G.M.S. - Granite & Marble Services of Bluffton, SC, recently opened its doors in April of 2005, with Gianni Cafarelli and Karen Johanson as principal owners. And the story of how the two founders met and formed a partnership is an interesting one. With different backgrounds and life experiences, the dedicated pair complement each other and share a passion to create an efficient and top-of-the-line fabricating facility.

“I first met Gianni when he came to install a kitchen in a rental home my husband and I had purchased,” said Johanson, adding that Cafarelli, a native of Spain who has lived in the U.S. for the last five years, has more than 15 years of experience in fabrication, installation and operations management. “In his very European - a mixture of Italian and Spanish - accent, he explained how he avoided any seams and was able to cut a large u-shaped piece for the kitchen sink and bar area out of one slab. I have always loved granite and was so impressed with Gianni that I called and asked if the company he worked for needed a representative in Beaufort County. They said, 'yes,' and I became an independent sales representative for the same company. Since this company was owned and managed by a Spanish family whose goal was to build the business and return to Spain in a few years, I also saw this as an opportunity to manage and perhaps purchase the company in the future. Gianni and I became friends, and I tried to ensure that he was involved with most of my customers and used his skills and expertise as one of my main sales tools.”

Johanson went on to explain that she has a background in administration, human resources, compensation and corporate planning for large corporations. “I left the corporate world and wanted to put my MBA degree into use by having my own business,” she said. “My husband and I decided to go into mortgage lending and had our own company for many years in San Diego before moving to South Carolina.” She believed that her business skills would help her excel in her new position in the stone industry.

“It took a while for me to build the sales volume in my territory,” said Johanson. “My business plan was to solicit builder business because of the large future growth projections in this area, and some of the projects I secured were out as much as a year. Despite my concern and requests that the company needed another facility in the Bluffton area to serve my growing customer list, which by this spring included some major builders like Toll Brothers and Simonini, the company did not want to expand. They had offered to sell me the company more than a year ago, but were dragging their feet and hadn't produced the financials.”

According to Johanson, Cafarelli had agreed to stay on if she purchased the company, and she offered him a partnership. “We both saw the need to expand as soon as possible in the Bluffton area, but we could not convince company management to do so as they were eager to get back to Spain and not interested in expansion,” she said. “So, we decided to establish a new facility in this area in order to protect and increase the business we had worked so hard to build - and this is how Gianni and I became partners.”

The co-owners established a South Carolina Limited Liability Company (LLC), rented space, and began to purchase equipment and supplies in April 2005, explained Johanson. “We fabricate and install natural stone - granite, marble, travertine, limestone, etc. - for kitchens, vanities, fireplaces, etc., and are able to cut at least two kitchens per day. When we add another shift and have everyone fully trained, we will be able to do three to four kitchens per day. We are still in start-up mode, but our short-term plans project as many as six kitchens per day with additional equipment and maturation of our operations facility.”

G.M.S.'s enclosed facility encompasses 4,900 square feet of space, with an additional 3,500 square feet of fenced space for slab storage and working facilities behind the building. The company currently employs seven workers and runs one shift from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and a half-day on Saturday. “We often run until 7 p.m., if necessary, to maintain our production schedule, and may add an additional shift in the near future,” said Johanson. “Our job descriptions require cross-training between fabrication and installation. We have job descriptions from Trainee to Supervisor of Fabrication/Installation, and want to ensure that our employees can progress, based on their performance, skills and experience, and do not have to leave to get better pay.

“We also require bi-lingual - Spanish/English - for any supervisory position,” continued Johanson. “My prior experience as Director of Compensation for two large companies has allowed us to incorporate some business practices that small companies cannot afford.”

Setting up shop

When the time came to invest in machinery for their new company, Johanson and Cafarelli attended the Coverings exhibition in Orlando, FL, this past April. “We decided to buy a [Marmoelettromeccanica] Master 3500 router [from Regent Stone Products], hand tools and other equipment necessary for fabrication,” said Johanson. “We also looked at several saws, and decided upon the America, [which was also purchased through Regent]. Another member of our company who is there for us when we really need him is my husband, Sven Johanson. He was upset about the interest rate an equipment lender was going to charge us to buy the saw, so he lent us the money from his retirement funds at a much better rate.”

The company just added tooling that will enable them to perform all types of edging, since it has contracts that call for ogee, waterfall and other edges that are time-consuming to produce. Planning ahead, the owners of G.M.S. intend to also invest in a CNC machine. “We want to purchase that from our profits, so it might be a year or two before we can afford it,” said Johanson.

At this time, G.M.S. buys its stone as it needs it in slabs and bundles from various wholesale venders, but plans to buy containers directly for larger projects, according to Johanson. Among the principal markets for the company are Beaufort County in South Carolina and the greater Savannah, GA, area, including Richmond Hill.

“Currently, most of our sales are in Beaufort County, with the majority of those within a few miles of our production facility in Bluffton - just off Hilton Head Island,” said Johanson. “About 95% of our sales are for fabrication and installation of slabs, 80% for new homes being built in this area, and the remaining 20% for remodels. We have large builder contracts and are installing countertops in a series of town homes as well as single family homes in Bluffton.”

While 95% of the company's sales are for fabrication of granite and marble slabs, G.M.S. also offers natural stone tiles, trim pieces and other natural stone products. Additionally, it carries Stone Care International products for sale in its showroom.

Planning ahead

When thinking of the near future, Johanson and Cafarelli have plans to operate four teams who are fully trained and experienced in both fabrication and installation. “We should be there within a year, as we have been able to hire several seasoned, experienced people with excellent work habits,” said Johanson. “Once they train the less experienced people, we can more than double our production.”

For the long term, the owners want to build their own building, which could accommodate its growing sales volume. “In the meantime, we want to make sure that the quality of our installations is maintained, as customer satisfaction is our mission,” said Johanson. “Gianni is still in his 30s, but my husband and I are retirement age and may want to actually retire one of these days. It might be difficult for me, however, as I am having the time of my life now and thoroughly enjoying this venture.”

According to Johanson, both herself and Cafarelli believe that their new business will be able to provide financial security and employment for the next generation of both of their families. “Our son, Erik Johanson, is working for us part-time while attending college, and we hope to include him as an owner of the business in the future,” she said. “Gianni also hopes to have children in the future who he can bring into the business.”