Alpha Granite & Tile Diversifies to Capitalize on Growing Market
Originally planning to be a distribution company, Alpha Granite and Tile has evolved from humble beginnings to a fully automated shop
In the beginning, Alpha Granite and Tile’s original intent wasn’t to become a countertop fabrication business. Originally, Denis Phocas, the president of the company, wanted to be a slab distributor in a partnership with a quarry owner in South Africa. “After several months researching the stone business in North America and going back and forth with our intended South African partners, the entire partnership never materialized,” said Phocas. “During this period of market research, I stumbled across the fabrication and installation portion of the industry that caught my interest.” Phocas, who was raised on a tobacco farm in Zimbabwe, studied electrical engineering. After working in the IT business for a few years in South Africa, he returned to Zimbabwe and joined the family business of growing tobacco, corn, paprika and raising cattle. Phocas considers the farming business a place where you become a jack of all trades and this had turned out to be a great asset for him in the stone industry.
Alpha Granite and Tile started in April 2003 and Phocas fabricated his first kitchen for a friend in his backyard, out of a 2-cm Tobacco Brown that was laminated into a 4-cm bullnose. “This kitchen took me a whole month to fabricate and install,” said Phocas. “My first tools were purchased from Moe Fried in Austin, TX, where I got a glimpse of what fabrication was all about. After getting my feet wet with the first countertop project, I decided that I was going to take this business seriously and take it up a notch.” Phocas came up with a business plan and a budget. After visiting Coverings and talking to many machine manufacturers and attending seminars at the tradeshow, he realized that a bridge saw, a forklift, a boom with a clamp, a hand- operated router, a large compressor, pneumatic polishers and some hand tools were the bare minimum needed to operate his shop. With a limited budget, he invested in a used Johnson B300 bridge saw that needed to be rebuilt, an old 5,000-pound forklift and all the other tools listed above. “Keeping the cost of entry low, I found a 1,500-square-foot warehouse office and got to work setting up a small fabrication shop,” said Phocas. “With two employees, we hustled to find some business, and before we realized it, we were doing one to two jobs every week. We then employed a full-time sales person, and this changed the dynamics of the business, and the work load grew to the point where we were doing a job per day. Then one day, the sales person walked in with a stack of purchase order forms from a national builder, and this changed the trajectory of the business.”
Expanding to accommodate growth
Phocas realized that using a hand router proved to be too slow and tedious, and they needed to automate the edging process. Another visit to Coverings cemented the purchase of a Matrix Daytona single-head linear polishing machine. With his newest purchase, the shop was almost too full to operate and he soon extend the business into the next door unit. “Not long after we extended the shop, we realized that managing the new inventory and remnants proved to be a nightmare,” said Phocas. “The parking lot in front of the shop was crammed with remnants and slabs and the landlord was not happy. Not only that, but we were dumping the excess water from the shop into the empty lot next door, which was not sustainable.”
At the end of 2004, Alpha Granite moved to a new location that was 6,000 square feet, of which 1,500 square feet was office space. “This new location looked so big, and by the time we moved in and fitted all our tables and equipment, we were not sure that we had made the right move,” said Phocas. “Very soon we realized the need for the additional Daytona edging machine that we purchased and increased our production with it in very little time. Toward the end of 2004, we realized that we could not grow and successfully manage our workflow without implementing some sort of tracking system, so we decided to purchase a Moraware Job Tracker.” At the same time, Phocas also saw the need to consider CNC technology, as the amount of handwork was proving to be overwhelming, especially with the amount of sinks being cut and the amount of odd shapes that they were having to be cut by hand.
CMS North America, Inc.’s in Grand Rapids, MI, sold Alpha Granite and Tile a new CNC router, a Concept 1700 4-axis CNC and a Stealth digitizer to digitize the cabinets. The company’s old Johnson bridge saw was not keeping with its demand. It was cutting too slowly and the accuracy was very poor, so Phocas purchased a CMS Brembana Flexa 625 semi-automatic bridge saw that was able to cut fast, accurately and also miters. “Our choice to buy CMS machines was based on their quality, rugged construction, accurate performance, and for that time, probably the most advanced CNC stone routers available in 2005,” said Phocas. “To date, we are still using the Flexa bridge saw and the Concept CNC, which has an excess of 40,000 hours on the clock. At this time, we introduced a second shift in order to keep up with the demand and our machines were working flat out from morning until the second shift ended.”
