Continually Striving for Success
August 1, 2009
Located near the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Easton, MD, SolidTops has seen a steady evolution over the past decade, and it has developed into an exemplary stoneworking facility that is among the first MIA-accredited fabricators in the nation. This achievement is one of many by the company and its owner, Evan Kruger, who has pioneered several initiatives in the last few years.
Kruger originally worked as a shipbuilder in Maine, and that line of work led him to Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the historic town of Easton. Taking the skills he learned shipbuilding, Kruger began working in joinery and kitchen cabinetry, and when customers began asking him about countertops, he became involved with DuPont Corian.
“I wanted to grow the business and not be a one-man shop, so I rented space at a location in Easton,” Kruger explained. “In 1999, our customers started asking for granite, so I went to the fabrication school at Regent Stone Products in Virginia, and bought some equipment.”
Kruger said his background in shipbuilding gave him an advantage in learning the countertop trade. “If you have a background in boat building, then you can really make any shape,” he explained. “For me, it was a matter of learning the tools.”
Initial equipment in the shop included a rail saw and hand polishers, and Kruger purchased an Intermac CNC working center in 2000 - which was quickly followed by a second Intermac CNC.
Ultimately, Kruger sold both Intermac CNCs to his brother-in-law for use at Signature Stone, a fabricating operation in Grand Rapids, MI. These were replaced with two Northwood CNC stoneworking centers. The company also invested in a dual-table waterjet from Flow International of Kent, WA.
Other equipment at the facility includes a Yukon bridge saw and a Wizard radial arm polisher, both from Park Industries. “The Wizard was actually idle for awhile, and now it is back in service,” he said. “It helps us with our custom work, and it also fixes scratches.”
Straight edge work is completed on a Sasso Meccanica RCM TE polisher, serviced by SassoAmerica of St. Louis, MO, and a Marmo Meccanica LCV 711M is used to polish the edges of backsplashes. Meanwhile, an EnviroSystem from Water Treatment Technologies of Hampton, NH, is used for water recycling.
Slabs are transported around the shop using lifters from Wood’s Powr-Grip, and the company built a trolley out of A-frames for transporting slabs from the warehouse to the stoneworking area.
Templating crews from SolidTops use a Stealth 7200 L arm from Touchstone Instruments to digitally measure jobs, and a technician on staff translates the recorded measurements into data that can be fed into the CNC machines and waterjet.
After the work on a project is completed, the workpieces are stored on carts at a designated staging area, and material is delivered to the jobsite in Dodge Sprinters, which prominently feature the SolidTops logo and company information.
SolidTops’ facility includes an interior area for storage as well as a second covered area. All remnants are measured and are outfitted with a sticker that lists all relevant information for the material. SolidTops then offers the pieces for purchase at designated “Remnant Sales,” where customers can select from two prices - one for the material to be cut and finished and another that includes installation.
In addition to natural stone, SolidTops processes quartz surfacing such as CaesarStone, Aventine, Zodiaq and Silestone as well as solid surfaces such as Eos 3-cm, Green Mountain and Corian. Solidtops also offers Heritage Wood tops, Crystalized Glass and recently introduced custom-made concrete countertops. A typical kitchen project includes approximately 70 square feet of stonework, although SolidTops often supplies stone for applications that go beyond kitchen countertops. Moreover, it has become a specialist in providing stone with innovative, laminated edgework.
The company has a total of 32 employees, and it was processing as many as 50 projects per week (including stone and other materials) before the downturn in the economy.
As testament to the SolidTops’ fabrication expertise, it became the third company to receive accreditation from the Marble Institute of America, and it remains the only company in Maryland with this distinction. “The MIA is such a great association and I’m so glad they started the accreditation program,” Kruger said. “It was so good for us on many levels. The more accredited shops that are out there, the better our industry will become and so will the marketing opportunities.”
Business strategySolidTops opened a new showroom in 2008 that reflects its transition to a retail-oriented philosophy. “We had worked for builders and dealers, and we still do, but we are also selling a lot more directly,” Kruger explained. “Our biggest savior has actually been the retail push. It has helped us in terms of margins, but also allows us to be in direct contact with the customers. If you’re in touch directly with the homeowner, you have the best chance to meet their expectations.”
