Stone World

Taking a new career path in fabrication

March 1, 2012
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For retired dairy farmer Marv Stremler, it was a date with his now wife that first introduced him to the stone fabrication business. Intrigued with the process, he later opened his own shop, Creative Stoneworks, in Bellingham, WA, and today, the company primarily services Northwest Washington and lower British Columbia.

“Marv and I were dating in 2003, while I was working at a stone fabrication shop,” explained Ruthi Stremler, who works beside her husband at Creative Stoneworks. “He came to take me to lunch and was given a shop tour. He was very intrigued with the fabrication process of stone. As a retired dairy farmer, Marv was looking for a business that his son, Brandon, could take over when Marv was ready for final retirement.”

With Ruthi’s extensive customer service/retail management experience and Marv’s business sense, the two proved to be a winning match, according to Stremler. “When speaking to local contractors, they didn’t want us to wait until we had a building built on the five-acre parcel of Marv’s. They said they needed a quality fabrication shop now,” she said. “So, we rented a small warehouse space from a contractor, remodeled a job shack trailer for an office and got started as soon as the Park Yukon bridge saw arrived.”

Building the shop

In November 2004 — 16 months after the business initially got started — the new building was completed. “Our approach to getting our name out there was to target contractors and designers,” said Stremler. “Then we would have a ‘bread and butter’ market with repeat customers and happy homeowners to help spread the word.”

Creative Stoneworks operates out of a 9,000-square-foot facility, which includes 2,500 square feet of showroom space. “There is a walk-in sample room and printed canvas bags with our logo for customers to take samples home in,” explained Stremler.”

Among the equipment in the shop is a Yukon bridge saw and Titan CNC stoneworking center — both from Park Industries of St. Cloud, MN; and a Z. Bavelloni CNC stoneworking center. “The Park Titan CNC is our newest CNC, and it has cut down on fabrication time having the two CNCs,” said Stremler.

In the shop, all of the electrical, air and water for fabrication is suspended from above. “Employees aren’t in any standing water because of a central floor drain in the center of the shop,” explained Stremler. “Marv built all the worktables for the crew, and they are on wheels to eliminate carrying any pieces. There is a dry cutting room with a water curtain, so our air quality is excellent. The sludge from the CNCs and the rest of the shop goes into a three-step filtering system so that the water to the storm water retention pond is clean.”

According to Stremler, Washington State has very strict environmental standards. “The pond was a lengthy process in getting our building permit,” she said. “After being in business for five years, we contacted the water environmental department for our county, and asked them to come and test the water. We have healthy frogs and cat-tails in it, so we were not surprised when they told us it was in excellent condition and safe to drink.”

Currently, Creative Stoneworks employs nine shop workers and two office administrators. “We have several long-term employees with a combined total experience of 43 years,” said Stremler. “Creative Stoneworks offers 100% paid medical [insurance], plus they can add dental for a minimal cost. They receive six paid holidays, vacation and a Simple Plan IRA with employer match.”

Installation and templating

Additionally, the company runs an installation crew with two to four workers, depending on the size of the job. “We are very proud of how few seams our customers have and will not hesitate to hire a crane to ease bringing in enormous, seamless pieces, safely,” said Stremler. “We use the Gorilla Grip clamps and Seam Phantom [from NSI Solutions] for beautiful, tight seams.”

The company’s templating employee uses a LT-55 Laser Templator from Laser Products of Romeoville, IL, for templating. “Digital templating has allowed Creative Stoneworks to fly our employee to the San Juan Islands [of Washington State] to measure instead of having him gone the whole day with a vehicle to take the ferry,” said Stremler. “He is picked up at the island’s airport by our customer and returned when he is done. Often, he is back here by noon from an island measure.”

Once the measurements are taken with a LT-55 Laser Templator, vinyl templates are made with a plotter from Allen Datagraph. “This is the ideal material, and our customers are a vital part of the slab layout,” explained Stremler. “We want to insure that the customer is the one to decide what part of the slab is the focal point in their home. We take a picture of the final layout to insure that the pieces are cut accurately, just in case a vinyl piece falls off. The customers seem to love this hands-on experience.”

