Stonecraft Inc., Knoxville, Tenn.
- Published: 18 June 2009 18 June 2009
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The name Stonecraft suggests an earlier time in the industry, when the skills of craftsmen – rather than machines – were the key ingredient to a company’s success.
It’s not surprising that the experience of the man behind Stonecraft Inc. – Rick Jones – dates back to a period when people learned the industry from the ground up ... and marble, rather than granite, was the stone of choice.
It’s not that Jones is stuck in the mid-1980s, when he and two partners incorporated the operation as an installation company. However, there’s still much of the old-fashioned about Stonecraft, whether it’s the practice of still doing much finishing work by hand, or providing a level of customer service that, as Jones puts it, “leaves the customer with a good taste in his mouth.”
Jones’ entry into the stone industry is a little out-of-the-ordinary. Right out of college, his emphasis was more on bugs than beauty.
“I came out of school with a bachelor’s degree in biology, which is useless without some further education,” he explains. “So, I ended up the pest-control business.”
Jones was successful at it, too, He managed one company, and then worked for a national concern that provided him corporate-leadership experience that Joned still draws on today.
However, he was lured away from pest control by a friend – the late Claude Ledgerwood (1983 Marble Institute of America president) to work at Ledgerwood’s Knoxville-based business, The Marble Shop. At the time, Ledgerwood owned a Tennessee marble quarry and an Idaho travertine quarry, and fabricated and shipped materials all over the country.
“That was the beginning of my love affair with stone,” says Jones. “And, Claude sent me off to Italy right off the bat to learn about the business. Over time, I got the basics down and worked for Claude for more than 10 years.”
Over that time, Jones worked his way up to shop superintendent, and then went into sales.
Stonecraft was originally started to install jobs that The Marble Shop fabricated for the Knoxville market.
Then, in 1986, Jones left Ledgerwood to run Stonecraft full time.
“We did installations for a couple years before we got into the fabrication business,” Jones explains. “Even after we started doing that, we were still small and installing commercial work, but we started by fabricating small residential jobs like fireplace facings, bathroom vanities and foyers.”
Although within the first three years of Stonecraft’s existence the other partners left the business, Jones says he had one major advantage at the time: access to skilled workers.
“We had quite a market of craftsmen because of the marble industry here in Knoxville,” he explains. “We were able to produce a very good product and, as we did that, demand grew.”
By the time granite starting making its presence felt in the market in the mid-1990s, Stonecraft had a reputation for doing quality work; it also had the skilled people and the diamond tooling needed to meet the demands of granite fabrication.
Granite did change the direction of the business, though.
“It was natural for us to get into granite and we enjoyed tremendous growth right up until last year because of it,” Jones says. “However, we’ve gone almost entirely into doing residential work because of the demand. We still do small commercial work, but we’re not out doing marble towers or things like that.”
DECADES OF EXPERIENCE
The astounding growth of granite over the past decade allowed the company to grow to as many as 30 employees serving an area within a 200-mile radius of Knoxville; today, the employees are down to a dozen, and Jones admits to now serving an area about half as large.
It’s also required the firm to move three different times. The current location consists of four buildings on a two-acre lot in West Knoxville, including two used primarily for storing rolling stock used doing larger commercial and tile jobs – what Jones characterizes as “equipment we don’t use every day.”
“The fabrication building is about 7,500 ft², and it’s big enough that we’ve got space in there for the computer and things like that,” he says. “We have about 3,000 ft² for showroom and offices, and if I could do anything differently, I would build a bigger space for the showroom.”
The reason for that is simple: Jones feels it’s important to present vignettes of how the stone is used.
“We use the product throughout our facility and we try to do it tastefully,” he says. “We aren’t messing up the floor with 16 different patterns of tile. We have our countertops and our desktops and our baseboards because the customers need to see it in place. The customer needs to see how it’s used, where it’s used, and how it’s done.”
Showing stone to the customer is key to making sales at Stonecraft, because while Jones says designers are able to imagine a particular stone in a particular application, the business’ clientele is divided between designers and walk-ins, many of them referred by their friends and neighbors who’ve already worked with the company.
“Word-of-mouth is our bread-and-butter,” says Jones. “I think that’s what’s helped us get through the economic downturn in this area. You always retain some base that way. There’s always the person out there who knows about our reputation for quality.”
Not that Jones is relying on that reputation entirely. He says a marketing study done about 2005 showed that the company wasn’t as well-known as he’d thought.
