As this downturn/recession/depression (pick whichever term you like) wears on, we are hearing some ugly stories of fabrication shops closing down, but I recently heard one of the worst ones yet. The fabrication shop at issue is Rock Tops, which is based in Michigan and operated in several states, and they apparently ceased fabrication in late December of 2008.

Going beyond the stories I heard from several employees of the firm, who stated that they were let go without receiving their final paychecks (something a conscientious owner would never let happen), this closing made for disturbing headlines in the mainstream media.

According to an issue of The Macomb Daily of Michigan last month, Rock Tops “fleeced” more than 100 customers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by collecting deposits and then disappearing. The article headline, simple and to the point, sums up the story: “Customers never got granite; company vanished.”

The article states Rock Tops may have bilked customers out of as much as $850,000. “Customers told The Macomb Daily they paid anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 to have Rock Tops make and install their granite or marble countertops,” reads the article. “But the company suddenly and without warning closed its doors on December 19 and the customers, many from out of state, were left high and dry.”

Without reciting the entire ugly article, other low-lights of the piece include a potential criminal investigation being cited by the Macomb County Sheriff and quotes from defrauded customers in both Michigan and Ohio, who recount their financial losses and personal disappointment over the situation.

At a time when it is hard enough to convince people to buy granite kitchen countertops in the first place, is this something we really need to hear? Moreover, with the ongoing challenge of competing with Big Boxes and all the other mega-shops, this makes matters even more difficult. As one fabricator assessed the situation, stories like this “muddy the waters” for every decent, hard-working shop in the field.

Since I don’t have ready access to The Macomb Daily at my local newsstand, I read the article online by visiting www.macombdaily.com and doing a quick search. And like most editions of online newspapers, The Macomb Daily gives readers a chance to comment on each story. Responses to this particular article ranged from resignation (remember, this is in Michigan, where it seems there is no good economic news anymore) to outright fury. Some Rock Tops customers stated that they not only lost their deposit, but even their sink and faucets. Others, who hadn’t upgraded their kitchen yet, said that they would now be wary about working with any fabrication shop that asks for a deposit. No deposit? How’s that going to work for a small shop, or even a larger one?

One of the worst comments reads as follows: “I’ve been saying for years that the granite business is one of the most crooked industries around. Lots of profit, no warranty, no quality standards. The huge profits and demand for granite countertops have always attracted the wrong kind of people.” And remember, since someone took the time to write these thoughts down, a certain portion of the population will believe them.

The story was also picked up by Detroit’s NBC affiliate, WDIV, and it can be found at www.clickon detroit.com/news/18403357/detail.html - complete with a link to the video report that aired on television. This piece is similar to the newspaper article, but also includes video images of the closed-down, darkened shop and an interview in the living room of a homeowner who very calmly and gracefully explained how she was ripped off of thousands of dollars because she decided to buy granite countertops.

Vendors out millions

Of course, I haven’t even touched on Rock Tops’ many unfortunate vendors - the suppliers of stone, machinery and tooling - who now have to deal with the aftermath of this situation, and who will be scrambling to recoup lost dollars and lost materials. For these vendors, who are already facing the same obstacles as the rest of the industry, situations like this are truly a nightmare.

In a follow-up story, The Macomb Daily reported that Rock Tops has been sued by at least one vendor for nonpayment of bills of nearly $900,000. The lawsuit, filed last month by Dwyer Marble and Stone of Farmington Hills, MI, claims that Rock Tops never paid for $890,395 in granite and marble. As of press time for this issue of Stone World, a hearing was adjourned to January 26.

Several other suppliers of natural stone, equipment and tooling also informally told Stone World of six-figure debts owed to them by Rock Tops. While portions of some of these debts may be repaid through accounts payable insurance, it is certain that a portion of the money owed by Rock Tops will never be seen again.

A very public disgrace

In the wake of this ongoing situation - which continues to be covered in multiple mainstream media outlets - many reputable stone fabricators out there are finding themselves having to explain Rock Tops’ transgressions as if all granite shops should share in the blame. (Blanket statements like “The granite business is one of the most crooked industries around” tend to be quite damaging, as one might expect.) It is a sad state of affairs, but unfortunately, a stone fabrication shop will not make headlines by doing quality work and being fair to their customers, employees and vendors.

A few years back, I would get a kick out of hearing about the stone industry in mainstream media. Usually, it was some sort of piece on “How stone will beautify your home.” Sometimes, they even called Stone World Magazine for a quote or some statistics. But recently, all of that has changed. For the past six months, the stone industry has received more than its share of negative attention in the mainstream media. First, it was largely centered on whether or not radon exposure from granite would kill you. Now, as we start a new year, we get to see stories like the one I have outlined above, and it wasn’t just limited to Michigan. The NBC story mentioned that Rock Tops customers in Kansas, Ohio and Tennessee have also come forward with claims that they were ripped off.

In my personal experience, I have found most fabrication shop owners to be honest, forthright people, but the damage that comes from stories like this can be irreparable. As one of the many people who rely on the success and reputation of the stone industry for their livelihood, I pray that stories like this remain the dark exception and not a regular occurrence.