When it comes to knowing the basics of stone fabrication, owners of First in Counters in Zachary, LA, are well versed. The company was started by couple Brad and Deborah Parnell, and their more than 30 years of experience dates back to a period when Brad cut and installed everything by hand in a shop in their own backyard. At the time, they were averaging nine to 10 kitchens a month, but with up-to-date investments in machinery and a move to a bigger facility, they are currently able to produce 70 to 80 kitchens/units a month with a capacity for more than 100. The path taken to be where they are today, however, was not an easy one.
Brad Parnell began working as a cultured marble installer in 1974, but from the timeframe of 1979 to 1990, he incurred several challenges, including being laid off, a failed business and having to work out of state in order to support his family. During this time, though, he was learning all about the stone industry. He brought his knowledge back home in 1990, when he restarted the family business in solid surface products, which later evolved into the granite industry, and he passed his experience on to his two sons, Willie and Dustin, who became partners in 2006. Deborah Parnell handled the books and sales then, and she continues to be an integral part of the business’ success today.
In fact, the Parnell family, including daughter-in-law Mandie, are all still active in the shop, field and office. Deborah has found that retaining consistent workers has been significant in the survival of their business. The company started out only being a four-member crew, but now, excluding the family, it has nine workers in the factory, two installation crews, five office workers and one estimator. Besides an increase in its workforce, First In Counters has also made significant investments in technology.
As of 2004, it has been operating out of a 14,000-square-foot shop, of which 11,000 square feet is dedicated to workspace. The facility is equipped with an Edgetec straight-line edge machine, and an Express gantry saw with hydraulic tilt and rotating table, both from Regent Stone Products of Virginia Beach, VA, in addition to a Breton Easyedge vertical edge polisher.
Other machinery includes a Sebring gantry saw with a hydraulic tilt table and a Contour CNC stoneworking center, both from Matrix Stone Products of Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Satisfied with the Contour CNC stoneworking center, Dustin Parnell commented, “I love it because it’s simple to use, and it hasn’t given me any problems.” With the installation of the Gorbel overhead crane, jib and hoist system, you only need one man to produce a countertop with straight runs, Willie Parnell added.
The Matrix Contour represents the company’s latest investment. Dustin explained that it has helped production because the machine doesn’t rest in bowl cut-out production. “It can do, depending on the bowls, 12 to 15 bowls a day,” he said. “It roughly takes 30 minutes to do one, and on average, we do 10 bowls a day.” The facility also houses a product line that includes cultured marble, granite, natural stone slab, engineered quartz and soapstone.
First In Counters serves all of Louisiana, as well as southeast Mississippi, in which business mix for residential (60%) and commercial (40%) is almost even. This includes projects for big box retailers, such as Lowe’s, and custom residential homes and luxury condominium projects for large- and medium-sized contractors.
All residential projects use the company’s own installation crews, while certain installations require subcontractors. However, all projects receive in-house service for consultation and service calls, in which customers are guaranteed a 48-hour turnaround time. “The most remarkable observation was that the wholesale production lead time has been reduced from three weeks to seven days with the added equipment,” Dustin Parnell said.
Even though First In Counters uses subcontractors for certain installations, it also fabricates, installs and outsources work for other companies. So although the company does have near future plans to buy a digitized templating system, part of the reason for staying with traditional templating deals with its practice of outsourcing. “Since we do outsource, many companies still send a traditional template,” explained Dustin Parnell, adding that their facility has a large dealer and contractor base.
Among its non-residential endeavors, First In Counters recently worked on the Nicholls State University cafeteria and did renovations for Louisiana State University, as well as commercial work for projects involved with the Hurricane Katrina aftermath.
Besides residential and commercial projects, First In Counters has also recently found a market for artistic stone signs. “We’ve done a few in the past year, and now there’s a demand,” said Dustin Parnell. “It’s a low up front investment, and the returns are good.”
“Today, we are looking into other businesses we can build within the stone industry, and [we] look forward to meeting the challenge,” Deborah Parnell said. As the company continues to find ways to increase its business - considering it will most likely see its sales increase from $860,000 in 2002 to $2.5 million by the end of this year - the goal is to keep growing in the stone industry while maintaining the integrity of good business ethics and keeping true to Southern tradition.