“It showed the market is turning over and the new people don’t know about us,” he says. “We’ve done more advertising – some TV, a lot of radio and some magazines and things like that – just to keep our name out there. It’s important.”
The company also does more outreach to designers. A past president of the Building Stone Institute and a firm believer in its educational component for architects, Jones works with the University of Tennessee-Knoxville to make its architectural students more knowledgeable about stone.
“We do what we call ‘show-and-tell,’” Jones says. “It’s a good thing for us, and when those people go out into the marketplace, they at least know a little about marble and granite and bluestone and limestone, so they’re not scared of it.”
While Jones says lack of knowledge about stone is a common thread between many designers and homeowners, he believes the Internet and the home-improvement shows on television are creating better customers.
“It’s also raised questions we have to address,” he says. “We had a couple in just the other day that had done their homework. They were knowledgeable in that they knew they had to ask more questions. We talked about stone, and it was a wonderful experience.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Jones isn’t the only one with extensive experience in the industry selling the product at Stonecraft.
“We like to take time with people,” he says. “We think it helps that people are dealing with someone who knows where the pitfalls are and that the right material is being used in the right application. Our people in sales have decades behind them and they have the information and experience to guide people in the right direction.”
It’s certainly not surprising that Jones uses much the same approach to selling the commercial jobs the company still does, utilizing one of Stonecraft’s former founding partners as a salesman and educating people where necessary about natural stone.
“We get requests to bid commercial projects, but it’s kind of hit-and-miss because a lot of them won’t have any natural stone in them,” Jones says. “We often bid marble or granite as an alternate because we can be very competitive in certain applications, especially if we can get in there early enough.”
And, he adds, Stonecraft does remain active in certain segments of the commercial market, particularly entrance and reception areas.
It helps, too, that the company’s fabrication and installation shop is as solid as the sales team.
“We have a craft shop, and we’ve always taken the high end with our jobs,” he says. “We try to get quality materials, we do quality fabrication and quality installation. We still like the craft part of it.”
Jones says when Stonecraft opened its doors it did so with a bridge saw and a radial arm polisher. Today, it operates two saws from Sawing Systems and a CMS/Brembana CNC machine bought early in the decade.
“It’s a heavy-duty machine that works well with our applications,” he says of the CNC. “We felt we had to go that route for consistency purposes. It’s like with the edge polishers; we have them, but we still like to do hand touch-ups and hand-finishing after the fact to most – if not all – of our pieces.”
That Jones easily finds craftsmen to do the work is truly a testament to Knoxville’s rich history in stone, even though most of the local marble quarry/fabrication shops closed their doors in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“We have people whose fathers worked in those places,” he says. “Stone is a pretty known entity here. People understand going to work in the stone industry.”
That can be a two-edged sword, however. Jones points out that in a market of 300,000 people, there are at least 25 marble and granite shops, and most of them are imbued with that same tradition of pride in their work – even if they’re fabricating imported materials.
He adds that Stonecraft has provided its own competition, with employees going out on their own or moving into supervisory positions with other local shops. Still, he keeps his eyes open for those with what he calls “the eye.”
“A lot of people can do this work physically,” Jones says. “But, it’s not a case of monkey-see, monkey-do. A person has to have a caring eye to distinguish between polish and the right polish or between a finish and the right finish. Not all our people have it, but we have enough of those people in leadership roles that it makes a difference.
“I’d rather have a good product and compete with a good product than otherwise,” he adds. “I think we all benefit from people doing things right. We try to do that and we have some very good competitors who do likewise.”
And, Jones certainly isn’t one to rest on Stonecraft’s laurels. He’s looking at expanding his product line, and recently started distributing ThinStone™ veneer from Milford, Conn.-based Connecticut Stone Supplies.
“It’s a great product and we’re trying to do something different,” Jones says. “It’s not a stone that everybody can get, and we’d like to start supplying it to the South.”
He’s also looking at doing more exotic stones and unusual finishes, although that will likely require some investment in new equipment, which will probably have to wait – at least for awhile.
“We can modify the equipment we have to some extent, but we’re not ready to go with new capital expenditures right now,” he says.
Still, Jones says he’s recently seen some increased activity in the showroom, and he’s confident things will turn around, given enough time.
“We’re certainly not the only business that’s a little slow right now,” Jones concludes. “I think our product gives us a big leg up over some other industries. It’s natural and it has the longevity and beauty. After other things are broken, dulled, scratched and gone, you’ve got your stone.
“I think we’re in an excellent market. I really do.”
This article first appeared in the June 2009 print edition of Stone Business. ©2009 Western Business Media Inc.