The showroom features full slabs of granite - many of them exotic and unique materials, and the slabs are rotated on a regular basis. “I wanted to show the beauty of granite,” he said. “I can’t take customers to the quarry, but I can show them full slabs to give them a better appreciation of the stone.”
In designing the showroom, Kruger conceived a design with ample lighting and an open layout, which allows the company to host parties and other events. The showroom also has a section for ceramic tile products in an effort to become a one-stop shop for customers.
SolidTops is also part of the Artisan Group, a national organization of independent granite fabricators (see “About the Artisan Group” following the article). “The concept is to brand stone on a nationwide basis,” he said. “It’s not just a brand of granite, but a brand of fabricators. We share best practices and marketing skills, and we are also able to refer customers to fabricators we know we can trust. There are 34 members and 50 facilities spread out nationwide. We ultimately would like to have an outlet in every city.”
SolidTops guarantees six-day delivery of its jobs, and it also places an emphasis on customer service after the sale. A “Care Kit” is provided with every job, and it includes a warranty as well as Artisan Group-branded maintenance products that customers can re-order as needed. “It’s just another way to let the customer know that we appreciate the investment that they made in their home,” Kruger said.
Sidebar: SolidTopsEaston, MD
Type of work: residential and commercial work in natural stone and quartz surfacing
Machinery: Two Northwood CNC stoneworking centers from Northwood Machine Corp. of Louisville, KY; a Yukon bridge saw and Wizard radial arm polisher from Park Industries of St. Cloud, MN; a dual-table waterjet from Flow International of Kent, WA; a Sasso Meccanica RCM TE polisher, serviced by SassoAmerica of St. Louis, MO; a Marmo Meccanica LCV 711M for polishing backsplashes; vacuum lifters from Wood’s Powr-Grip of Laurel, MT; an EnviroSystem from Water Treatment Technologies of Hampton, NH; Stealth 7200 L templater from Touchstone Instruments, L.L.C. of Plaistow, NH
Number of Employees: 32 (including stone fabrication/installation and other materials)
Sidebar: About the Artisan GroupSolidTops is one of 34 member companies in the Artisan Group, a national organization of independent granite fabricators that have joined together to offer the Artisan Stone Collection, the first and only brand of granite wholly owned by Artisan Group, which has a comprehensive lifetime warranty. The group also offers Heritage Wood TM countertops and Kohler sinks and faucets.
Group members average more than 20 years of fabrication experience in the countertop industry. Moreover, all Artisan Group members have achieved, or have begun the process to achieve full accreditation with the Marble Institute of America. The group is among the first granite fabricators in the world to be working towards this distinction. Collectively, they surpassed $350 million in sales in 2008.
Artisan Group also provides a complete line of granite care products including: FirstlineTM Sealer, FirstlineTM Clean & Restore and FirstlineTM Shine.
“We wanted to raise the bar and offer our business partners and consumers more value through our products and service,” said Evan Kruger of SolidTops, an Artisan Group Board Member. “This approach has resulted in some synergistic relationships that include an exclusive dealer program with Kohler and our own line of exotic wood countertops.”
Because of the way members conduct business, the group is attracting more members and exclusive contracts with some powerhouses in the kitchen and bath industry, such as Kohler. “Combining two leading brands -- Kohler and Artisan Group -- fills a need in the marketplace that is currently underserved,” said Mally Henne, Channel Manager for Kitchen Products at Kohler Co. “Kohler’s wholesale channel is ready to connect and build business in this important surface market. This program ensures customers receive high-quality products from recognized brands within their respective industries.”
Also, every Artisan countertop is sealed with Firstline Sealer, which is exclusive to the Artisan Group. “We are confident that homeowners will embrace our lifetime warranty and will appreciate the superior fabrication and service Artisan Group provides,” said Sid Mackay, an Artisan Group Board Member. “This new warranty offers customers perpetual peace of mind about a major purchase that’s generally a focal point inside their home.”