Taking a chance on a â€œsmall townâ€ shop
October 1, 2009
While Rick Klassen has been a merchant in the small town of Cranbrook, British Columbia, Canada, for 26 years, it is only recently that he joined the stone industry. For many years, the entrepreneur owned and operated a sporting goods store. But when it came time for a change, he and a friend realized there was a need for a stone fabrication business in the area, and as a result, started Kootenay Granite Inc. in January 2006.
“I come from a sporting goods background,” said Klassen. “The market was getting saturated, and the new stuff didn’t appeal to me. I had a friend [Roy Hughes] who was a granite installer and lives in Cranbrook. He recognized the need for a fabrication shop here. To make a long story short, we thought it was a good idea and started the company.”
In the early stages, Klassen was the business manager, and Hughes oversaw production. “He had been involved in template/install and fabrication on a basic level, so he was able to oversee fabrication,” said Klassen. “The company started in January 2006, and we started producing in June 2006. In July 2008, I sold the sporting goods store and was here full-time. I wanted to wait until the timing was right.”
Although there wasn’t a stone fabrication shop in the area, Klassen and his partner had to determine if there was a market for one. “We are in a small town,” said Klassen. “There are 32,000 people in the city, and it has a trading area of 75,000 to 80,000. You don’t really see fabrication shops in small areas like this - certainly not in Canada. We asked ourselves, ‘Can it work in a smaller city?’
“Being that I had done business in a smaller venue here, I had an idea of how a small town works,” Klassen went on to say. “I know how to run a business on some fundamental levels. When we started off, it was all hand work.”
Investing in equipmentAfter a while, Klassen and Hughes felt the need to invest in some larger machinery. “We started off buying a Park Yukon [bridge saw] and a Wizard [radial arm polisher] for sink holes,” he said. “We also bought a Park Pro-Edge [automated edging machine]. We relied on Park to guide us. We wanted to start off with basic equipment. We did not want to get in too deep from a debt standpoint. The Wizard is one machine that would earn its money.”
According to Klassen, they ended up trading in the Pro-Edge for a Park Titan CNC stoneworking center. “We weren’t using the Pro-Edge a whole lot because a lot of edging was radius work,” he said. “The Pro-Edge does linear cuts. It was faster for us to do the edges by hand. It’s a great machine, but we just didn’t have enough of those cookie-cutter jobs.
“The Titan made a huge difference,” Klassen continued. “It is an amazing machine. Park [Industries of St. Cloud, MN] has been an invaluable part of our growth. They know the industry and care about the industry. We relied on them heavily for the machinery and industry guidance.”
Additionally, Kootenay Granite purchases its hand tools and accessories from companies such as Granite City Tool Co. of Waite Park, MN, GranQuartz (Canada) and Apollo Stone in Vancouver, Canada. It also uses an LT-55 Laser Templator from Laser Products of Romeoville, IL, for installations.
“That has been an amazing tool on so many levels as well - from time saving to accuracy,” said Klassen of the laser templator. “Everything changes when you go from hands on to digital. Before, so much work was done in the shop. We were putting templates onto the slabs. In many ways, it takes the craft out of the production and puts it behind the computer. That’s where the shift is.”
The size of the company’s installation crew varies depending on the job, according to Klassen. “We have between two and four installers - it all depends,” he explained. “With islands getting so large - we get a ton of those - we have two guys that only do installs and two more that know how to install and can assist. We also have one full-time templater.”
With five workers in the shop, Kootenay Granite is capable of turning around 10 to 12 jobs a week, according to Klassen. “We have come a long way for a fairly small company. We have a good team between my partner and myself. We started off with 12 employees. We are still there, but our volume has almost quadrupled. We are doing at least three times the business for sure.”
While the majority of the company’s market is single-family homes, a small portion of its work is commercial. Klassen explained that the shop’s location limits the commercial jobs. “They don’t have high-end hotels here,” he said. “[And], we have to be careful how far we go from distance standpoint. The farther away you go, you are not always able to service your customers as well as you could. We probably go about a 200-mile radius.”
Plans for expansionCurrently, Kootenay Granite operates out of a 10,000-square-foot shop. “Half of it is retail where we store slabs,” said Klassen. “We keep about 300 to 350 slabs in stock, and we also have outside slab storage.”
Material is supplied by Stone Selection in Calgary, Alberta, Canada; Pental in Seattle, WA, and Montana Stone Gallery in Missoula, MT. “Those are our biggest suppliers,” said Klassen. “The owner of Stone Selection, especially, is a very well-rounded individual from a knowledge perspective. He has given us a lot of guidance. That is why we are a strong company even though we are only three years old. We have good people around us.
“We listen to them,” Klassen went on to say. “We want to know what is available. Our stone suppliers are dealing with some good companies and some not-so-good ones. There are ones that are progressive. I want to know.”
To accommodate the growing business, Klassen hopes to move to a larger facility in the near future. “We need more slab storage,” he said. “We don’t own the building we are currently in. We’re looking around at land to buy. We hope to do that within the next few years.
“It’s been a great building for us to be in, but everything in the ‘rock’ business is about efficiency,” he continued. “When you are more efficient, the more profitable you are. We don’t have overhead cranes or water recycling in this building. We don’t have the ability to unload a whole A-frame at once. We have to do one slab at a time.”
According to Klassen, a major factor in the company’s success is the knowledge gained from listening to experienced industry veterans such as Park Industries and the suppliers that it does business with. “[Also], we are a member of the Marble Institute of America,” he said. “Although we are fairly removed from a demographic perspective, there certainly is a lot of information that is available from them.”
And just as he tries to absorb as much information from those who know the industry well, Klassen believes it is important for Kootenay Granite to educate its own clients. “We need to educate our customers about the myths about radon and that granite is hard to look after,” he said. “We have to dispel those rumors. We have to help them with the maintenance aspect, and we have to represent a good product.”
Sidebar: Kootenay Granite Inc.Cranbrook, British Columbia, Canada
Type of work: primarily residential, some commercial
Machinery: A Yukon bridge saw, a Wizard and a Titan CNC stoneworking center - all from Park Industries of St. Cloud, MN; an LT-55 Precision Laser Templator from Laser Products of Romeoville, IL; hand tools and accessories from Granite City Tool Co. of Waite Park, MN, GranQuartz (Canada) and Apollo Stone in Vancouver, Canada
Number of Employees: 12
Production Rate: 10 to 12 jobs per week