With more than 75 years of experience in the stone industry, Luck Stone Corp. has learned what it takes to succeed. But prosperity did not come solely through the company's own ventures. To further understand the needs of its market and expand its business, Luck Stone turned to its customers for advice. And after extensive research, the company devised a new system that it believes meets the demands of its customers and offers the service that they desire.

"In 1998, we were seeing record economic times," said Charles S. Luck IV, president and CEO of Luck Stone. "Business was really busy, and usually when things are going really well in a company, it's easy to not think about more than what are the orders you have to get out. We decided that we had to think about where we wanted Luck Stone to go in the next five years. We saw a lot of change with the Internet and 'dot coms' coming up. The foundation of our architectural stone business is built around stone centers. We asked ourselves, 'How can we differentiate ourselves from our competitors that will provide long-term competitive advantages?' That was really the question.

"We interviewed several hundred customers," he said. "We took them through the whole process -- from advertising to sales calls to looking at drawings and the actual completion and delivery of the project. We asked, 'Where can we help you more?' The customers' bottom line was that they wanted to have more information, in a fashion that was more educational in nature. The customers said that they don't know enough about our products and applications. They also wanted access to information that we had in-house. It was from that information that we really began planning the next five years."

Thinking long-term

Founded in 1923 by Luck's grandfather, Charles S. Luck Jr., Luck Stone began as Sunnyside Granite Co., which operated a single quarry in the west end of Richmond, VA. His son, Charles S. Luck III, became president in 1965, and opened the company's first retail showroom in 1976. In addition to 15 crushed stone plants and three sand and gravel operations, Luck Stone now has eight retail architectural stone centers throughout Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland, and two fabricating shops -- one in northern Virginia and one in Richmond.

"The long-term objective of the stone centers is to be known as the easiest place to buy stone," said Luck. "These stone centers will help meet that goal." The company has a diverse group of customers, including builders, landscape designers, architects, commercial developers, masons, and kitchen and bath dealers.

"It wasn't just about the product," said Mark Fernandes, vice president of the architectural stone division. "What it comes down to is the experience -- the experience from the customer's standpoint (both the trade and end-user) beginning with their initial education of the product through the actual installation. On one hand, they needed specific and technical information about the product, application and installation. On the other hand, they wanted to share and receive more information about the process -- all of the ordering, project management, delivery and fabrication details that are critical to a successful project."

Fernandes explained that Luck Stone now uses a computer software program that allows them to track customers from their initial meeting with the company until completion of their project. "The first step was to create and connect our enterprise," he said. "We wanted to track and capture data from the time we first meet a client to the time the project is completed."

Making the product

In addition to understanding its clients' needs, Luck Stone also needs to be equipped with machinery that can produce the materials that its clients desire. As a result, its two fabricating facilities are outfitted with various stoneworking equipment. And to keep up with the evolving technology, Luck Stone regularly adds new machinery to its shops.

Capacity at both the northern Virginia and Richmond fabricating shops is 2,000 square feet over one shift or 4,000 square feet over two shifts each per week, according to Fernandes. The northern Virginia facility, which is expected to be completed by the end of this month, will have 9,000 square feet of production space, 800 to 900 square feet of project management space and approximately 350 square feet of showroom area. The Richmond shop includes 8,000 square feet of production area, 800 square feet of project management and office space and 200 square feet of showroom area.

The most recent additions to the shops include a Park Industries Jaguar bridge saw; a Park Industries Odyssey CNC machine used for cutting out sink patterns and special countertop/tabletop configurations and other furnishings; and a Marmo Meccanica profiler/polisher. Also, Luck Stone has an order in for an additional Sawing Systems diamond gantry saw for the new fabricating facility. "With added new equipment, product handling devices and extra space, we are able to handle products more efficiently and quickly," said Fernandes, adding that all production materials at both shops are handled with vacuum systems.

Luck Stone offers more than 280 products, including building stone, dimensional stone, flagstone, granite, marble, thin stone and wall stone. The materials can be used in an assortment of applications such as patios, walkways, entrances, walls, signs, kitchens, baths, fireplaces, house fronts, chimneys, and commercial interiors and exteriors.

Providing a service

Within a year, Luck Stone intends to update its Web site to assist its customers with entire projects -- from stone selection through installation. "The site will guide the user through the entire process," said Fernandes. "It will ask them a series of questions about colors and designs so we can actually help them narrow their selection down to a specific stone. They can see all of the colors, and say, 'I like this one right here.' "

Fernandes went on to explain that Luck Stone will also have various colors and styles of cabinetry on its site so that browsers can actually match their cabinets up with a specific type of stone to see what they look like together. "The next step will be to provide them with a graph where they can draw what they want and see what the cost will be," he said, adding that the site will soon have over 1,000 images.

Another one of the company's objectives for the upcoming year is to allow customers access to its own computer program so they can track their own projects. This access will be reached through Luck Stone's Web site. "We're going to link the two together," said Fernandes. "If you're a homeowner, you get to see step-by-step what is going on." Fernandes explained that Luck Stone believes this will improve communication between all those involved in a project, including the homeowner, architect, installer and supplier. With better communication, there will then be less room for mistakes, he said.