Stone Column

Supplying natural stone throughout the year

February 2, 2004
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On the drive to Rolling Rock Building Stone's facility in Boyertown, PA, visitors can really get a feel for the area's history in natural stone. Throughout the hills of this Southeastern Pennsylvania region, there are scores of farmhouses, homesteads and historic inns made from indigenous stone. Rolling Rock has continued this building tradition by supplying stone for exterior veneers, and it relies on stone from Pennsylvania as well as a broad range of other sources. And despite its location in the sometimes-harsh climate of the Northeast, operations are largely unaffected by weather, as it is able to produce stone 12 months per year.

The company was founded in 1955 by Homer Weller, who worked with a hired hand to begin supplying building stone in Berks County, PA. The duo used hand tools - including sledge hammers and crowbars - and one truck as their only equipment, and they relied on strong backs to quarry, cut and load all the stones by hand. That first year, the company sold 100 tons of building stone, and growth has been continuing for nearly 50 years - now totaling over 60,000 tons yearly.

In December 1974, the company became incorporated under the name “Rolling Rock” Building Stone, which was taken from the locals' name for the nearby rock formations, which are now company-owned. At this time, the company still only had six full-time employees, but it reached a new landmark when Homer's son, Gary, committed to joining the business full-time. The company progressively grew each year, and during the early stages of this phase, Rolling Rock began quarrying and selling its own stone products, which were extracted in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

As expansion continued, the company added new products and represented other small “mom and pop” quarries that had a limited distribution network. These types of arrangements are still in place today. “Some quarries we represent through a brokerage arrangement,” explained Terrence Meck, executive sales manager for Rolling Rock.

Today, the company offers dozens of building and landscaping stones from all over the U.S. as well as Asia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico. With inventory totals that often top 20,000 tons, products include stone for paving and cladding as well as other applications.

Most of the stone quarried on site in Boyertown is geologically classified as quartzite, and there is also some gneiss on the property, although this is more limited. Many houses in the region, particularly the older ones, were built with stone from this vein. “There is an extremely deep heritage in stone,” Meck said, citing the old colonial stone construction that is prevalent in Southeastern Pennsylvania. “We keyed in on that market - people who want to create an old fieldstone farm house,” Gary Weller said.

In fact, the company's original office was an old homestead dating back to the mid-1700s. This was expanded in 1999 using the company's quarried stone, and although the design reflected the architectural character of the region, it was carefully executed to also have a more modern feel.

“Architectural customers appreciate the aesthetic appeal of our office,” Weller explained. “The stone here is the structure.” To truly represent the aesthetics of classic stonework, the installation of the new stone called for coarser sand to represent the old mortar that used sand from old streambeds.

In addition to the stone quarried at its site in Boyertown, Rolling Rock's quarrying crews also extract stone from other sites in the region. “Some are leased properties, and some are handshake agreements with other quarries who do not cut dimensional stone,” Meck said.

To extract stone at the Boyertown site, workers excavate into the subsoil as deep as 20 feet or more. “It's a surface mine,” Meck explained. “It's unconsolidated freestone [that is extracted and processed.] Once the workers hit solid bedrock, that's where our operation stops.” Rolling Rock has a total of 127 acres in Boyertown that are bonded with the state for mining and processing operations as well as inventory. Because the stone is taken from within the ground, it is not exposed to the elements and does not have the flaws and fractures of many other fieldstone varieties.

Currently, there are six areas on the property that are being mined in various stages and others in reclamation, where soil is returned to the earth and trees are planted. The Weller family owns 500 acres around the area, which serves as a buffer to surrounding residents. “We're the best kept secret in Berks County, Pennsylvania,” Weller said.

The color and texture of the stone extracted in Boyertown can vary greatly depending on where it is taken. In addition to quarrying in different locations on the site, there is an elevation change from 400 to 650 feet in various areas of the land.

Equipment used during the extraction process includes backhoes, hydraulic excavators, front end loaders and forklifts. Once the stone is pulled from the ground, it is sorted with large-scale equipment, where the stone is placed on a conveyor and then hand sorted. The waste and oversized pieces are conveyed to one of two trucks parked alongside the sorting unit. After the first stage of sorting, some of the larger stone is drilled and split as needed, and then further sorted into various classifications. The company has a total of six hydraulic splitters, including models from Park Industries and Cee Jay Tool.