Linear edging was still a challenge for the company, and single head polishers were not a production shop solution. Alpha Granite and Tile purchased a used Comandulli Omega 60 from AGM to polish the linear edges faster and more efficiently. “We received this huge machine and soon realized that we could not provide it enough water to run it continuously using the city water stored in our holding tank,” said Phocas. “We did not have a recycling system, as we knew that we had out grown this location. We also added a new radial arm saw from Sawing Systems, equipped with a three brick COMES tangential head to help us polish scratched slabs, as well as honed and leather slabs.”
Purchasing its own shop
By the end of 2007, the company’s volume had exploded and the shop was running at full throttle every day. It had become not fun anymore for Phocas, and he had to make another move and find a location that they could settle in and own as well. “In 2009, we found a new 20,000-square-foot location that was centrally located and had easy access,” said Phocas. “This location was perfect, as it had two buildings, thus enabling us to separate the fabrication from the office and showroom, with plenty of yard space to store slabs. In our previous location, we were producing 300 square feet of finished product every day with our two shifts, and our goal was to do that with one shift. Productivity was not always a constant volume as the amount of custom work would often slow down the productivity of our fabricators.”
At its newly acquired facility, the company installed a water treatment filtration system, as well as proper shop drains to catch the excess water from the machines and the hand polishers. To eliminate the night shift, Phocas knew he had to add more equipment. At the time, they were able to find a very good used CMS Brembana Maxima CNC and another CMS Brembana Flexa bridge saw to add to their fleet of machines. “We were not able to eliminate the night shift,” said Phocas. “Demand and the need to improve efficiency continued, and we saw the need to replace the semi-automatic bridge saws with one double-table 5-axis GMM Brio saw. The 5-axis saw helped us speed up cutting and eliminate the use of vinyl templates printed from our Allen Datagraph plotter. We had never had a backsplash polisher, and so we purchased a used Marmoelecttromeccanica LCV 711 M to speed up the polishing of backsplashes.”
As the economy began to improve, so did the demand between 2010 and today, and so during that time, the company added a full-size slab polishing machine from Shah Stone Machines SPL 2200 in 2012 from India. “This polishing machine can polish up to two slabs at a time and so Alpha Granite and Tile diversified its offerings to provide polishing, honing and leathering to fabricators in Central Texas,” said Phocas. “The market demands for marble increased substantially in the last five years and having the polishing machine enabled us to resurface all our marble products and restore them to factory finish, after arriving damaged from distributors.”
In 2014, Alpha Granite and Tile added another CMS Brembana Speed 54 CNC router to keep up with the increased workload and still stay with one shift. At the end of 2016, management identified a desperate need to improve their employee culture and general energy. Alpha Granite and Tile needed to come up with its values and a mission vision statement. “We did not have this and realized that companies are as good as its people and its culture,” said Phocas. “With so many people working at Alpha Granite, it was becoming challenging dealing with employee issues and other HR-related problems. During a charity run/walk, I was discussing employee issues with a friend that had a company that helps companies address employee culture and company HR challenges. We set up a meeting and decided to go down this path and address our management style and company culture.”
Now with the introduction of large-format porcelain panels and ultra-compact materials in recent years, Alpha Granite and Tile is faced with new fabrication challenges they had never seen before. “Alpha Granite and Tile was committed to embracing these new exciting manufactured large panels made from porcelain and sintered materials, but processing them through the shop proved to be a big challenge that in fact created bottle necks that negatively impacted our production volumes,” said Phocas. “Tool manufacturers were scrambling to offer new blades and CNC tools that could process these very different materials with very little success. Our fabricators were also having trouble adjusting to this new material and often breaking them in the process. At Alpha Granite and Tile, we believed in this new material and that this is the future of countertop surfaces, as well as vertical surfaces. After a lot of research and some traveling across the globe, we discovered that our friends across the pond are embracing the products and growing their business in this direction. Cutting was still an unsolved process here at Alpha Granite and Tile and we concluded that a dedicated 5-axis waterjet was the way to go. At the end of 2017, we received our brand new CMS 5-axis Technocut Aquatec waterjet that has revolutionized our cutting of Dekton, Neolith and MaxFine porcelain panels. We are now able to cut these products with ease and peace of mind. The 5-axis waterjet cuts all our miter pieces accurately, thus enabling the assembly of all laminations to be done with minimal cutting and adjustment by the fabricator.”