For many shops these days, the challenge is finding ways to keep the machinery running, even if it means working on new materials and new end products.

Compiled by Michael Reis

Q:With the decline in countertop sales in general, how many fabricators out there have been able to successfully increase their product lineup to the point that it is a legitimate profit center? What stone products are you offering in addition to countertops, and were there challenges in crafting these products? Has your work expanded beyond stone (I have heard that this is the case for some waterjet fabricators)?

Eli Polite, Delaware:I have been fabricating multiple surfaces from the beginning - 15 years ago. I have never been dependent on one surface material. I started with laminate solid surface and butcher block, and then moved into stone. From there, I moved into engineered stone and now some of the new green materials.

I would have to say that if you’re planning on adding a new material, you will have to do some research. Find out what is selling in your area and find out exactly what is involved in fabricating those materials. Solid surface requires much more attention to detail than you may expect. There are many issues that will void the warranty if done incorrectly. Meanwhile, laminate is extremely easy, but extremely unforgiving. If you make a mistake, you’re finished. Whether or not it will add to your volume is dependent on your market.

Scott McGourley, Kasco Stone, Tampa, FL:When I originally started my company, I planned to offer dimensional natural stone products, precast and cultured stone and do all kinds of interior and exterior work. I quickly discovered that I was unable to simply keep up with the countertop work and never even started to offer the other products.

I have since scrapped all plans to offer those other products and will stick to interior slab work using my newly created “Microshop.” This will allow me to operate on a small scale with a reasonable return and less headaches. I think diversification into these other products would require a business on a large scale. I don’t care to be a part of that equation. Our product line consists of granite, marble and quartz products, stainless steel and porcelain sinks and a breakdown low-end cabinet line.

Joe Little, Stone Concepts, LLC, Birmingham, AL:We try to focus on stone products only. We do fabrication of natural stone in the high-end environment, and we offer high-end tile and stone products for flooring and backsplashes. Getting into cabinetry in a high-end market would require a custom cabinet company, so we have steered away from the idea of offering cabinets. Plus, most of our work revolves around remodels - either total gutting or floors, countertops and splashes. And we are working in a sink sale on most projects.

Restoration is an area we have dabbled in, but are starting to get into it with the help of some experts in the Stone Fabricators Alliance (SFA). This is one area that will thrive with all of the stone that has been installed in the last 15 years, both in countertops and stone flooring.

If you try to do too much, or something you cannot control, it will control you.

A range of stone slabwork can be used in bathroom applications.

Scott Weinbrecht, Stone Age Fabrication, Inc., Vero Beach, FL:I have always stayed with natural stone countertops for the last 15 years of being in business. But I will say, in these economic times, I have been contemplating other options in case work slowed down. In my research, I will only diversify with marble and granite countertop refinish work. We get calls for it from our existing clients and even new customers with questions on “How do I get that etch or stain from my countertops?” I would always recommend someone and move on. In learning so much with being a member of the SFA and attending their workshops, I have mastered the refinishing of natural stone. I now offer it and slip it into my schedule. We are still very busy with the stone countertops, and we mainly do nothing but high-end homes and remodels. We do the refinish work as a service and it’s fun, challenging and rewarding.

Brian Briggs, GranQuartz, Florida:Many companies are diversifying, and they are using their current equipment to do so. If you have a waterjet, you can cut many other materials, you just have to sell yourself accordingly. Talk to metal companies, yacht builders, etc. and see if you can help produce some of their more intricate pieces.

If you have a line machine that is sitting for an hour-plus a day, run your scrap through and make your own blanks.

If you have a CNC that is sitting idle, make some coffee tables. You can get cheap bases at a consignment store and crank out tops for the bases.

There are also machines on the market that you can purchase to offer a new line. With these machines (and the down time in the shop) you can turn your scrap into money. If you have a rock crusher, you can make decorative gravel and sell it to landscape and hardscape companies. If you have a molding machine, you can turn scrap into moldings and market it to designers, contractors, tile companies, etc. If you have a paver press, you can turn your scrap into stone pavers and sell it to hardscape, landscape, paver companies, etc.

These machines require minimal investment with a decent return on your waste. You can pay the operator by the piece, pallet, bag, etc. In this day and age, anything that can turn trash to cash is worth a second look.

Mark Lauzon, Venetian Stone Works, Seattle, WA:At our shop in Seattle, we have a SawJet and a CNC. We have diversified by using the waterjet component of our SawJet to cut things besides stone.