The toughest part of the operation is finding new employees, Weller said, although he added: “We take a lot of pride in our current crew. There are many experienced people here. Over one third of our employees have been with the company for 10 years or more.” One employee that is exemplary of the staff's loyalty is Donald “Smoky” Haas, who has been working for the Wellers for 43 years. Over that time, Haas watched the company grow dramatically, and he pointed out that some of the areas currently being used for mining, inventory and operations had been woodlands only a decade earlier. “If somebody told me 10 or 12 years ago that there would be tractor trailers coming through here, I'd have called them a liar,” he joked.

One key for employee relations is that company management has always had a hands-on relationship with the stoneworking aspect of the business. “It's always been ingrained in me and key managers across the board not to ask the employees to do something that we haven't done ourselves,” Weller said.

In fact, Homer Weller actively works with the stone every day, overseeing the stockyard and quarries from his home located on the property. He still pulls orders for customers and dispatches the quarry crews as needed. Other family members include Homer's son, Arnold Weller, who is a quarry supervisor, and Eric Weller, Gary's son who works in the sales department as the third generation of the family to work at Rolling Rock. The female side of the family is also represented, as Homer's daughter, Debra Shabrach, works in Human Resources, and daughter-in-law Kimberly (Gary's wife) works in payroll. The matriarch of the family, Betty Weller, supported the family while the business was being built.

Over the years, growth in Rolling Rock's product line led the company to begin supplying limestone for its customers. This sector of the business took a major step in 1999 with the creation of Greystone Quarries, which operates a site for limestone in Evans Mills, NY. This quarry is more of a traditional site for stone extraction, with consolidated material in layers. These layers are tapped with hydraulic hammers to free the stone. The natural benefit to the site is that the layers lie extremely flat, so the equipment always works on level ground. This endeavor will further expand this year with the addition of a quarry for quartzite in Hammond, NY.

The company has a total of 54 employees in Pennsylvania and six more at the New York quarries, and this total is expected to grow, as the company is currently hiring for both locations.

The quarries are in operation year round, even in New York State. In fact, although Stone World's visit to Rolling Rock's facilities occurred only a few days after a major snowstorm, all facets of the operation had clearly been up and running the entire time. “There is a certain customer satisfaction to that,” Weller said. “They can know that production is available, and they can make sales throughout the winter months.”

Sales at Rolling Rock are a 50/50 mix of stone products that the company quarries and stones that it brings in. Rolling Rock even sells salvaged stone, such as blocks of stone that were reclaimed from old bridges. The company sells to wholesalers, distributors and contractors, and it has customers in 35 different states, with its strongest markets being in the east. The major market for contractors is Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

Over the years, Rolling Rock has taken great pride in devoting time to educate its customers. “It is very important that the customer understands 'natural stone,' and we make sure they get the right product for their application,” Weller said. “Our sales force is very knowledgeable in natural stone, and it is very eager to spend time with the customer - whether it be a homeowner, contractor or someone from the design profession. An educated customer will be a satisfied customer, and the end result will translate to future business.”

As part of this philosophy, the company promotes the hands-on aspect of the business to its clients, giving them a chance come to their facilities and get a better feel for the material. “We encourage customers to visit our location well in advance of making their final decisions,” Meck said. “Many times, the homeowner, builder or architect leaves our site very grateful for having taken the opportunity to visit us and make appropriate, informed choices for their project.”

Also, to better serve customers, Rolling Rock owns and operates a fleet of 18 trucks with various capabilities. Most of the trucks are operated to service the regional contractor market in Pennsylvania. However, company-owned trucks are also used to provide delivery service for distributors in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Beyond these regions, the company maintains contract carriers to more efficiently service the further reaches of the U.S.

Some products are sold by the ton and some are sold by the square foot, and sales have been steady despite the tough economy of the past couple of years. “The recession has produced two flat years,” Weller said, adding that the company had enjoyed growth of 10 to 20% per year in the past. “The horizon for this year looks much more optimistic.” Weller noted that inventory was much higher at this time last winter, and this year's lower inventory means the company can feel free to remain in full production over the winter.

The company has always strived to keep pace with technology - for production equipment as well as Information Technology. “The Internet is exciting to us and has developed into some nice sales,” Meck said, adding that it has exposed them to customers outside of its regular territory who are “looking for stone that is not available in their local market.”

Most of Rolling Rock's products are used for residential projects, although the company has also supplied stone for numerous commercial buildings such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Conservation Training Center in West Virginia and Hamilton College in Clinton, NY.

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