Louis W. Mian Inc., Charlestown, Mass.

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   CHARLESTOWN, Mass. – With more than a century of stoneworkers in the family, and their name above the door for more than six decades, you might think the Mians would be a little set in their ways.
   Just being in business that long, though, required a flexibility that others might do well to match in today’s economy. From the Old World mosaic work of patriarch Louis Mian Sr. to today’s mix of imported stone and high-end residential fabrication, the family remains ahead of the curve.
   There are some areas in which the Mians of Louis W. Mian Inc., won’t compromise; one is quality. And, as Louis’ grandson, Chris Mian, explains, “We’ll never say, ‘No,’ to a job. If it can be made out of stone, we’ll figure out a way to do it.”
   
HIGH-QUALITY, OLD-SCHOOL
   Chris Mian, who today supervises day-to-day operations for the company, acknowledges that things have come a long way in the 104 years since Angelo Mian brought his skills as a mosaic artist to the Boston area from Italy.
   His son, the Louis W. Mian whose name is above the door, took those skills still further, studying at the famous School of Mosaics (Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli) in Spilimbergo, Italy. However, the market for mosaics – mainly churches and government buildings – wasn’t strong in the 1930s and subsequent decades, and Louis Mian found himself moving into doing terrazzo work to pay the bills.
   “He did some mosaics on the side,” says Chris Mian. “He’d do a little work for friends and now and again he’d get called to patch up a church because nobody else had the skills to do it. It’s become a lost art, and it’s not something we’re doing.”
   While terrazzo became Louis Mian’s bread-and-butter, from time to time his clients would ask for something more.
   “He’d have a contract to do the terrazzo floors and they’d need marble tops,” say his grandson. “He knew people in Italy and knew it was no problem, and he’d import the marble for the job.”
   It was a process that worked well… in fact, so well that in the early 1980s, Louis Mian Jr. (known as Bill), who by that time was working with his father, suggested bringing in a couple more containers than the company needed for its fabrication work.
   “It was just to see how it would go, but they didn’t sit around long,” says Chris Mian. “He brought in another two, and the timing was good because of the building boom in the 1980s. This was an outlet that was working pretty well, so my grandfather put more resources in it, and it just worked out, timing-wise.”
   By that time, Chris Mian adds, people were also turning away from terrazzo floors, and the Mians were having a hard time against a larger competitor. The switch also allowed the senior Louis Mian to redirect the business toward the residential market.
   “That seemed to be where you could make a better profit, and there was more demand for higher-quality work,” he says. “Doing high-quality work was always important to my grandfather. He didn’t want to turn jobs out quickly and cheaply. He wanted to do it right, and the residential market seems to support that.”
   Chris and his brothers, Nick and Jon, all started working for the company during school vacations, and all returned to it after completing college, although Nick Mian subsequently left to attend graduate school.
   Chris Mian says his grandfather was still active in the business when he worked his first summer there.
   “A friend and I started working here putting away tile for him, and it definitely taught me an old-school sort of work mentality,” Chris Mian says. “He was from a different time, and people today would do well to take a little from his work ethic. And, if something was done wrong, you’d hear about it.”
   It didn’t escape his grandson’s notice that even in his later years he was involved in every aspect of the business, from making managerial decisions to helping with deliveries.
   “He loved working, and liked to stay involved, and after working in the Boston area for 50-60 years, he knew a lot of people,” says Chris Mian. “I still get people coming in with different stories about my grandfather.”
   
UNIQUE…AND ON TARGET
   Today, Louis W. Mian Inc. is still playing up to its strengths: supplying high-end natural stone, some of which the company fabricates into its own top-quality projects.
   Chris Mian explains that the supply side is pretty much directed by Bill Mian.
   “He’s the one who travels overseas and handles our vendor relations,” says Chris Mian. “There are certain staple colors you have to have, of course, but we try to carry things that are different. They’re not always on the expensive side, but we like them to be unique.”
   The company stocks a lot of materials from Brazil, India, Spain, and more recently Turkey, although the Mians continue to maintain strong ties with Italy.
   “We still seem to get the most unique colors out of Italy,” Chris Mian says. “They might not originate there, but it’s the one place where you can go and find materials from all over the world, so some of our really unique stones come out of Italy.”
   The company’s offerings certainly play well with its chosen customer base. While a fair amount of that base comes from working directly with homeowners, Chris Mian says many of its sales also come from architects and designers.
   “They’re our number-one target,” he says. “They provide repeat business, they’re specific in what they want, and they’re knowledgeable. And, when they find what they want, for the most part they’re willing to pay for it, and they share some loyalty toward a company that can get them what they need.”
   He adds that a typical sale is one in which the designer or architect calls, looking for a specific color or stone. If the item is in stock, the caller then arranges to bring the client into the showroom, which shares 5,000 ft² on the second floor of the company’s building with its offices.
   And, it’s likely many of the items requested are in stock. Louis W. Mian has – besides the showroom – 15,000 ft² of yard space at its shop, and another 30,000 ft² in warehouse space within a 10-minute drive.
   “We start in the showroom looking at pieces,” says Chris Mian, who isn’t afraid to make a sale himself. “From there, we’ll narrow it down to certain materials, then go outside and look at slabs. There may be several possibilities we have to price, and we take it from there.”
   One of the things Mian believes contributes to the company’s success is its philosophy of making things as easy as possible for the designer, architect and end client. Part of that is stocking a large number of slabs, but there are other aspects to that approach, such as the company’s Website.
   Next to word-of-mouth, online is the most-common method clients use to find Louis W. Mian, and Chris Mian says that, unlike many of his competitors, every slab in the company’s inventory is photographed and available for viewing online.
   “I like to show people as much as we can,” he says. “The Web is a visual medium, and the more we can get up there, the better. People love it.”
   There’s also a convenience factor involved for all sides. Not only does it give the designers and clients the opportunity to see what’s available even before coming in, but Mian says it cuts down on the need to pull slabs for clients.
   “We can say, ‘Here are all 12 that we have; pick out four or five and we’ll pull them,’” he explains. “It cuts down on people wanting to see the next one and the next one and the next one, but the consumer still feels they get a choice from everything that’s out there; they’re not missing a slab.”
   Not that he expects pictures on a Website to ever totally replace that visit. Mian says he still prefers people come in before making their final decisions.
   “The Website helps a lot, but there’s nothing like seeing stone in front of you,” he says. “I feel you avoid a lot of problems by encouraging the client to come in and see it before we cut it. We try not to get into situations where they haven’t seen the stone.”
   
