Home to the University of Tennessee and host to the 1982 World’s Fair, Knoxville, TN, was the destination for the 2019 Natural Stone Institute Study Tour, which drew a total of 66 participants. The four-day event provided an arena for attendees to mingle and network through many sessions and activities, including a downtown walking tour; member forums; a banquet and live auction; live product, fabrication and install demonstrations; visits to several regional stone companies and equipment manufacturers; a team challenge bowling exercise and planned recreation. Attendees also participated in a service project to “give back” to the local community.
The study tour kicked off with a welcome reception at the Pour Taproom. The event permitted time for participants to socialize – catching up with old friends, as well as making new ones. “It was refreshing to unplug a few times during the Knoxville-based Study Tour to enjoy the face-to-face company of fellow industry professionals while also witnessing some of central Tennessee’s most impressive stone operations,” said Jane Bennett, executive vice president of the Natural Stone Institute. “The most rewarding aspect of these tours for me is watching the bonds of friendship and business relationships that develop over a four-day time frame. It’s a long time to be away from the office, but I can’t think of a more valuable opportunity for such diverse networking experiences than when enjoying a bus ride, dining together or participating in a fun recreational challenge.”
Among the participating member companies were BMJ Stone, Braxton-Bragg, Tennessee Building Stone, Tennessee Marble Co. and Tennessee Stone. “The local hosts went above and beyond to welcome attendees from all over North America as we visited three varied stone processing operations, one brand new retail showroom and stone yard, and one shining star of a tool and equipment supplier,” said Bennett.
A visit with Braxton-Bragg
The first stop on the Tennessee Study Tour was to Braxton-Bragg, which is based in Knoxville. With 25 years of experience, the company offers high-quality tools for working with stone, tile and concrete. Braxton-Bragg also prides itself on its top-notch team of employees, many of whom have been with the company for many years.
“People are a big part of who we are,” said Jeff Drystra, vice president of sales and marketing. “We’re very proud of some of the tenure we have been able to keep here.”
Drystra also told tour participants how the company values customer service. “We are very proud of our guys and what we have been doing the past 12 years,” said Ted Carver, director of logistics, when he gave the group a tour of the company’s warehouse. The company has dedicated time and energy to developing an inventory system that allows them to provide the highest level of customer service. “Our shipping accuracy is 99.95%,” said Carver.
This past spring, the company had announced its preferred national supplier partnership with Emmedue Machinery. Headquartered in Italy, Emmedue has more than 500 machines in the U.S. and more than 10,000 machines worldwide. The first CNC 5-axis bridge saw had just arrived at Braxton-Bragg’s facility prior to the study tour’s arrival. The company was excited to tell the group about the new partnership.
Spending time with Tennessee Stone
The next stop on the first day of the Study Tour was to Tennessee Stone’s brand new facility, which is also located in Knoxville. The business is part of a family of companies and is a retailer of natural stone products – primarily selling its products to builders, homeowners and contractors. “We started a mile down the street about 10 years ago and sold about 80% to homeowners initially,” said John Montgomery, Tennessee Stone’s general manager. “Now our business is about 80% contractors.
“Our approach now is to attract the architects and builders who are dealing with clients,” Montgomery went on to say. “It’s a higher-end situation.”
Design and construction of the new retail facility was with the consumer in mind. “We want to make an impression,” said Montgomery. “We wanted to offer a place to park and a conference room where customers can meet with their clients. The whole idea was to elevate the level of the stone yard. It’s still a warehouse, but we put a little lipstick on it.”
At the time of the Study Tour’s visit, Tennessee Stone had been in its new location for about six weeks. It took four days to move its inventory from its former location. The new facility sprawls 7,000 square feet, including upstairs office space.
Touring BMJ Stone and Tennessee Building Stone
The second day began with a visit to BMJ Stone in Crossville, TN. The group was given a tour of the company’s facility, which included a new water system that has resulted in a production increase of 20%, according to John Rector, co-owner of the company with his brother Mike Rector. “The system paid for itself very quickly,” he said.
