Come back tomorrow wearing some work boots and you have a job.” This is what Buddy Ontra, now owner of Ontra Stone Concepts in Bridgeport, CT, was told in 1982 when getting a job working on high-rise buildings in Houston, TX. “I did high-rise buildings for a few years and became a brick layers union member,” said Ontra. “After doing that for a bit I would do small bits of fabrication here or there. You know how we would polish an edge back then? Take a belt sander and then sprayed some clear lacquer on it.”
Years later, a couple of the guys Ontra worked with started a tile company and he began working with them and eventually got into fabrication. “Back then, it was mostly marble,” said Ontra. “Granite was pretty tough to cut for the little guys. We would wet sand everything. Bring out the shine with oxalic acid and a piece of burlap. Really old fashion stuff. This was before diamond ceramic pads; before wet black sand paper was readily available.”
Eventually the economy slowed up in Houston and Ontra took his station wagon and drove up north to Connecticut to install tile here or there. Somebody eventually asked him about a fireplace. “I went to one of the three fabricators in the state and they told me it would be a three or four month wait. I looked at them and said, ‘You need help?’ He hired me, and I have been basically fabricating since then.”
Ontra worked for a small fabricator that was the second of a three-generation shop. He spent 40 hours a week making sills, saddles, vanities and fireplaces. “In the late 80s to the early 90s we started with the granite countertops,” he said. “I remember in 1993 doing my grandmother’s house in Rosa Bavino. That was one of your 10 choices back then. Blue Pearl was considered an exotic. Then in the mid-90s the whole industry just took off. I was working at Maselli Marble and new technology was coming out and we experimented with it but we continued to stay pretty much ‘old school’ in general.”
As business continued to explode into the mid-2000s, Mark Maselli, the third generation who ran and worked in the shop, really enjoyed having the crew of five workers, including himself, there to do our kitchen a day, three- and-a-half a week on average for 18 years. “As I grew with them and I got older and more mature, I oversaw the whole installation and fabrication departments and pushed the buttons on a 1960 Tyson saw [that’s still in operation today],” said Ontra. “About 2003, I was able to get some financing and I said to Mark that I would like to make him an offer and I gave him a number. He said, ‘Let me think about it.’ Close to a year later, he told me he was not really interested, not while his father is alive. But he understood that I would probably go out and start my own thing and I did.”
Ontra eventually found a nice place with a crane in Monroe, CT, but the building had an offer on it. A second location was found in Newtown, CT, but before moving into the place, he had a huge set back. “While I was still in the planning stages of finding a place and still working part-time for Mr. Maselli, I had a heart attack,” said Ontra. “I was on a jobsite and went to the homeowner and said I am in trouble. They got me to the fire house to put me in the ambulance. I was in the hospital within the hour. So that whole planning stage was slowed down. For the original space I found before the heart attack, the landlord came back and said, ‘I am going to rip this contract up because I am worried about your health.’ I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do now?’ I let it go for a while and some of the financing fell through because of the health issue.”
The deal on the original space in Monroe, CT, fell through a few months later. They called Ontra and let him know that the space had opened up and he jumped on it. “It was kind of on a main road, tucked in the back — low key but had a crane,” he said. “It had a resin floor; it was really great. I took the space in February of ‘06. The heart attack was November ‘05. I had a Thibaut radial arm machine shipped to me when opening my new shop. The bracket had come loose during shipping and when I got it, it was all smashed up.
“I had all these setbacks in the beginning and was ready to say forget it and go back to work with Mark,” Ontra went onto say. “I was able to get it all together and cut my first kitchen and installed it in May. I remember my first customer picked out Blue Bahia and I had two employees and I was scared to death at letting them touch it because it was a $100 a square foot material back then. I remember thinking, ‘Really? You couldn’t pick out Uba Tuba?’ That job was a referral from a painter friend of mine so I was sitting in the shop after the job and I had all this equipment but I didn’t know what to do. The phone book even printed the wrong number and they said they could give me some pens or something to make it up. I just told them they need to do something. It was almost like this little curse was going on.”
To drum up business, Ontra went around and knocked on local doors, reached out to kitchen and bath dealers, and builders. “I learned the business end on the fly and admittedly to this day I am still not very good at it,” said Ontra. “I went to a few Marble Institute of America (MIA) seminars and one was on sales and marketing. I remember they went around the room to people asking about their experience and I said I had 23 years of experience and they asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ I didn’t know anything about administration and marketing. I had all the technical skills, but not the administration. There was a quarry tour in Minnesota and my wife and I went on that and met Jim [Hieb] and some of the other guys in the MIA — that was my first kind of exposure to all of them. That first year while knocking on doors, I ran into old customers from the place I used to work at and they said sure we will give you a shot. Then within that first year, I remember thinking, ‘Wow this is going to be easy.’ I was paying myself well. I was paying back financing. I had those first two employees and I was up to four in the first six months. Then 2007-2008 happened. I was up to seven employees in a year-and-a-half. Then I had to let three of them go; then I had to let two more go. Then I got through the whole thing with one, maybe two guys, and my teenage son and stepson.
