Rust Brothers Custom Works, Minneapolis

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MINNEAPOLIS – Two important things to know right away about Rust Brothers Custom Works: First, the four partners aren’t brothers.

Second, their color – if determined by their product mix – is a more-appropriate green.

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The Rust Brothers repertoire is an eclectic mix of cabinetry and countertops, wholesale and retail, all crammed in a very small space. Although they all bring different strengths to the partnership, Jason Branson, Scott Brown, Troy Keyes and Brady Lenzen share an interest in sustainability and respect for the environment.

The original “brothers,” Brown and Lenzen, started with an emphasis on custom cabinetry and light remodeling. Keyes’ specialty is historic restoration. Branson joined the operation four years ago, bringing with him a background in countertops and cabinetry, along with a major retail client.

However, as time progressed, the business skewed toward countertops. Today, when Rust Brothers talks about making them, they’re not just talking fabrication; while 50 percent of their work is with natural stone, they’ve already launched two lines of green countertop materials, and more are on the way.

FOCUSED CUSTOM SHOP

Take four youngish guys, a 3,000 ft² work space, and plenty of ideas, and the end result is, more often than not, laughter.

“It’s a bit of an in-house joke that since we’re not driving fancy new sports cars, it must be satisfaction that keeps us going at this point,” says Lenzen.

“The get-rich-quick approach just hasn’t been working for us,” adds Branson.

It’s not that they aren’t trying. But, as Lenzen points out, it’s not easy building market share – even with green products – without a substantial amount of capital backing. A year from now – certainly five years from now – they expect to be in a different place, but for now they’re a tightly focused custom shop.
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The company is definitely a work in process. After starting out with custom cabinetry, courtesy of Brown and Lenzen, things began to change when Branson became a Rust Brother four years ago.

Although his college degree is in history and political science, his countertop background is mainly in concrete and Richlite®, a paper-based fiber composite manufactured in Tacoma, Wash., by Richlite Co.

Branson says the more he worked with concrete countertops, the more he became disillusioned with the material.

“Just in working with them, I realized that there are too many issues as far as fragility and staining,” he says. “There are also limitations with the color palette, and I decided to move away from that.”

Branson had been doing countertop fabrication for Minneapolis-based Natural Built Home, which bills itself as an eco-friendly building supply company. Its products range from bamboo flooring to non-toxic paint to paper-based wall coverings printed with water-based inks. It also offers water-saving plumbing fixtures and green countertops.

By joining Rust Brothers, Branson brought Natural Built Home as a client, along with some interior designers with whom he’d worked. Today, Lenzen estimates 50 percent to 70 percent of Rust Brothers’ business comes from Natural Built Home customers looking for cabinets or tops.

Another one of Rust Brothers’ product lines is green cabinetry which it private-labels for Natural Built Home. However, they’re also filling that company’s need for green countertop materials.

“After I moved away from concrete countertops, I got interested in resin casting,” says Branson. “The first or second countertop job I did with Rust Brothers involved doing some recycled glass and zero-VOC (volatile organic compound) resin. And, we’ve continued to grow in that direction.”

A combination of circumstances (particularly Rust Brothers’ success with its own products and Natural Built Home’s problems with a nationally-known manufacturer of resin-based recycled material) helped the brothers take a prominent place in the supplier’s showroom when it comes to countertops.

“We were playing with the stuff, making it and installing jobs,” says Branson. “We kept telling Natural Built Home they should look at our product. Finally they gave us a shake, and out of all the recycled-glass countertops they have in their showroom, we probably get a majority of the sales.”

EXPLOITING SKILLS

Branson is quick to add that Rust Brothers’ success isn’t due to any business model moving the partners forward. If anything, they stared out with no firm goal in mind.

“Basically, we know what our skill sets are and we’ve exploited them,” he says. “At the same time, we’re out there experimenting with new ideas and new materials and really focusing on the green market.”

As with natural stone, it’s easy at first glance to think that cabinets are always green, but Branson says that isn’t always true. However, as with the interest in most everything else with a greenish cast to it these days, the availability of materials for green cabinetry has grown tremendously in recent years.

While wood is certainly the key component of green cabinets, it can also encompass everything from the materials in the adhesives to the use of low-VOC and water-based finishes to the edge-banding material on the casework.

“Within the line of cabinetry we private label for Natural Built Home, we try to constrain the wood species to those that are most likely going to be regional to our area,” Branson says. “A lot of the distributors in our area have come around and have started to stock FSC- (Forest Stewardship Council) certified hardwoods.”

As for solidly Midwestern Minneapolis being a hotbed for the green movement, Branson says he has nothing to compare it to. However, he says green clients are definitely keeping Rust Brothers busy.

“We’ve seen things change a lot just in the last three to four years,” he says. “Green products are on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days – industry-wide. Five or six years ago, designers were saying the green movement was taking root on both coasts and it would be only a matter of time before it became hot in the Midwest, and that’s definitely true.”

Branson adds it’s also a misperception that green products are only for people in the upper-income brackets.

