Find Profits in Stone
September 1, 2005
Many glass fabricators are cutting stone—mainly for kitchen countertops—and making a profit out of it.
“The granite end of our business rapidly catches up to the glass end,” says Mike Bell, president of Bell Mirror and Glass in Wichita, Kan. About two years ago, Bell invested more than $250,000 to create The Countertop Place because, “the market seemed to be getting more popular, and it seemed like a good investment,” he says.
One of the motivations for Bell and others in the industry to enter the stone-cutting market is that glass equipment suppliers have expanded their lines to include stone equipment. In addition, granite kitchen countertops continue to increase in popularity, and the market shows no signs of letting up.
A survey by Stone World magazine predicts that the U.S. stone industry will demonstrate solid growth during the next five to 10 years. The growing affordability of stone for residential kitchen countertops is the reason behind this growth. Natural stones, such as granite and marble, have become cost-effective options when compared to man-made counter surfaces such as Formica and Corian.
The cost of granite has come down in the last eight to 10 years, as more granite imports come into the United States, said Michael Willard, vice president of Salem Distributing Co. in Winston-Salem, N.C. According to Stone World, 1.8 million tons of granite were imported in 2004 compared to 1.3 million tons in 2003 and 623,000 tons in 1999. The leading exporters of granite to the United States are Italy, Brazil, Taiwan, Canada and Spain.
Robert G. Brown, president of Brown’s Glass and Granite in York, Pa., added stone fabrication to his product line about three years ago after meeting a colleague at a glass show who was cutting stone and turning a profit.
“He made it sound like there was opportunity in it,” Brown says. The colleague sold Brown his old stone-cutting machine. However, Brown later invested about $300,000 in a computer numerically controlled machine and a bridge saw. The bridge saw cuts granite slabs into rough shapes of the countertops and the CNC machine shapes, polishes and edges the countertops.
Productivity remains the key for glass fabricators who want to enter the stone-fabrication markets, says Gary L. Bricker, sales and marketing manager for Italian equipment supplier Z. Bavelloni USA Inc. in Greensboro, N.C. Most stone fabricators polish and edge stone by hand, but glass fabricators can get similar results using a CNC machine and a bridge saw, he says.
For instance, Bricker says, using only a bridge saw and manual grinders would take four-to-six employees all day to turn out stone countertops for an average-size kitchen. But using a CNC machine, most shops can turn out countertops for two or three kitchens each day. Such CNC machines can cost from $160,000-to-$300,000, but many glass fabricators, like Brown, start out with used equipment.
Bell started out with a hand router and a bridge saw. “We were already doing specialty glass fabrication,” he says, “and had edging, beveling and polishing machines, and diamond wheels.” Initially, he spent about $200,000 on additional equipment. Recently, he purchased an edge polisher and plans to buy a CNC machine.
Quality Glass Works in Watertown, Conn., already owned a CNC machine when it decided to add stone to its product line about four-and-a-half years ago. “That was our biggest reason to decide to get into the stone,” says Dan Prairie, vice president and treasurer of Quality Glass Works. “We just had to upgrade our [diamond] tooling.” He also purchased software specific to cutting stone.
Prairie doubled the size of his building when he moved into the stone market, moving from a 10,000-square-foot building to a 20,000-square-foot building with high ceilings to accommodate the cranes needed to lift stone slabs. Today, he says, stone fabrication accounts for about 25 percent of the company’s revenue.
Like glass, stone needs to be ground, polished and finished. Both brittle materials need to be handled with care, but the two cut and process differently.
“Granite is a little more fragile than glass,” says Bell, who trained his own staff to handle the material after talking with managers of other stone-fabricating companies. “We used our construction background to figure out how to do it.”
Bell also hired 10 staff members to work at The Countertop Place, including several with stone-handling experience.
The Countertop Place and Bell Mirror and Glass are set up as separate companies located in buildings several miles apart. While Bell would prefer to have them in the same building, he would still set up The Countertop Place as a separate company because of the volume of work each brings in.
