MultiStone USA Inc., Atlanta

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ATLANTA – Companies content to do business with the same old products in the same old ways have had a tough go in this current economic downturn.  Fortunately, that’s an approach MultiStone USA Inc. threw out the window a long time ago.

While stone in the backgrounds of both company owner/president Trevor Erridge and his nephew and executive vice president, Dale Erridge, what the two men really bring to the table is strong business experience.

And that’s allowed them to ride the wave from focusing on new construction to a stint as importers to servicing the residential remodel market for homeowners and designers – as well as expanding into commercial work and additional products.

Even so, it’s been a real balancing act, says Dale Erridge, buoyed up by MultiStone’s commitment to quality and customer service. While the market is once again starting to look up, about the only sure bet is that in five years the company won’t look like what it does today.

LOOKING AHEAD

“We’re very future-focused,” says Dale Erridge. “We’re always asking ourselves: where’s the market going next, and what are our customers’ needs?”

It’s something all business owners should be asking themselves, but the Erridges count on a lot of knowledge in and out of the industry, together with close customer ties and input, to come up with their own best answers.

Natives of South Africa, Dale Erridge explains that both his father and grandfather were involved in the stone business in that country. However, when his uncle, Trevor Erridge, came to the United States almost two decades ago, it wasn’t to start MultiStone.

“Trevor has a degree in financial and management accounting, and when he came to the States he was involved initially in financial institutions,” says his nephew. “He worked for a myriad of companies, from software sales and distribution, telecommunications and packaging to heavy engineering and chemicals. He has experience in several different industries.”

Dale Erridge adds that he started his working life in retail sales, and then went to work in the stone industry before relocating to Atlanta five years ago.

“Trevor had been pushing me to come to the States, and I’d visited a few times, so I decided to make the move,” he says. “I’ve been with the company since I arrived.”

Dale Erridge says the launch of MultiStone in 1998 definitely keyed on an opportunity. At that point, he says, the number of true stone fabricators in Atlanta could be counted on one hand.

“The company actually started doing sales,” he says. “We had two sales people on the ground, we had our own templators and installers, and we subcontracted the fabrication to another company.”

Within a year, the combination of a good sales force and good installation crews made it apparent that the next step would be a fabrication shop, which opened in a local industrial park with a basic bridge saw and hand tools. A year after that, demand had tripled and the company’s equipment became much more sophisticated.

“We went to Marmo Meccanica for a much-upgraded bridge saw and a straight-edge polisher,” says Dale Erridge. “We also brought in two milling machines from Holland, which allowed us to do sink cutouts. That was the initial core machinery for the business, and we’re still using some of it today.”

In those days, the company’s showroom wasn’t of much concern, Dale Erridge adds, although it had one at the fabrication facility in case a client would want to drop in to talk about a layout or look at more-exotic materials.

“We were doing mostly new construction and most of our sales were directly with builders,” he says. “They were putting in standard colors – your top 20 colors. Most had sample boards, and that’s what we’d be taking to various clients.”

PLENTY OF CONTROL

That changed as MultiStone’s executives began to notice the importance of other markets, particularly remodelers and multi-family projects.

“Although there was a lot of new construction going on, we quickly realized the remodeling market is very big,” says Dale Erridge. “The important thing for us was to get our name out there are far as possible. We started targeting designers, and kitchen/bathroom remodeling shops and showrooms.”

First, the company placed countertops into the showrooms of those businesses in exchange for more exposure. And, it also opened two satellite showrooms, one to serve north Atlanta and the other to serve the southern part of the area.

“Again, we just put in cabinets and countertops, and they did real well for us,” Erridge says. “Today, we service several of the top remodelers in Atlanta.”

Even before that, MultiStone began importing a great deal of the stone it fabricated. Erridge says the big advantage to that was keeping stone costs low.

“We had a lot of control on the quality we brought in and we had a lot of control on the consistency of color, which is very important,” he explains. “If you put out a sample of a specific color, that (color) can change depending on the supplier. We had various agents in the countries inspecting the materials, and we were bringing in specific materials from specific quarries to control the quality.”

Along with natural stone (and a complete line of quartz products about five years ago), MultiStone began offering some of the green materials, such as IceStone®, Eco-Terr®, Bio-Glass® and PaperStone®.

“Trevor’s vision has been to never lose contact with our clients,” says his nephew. “The idea that, ‘If we have granite, they will come,’ began to dwindle. A lot of the trends from the West Coast were traveling across the country, and clients started to look at various materials.

We felt our market was screaming at us that they wanted engineered stone and different surfaces, such as honed, brushed, antiqued and flamed. And, we’ve kept ourselves in the loop with the designers and the various showrooms, so we started to branch out.”

True to the company’s philosophy, Dale Erridge says MultiStone also wants to always be an early adopter.

“As new products came onto the market, we’d bring them in, test them and try them out for the designers and other distributors,” Dale Erridge says. “That way we can make recommendations on how they should be fabricated and what environments it’s recommended for use.

“We’ve tried to position ourselves in the market as a pioneer and to be a trusted advisor. As things started to go green, we hopped on that as fast as we could.”

In the meantime, the bloom came off the importing side of the business, making cash-flow a concern.

