping and scheduling. Over the next few years, I worked my way to operations manager. The shop grew considerably, and at one point, we were producing 10 to 15 kitchens per day. With that type of volume, efficiency became an issue. Customers became numbers instead of names. We lost the ability to spend the quality time needed to produce a custom product.
Discouraged with the direction of the company, I left and opened Granite Corp. in December of 2005. We picked a location about 45 miles west of Chicago, IL, to avoid intense competition and capture the growth of the western suburbs. Initially, we started with three employees to develop our sales strategies and organize the shop. I worked on the overall strategy and designed the layout of production. Flora Harrington, who had been in granite sales for over seven years, developed new accounts and sales strategies. My wife Beth helped with the tedious task of entering the price lists of numerous vendors. She also created the slogan that appears in our logo today: “For the things in life that are set in stone.”
Company structure/philosophyOur goal was to create a custom fabrication shop focused on quality, not quantity. We understood that if we could produce a superior product, work would come. People in today’s economy definitely want to save money, but they don’t want inferior work. This is the biggest challenge that any fabricator will face in today’s market. How can you produce the best countertop possible while also competing with the “garage shop” down the street? That’s the million-dollar question that any legitimate fabrication shop needs to answer. For Granite Corp., it has been a tricky balancing act that we still play today. We have found many creative ways to save money while maintaining our quality. There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t explore new ideas in every aspect of our business.
Our target market has become everyone. We don’t focus just on one individual market in our area. We offer seven different price lists to fit the needs of every relationship we can build. Our markets include retail sales, builders, affiliates, designers and even contractors that want to install their own granite. We try to recognize the needs of any person or company that we work with. Finding a new creative way to produce granite and marble has become a mission of ours. We also had the opportunity of having strong relationships with vendors from our past experience in the stone industry. This was a tremendous help in starting Granite Corp., because creating a name in this industry is a tough uphill battle.
We have essentially four different businesses to maintain. The first would be our retail portion of the business - this includes office staff and retail sales. We offer a small but functional showroom that is attached to a 3,000-square-foot slab warehouse. We try to offer a wide selection of granite slabs in stock, along with some select marble. At any given time, we have around 60 colors to choose from. Flora handles all the outside sales and in-home estimates. She also maintains our builder accounts and develops new business. Martha Oling, the newest addition to our family, also has a background in the stone industry. Her past experience was with a supplier that we currently buy stone from. Her knowledge of the industry and superb customer service skills have made her a perfect fit to our front end. Our philosophy is that no job is too small, and I have seen them spend hours helping customers with small vanities and tabletops. Some shop owners would cringe at that thought, but I know that customer service translates into work down the road.
The second aspect to our business is “Measure and Template.” Gilbert Campos and Mike Phoungphidok head up the division and take care of all our measure needs. They are responsible for capturing any details needed for fabrication. Once a kitchen is templated, they generate a shop drawing that will bring together all the information needed to complete the job.
In the third process, the kitchen is fabricated in a separate shop located just behind our showroom. We separated the two locations in January of 2007 to meet our needs for the slab warehouse.
Machinery investmentsThe fabrication shop is around 10,000 square feet and houses all of our machinery used for cutting and polishing granite and marble. The first piece of machinery we bought was a Matrix Sebring bridge saw. Jorge Garcia, our saw operator, has 12 years in the stone industry, and we both agree that, pound for pound, the Matrix provides us with the cutting capacity we need. Jorge has used some of the more expensive automated saws in the past, but still can’t believe the speed and efficiency of the Sebring. After we cut the slabs to their designated shapes, they are moved to the hand-processing area, where Manuel Salas, Rigoberto Salas and Misael Carbajal use their combined experience of over 22 years to edge and polish them into finished countertops.
Recently, we added a Matrix Contour CNC work center to cut and polish all of our sinks, operated by Lee Bernard. We have struggled with the decision of adding a CNC machine because of the quality of polish on edge details. We were also concerned with long set-up times and the need to add a programmer to the payroll. We found the perfect balance to this problem with the Contour. We get the accuracy and speed of a CNC cut-out and still keep the ability to finish our edges by hand. The training was easy because Matrix has made the machine so simple to use. There was no need to add an extra employee to run the machine. I have known many fabricators in the past that have purchased full-sized CNC machines and ended up using them as bowl cutters, but this was not the case with the Contour. It has increased our capacity from one to three kitchens a day to three to six during our busiest time. Dave Tucker from Matrix has set up and trained us on both machines that we purchased. He brings a wealth of knowledge that can help any fabricator run their shop more efficiently. He has also been very helpful after the training was over by being available on his mobile phone for technical help. I know Matrix stands behind its machinery and that commitment makes me comfortable when spending big dollars on stone equipment.
Quality installationsIvan Michel, Isidro Salas and Jose Gonzales are our experts in the field, which is the fourth step to our business. We rely on them to take what we have built and turn it into a beautiful finished product. Having quality installers is more important than anyone can imagine. Installers must have three major qualities when in the field. First, they must be skilled in their trade and have a passion for natural stone. Keeping them correctly supplied with the tools they need is also essential. Second, they have to be able to “think outside the box,” as every kitchen is different. Finding creative solutions to new problems will “wow” any homeowner. Finally, they must be personable. They will be your final voice when it comes to your company. If a homeowner feels comfortable with your installers, it will make the process more enjoyable for everyone. Ivan, Isidro and Jose take these very qualities to a different level.
I think that what makes Granite Corp. different from other fabricators is the people that work here. I know that it would be hard to find the same caliber of people put together in one company. With over 70 years of combined experience, the people of Granite Corp. make the difference. They all understand that with the current influx of new granite fabricators, it has become hard to choose the right one. Mis-measurements, time delays, broken pieces, missing details and a lack of customer service have become common occurrences in our industry. Our team recognizes the importance of providing affordable quality countertops in a timely manner. We pride ourselves with being a custom fabricator that dedicates the necessary resources to current projects. We also understand the importance of providing our customers with a set schedule they can rely on.