Brown agrees that it’s best to keep the two businesses separate. Initially, he says, he took on stone fabrication as a sideline but soon realized it was a full-time business. He located his granite business in the same building as his glass business, but he hired six employees who work exclusively on stone. The company needs to have dedicated staff and resources to really develop, Brown says.
At Quality Glass Works, stone fabrication constitutes just part of the glass business, so staff members rotate between glass and stone fabrication. While several employees work on the stone side of the business, 90 percent of the time—mainly writing quotes and showing customers the stone—many other employees cross over between glass and stone, Prairie says.
Like Quality Glass Works, many managers start off using the same employees and same CNC machine for glass and stone, Bricker says. Eventually, though, they find they need separate machines and often a separate facility for their stone fabrication businesses.
Marketing the business
Managers from all three companies admit that they don’t have marketing plans, yet they are all profitable and busy. Their best advertising is word-of-mouth.
“That has been the best blessing of all,” Bell says. “We just had a sign on our building on a high-traffic street. People would just come in and ask about a price to do their kitchens.” He recently placed a small ad in the telephone book.
Most clients Bell and Prairie deal with are residents looking to remodel their kitchen or building a home. And stone customers require more customer service than glass customers. Buying a piece of stone is very different than buying a piece of glass, Prairie says. While each piece of glass is the same, each slab of stone varies greatly and, because of that, stone customers require more hand-holding than glass customers.
Natural stone tends to have imperfections and isn’t always consistent. It’s not uncommon for a customer to look at five-to-10 slabs of granite before choosing one to be made into a kitchen counter.
Some people are very specific about what they want; some embrace the stone’s natural look, others want something more uniform, Prairie says. “I’d rather spend the time and effort up front to make sure everyone knows what they are getting,” he says.
“The customer is spending a lot of money for product,” Bell says, “so we want people to feel like they are involved with it; we want them to look at the material and understand there are imperfections in natural rock.”
The York shop has been shifting from residential clients to contractors because of the time required helping customers pick out granite, Brown says. “We are trying to do less with homeowners and more with custom kitchen manufacturers,” he says.
In addition to working with granite, all three also carry a man-made stone made from blending resin and quartz that is processed the same as granite. The product has been around for a while but has only recently become more popular with homeowners and kitchen manufacturers. “In the beginning, it was not the best looking,” Prairie says, “but now it looks more and more real.” It also has some advantages over natural stone: it has a more consistent look and, unlike granite, it’s not prone to staining because it’s not as porous as natural stone.
Outlook for the future
Bell recently had a client replace her kitchen countertops with granite. The woman was having trouble selling the home and when she asked the real estate agent what to do to make her home more marketable, the agent told her to change the countertops to granite, he says.
“That’s how strong the market is,” Bell says. “As long as you have higher-end homes being built or existing residents looking to put quality into their homes, there will be a market.”
While Prairie agrees that the market is strong, he cautions that stone fabrication isn’t for every glass-shop owner, and it won’t work in every market. “You need to live in a relatively affluent area where the property values support spending money on stone countertops,” he says.
While glass has become a mature industry, the stone market burgeons, Bricker says. More mid-level homes feature at least some granite in their designs, either around fireplaces, in kitchens or bathrooms.
“It gives the entrepreneurial-spirited glass-shop owner a new market to attack,” Bell concludes.
Mike Bell, Bell Mirror & Glass Inc., 1702 S. Seneca, Wichita, Kan. 67213, 316/262-8642, www.bellmirrorandglass.com
Gary L. Bricker, Z. Bavelloni USA Inc., 204 S. Westgate Drive, Greensboro, N.C. 27407, 336/299-8300, www.bavelloni.com
Robert Brown, Brown's Glass & Granite, 1601 W. Orange St., York, Pa. 17404, 717/854-5577
Dan Prairie, Quality Glass Works, 40 Knight St., Watertown, Conn., 860/945-3473.