An innovator in large-scale stone fabrication
It is John Murray’s forward thinking that has led him to build a flourishing stone fabrication business. In less than 10 years, his company, Counter Intelligence, Inc. of Silver Spring, MD, has expanded from 20 employees to 240. It has also outgrown its 35,000-square-foot shop, and as a result, will be moving to a nearby 70,000-square-foot facility before the end of the year. Additionally, the company has recently opened three satellite locations to ensure that it produces high-quality and prompt service to its customers.
Murray first learned to fabricate countertops during a summer job when he was 15 years old, and he laughs that his business initially began in the basement of his home. Today, Counter Intelligence is an exclusive distributor of Silestone Quartz Surfacing by Cosentino, and it recently started its own brand of stone materials, which is called “Milano.” The company’s shop is equipped with an impressive line-up of machinery - allowing it to maintain its high volume of production, which averages between 45 to 65 kitchens per day. This is a significant increase from the 30 to 35 kitchens it produced only two years ago.
As market demands changed over time and Murray shifted the direction of his business, he remained true to one philosophy - customer service. “Customer service is always important,” he said. “It is a big buzz word, but it takes more to figure out how to make that part of your culture and always focus on it. Just giving the customers someone to talk to is important.”
According to the fabricator, 75% of Counter Intelligence’s business is Silestone, while the other 25% is granite. “Granite is starting to have a little gravity to it,” said Murray. “It started out maybe at 10 to 15%.”
He explained that the Milano collection was started about a year ago. “We wanted to educate people about the fact that there are different qualities of natural stone,” said Murray. “We are trying to market something that is a commodity.”
When selecting stone varieties for its Milano collection, Counter Intelligence works with wholesalers to see what material is popular. The company tries to choose granites of varying prices so that there are different options to meet a range of budgets.
Approximately 20% of the company’s business is producing Silestone countertops for a number of Home Depots and Expo Design Centers in the area, while its largest market is high-end kitchen and bath dealers.
An expanding shopIn order to meet the demands of Counter Intelligence’s high production rate, Murray is constantly upgrading and expanding the company’s work area. Currently, the shop is equipped with four Integrated Flying Bridge waterjets from Flow International, which run 24 hours a day. The machine incorporates a design that combines the motion control, pump and high-pressure components of a waterjet cutting tool into one compact machine, and it also takes up minimal floor space, which is essential in an evolving shop such as Counter Intelligence. Three of the waterjets are equipped with double tables, while the fourth only has a single one. A WARDJet unit from WARDJet, Inc. recycles the abrasives used in the waterjets.
“We do quite a bit of cut-to-size work,” said Murray, adding that the waterjets are a key component for this type of fabrication. Additionally, the company’s install crew utilizes 12 Faro digital templaters by Faro Technologies, Inc. to ensure accurate measurements. Each measurer downloads his information at the end of the day, and sends the information back to the shop with a Nextel phone. The “Faro file” is then put into a CAD program, and the final dimensions are calculated at the office, where the sink measurements are factored in. Once completed, the final drawing is sent to quality control for review.
“That’s the beauty of the [Faro] arm and the waterjet,” said Murray. “It will cut however the wall is. It makes installation much faster.”
Slabs first enter the shop on a conveyor belt and are then lifted onto one of the waterjets with an Anver lifter. “The neat thing about the Anver [lifter] is that it uses no electric or air,” said Paul Michalec of Counter Intelligence. “A piston attached to the main hook draws up and creates the vacuum needed to grab the slab.”
Before fabrication begins, each slab goes through a thorough inspection process. Counter Intelligence utilizes a ProNest Nesting System Optimization program to determine if and where any flaws are in the material - and to examine the material’s veining pattern and color in relation to the finished pieces. During this process, each slab is also given a bar code. “The bar code is its pass to get through the shop,” said Michalec.
Further contributing to the impressive line-up of machinery are eight CNC machines - two of which were purchased in the last year. Six of the CNCs are from Intermac of Italy, purchased through AGM. Lasers from Lap Laser are used with all of the Intermac CNCs. Additionally, two Northwood CNC Stone Machining Centers - complete with lasers from Carter Products - were recently added. Tools for the CNC are from Salem Stone and Tyrolit.
“I’ve been watching Northwood through the years,” said Murray. “They are doing a great job. Their CNCs are really simple to use.”