In the last month, we have started a waterjet cutting service. To date, we have done several projects cutting plastic sheeting to make signs. It started with a sign we made for our shop. We have also cut plexiglass and UMV plastic.

We cut some 1-inch steel plate for a local artist and have cut steel for a local site fabrication company. We are considering exploring cutting solid surface with our waterjet.

We actually cut a bunch of plywood into some crazy shapes for one of our builders. The waterjet actually works very well for cutting plywood.

As far as the CNC goes, we are planning on doing some experiments with carbide tooling. We can mill all sorts of thing besides stone. Northwood, the company that makes our CNC, also sells a model of the same machine that mills the aluminum armored panels for the Army’s MRAP fighting vehicles.

In these crazy times, we are trying to find ways to diversify and keep the shop really busy. I want to thank Bill - a regular - for his input on processing glass. We have not done that yet, but are researching it.

I hope that all of us can ride out this crazy economic storm; being diversified can help.

Kevin Noel, Century Stone, Sanford, NC:Mark, if you have the Army connection, then you may also consider cutting Kevlar. We have a Humvee conversion operation down the street and all they waterjet is Kevlar.

Composites are a big opportunity if you seek that market. It is the cleanest way to go for fiberglass reinforced plastics. Check in with the aircraft builders as well.

Mark Lauzon, Venetian Stone Works, Seattle, WA:I love the Kevlar idea, Kevin. Great tip.

Dan Riccolo, Morris Granite Co., Morris IL:We are getting a deeper penetration into the market with existing clientele. We are making the idea of multiple tops more attractive - i.e. the kitchen, along with laundry room, vanities, bars, recreation rooms, desk tops, outdoor applications, etc. We have been successful at this strategy thus far, keeping sales steady in a shrinking market. It works well for us and our customers, as we stick with what we know, and they (the customers) stick with the experts. We have had some inquiries into carrying cabinets, but it is a little outside our expertise. One never knows which direction the market will push one.

Dan Dauchess, Signature Stone, Williamsburg, VA:Residential remodeling has always been a large percentage of our business, and that is really carrying us through. The single-family new construction has dried up significantly. We’ve diversified by pursuing more commercial and multi-family dwelling work, which is definitely picking up the slack.

We have been doing some repair and restoration work as well.

Ronald Hannah, Cadenza Granite & Marble, Concord, NC:It’s interesting how, years ago, many of us spouted on about being purists and would only consider cutting natural stone. These trying times have forced many shops - ourselves included - to do a little soul searching. Many of us, in fact, have had to reinvent ourselves. We, at Cadenza, have diversified to include all materials used for countertops, shower walls, fireplaces and tub surrounds. Sure, we are still cutting granite, marble and limestone, but we have also taken on the quartz products and “green” recycled materials. We are also doing work for customers we would not have dreamed of working for in the past.

We did see this slowdown coming and were certainly not blindsided. That being said, we severely underestimated the depth and duration of this recession and the impact it would have on our industry. This has been an “eye opening” experience for us and we truly believe it has made us a better company.

We have been forced to rethink our way of doing business and thus have made changes to our buying habits, scheduling, fringe benefits, accounting terms and debt collection. We have reworked our procedures and protocols and, in essence, made our efficiencies more efficient. We have formed alliances with the better shops in our area and are collectively sharing resources and ideas.

There are things we will not do. We will not cheapen our product nor will we drop our prices and work for cost. So far, we have been fortunate in that we have been able to keep our shop busy and keep our employees working, while competing shops continue to lay off.

Times have changed and will continue to do so. I believe change creates opportunity, and while sometimes difficult to identify, I truly believe there lies opportunity in these changing times. Things will turn around and get better.

Those who survive will be better off for it.

Miles Crowe, Crowe Custom Countertops, Inc., Atlanta, GA:We have a Northwood SawJet and have diversified our product offering to include tile mosaics and stone stair treads. However, more than product diversification, we have stayed extremely busy by diversifying the markets we pursue. We used to be almost exclusively retail residential. Now we are also doing commercial work and wholesale work for other companies, and we are servicing a broader geographical area. We are also fabricating for other granite companies. This has turned out to be a good short-term answer to keep us busy. But I believe it will also be our long-term business model going forward.

Shops with a waterjet in place can use the technology for operations that go well beyond countertop fabrication - or even stoneworking in general.