Stremler added that kitchen countertops are the majority of Creative Stoneworks’ work, but the company has a phrase: “If it’s flat, you can put rock on it.” In addition to kitchen countertops, the company has fabricated “man cave” bars, fireplaces, outdoor kitchens and barbecue tables, yacht interiors, pizza and tandoor oven hearths that have been shipped around the world, wrapped showers complete with stone ceilings, and antique furniture tops. “Our sales topped $1 million our third year, and have grown to $1.4 million with it — holding [at] around $1.1 million with the economy slowdown,” said Stremler.

Marketing its products

The residential market comprises approximately 90% of Creative Stoneworks’ business, while the other 10% is commercial work. “We do supply tile upon request since our slab suppliers in Seattle carry tile, but we refer [customers] to a tile setter,” said Stremler. “We do not install tile. Occasionally, we will fabricate a project from a customer’s stone, but we assume no liability for their stone. We will only purchase premium residential grade slabs.

“In the early years, Marv would do a ‘slab run’ to Seattle — a 225-mile roundtrip — for only a couple of slabs,” Stremler went on to say. “Our customers are sometimes hesitant to drive to Seattle to look at the huge amount of choices, so they are invited to ride with Marv to select slabs. We now purchase several basic stones for our inventory by the bundle and several of our suppliers will deliver to us for free.”

According to Stremler, the company has worked all the way to Northeast Washington and six hours into Canada from word-of-mouth referrals. “This last year, Creative Stoneworks has been able to work in Canada by hiring an installer with dual citizenship as a subcontractor,” she said, adding that the company is located only 10 minutes from the Canadian border. “[Also], we recently started working on yachts in Bellingham’s marina and are doing an increasing amount of work in the San Juan Islands. There is a greater risk when bidding for island projects due to the ferry costs and travel time. There is no room for errors or repeat trips.”

The company does not advertise on the radio or in print, so it likes to ask all of its customers how they heard about Creative Stoneworks. In 2009, the company launched its Web site, which has proven successful. It has also worked within the local community to promote its brand.

“We have done a ‘Spring Fling’ for the last three years in May with our local radio station KGMI,” explained Stremler. “There are seven to nine businesses participating, and the winner of the drawing that is done [at the end of the event] wins a $5,000 shopping spree at those participating businesses. This has been helpful to get people to stop by during the live remote to tour our facility and see what we really do. We also sponsor local school sports teams and animals at our Northwest Washington Fair.”

Moreover, the company has collaborated with the Geology department at Western Washington University (WWU). The department has used samples from Creative Stoneworks’ shop for their mineral identification class. “We have copies of their reports that we can give a customer that chooses one of the stones identified in a report,” said Stremler. “The sludge from the shop is an excellent medium for WWU’s erosion models, also.”

As Creative Stoneworks continues to grow its stone fabrication business, it plans to proceed cautiously. “Growth is not always in sales figures, but a good profit margin that can be shared with the employees,” explained Stremler. “With our current economy, we are grateful to keep our employees working, knowing the growth will be coming at a slower pace. We have the potential for two shifts, and we want to gradually expand into more commercial work. Keeping the profit margin trimmed to land the job means efficiency has to be monitored throughout the entire job, yet still have a customer who is not just satisfied, but thrilled with our work.”        

Creative Stoneworks

Bellingham, WA

Type of work: 90% residential, 10% commercial

Machinery: a Yukon bridge saw and Titan CNC stoneworking center -- both from Park Industries of St. Cloud, MN; a Z. Bavelloni CNC stoneworking center from Glaston North America of Greensboro, NC; a LT-55 Laser Templator from Laser Products of Romeoville, IL; a plotter from Allen Datagraph

Number of Employees: nine shop workers, two office employees, two to four installers