The shop also includes a Lexta 36 GMM bridge saw, which is primarily used for backsplashes, according to Murray. The machine is serviced by Salem Stone.
A clean environmentOne of the most recent additions to Counter Intelligence’s fabrication facility is an ECS Eich water purification VMC 125 system. “Six months ago, we bought it through Fabricator’s Choice,” said Murray. “It really keeps the whole shop clean. We are trying to do Lean Manufacturing, and one of the things is to get your shop clean.” The new water purification system processes 220 gallons of water in a minute, he added.
Another building on the company’s property is dedicated to handwork. For this area, an EnviroSystem from Water Treatment Technologies is used to recycle water - further contributing to the cleanliness of the operation.
Workers in this section use hand tools - supplied by GranQuartz - to finish edges. Additionally, a Marmo Meccanica LCV 711M edge polisher is also stationed in this area to process backsplashes. “We found out that it is better to have this here,” said Murray.
To keep jobs organized in the shop, the finished pieces for each kitchen is placed on a cart that is marked with a flag that denotes the scheduled day for installation. This ensures that the countertops are fabricated according to delivery dates. “I can tell if we are ahead or behind by looking at the flags,” said Murray.
Management technologyTo maintain quality control and overall efficiency of the company’s operation, Counter Intelligence relies on a Tuppas management system. Several years ago, the company went paperless, and now everything is maintained with a computer program.
Murray explained that they used the system’s framework, and then they customized it to meet their specific needs. It took about a year and a half to put in place, and the company’s employees made the switch in November of 2006.
“This integrates everything, including accounting,” said Murray. “It also records all pieces going on the trucks, so that we don’t end up missing pieces.”
The fabricator explained that the biggest challenge was getting employees to adapt to the new system. But once the initial fear of the unknown was overcome, they started to feel more comfortable with it.
Accommodating market growthTo better service their clients as well as to accommodate the company’s growth, Counter Intelligence recently set up three satellite stations in Frederick, MD; Manassas, VA; and Seaford, DE. The company’s market includes West Virginia, Delaware down to central Virginia and as far north as York, PA.
“We are able to cover this area because of our satellite stations,” said Murray. He explained that finished jobs are loaded on to flatbed trucks at the plant in Silver Spring, which then make deliveries at the three locations. This way, jobs are delivered first thing in the morning from the satellite point that is closest to the jobsite.
Currently, high-end custom homes are a primary market for the company, but Counter Intelligence is working diligently to break into production home building. “It is a growing part of the business, but the most challenging,” said Michalec. “You have to get your foot in the door. They watch your behavior - see if you are on time. Right now, we are in the process with six to seven builders.”
To market both Silestone and its Milano collection, Counter Intelligence has created display towers, which house the various colors available in each line. Close to 150 Silestone displays and 50 of Milano have been distributed to “mom and pop” kitchen centers, according to Murray.
Approximately three-fourths of the company’s inventory is kept on the premises. “Everyone’s goal it to try and turn the inventory as many times as they can in a year,” said Michalec, adding that Counter Intelligence receives between 25 to 30 containers of stone per month.
Michalec explained that for a dealer job, a picture of the slab is taken, so that the stone’s physical appearance is recorded. “It’s primarily for materials with a lot of movement,” he said.
Additionally, the company stocks and sells sinks, the vast majority of which is for its builder customers. Also, about 5% of Counter Intelligence’s business is comprised of cutting stone for local fabricators. “They do the templating and installing, and we fabricate it,” said Murray.
Maintaining company structureWith so many employees, Murray is always looking for new ideas and advice on how to maintain a smooth operation. “I never ran a company this big, and I don’t think anyone I know has either,” he said. “I rely on outside consulting.”
The fabricator explained that he is currently working with a consultant to put an employee incentive plan in place. He hopes to find a way to encourage workers in all aspects of the company to perform at their best.
Murray also said that each department has a team leader, who is responsible for training new employees. This is another way to ensure quality control in all areas of the business.
It is Murray’s risk taking and openness to innovation that has led Counter Intelligence to excel at such a rapid rate in a relatively short period of time. Recently, the company was nominated for “Entrepreneur of the Year 2007” from Ernst & Young - a leading professional services organizations, which helps companies across the globe to identify and capitalize on business opportunities.