“About two-and-a-half years ago, we stopped importing a lot of our materials,” says Erridge. “New construction died down and we weren’t able to turn the material around quick enough for it to make sense.

“Instead, we’ve negotiated good rates and good terms with the local distributors and the only thing we’re focusing on with distribution is the PaperStone.”

BRANCHING OUT

Flexibility remains the hallmark of MultiStone. Dale Erridge says one of the things he learned in retail is to give customers as many things as possible to fill their baskets; to do that, the company branched out in ways typical and uncommon of traditional stone fabricators and installers.

As new construction continued to dry up, the Erridges worked to add commercial work to their repertoire, and today the firm does almost half its business from what Dale Erridge describes as a mix of mostly light commercial jobs – such as hospitals and medical suites – along with some heavier projects.

The firm has also expanded what it will do for clients, both in terms of stone and in services.

“As business changed, we started to branch out and put our hands on as many things as possible,” says Dale Erridge. “We’ll do cladding; we do tile backsplashes and flooring.

“We started to provide not only the countertops, but we also provide the sink and the faucets and we bring in the plumbers and do the plumbing, too. Once we get a client, whatever they want – as long as it’s stone-related – we’ll find a way to service that client.”

MultiStone also reached out to a myriad of firms that supply cabinets for jobs around the county, sending tops as far away as Washington and the Midwest.

“We template the cabinetry here, fabricate it, dry-fit it, take it apart and then ship it and reassemble it,” Erridge explains. “Almost 80 percent of the work is out-of-state, and some of the projects are massive.”

The company has even gotten involved in doing a fountain for Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.

“You have to go out and find the work, because it’s not coming to you,” says Erridge. “Then, you’ve got to focus on making sure the client is happy.”

Not that the Erridges eschew more traditional methods of getting people through the door. Dale Erridge says the company’s trucks serve as rolling billboards; it’s also listed in the Yellow Pages, and the company’s Website is a good method for getting new people acquainted with MultiStone.

“However, servicing the existing client base is critical,” he says. “Whatever it costs – even if we lose money on a specific job – it’s important to keep our reputation strong and our referral business strong. We’ve got a very solid name in the market.”

ANYTHING IN STONE…AND MORE

Even with more than 10 years in the market and a company with solid name, however, Erridge admits the recent economy has been difficult. For instance, the company currently operates with more than 40 employees, but a shop set up to produce 1,100 ft² of countertops daily is averaging about 40-percent capacity.

And, the recession hit right at the point where the company prepared to expand its equipment inventory and get into digital templating and other high-tech machinery.

“We do partner with two companies: One has a CNC and the other has a waterjet,” Erridge explains. “If we do need access to those technologies, we subcontract the work out. Now, I think the next bit of machinery we’ll purchase will be a combination waterjet and bridge saw.”

Fortunately, he adds, Multi-Stone’s fabricators are well-schooled in hand-finishing.

“We have some very, very skilled craftsmen,” he says. “Our director of operations is also ex-military, and he runs a very tight ship. I can say, with confidence, we have the tightest quality control on our material selection and on our final product of any company in the industry.”

Also helping to keep quality high is the fact that with the exception of one team, all the company’s installation is handled in-house.

Still, Erridge admits that MultiStone downsized in response to the economy, and it’s a constant balancing act between maintaining cash-flow without shrinking so much that the quality of the fabrication, service and the entire overall experience suffers.

“We’ve tried to maintain as many people as possible to ensure we’ve got the help we need – not just the fabricators and installers, but the schedulers and the quality-control people,” he says. “We want to ensure we’re giving people a complete service, and it’s been very difficult.”

And, he adds, it’s meant that everyone increased their knowledge of products and offerings.

Erridge believes that things are starting to look back up in the Atlanta market. Not only has some new home construction returned, but the lighter commercial work remains strong. Some of the larger projects on which the company is bidding appear poised to start in earnest later next year.

The end of next year is about when Erridge believes MultiStone will make the transition to digital templating.

“It’s going to take a lot to transfer from a hands-on system to a digital one,” he says. “It’s really going to change the whole way we do each job, so it’s not easy. We’ll make a very gradual change, but it will definitely add value to our company.”

However, that’s not the only change the company has on its horizon. Although it closed its south Atlanta showroom a few years ago, plans are on the drawing board to partner with the local chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) to replace the north Atlanta facility with a full design center to feature expanded product lines and serve as a base for 10-12 designers.

“We’re really going to focus on our name, ‘Multi-Stone,’” he explains. We’ve tried to be a trusted advisor and we’ve tried to be the go-to company for stone, and we’ll continue that by branching out into other areas, such as outdoor kitchens clad with stacked stone. We’ll focus on doing pretty much anything in stone.”

As that comes to fruition, Erridge envisions splitting the company into residential and commercial operations run independently to better serve the expectations and demands of those two markets.

Further down the road, he sees the company branching into providing other services the design center may require.

“I can see us selling various appliances with quality installation and doing more trade work, such as floor installations,” he says. “Things that we’ve been subcontracting out we can bring in-house and do ourselves.

“We can always do things better, and ultimately, we’ll be a much larger company with a really distinctive brand name.”

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