“I remember I got a call from Jim Heib that asked if I want to sit on a panel about how are you managing through this downturn,” Ontra went onto say. “I was on the panel with a fellow with 40 employees, another with 20 and another with 40 or 50 employees. There I am with five employees, and two of them were my son and stepson. We kept it close, but we did okay. My wife would do the books on the weekend. In 2010 to 2011, the building I was in sold. The new owner came up to me and said, ‘When the lease is up in two years, we need the space.’ So I was like what am I going to do now? I was looking at various options. I wanted to stay in the area that I was in because I made a nice niche in the community, however, it was off the beaten path as far as Connecticut is concerned. I kind of had a retail-type niche and good relationship with the local builders, and it was great with the five to seven employees I had. One of the suppliers had said why don’t you talk to so-and-so down in Bridgeport at this address and that is where I am now. This fabricator was having money troubles so we struck a deal for me to come in and take over his lease and his equipment. So now I don’t have to shut down and move my equipment, I can just start working here. So some things did finally fall into place. That year, business increased probably 20 to 30 percent just because of my location. Builders that didn’t want to travel all the way to Monroe, CT, go up to see me or tile guys will now come to my shop that is down on I-95 corridor for small things.”
In 2012, Ontra went to another Stone Industry Education event. This one was in New Jersey and Tony Malisani was the speaker. “I was sitting in the audience and not thinking anything of it until they did the afternoon town forum and Jim Hieb said ‘Okay Tony, who are our panelists? And he goes, ‘Linda, Marco and Buddy,’” said Ontra. “I was like, ‘What? Nobody said anything to me.’ I was on that panel and from there I was asked to speak several more times at StonExpo and Coverings. Then a couple years later, the MIA board position for this area opened up and I ran for it and got it. I believe I learn more from the audience and I believe I can only succeed if the industry succeeds. If it might help the guy across the street, it’s going to help me in the long run. I want other fabricators to do well and make our industry better as a whole. So that’s my philosophy on sharing what I know.”
As the business slowly continued to grow, Ontra had to learn to let go of aspects of the business and let his workers do the day-to-day operations. “I still have issues with them not doing it my way, but they get it done and the result is excellent,” said Ontra. “Sometimes the hardest thing for me to do is get out of the way. When I hired my lead installer, I went onto every job the first three or four weeks with him, and he said, ‘I can do this.’ I said, ‘Okay,’ but that was hard for me to let go.”
Ontra Stone Concepts uses a Park Industries Saber CNC sawjet and Wizard radial arm polisher. Additionally, it has a Water Recycling System from Water Treatment Solutions. For templating, the company uses a LT-2D3D digital templator from Laser Products Industries. They receive their tooling and accessories from Stone Boss and GranQuartz. The 8,400-square-foot facility employs 10 people, while producing roughly a full kitchen and a half a day — averaging 50 to 60 square feet. Ontra has also been a contributor to Stone World magazine, writing articles in 2012 and 2013 dealing with behavior and appearance at a customer’s home, as well as jobsite safety at the home. Since then these topics have grown in importance. Ontra is a member of the Natural Stone Institute, the Stone Fabricator’s Alliance and the Rockheads Group, locally he is also a member of the NKBA and HBRA. Ontra became a Natural Stone Institute Accredited fabricator in 2016.
In the short-term, Ontra hopes to get through this slight downturn in single-family housing he is facing, and in the long-term, pass his business onto his son. “My son does a lot of work for the company and has really learned the industry,” said Ontra. “He comes to different workshop events and really takes the time to learn as much as possible and can fill into any spot in the shop. But now this is the next part of my career, slowly planning on how to pass on a business and how can I still make money off of it when I leave. With succession planning there is a lot to figure out and I hope to learn from the older industry members on how they planned it all out.”
Ontra Stone Concepts
Type of work: Residential
Machinery: Saber CNC sawjet and a Wizard radial arm polisher – both from Park Industries in St. Cloud, MN; a LT-2D3D from Laser Products Industries in Romeoville, IL; a Water Treatment System from Water Treatment Solutions in Hampton, NH; supplies from Stone Boss in Fair Lawn, NJ and GranQuartz, based in Norcross, GA
Production: a kitchen a day averaging 50 to 60 square feet
More about Buddy
First time visitors to Connecticut, what is a must see?
You can go to New Haven if you get into the history. There are actually many things that were invented in Connecticut. Simple things like the cotton gin, that we don’t think about. Most of the arms and ammunition was made here for both World War I and World War II — tank and plane engines. It was very prominent in the war efforts. The Coast is beautiful and beaches are nice. Connecticut has been kind of a suburb of New York and Boston. It is kind of a mixed bag. There are some places to see if you know where to look off the beaten path.
Outside the industry, what hobbies do you have?
I used to play a lot of softball, but I don’t anymore. I read a lot. I attend a lot of MLB games, the Mets.
What’s your most memorable moment in the stone industry?
Almost cutting my off my finger three weeks in. Also, as a 19- or 20-year-old, working on the high-rise buildings. That was such a rush — standing on a scaffolding 30 to 40 stories up. But now I can’t walk up a stairway that doesn’t have a banister on it. I’ve also enjoyed watching the industry grow and change.
Furthest place from home you have traveled to?
Xiamen and Brazil, on the behalf of the Institute delegations. I have been all over the country — California, Florida and parts in between.