Southwest Tile & Marble, Oklahoma City

By This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

OKLAHOMA CITY – The year may be 2009, but for the Young family of Southwest Tile & Marble, the significant number is four.

In the fall of 1969, four men – three brothers, plus a son of one sibling – got together and, in a sense, left the laboring class. With decades of tile-setting experience behind the quartet, they formed their own tile-contracting company.

A scant three years later, they picked up the firm that supplied most of their tile and started doing business under its name. Along with moving into Southwest Tile & Marble’s site near downtown, they picked up a couple commercial tile lines…and a modest stone-fabrication shop.

Fast-forward 40 years, and much has changed about the company. The Youngs are now in their third – and fourth – generation of family ownership and the company grew to be one of the premier fabricators and installers of dimensional natural stone to the Oklahoma City area.

BROTHERS IN STONE (AND TILE)

The Young family story is also one about siblings: the brothers who started the company, and the kindred relationship that exists today between Southwest Tile & Marble and their initial creation, Young Brothers Inc.

Young Brothers had its genesis much like many other companies – around a kitchen table. In this case, the table belonged to the great-uncle of current company president H. Dean Young.

“Young Brothers, Inc. was founded in 1969 by my grandfather (Harvey Paul Young), two of his brothers (Robert T. Young and Ray Young) and my father (Harvey Dean Young),” explains Dean Young. “The office began in my great-uncle Bob’s kitchen.

“They were already tile setters with plenty of experience,” he adds. “My grandfather had probably been setting tile for 20-25 years, and his brothers for longer than that. My dad began helping out in high school, so they probably had well-over 100 years of experience between them.”

At the beginning, Young Brothers’ specialty was commercial tile projects. One of its chief suppliers was Southwest Tile, a company with roots reaching back into the early 1900s in Oklahoma City. In 1972, Young Brothers bought the supplier.

“Southwest Tile was purchased as a way to have a showroom and a distributorship to go along with Young Brothers,” says Dean Young. “The offices were moved out of the kitchen and into the Southwest Tile building.”

Along with its lines of ceramic and quarry tile, Southwest Tile also had a location in a light-industrial area just outside of downtown Oklahoma City.

“At that point, the facilities were just some old tin buildings, including a small showroom and a little bit of office space,” Young says. “All of the old buildings have subsequently been torn down and rebuilt.”

The Southwest Tile holdings also included a small stone-fabrication shop.

“They had been fabricating thresholds and window sills for some of their commercial jobs,” says Young. “Eventually it moved into doing a little more marble work for the residential market – vanities and tub decks and such for higher-end residential projects.”

Not only did it fit in well with the company’s tile operation, which began handling more residential projects as time went on, but the first boom for natural stone hit Oklahoma City well before it became a must-have in kitchens and bathrooms across the country.

“Stone really started to take off for us in the late 1970s and early ‘80s,” says Young. “That was the beginning of the oil boom for us, and there were a lot of higher-end residential projects using a lot of marble.”

It was at that point that the family also decided it would have to start growing the company’s fabrication shop.

“We started by purchasing a new bridge saw – a Tysaman,” says Young. “Well, it wasn’t a new bridge saw; it was a used bridge saw, but it was an upgrade from what we’d had. We’d been cutting by hand.”

GREAT RELATIONSHIPS

Dean Young is well acquainted with the growth of the stone-fabrication shop. The company’s current president started working in the stone-fabrication end of the business in the early 1980s and ran it for a decade before moving into the office.

However, his life in the business started well before that point.

“I started helping my dad and my grandfather during the summers once I got out of grade school,” he says. “When I graduated from high school I began working on jobs doing grouting and calking and became a tile-setter’s helper. Eventually, I became a tile setter.”

The fact that he’s Harvey Dean Young’s only son didn’t really play a role in his decision to join the family business, says Dean Young.

“Even when I was really little, I just really enjoyed getting out and working,” he says. “I particularly enjoyed working with my dad and my grandfather. We always had a great relationship and enjoyed working together.”

That same attitude has carried over into the next generation, and the story is much the same. Dean Young’s son and vice president, Drew Carter, started working summers while in middle school – but with a twist.

“Instead of going the tile-setting route, I took the fabrication route,” says Carter. “I would work in the shop summers and school vacations learning how to fabricate stone. That continued while I was in college, and when I graduated (with a degree in business management) I started working in the office, bidding jobs and overseeing fabrication and installation.”

He adds that he never felt pressured to be a part of the business, either.

“Except from my grandmother,” Carter says. “She always told me I needed to help my dad.”

Dean Young’s youngest son, Austin, is also currently employed in the fabrication shop, but neither his father nor his brother believe he’s yet committed to a career.

Just as the men’s roles at the company have changed over the years, so has Southwest Tile’s facilities. The near-downtown location is as desirable as ever, but things have changed and even expanded.

“Our offices are located in a building that was purchased in the 1980s and is adjoining the original Southwest Tile & Marble,” Young explains. “We renovated this building and moved our showroom and offices into it.”

