"We have seen that the U.S. is turning to the service industry over manufacturing, with many of the manufacturing companies going offshore and overseas," said Barone. "I had built homes, and I learned about granite from that." While Barone specializes in quality control and operations, Bates has a background in purchasing and global procurement, a role that has taken him around the world on sourcing trips.
"The economy was right [to enter the stone industry], with the interest rates," Barone said, adding that he conducted a market study with data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census as well as the national homebuilding association. "We found a strong West Coast market, a strong Florida market and a strong Washington/Baltimore market," he said. "The Northeast was also saturated with [stone fabricators]."
Barone and Bates initially sought to purchase an existing stoneworking facility, but they ultimately established a new company. "There was one operation in particular that we were looking at, but when we did the due diligence, it seemed that the owner wanted twice as much as it was worth," Barone said.
After looking at several different places to establish the shop, they saw opportunity in Franklin County, located in southern Pennsylvania. "It's right on the I-81 corridor, and there is a great deal of building going on," Barone said, adding that residents include many people who migrated north from Washington, DC. "[Franklin County] is the number one growing county in Pennsylvania and number seven in the nation." The Borough of Chambersburg in particular offered several economic advantages, including tax benefits and strong public funding.
With a background in the manufacturing industry, Barone and Bates sought to take a different approach to running the fabrication shop. "For the most part, we found that the people who were fabricating stone had a construction mentality," Barone said. "We looked at it from a manufacturing perspective, with an emphasis on time to market. The three main factors in manufacturing are quality, cost and delivery."
There were two initial barriers in establishing the business, according to Barone: "developing a revenue stream and putting together the resources to turn slabs into counters." With the help of an employment agency, the owners found the right people to come in and do the job, including Production Manager David Henderson, who moved from Ohio to take the position. "We let him do his thing," Barone said. "We had him let us know what he needed in terms of people and equipment." In addition to Henderson, the shop is manned by Chuck Poe, Jr., and Denise Martin was recently added to the sales force.
A' Bella Stone's owners built a business plan with goals for 18 months, three years and seven years. The company wants to average one kitchen per day within 12 to 18 months. The three-year goal is to average three kitchens per day, and the seven-year goal is to average five kitchens per day.
The company has a specific set of procedures and work instructions in place. Carrying the mentality of a large manufacturing plant, the owners always want to be ready for potential turnover, and want employees to be cross trained so they are eventually interchangeable.
Choosing the equipmentThe owners of A' Bella stone traveled to several trade shows to research the equipment that they would install in their new shop, and they visited many fabricating shops as well. Members of A' Bella's staff also attended Regent Stone Products' fabrication seminar in Virginia Beach, VA, to learn more about stoneworking. "We wanted the greatest return on investment," Barone said. "We researched to find the equipment that offered the best value per dollar. Since we had set a goal of one kitchen per day, we needed equipment and resources to meet that."
The company eventually purchased the equipment it needed at StonExpo 2002 in Baltimore last December. The bridge saw is an Achilli ABS-3500 CE, which was purchased from Braxton-Bragg of Knoxville, TN. The 3500 CE is the largest saw made by Achilli s.r.l. of Italy, and it features a mobile bridge with gantry movement, motorized for travel on three axes. The head manually tilts from 90 to 45 degrees.
The saw also incorporates a large table size which allows for a maximum effective cut of 12 feet on the X axis and 6 feet, 10 inches on the Y axis. The ABS can be equipped with blades ranging from 12 to 20 inches in diameter, and the Z axis features 8 inches of vertical travel. The worktable is 15 feet, 4 inches x 7 feet, 4 inches in size, and slab positioning is assisted by 54 hydraulically operated Omni RollersTM.
A technician from Braxton-Bragg came to A' Bella's shop in Chambersburg to set up the saw and train the staff on its use.
The edges of the countertops are processed with a Marmoelettromeccanica Master 3500 portable edging machine. This piece of equipment, along with the router bits, was purchased from Regent Stone Products. The company does a full range of edge details, including ogee and dupont edges as well as more traditional ones. Virtually all of the company's work is in 3-cm granite.
Other equipment at the shop includes hand tools from Alpha Professional Tools, such as grinders and polishers, as well as various workbenches, tables, slab racks and A-frames, all supplied by Braxton-Bragg.
Slabs are maneuvered around the shop with a 2,000-pound overhead crane from JMR Industries of Bethlehem, PA. "We knew that material handling was really of importance, and so we are stressing safety and learning how to lift," Barone said. "We want to remove the 'gorilla' mentality of moving things around the shop."
The crane is equipped with a vacuum lifter from Wood's Powr Grip. This unit has a total of eight suction pads measuring 10 inches in size, and it has a load capacity of 1,200 pounds. A forklift with a boom attachment is also used for material handling.
The company currently does hard templating, although it is keeping an eye on electronic templating technology. "We believe the computer version will be where it needs to be in a year or so," Barone said. The company also plans to add the Thibaut 108L stoneworking center to its operation in the near future.
While getting the equipment up and running was fairly straightforward, the process of building the facility was not, according to the owners. "We were used to equipment, but not to building a building," Barone said. "We had to learn about the process and all of the details when we did the build-out," said Bates.
At the time of Stone World's visit to A' Bella Stone, the company was having a box truck custom-built for the installation crew. This truck can be loaded from the side through two 8- x 7-foot doors, and there is a ramp that emerges from the back of the truck -- similar to those found on landscaping vehicles -- to facilitate easy unloading. Once a job is fabricated, the pieces are attached to an A-frame, which is loaded directly into the truck and tied down. Then, once at the job site, the material can be rolled straight to the ground. "You want to handle the material as little as possible," Barone said.
The company's customer base is comprised by 25% homeowners, 50% kitchen and bath dealers and 25% builders. A' Bella's facility includes a showroom with a detailed floor pattern of Turkish marble from Ozer International of Harrison, NJ. The owners explained that they also sell floor tiles as needed and will subcontract the installations, "but the core of our business is counters." The company also has finished kitchen and bathroom countertops on display, and it is planning to add other architectural items such as fireplaces and vases.