“When we go out on installs, the types of homes we go into are often those of people with median-range incomes,” he says. “Quite often, the decision to go green is more about perceptions of what green is, and how important it is to them personally. Yes, they might end up buying something that carries a higher price point than other alternatives, but they’re voting with their pocketbooks.”

Besides Natural Built Home, Lenzen says a lot of the company’s clientele comes from word-of-mouth, both from end clients and from designers, architects and general contractors with whom Rust Brothers has worked.

It’s those connections that provide the bulk of Rust Brothers’ work with both natural stone and quartz surfaces. Although Branson says there’s no denying stone is a natural product, it doesn’t necessarily match the perception of sustainability from some people – particularly Natural Built Home customers.

“There’s also a ton of competition out there for stone,” he says. “It’s probably not seen as a cost-effective market for them to get into.”

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Rust Brothers has also done well at the Minnesota State Fair in recent years, displaying its wares in the Eco-House inside the Eco-Pavilion. Last summer, the company launched its new Nuxite™ product – crushed walnut shells in a clear VOC-free resin that can be fabricated like solid-surface materials – to what Lenzen calls “astonishing results.”

“We’re still in the phases of doing product testing before we start to release it to potential customers,” he adds. “But, it’s a very sustainable product that looks a lot like cork – or Grape-Nuts®.”

And, having its own line of green countertop materials has started the company reaching out to distributors, as well.

“We’ve started to look at distribution relationships, and we’re pretty confident we’re going to start to realize some definite changes in our sales volume through the relationships we’re building,” says Lenzen.

DUAL NATURE


The dichotomy of Rust Brothers becomes most apparent when they start talking about distribution relationships, because they still are – at least physically – a small shop doing hand-crafted work.

Although, notes Branson, “That’s what the marketing for the recycled glass speaks to.”

Their shop really is just 3,000 ft², with an additional 1,000 ft² devoted to storage.

“Everything is on wheels,” says Branson. “Our shop is as flexible as we can make it, given our current space constraints.”

“When we need to do a big cabinet job or a large countertop job, as soon as the pieces are made, we can put them in storage,” adds Lenzen. “That kind of keeps the shop open.”

Because they’re selling a mix of products, there is no typical week for Rust Brothers, although Lenzen says their schedule is driven – at least in part – by what Natural Built Home tells its customers when selling jobs.

“We have to service them based on specified lead times, and we try to stick to industry standards as far as turning around countertops in two-to-three weeks,” says Lenzen. “And, we turn around our recycled glass countertops – which are made to order – in three-to-four weeks.”
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“Right now, we’re in the process of doing a set of countertops for a new Whole Foods store in Schaumberg, Ill.,” says Branson. “This week we’ve been casting for the coffee/beer bar. That’s about 120 ft² of finished materials. It will take us about five-to-seven days to have that all cast and polished and put through our production process.

“Then, we will send it over to our CNC partner, which is just down the street from us,” he adds. “Pollux Mfg. will convert it into finished pieces.”

Not surprisingly, Rust Brothers’ relationship with Whole Foods is an important one. Branson says the brothers have developed a good relationship with one of Whole Foods’ store fixture manufacturers in St. Paul, and while the organic grocer is especially interested in using recycled glass material in its store counters, for its restrooms the choice often tends toward quartz surfaces, particularly DuPont’s Zodiaq®.

Because their own shop holds strictly hand-tools at this point, and they have no showroom, Branson says the Rust Brothers-Pollux Mfg. relationship is also a beneficial one.

“We sell natural stone, just as we’ve done jobs with engineered stone,” he says. “We have the ability to offer granite and Zodiaq because of them, and they have the ability to sell our Element Surfaces™.”

“It really depends on our volume, too,” says Lenzen. “We really prefer to have the conversions done outside our shop, but if the volume is there we can do a whole package of templating, manufacturing, fabricating and installing.”

The Element Surfaces line is where Rust Brothers feels its long-term future lies. The line currently has 14 different designs incorporating different combinations of colors and sizes of recycled glass and named for counties throughout Minnesota.

It’s available in 2cm and 3cm thicknesses, with alternative thicknesses available on request.

Branson says their five-year business goal is to have Element Surfaces operating as more of a formal manufacturer, including moving into a facility where both casting and polishing can easily be done in-house.

“I hope it doesn’t take that long,” he adds. “It’s all going to depend on how we can leverage our relationships with sales representatives and distributors, and if we can grow without over-committing on sales.”

Until then, there’s the satisfaction of a job well-done to think about. And, Rust Brothers is confident that the demand for green products will continue to grow. For instance, Branson notes the business’ sales dropped only fractionally in 2009 when some of its more-conventional competitors were going out of business.

He also says the company was buoyed by having Element Surfaces specified for the countertops of a Microsoft® Corp. expansion in North Dakota, although a portion of the final work was value-engineered to other surfaces during construction.

“We’ve seen the projections from different outfits over the last few years,” Branson concludes. “When it comes to LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) points for products, things are definitely in our favor, especially for people within our 500-mile radius.”

© 2010 Western Business Media


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