In the years following, the old tin buildings that made up Southwest Tile were replaced. The company’s current fabrication shop was completed in the late 1990s.

“We’ve got just over 14,000 ft²,” he says. “We tried to improve the workflow and also the safety of the guys in the shop by including an overhead bridge crane to handle slabs and reduce the amount of lifting. And, we upgraded the air and water (supplies) so we’re filtering and recycling all our water.”

Because of his own experience in the fabrication shop, Young says safety is a big concern.

“Of course, the slabs keep getting bigger,” he says. “When I was in the shop everything was 2cm; now we’re seeing a lot of 3cm, so there are a lot more issues with lifting. And, reducing the amount of dust in the air was a driving factor in moving to wet fabrication.”

Today the company operates two Sawing Systems bridge saws and one of its radial-arm polishers, as well as a Marmo Meccanica LCV flat polishing machine, an INTERMAC Master 43 CNC and a Comandulli Speedy edger.

Safety considerations have also played a role in the company’s move toward more automation, although Young admits he was a hard sell.

“I was pretty old-school,” he confesses. “I was working in the shop before diamond pads and CNCs; everything was done by hand, and I liked it that way. But, in the last few years I’ve come to realize it’s a necessity.”

HIGH-END FOCUS

It’s not that Southwest Tile & Marble automated its production to turn out cookie-cutter bathrooms and kitchens for large subdivisions. Thanks to that background in higher-end marble dating back to the late 1970s, the shop bread-and-butter has always been unique jobs for the home market.

“We’ve always focused on the higher-end projects,” says Young. “A lot of our customer base is builders that we’ve been working with for 15 or 20 years – people who are doing some of the nicer custom projects.”

It isn’t just the company’s early emphasis on fabricating marble that’s carried that into the present. Young Brothers, with its initial emphasis on commercial projects, built strong relationships with those builders; it’s a company philosophy, despite the fact that most of its current commercial work is for fabricated stone.

“We’re doing very little commercial tile work right now,” the company president says. “The market is just too competitive, although about half our work is stone and half is tile. On the residential side we’re doing both tile and stone.”

Young isn’t afraid to add that Southwest Tile has very few walk-in customers.

“Most of our customers are referred to us,” he says. “Even with the walk-ins, it’s probably more likely that they’ve been referred to us, rather than that they’ve seen our ad in the phone book.”

Instead, most of the company’s advertising is geared toward builders and designers through Jayme Buck, who serves as marketing manager.

“Jayme is involved in a lot of different builder organization and designer organizations,” says Carter. “She also holds positions on a lot of boards to really develop relationships with these people.”

Carter adds that another popular marketing approach is to hold gatherings at the showroom for new builders and designers.

“Once they come to our showroom they know this is where they can bring a customer who’s looking for something special,” he says.

The company’s showroom features samples of all the slabs in inventory, as well as mock-ups of five different kitchens.

“We probably stock 40-50 marbles, limestones, granite, and travertine,” says Carter.

Southwest Tile features limestone from Germany and Portugal, travertine from Mexico and Italy, and marble and granite from around the globe. The company will also work with onyx on a custom-order basis.

“That goes back to the early days when we were doing onyx along with the marble,” says Young. “We don’t stock a lot of it, but we’re comfortable fabricating it.”

Young adds that, even today, some customers prefer to travel to Dallas to pick out their slabs, and his staff works with them on that.

On the tile side, the business also is a distributor for such natural stone lines as Walker Zanger, Durango Stone, Dal-Tile and Sonoma Tilemakers. And, it features lines of glass, ceramic and metal tiles, as well.

Although the company has three salespeople in the showroom, dimensional-stone jobs eventually run through the offices of either Young or Carter.

“If you hire us to do your job, you’re going to meet with either Drew or me to discuss your selection,” says Young. “We’d meet at your home, and start the process of measuring and templating. Drew or I do the estimates, work up the shop tickets and oversee the project from beginning through installation.”

And, if that seems a bit hands-on for a company that numbers 40 employees, including eight in the shop and an equal number of installation crews – half of whom are trained to install both stone and tile -- it’s done that way by design.

“It goes back to the old days,” says Young. “That’s the way it started and we have continued to do it. I’d prefer that we’d always continue having those relationships with our customers.”

Nor is either man willing to rest on the company’s laurels, 40th anniversary or not.

“We’re always striving to improve the quality of our product, whether it’s training the employees or implementing new techniques or adding new equipment or products,” Young says.

“You always feel like there’s more you could be doing with customer service,” Carter adds. “I feel we offer good customer service, but it’s something you can always improve on. We want to be providing the absolute best that we can do.”

It’s a sentiment that has to be music to Dean Young’s ears. His late father retired at 60, and Southwest Tile’s president says his goal is to retire within the next five years, handing things off to the next generation.

“I think our greatest success has been in developing a good reputation in our area and being able to maintain that through the years and the generations,” Young says. “I just see that continuing.”

This article first appeared in the October 2009 print edition of Stone Business. ©2009 Western Business Media Inc.