Building a stone network in Chicagoland

October 1, 2004
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CGM was started as a family business in 1993 in Elk Grove, IL. At the time, the company was called “Chicago Kitchen & Bath Design” and was primarily retailing and fabricating natural stone to a developing market in Chicago's north and northwest suburbs. With just a two-man crew and 5,000 square feet of showroom space, the company was one of the pioneer suppliers and fabricators of natural stone applications in Chicagoland. And according to the company, this pioneering spirit has been sustained by strong family values and a commitment to excellence in all endeavors.

In 1997, the company moved its head office to Naperville, IL, where it opened a second showroom, warehouse and fabrication plant. “There were tremendous challenges,” said Ashley Kent, marketing manager for CGM. “The Chicago stone market was in relative infancy, and stone was a novelty. Only the rich and savvy could afford stone as a means of adding value and beauty to their homes. Many builders were not terribly enthusiastic about going for what was perceived to be an expensive option for their residential constructions. However, it was a very exciting period, which offered us the chance to be bold and visionary. We relished the opportunity to introduce some great new ideas into the market. Most custom homebuilders responded at first with caution, and later with warm embrace. They found that their residential constructions sold quicker and at higher values when they featured granite and marble applications -- especially kitchen countertops and bathroom vanities -- than other surface materials. Suddenly, these builders who had offered natural stone as upgrades began to offer it as standard. That was a defining event for the market and for CGM.”

Today, the company has multiple locations in Chicagoland, an extensive inventory of stones and a new state-of-the-art fabrication plant. It strives to be a full-service operation, offering a “one-stop shopping experience with selection, fabrication and installation of natural stone slabs and tiles.”

CGM fabricates and imports many stone products from around the world. It fabricates and installs kitchen countertops, bathroom vanity tops, floor and wall tiles, spas, bathtubs, tables, backsplashes, window ledges, etc. “In addition, we supply and install glass and stone mosaics, metal inserts, borders, columns, custom fireplaces, granite, limestone and travertine sinks, glass sinks, medallions and intricate stone carvings,” Kent said.

CGM has been very active in the city of Chicago, the surrounding suburbs, Northwest Indiana, Southern Wisconsin and parts of Iowa. Customers include affluent homeowners, custom home-builders, interior designers, architects, general contractors and cabinet/woodwork manufacturers. “However, our services are geared towards custom homebuilders who make between six homes per year in the multi-million dollar bracket to those with multiple subdivision constructions,” Kent said. “Some of our builder partners have up to 10 subdivisions and multiple condominiums under construction at any given time. We also undertake commercial projects, including churches, conference centers, hotels, office buildings and shopping malls.”

Business expansion

CGM's location in Naperville enabled the company to generate increased interest in stone applications, the company reports, adding that Naperville is rated among the top 10 cities in the U.S. “Its close proximity to Downtown Chicago makes it a great launching pad for servicing the natural stone demands of the suburbs and the city of Chicago,” Kent explained. “In recent years, Naperville and the surrounding cities have developed substantially. Custom homebuilders abound, and the growth continues unabated. Then there are the other suburbs of Chicago, where residential and commercial construction is never complete without a substantial value addition of natural stone.”

As a result of business demands, CGM has pursued a “robust and articulated business expansion” in the past few years, focusing primarily on customer service and product delivery. “We have a five-year plan to introduce 15 new luxury stone retail outlets in the Midwest,” Kent said. “These will be established along the same successful platform as the existing Stone Habitat in Mundelein, IL.”

Stone Habitat was created in 2003 as a unique environment designed specifically to appeal to the affluent inhabitants on the North Shore, custom homebuilders in this area, architects and interior designers. “Stone Habitat became an instant success, attracting its target audience as well as interior designers and architects, who have come to use it as a one-stop shop for creative and imaginative ideas in stone application and design,” Kent said. “The showroom displays unique lifestyle vignettes that demonstrate the practical uses of stone in any setting.” Included is a Blue Bahia spa to greet customers, stone columns of Crema Marfil, ornate stone sinks and vases. It also has an exotic Tuscan kitchen, a full-functioning “country kitchen,” a “Hollywood bath,” and more.

“Customers to Stone Habitat never cease to comment on the experience and inspiration gained from visiting the showroom and the fact that they had not imagined that stone could be used in such beautiful settings and as a work of art,” Kent said. “In fact, a number of items on display have been procured by many of our builders for their spec homes and by many homeowners.”

This upscale habitat of stone luxury has provided the platform to launch the revamping and upgrading of the other CGM locations in Elk Grove Village as well as in Naperville. The work is expected to be completed in early October, and man-agement plans further growth on this theme.

New fabrication facility

After the introduction of Stone Habitat and growth in other locations, the company found that it needed to increate its capacities. “CGM experienced a challenging growth spurt that put acute pressures on our production capacity thus providing the springboard for further growth,” Kent said. “As a result, in early 2004, we opened what has become the most technologically advanced fabrication plant in Illinois.”

This plant, located in Franklin Park, IL, near O'Hare Airport, occupies a combined slab warehouse and fabrication area of 60,000 square feet and has given CGM the ability to meet the growing demands created by a healthy market and its multiple showrooms.

“This newly found capacity enables CGM to substantially decrease the turnaround period for installation of countertops, while increasing our ability to monitor quality and efficiency during every aspect of the fabrication process,” Kent said. “To assist in the design of our new fabrication plant, we recruited experts from every aspect of the stone industry. The main concerns addressed were material flow and handling, efficiency through automation and customer service.”