Kevin Noel, Century Stone, Sanford, NC:We were blessed with a four-slab outdoor kitchen project last fall - done in Black Marinace granite. The job has taken us to a few commercial jobs this winter; very high-end stuff.

Steven Hauser, CIRCA, Inc., Surface Treatment Technologies, Taylors, SC:We have historically been a “manual” shop with bridge saws, routers, C-arm machines and hand polishing. Our approach depends on the project type.

In new construction: Our adjustment to price has been guided by the “yes” principal - meaning that if our clients say “company x” can do it, we find a way to do it also. Sometimes they are looking for better sourcing of slabs, faster turnaround, throwing in an upgraded edge, free sink or a remnant for a small bath that would have been a different surface. We will just try to say, “Yes, we will.”

In renovation: We try to give the “department store” model. We have a dedicated contractor and subcontractor base that can do everything from demolition to final cleaning.

In commercial: We try to be a point of clear and correct information. If they need to have a specification developed, we will help develop or draw it.

We have started a restoration or “renewal” service. This is a time-intensive effort, but it makes people happy. If the marble floor isn’t shiny, or caulk needs to be redone, we will do it.

Our bottom line is to try and stay relevant by providing services that people need as well as want.

Cameron DeMille, DeMille Marble & Granite, Palm Desert, CA:We started restoration/repair servicing several years ago, before I was with the company, as a service to our existing clients. We would do work for no charge or a very reasonable price because the majority of our work was repeat clients, or someone who knew an existing/previous client. Now we have full-blown repair and restoration capabilities, including shower re-grout, grind-in-place work on flooring of any size, marble re-polishing for counters and floors and everything in between.

Right now, our main focus is very high-end, hand-made fireplaces. We make 95% of everything from 2-cm stone, and the finished product looks like it was milled from cubic material. These have landed us in a magazine as well as some other recognition. Right now, we are currently perfecting the design application so we can make the drawings and details available to others.

We can also design just about anything to be made out of stone. Right now, countertops are the least of what we are doing.

Mark Mihalik, Counterparts, LLC, Delaware:Why put all your eggs in one basket?

From Day One, I have offered a variety of surfaces. We now offer granite, marble, engineered stone, solid surface, green products and laminate. We have even allied with other companies to offer wood, concrete, stainless steel and cultured marble. We advertise a “one-stop shop” for countertops and aim to fulfill it. Our company has gone from countertops to adding custom fireplace surrounds, furniture pieces and several other items.

By providing constant quality and unsurpassed customer service, we make it so our contractor and retail customers don’t need to deal with anyone else. We always try to raise the bar and keep our competitors trying to catch up.

Nick Patrona, Patrona Marble & Granite, Lake Worth, FL:I think that this is a time to really lock into your niche or explore what you can do slightly outside of it. But it is important to stay in the same realm, such as Miles stated, by doing more commercial work. We are just staying focused on service and quality because referrals are the ultimate driver of our business. We have embraced engineered stone as well, but that is not really diversification as much as a no-brainer for anyone with the means to produce natural stone. There is no place to hide in this environment, and running to an unfamiliar service is more risky now than ever. I do not really consider cutting metal on a waterjet diversification. I think that diversification is more like adding a flooring division or starting to sell cabinets or getting into total remodeling. I feel that companies that focus on what they do, do it better than the next guy, and get a little lucky are the ones that will be on the other side.

Dustin Braudway, Cape Fear Marble and Tile, Inc., Wilmington, NC:We have been diversified for years now. I think you have to just look at what you want to do as far as your business model. Traditionally, we are a tile and stone contracting company that also has a marble shop. Naturally, we prefer to only fabricate and install natural stone materials, but with the ever-changing environment, we find ourselves working with all types of materials. Designers and homeowners are always looking for something new (i.e. granite color choices and or quartz products). By adding these materials to our lineup, we have been able to sell more and retain more of the market share for our type of specialty work.

Antonio Almonte, River City Stone Inc., Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada:Since the conception of our company, along with stone countertops, we also offer custom stone furniture, fireplaces and anything else that the customer can visualize using stone as the medium. Since then, we have also offered these products using quartz materials (namely CaesarStone and HanStone).

Because we are a manual shop, we are limited to offering products that we can achieve using hand tools but with the greatest attention to detail. Like Dan Riccolo, we try to stay focused on what we know and do best, and then do it to the best of our abilities. We are also entertaining the idea of adding stone restoration and refinishing into our services.