Made in America
Even with the boom of the granite countertop sales in the U.S. market, American fabricators are primarily consumers of slabs, and not producers. Looking to take advantage of this situation, East Coast Granite Works of Baltimore, MD, is processing granite blocks into finished slabs with a gangsaw and polishing line from Breton of Italy.
The company is owned by W. Kent Stow, who has a background in the aerospace industry, and Kinney Swisher, who has been involved in the stone industry since 1985, working for firms such as Sayegh, G&L Marble and Arc Stone.
Although East Coast Granite Works is actually five years old, it has been processing stone for three years, with a year of planning and research and a year to build and equip the facility. Locating the right building for granite block processing took six months, as the owners investigated 30 warehouses before finding one that would fit the needs of the company.
The plant is located in a former steel mill, which was occupied by Bethlehem Steel up to 15 years ago and had once been used for building military ships during World War II. The building is 40,000 square feet in size, with an additional 40,000 square feet of outdoor space. It is equipped with two 40-ton overhead cranes, and each overhead bridge also has a 10-ton hoist. The cranes were refurbished and are fully operational for the company.
Stow pointed out that the location of the building is advantageous because it features easy access to the sea, rails and roadways. The imported blocks are brought by ship to the Baltimore Harbor, only 10 minutes from the plant, and from there, they are delivered one at a time by flat-bed trucks. The facility is also only a few hundred yards from the railway and less than a mile from the Interstate.
The primary pieces of equipment in the plant are a gangsaw and a 12-head polisher, both of which were manufactured in Italy by Breton S.p.A. The gangsaw has 120 blades and is used to cut 3-cm slabs, although 2-cm and other thicknesses can also be cut. The saw runs around the clock, and it takes two to three days to cut through a block, depending on the material being processed. Once a block is complete, one day is needed to reset the saw for the next block.
From the gangsaw, the raw slabs are delivered via overhead crane to the 12-head Breton polisher. The heads on the slab polishing line are equipped with abrasives from Tenax S.p.A., and the line can process 40 slabs during an 8-hour shift. In addition to polishing, many of the company's finished slabs are treated with resin products from Tenax. These resins are applied by hand as required. "More and more people are requiring resin," said Stow, who added that some of the materials require the resin for strength, while others are treated based only on consumer preferences.
The facility is capable of producing 54,000 square feet of slabs per month. A total of 80% of the company's production is currently Brazilian stone, with the remaining 20% of materials coming from North America. Quality control is critical, and every slab is cataloged and numbered so the company knows the precise information on each slab. A photograph or dimensioned sketch is maintained for each slab produced.
East Coast Granite Works currently has a total of 10 employees, and there is a distinct family-oriented feeling among the staff. Three employees are brothers, and two others are father/son. Matthew Underwood is the Quality Control Manager, and his brother, Tim Underwood, operates the slab polishing line. A third brother, Bill Underwood, operates the gangsaw.
According to Stow and Swisher, the cost of equipping the facility was not only determined by the equipment itself, but also by the difficult installation. Since the facility is situated so close to the water, the ground beneath the machinery is not supported by bedrock. As a result, installing the gangsaw required them to remove 540 cubic yards of earth and re-fill the ground with 540 cubic yards of concrete.
ChallengesEast Coast Granite Works faced three main challenges in establishing the company, Stow explained. The first obstacle was acquiring high-quality raw materials. The blocks must be of first quality and good size and also consistent from one shipment to the next. To accomplish this, Kent has made trips to the quarries overseas, particularly to Brazil. "We needed to meet people and find out who is real and who is not," Stow said, adding that the company now has agents in Brazil who inspect the blocks and sign off on each one of them before they are shipped to Baltimore.
The second challenge was finding the right personnel to man the equipment "It takes a special kind of person, interested in working with granite, to put up with the tough working environment of noise and extreme temperatures," Stow said. To ensure that the workers were properly educated, the technical support from Breton involved training the employees on the use of the equipment. In all, it took six months to learn how to properly do the work.
The third challenge, which is ongoing, is marketing U.S.-produced slabs to a marketplace that is accustomed to buying their material overseas via containers. "We represent a change, and change is tough -- even if it is a good change," said Stow. "Most people are locked in their ways, and it can be tough to get them to shift," added Swisher.
The company sells to both fabricators and distributors. "Our initial plan was to only sell to distributors, but the larger fabricators are buying containers from Europe, and the distributors are not doing that business with those firms anyway," Stow said.
East Coast Granite Works offers container-sized sales, in direct competition with European and Brazilian slab producers. Stow said the company is looking to take advantage of faster lead times, with 90% of orders being delivered within 48 hours. Also, being closer to their customers offers the increased possibility of face-to-face meetings, and customers can visit the facility to peruse the block inventory or inspect slabs before they are shipped. "This way, there is no mismatch of expectations," he said. "And it is inevitable that there will be a misunderstanding once in a while with shading or something else," Stow said. "Because we're here in the U.S., we can meet, make adjustments, and in the worse case, take the slabs back."
"The ideal scenario is for a customer to come to the factory in Baltimore, inspect and select a truckload or more of slabs, have a crabcake lunch at the harbor, and still be home by dinner," Swisher added.
Most of the company's customers are located along the East Coast, as far north as Boston and as far south as Atlanta. The firm ships to cities as far west as Chicago as well as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo. "Our limit is a one-day truck run," Stow said.
"The strategy when compared to the overseas suppliers, is to provide the same first quality material, at the same or better prices, under similar terms, but from a domestic location to take advantage of the faster shipping times," Stow said. " If a distributor, or large fabricator, really looks at their total cost, it is clear that a large element is the cost of carrying an adequate inventory of each material. Because of the several weeks necessary to resupply via container, the re-order point is much higher than if the material could be delivered within a few days; and that higher re-order point means lots more dollars tied up in inventory. The idea is to reduce the total cost by improving the inventory management of the customer."
Although the size of East Coast Granite Works' facility allows plenty of room for expansion, the addition of more gangsaws is in its long-term goals. For now, the company is looking to make a name for itself as an expedited supplier of slabs to the U.S. market -- a task that requires persistence to change current mentalities within the marketplace. "We may have built a better mousetrap, but they're not beating down a path to our door yet," Stow said.