California fabricator overcomes market decline
For Russ Owens and Jeff Hanning, current owners of Paragon Granite in Fresno, CA, a mid-life career change meant making the leap into stone fabrication. And while the market has slowed quite substantially since the company first began in 2001, the company has developed creative programs to increase market share and continue to grow the success of their business, which now produces an average of 10 to 12 kitchen a week.
Before launching their own company, Owens and Hanning were bidding on stone hotel projects for an overseas broker, which developed into an interest in fabrication. “We began investigating how granite countertops were built, and visited local shops in our area,” explained Owens. “We figured that the trade was something we could learn, so we got a loan and bought some tools. We really dove into the trade, and for the first year we handled all aspects of the business ourselves - sales, installs and fabrication. As our reputation spread and business picked up, we began hiring more people.”
In September of 2001, the company was operating out of a 2,600-square-foot shop, which according to Owens, had little storage space and no showroom. “We outgrew this space within the first year, and finally, two years ago, we found the right spot for us,” he said. Today, Paragon Granite’s 12,000-square-foot facility includes an 8,500-square-foot fabrication area, a 2,500-square-foot showroom and an outdoor slab yard.
Machinery at the facility includes a B300 bridge saw from Johnson Marble Machinery of North Hollywood, CA, a Pro-Edge III straight line edge polisher from Park Industries of St. Cloud, MN, a Northwood 138 CNC stoneworking center from Northwood Machine Manufacturing Co. of Louisville, KY, and a Diarex dust recycling system supplied by GranQuartz of Tucker, GA. Additionally, workers at Paragon Granite’s shop rely on a water-cooled air polisher, a double filtration system as well as Baranca air polishers from GranQuartz.
“The Pro-Edge really allowed us to meet the demand that we had from our clients,” said Owens. “After business started to grow, we just couldn’t put things out quick enough by hand. Now that we have added the CNC, we have the capacity to do more work at a faster pace. The CNC is probably doing the work of four guys.”
According to Owens, he spent two years researching which CNC machine he should purchase before deciding on the Northwood 138. “There were three things about the Northwood machine that stood out for me,” he said. “It has a big bed for multiple pieces, whereas a lot of other machines were small and could only handle one slab at a time. We also liked that it has an overhead projector, which tells the operator where to put the parts on the bed. I also really liked that decisions were made at a management level. Operators just have to load the machine and monitor it, so the education and operation abilities were left to us owners.
“Jeff and I took a CAD training course at a local city college to get oriented in drawing and writing CAD files, and it was a good background,” he continued. “So, when we got the machine, the Alpha Vision software was pretty much familiar.”
According to Owens, the company handles 90% residential work for tract homebuilders and custom homebuilders, and work includes countertops, vanity tops, shower surrounds, fireplaces, outdoor barbecues and pool surrounds. “Our capabilities are pretty endless in terms of full fireplaces, mantels or custom furniture tops are concerned,” he said, adding that the company works with all natural stones in slab form, as well as working with Zodiaq®, CaesarStone and Hanstone quartz surfaces.
“When we first started, we were doing one kitchen every two weeks until we got organized and learned the industry,” the owner explained. “Today, we do about 10 to 12 kitchens per week.”
Paragon Granite’s remaining production is focused on commercial work, and the company is currently remodeling four local hotels. “We have done quite a few reception desks for offices and medical buildings, which makes up the bulk of our commercial production,” Owens added.
On a day-to-day basis, the company handles work within a 60-mile radius from Fresno, with a few million people living in that span. “We have stretched as far out as Pebble Beach, Carmel Beach and the coast, hitting those homes when we are needed,” said Owens. “We have also done stuff in Reno. Depending on the job, we are willing to travel.”
The company currently has 16 employees, including two installation crews and six shop personnel, as well as salespeople and administrators. “We have had sort of an interesting experience here as far as employees are concerned,” said Owens. “As the building boom has kind of slowed down, a lot of shops have gone under, and we are getting a lot of applications.”
According to Owens, the company likes to train its own employees as they have found that experienced workers sometimes bring in bad habits. “We have an orientation and an introduction program for all employees where we train them and keep an eye on them for 90 days,” he explained. “After that, if things look good, then they are embraced and pulled into the group.”
Owens went on to say that Paragon Granite places a great emphasis on a quality work environment. “It’s a fun, happy place to work,” he said. “Jeff and I are laid back guys. We instill a healthy casualness here, and have fun doing what we do. We have a real high expectation of quality, and the guys know it, and are willing to go that extra mile to make a project look right.”
Considering the current market decline, Paragon Granite has created unique ways to stay ahead and increase market share. With a program called “Cut and Go,” that was launched last summer, Paragon Granite fabricates material for outside stone installers. “We have approached solid surface installers, and we fabricate the quartz for them, then they install it,” said Owens. “We have guys using us that are as far as 250 miles away due to technology. They e-mail us CAD files and precise drawings, I cut the pieces here and they come and pick it up. It’s pretty popular in San Francisco and Los Angeles where high-volume production shops are common.” Owens stressed that this opportunity would not have been possible without the CNC machine. “Most of the people coming to us don’t have the tooling to fabricate laminate, Corian or CaesarStone, so we do it for them,” he said. “We have had great success with four or five guys that have started using us.”
Another way that the company has been responding to market pressures is by expanding into other markets. “Having the CNC also allows me to accept drawings long distance for companies coming into the area to do a project,” Owens explained. “For example, a cabinet shop that is going to do a bank in Fresno, or an architect based in Texas - they can send us CAD files, and I will have the stone tops waiting for them when they get to town. This way, they don’t have to haul all the [raw] material across the country.”