WORK IN PROGRESS
   Nor does the company’s Website stop there. Chris Mian calls it “a work in progress,” and says he hopes in the future to be able to provide other features, including some rudimentary pricing information.
   Still, users can register as members, including signing up to be notified when new materials arrive. It also has let Louis W. Mian, Inc. develop a database for marketing purposes, and while Chris Mian says he tries not to be too obnoxious with it, the company does mass e-mails from time-to-time.
   “We get sales directly out of it now and then,” he says. “And, a lot of people who come in and place orders are referrals from other people who’ve heard about us via the Website.”
   Not that the company relies solely on technology to get the sales job done. Mian says with sales down because of the economy, a more-aggressive marketing approach is in order and he’s in the process of putting together a presentation that he’d like to take to architectural and design offices in the area.
   “As I say, we need to make it as easy as possible for them to source material,” he observes. “They’re not only responsible for the stone; they have to source every material in a project, and anything we can do to make it easier seems to go a long way.”
   Once he has the bugs worked out, Mian says he will also train his other sales people – including his brother Jon – to do the presentation, as well.
   That old-fashioned approach to sales may be more in keeping with the fabrication side of Louis W. Mian than a well-designed Web presence. The company’s 5,000 ft² shop is short on technology, but long on craftsmanship.
   “I think our newest guy in the shop has been here for five years,” says Chris Mian. “We really try to keep our shop employees. They’re trained and taught the way we do things, and all of them need to be very skilled and very flexible because there’s a very high level of quality required by our customers.”
   There’s nothing assembly line about the work the company does, and while Mian can see a small CNC machine in its future, a more-immediate plan is to replace the shop’s old Zorzan Fratelli snc bridge saw with a new Italian-made one late this spring.
   “We took a basic machine and we’re having it modified for us at the factory,” he says. “It’s not CNC-programmable, but it’s very automated with capabilities the Zorzan doesn’t have right now, and it will be a lot faster. It will still be pretty basic, though.”
   Just because jobs are finished by hand doesn’t mean they aren’t cutting-edge. The showroom features not just current colors, but also the shop’s capabilities, including complicated laminations, drain boards and examples of different edges.
   “We make a lot of cubic-stock types of things,” says Mian. “We enjoy making things like custom-laminated fireplaces that look solid but are all made from 3/4” and 1 1/4” slabs. The ability to really customize a job is what’s always separated us from our competitors.”
   One of the jobs of which Mian is most proud – and one he describes as being incredibly difficult – was making several traditional-appearing columns for a bathroom job, all from ¾” stock.
   “We had to take them, align them and polish them in place to look solid,” he explains. “It was a lot of work – really pretty challenging – but it came out pretty nice at the end.”
   For now, jobs such as that one are about the only part of the operation Chris Mian says he wants to see be complicated. Until the economy improves, he says his goal is keeping things, “small and simple.”
   “We’re doing a little it of work in our showroom, and a little here and there with machinery, but mostly we’re just trying to maintain,” he says. “We’re watching our costs and taking things as they come until we feel they’re picking up.”
   Longer term – the next five to seven years – plans are to consolidate the shop and warehouse facilities at a new location under one roof. While he says he wouldn’t mind seeing sales grow another 25 percent, over time, Mian doesn’t see the company growing much beyond its current 13 employees.
   “I love the challenge of a small business environment; I’m not a corporate type of person,” he concludes. “My grandfather taught me a lot about values and hard work, and this is a good business. There’s a pride factor. My father’s worked here for a long time, and it’s something I’d like to see continue.”
   
   This article first appeared in the April 2009 print edition of Stone Business. ©2009 Western Business Media Inc.