Two overhead bridge cranes were installed in the facility. “The thought process here was to insure that while incoming and outgoing material occupies one of the cranes, the other crane is free to serve the fabrication side of the operation,” Kent explained. “Overhead jib cranes were installed at each work station as well as at a second exterior loading dock. With the luxury of having these cranes available throughout the plant, manpower is kept to a minimum. One man can easily maneuver a full slab from virtually any location in the shop.”

All of the tools were converted from dry to wet, and a unique “waterfall” grinding booth was introduced into the system in an effort to maintain a healthy work environment. An underground water reclamation system was installed, and it has been environmentally friendly while also cutting costs.

The company is currently operating two CNC machines -- the Intermac Master Stone from AGM -- and is planning for more automated technology. “These two CNC machines currently in operation yield a series of profiles and give us the ability to finish up to 180 feet per shift,” Kent explained, adding that the square footage varies depending on the number of cutouts and type of profile.

The computer programmers utilize plastic templates to assist in programming the CNC machines. Through a wireless system, technical data is transferred directly from the programming room in the office to the CNC machines in the shop.

A LCV 711 M polisher from Marmo Meccanica was introduced into the system to automate the finishing of flat polished edges, and it has given the company the ability to finish about 40 linear feet per hour. Marmo Meccanica bridge sawing equipment is also used for slab cutting.

For “Round Over” and bullnose profiles, the company has a Park Pro Edge automated polisher, which produces approximately 70 feet per shift.

By investing in state-of-the-art equipment, the company is able to have better control of its delivery times. “With the advantage of this leading edge technology, CGM is able to deliver a seven-day turnaround period to its customers,” Kent said. “In addition, the plant has given us better and higher production capacity, less noise and dust, reduced manpower, better monitoring of quality control, much reduced fabrication errors, less turnaround time, less measurement mistakes as a result of templating and more efficient installation as a result of precision manufacturing.”

The new plant also offers improved working conditions. “Since commencing operations from here, CGM now offers its fabrication crew a clean and safe working environment,” he said. “In fact, the entire CGM team recently completed a rigorous safety program designed specifically for our industry.”

Quality control/customer service

A new quality control team was assembled to inspect incoming raw materials as well as finished products. “The idea is to ensure that slabs brought in for fabrication maintain a consistent quality in all relevant areas,” Kent said. “Although granite and marble are natural products, it is critical that the raw material meets the highest standards set by our demanding quality-control department and the ultimate decision maker -- the owner of the project.”

As pieces for each job are finished, they are inspected and then transferred onto a number of “A” frames. These “A” frames are wheeled to one of several loading areas, and using the crane system, they are placed directly onto the installation vehicles.

Another significant feature of the company's new operations is the creation of a dedicated customer service department. When a sale is processed by the accounts department, the file is passed onto the customer service department. The target of this department is 100% customer satisfaction. Their first task is to contact the customer with the status of the project and details of all relevant project managers. This ensures that the customer is kept informed at every stage of the project. “Our industry is a very tactile one that appreciates the human contact,” Kent said. “We have found that for many builders and other customers, being kept up to date with the development of the project is crucial to every construction and ensures that any issues are dealt with rapidly. Since introducing customer service, CGM has experienced a substantial increase in customer satisfaction, repeat business and an overall better relationship with our builders.” The customer service department has its own toll-free telephone and fax line.

Every project is assigned to a project coordinator whose role is to ensure efficient execution. CGM has introduced a checklist system designed to facilitate the project.

After the sale is made, a project process file -- containing the project details, contact for project manager, checklist and other relevant materials -- is handed to the customer.

“The checklists are to be completed and faxed back to the customer service line once the project is ready for measurement and installation,” Kent said. “They seek to ensure that the necessary items are on site prior to a visit for measurement or installation. These include installed cabinets, faucets, sinks, dishwashers, etc. This approach ensures that less time is wasted and costs are minimized. There is a financial cost to every wanted project activity. Our approach to project management ensures that we keep our costs low and pass on the savings to our customers. The reception from our builder partners to this innovative approach has been extremely positive.”

The next stage in customer service and project management is field measurement. “Every customer is contacted to arrange this crucial exercise which can make all

the difference in any project,” Kent explained, adding that templating methods have been improved. “Prior to our new fabrication facility, we were using cardboard paper for templates. While this worked relatively well, the challenges associated with precision and storage meant that this method quickly became a liability. One of the improvements we introduced in the new plant was to change to a plastic templating system. This utilizes a very thin opaque plastic on a hip

screen format.”

The new system has been a success for CGM. “Measurement accuracy is probably one of the main determinants of a project's efficiency,” he said. “If it goes wrong, it generally starts here. The less measurement mistakes that are made, the higher the level of efficiency and productivity. Since introducing the plastic templating system, we have seen a dramatic drop in the number of measurement mistakes. In turn, this has drastically reduced waste, costs and other overheads.”

CGM has three warehouses in Naperville, Franklin Park and Downtown Chicago. “In addition to these, we also have a number of selected suppliers dotted around Chicagoland,” Kent said. In addition to “everyday” colors in granite and marble, the company is always looking for rare and exotic colors from around the world.

Additionally, CGM values its membership in professional associa-tions. “Our entire operation is consistent with our commitment to our member-ship of the Marble Institute of America,” he explained. “We have found that not only does this association demand the highest ethical and professional stand-ards, it is also a feather in our cap, as our customers are anxious to work with an organization that maintains such high standards.”

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