Rector explained that once the waste is collected in a pressed state it goes back to the quarries to fill in the areas where quarrying has ceased. Currently, the company owns three quarries and leases two.
BMJ Stone offers a full assortment of stone veneer, as well as landscape and building stone, which can be used for numerous applications in both residential and commercial designs. “We have a lot of different materials,” said Rector. “We have tried to get tight with our masonry patterns. Veneer saws are our bread and butter.”
Rector further explained the BMJ Stone devotes time to working with a local technical school to get its masonry division up and running again. “We have to recreate an environment for our kids and teach them a trade,” he said.
After leaving BMJ Stone, the Study Tour traveled close by to Tennessee Building Stone, who BMJ Stone partnered with on July 1, 2017 to produce and distribute the Crab Orchard quartzite family of colors. The stone has a deep history in the area and Tennessee Building Stone has been a leading supplier of the material for decades.
Tennessee Building Stone was a full-service quarrier and fabricator at one time, but after the death of family member Roy Rose, the company began to down-size and only sold to regular customers. The main reasons for the merger were location and the size of the existing property to house new high-tech equipment.
“When we took over, we tried to be innovative,” explained Rector. “We wanted to bring it up to a higher standard of quality. The former owners did a good job of setting the standard.”
Among the improvements made is the installation of an enormous water filtration system that is four times larger than the one BMJ Stone installed. Rector explained the system is to support the veneer saws.
The new ownership plans to break into new markets and continues to promote the use of Crab Orchard quartzite. Among some past notable projects the material has been supplied for are Harvard University in Cambridge, MA; Oklahoma University in Tulsa, OK; Rockefeller Center in New York, NY; the Vice President’s mansion in Washington, DC; the Governor’s Mansion in Nashville, TN; McGee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, TN; Disney World in Orlando, FL; University of the South in Sewanee, TN; Cheddar’s Restaurants in various locations; Pizza Hut corporate headquarters in Indiana; and country singer Tim McGraw’s home in Nashville, TN.
Learning about Tennessee Marble Co.
The fourth day of the Study Tour started out with a visit to Tennessee Marble Co.’s Granox quarry, which was opened in the 1890s and originally owned by the Vermont Marble Co. Tennessee Marble Co., a family owned third-generation stone company, purchased the leased site in 1999 and invested in dewatering it, as it had laid dormant and filled with water through the years. There was as much as 75 feet of water in some locations.
Owner Monica Gawett guided the group at the Granox quarry and explained that the company is quarrying the bottom layer of the site, which produces a color called “Quaker Gray.” She explained the stone has an absorption rate of .05%. “The best thing about Tennessee marble is that it has a very low absorption rate and is highly durable in heavy traffic areas,” said Gawett.
Since the group was unable to go down into the quarry, Gawett surprised them with a drone that flew into the site and the photos that were taken were displayed on a computer screen set up in a vehicle at the top of the quarry. It was an exciting display of modern technology, which thrilled the group.
Tennessee Marble Co. supplies its Tennessee marble for a significant amount of restoration projects, as well as for new construction. At the time of the Study Tour’s visit, the company was cutting stone for Lakeshore Park, which is in Knoxville.
According to the Natural Stone Institute, this event marked a first for attendees to actually participate in charitable projects while enjoying some recreational time and refreshments. Participants braided dog chew toys for the local Blount County Animal Center, wrote holiday greeting messages for the men and women of our overseas troops, and wrote cards of inspiration and strength to victims in the local domestic violence centers. After the bowling party, there was a group that packed up the leftover food in to-go containers and proceeded to the known homeless hangouts in the city to hand out meals.
“There is no better way to connect with fellow Natural Stone Institute members than through our Study Tours,” said Michael Schumacher, LEED AP, regional business development manager for Michels in Brownsville, WI. “These interactive events feature the ideal blending of association business, healthy industry dialog, comradery and even a little bit of fun. In the fast pace of our industry, it always feels good to take a moment to reconnect with the friends and partners upon which we rely the most.”
Plans are currently underway for the 2020 Study Tour, which will explore the northern Pennsylvania/southern New York Bluestone region.