The Denver Marble Company, Englewood, Co.
- Published: 25 February 2009 25 February 2009
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – If the history of The Denver Marble Company started when Bernie Polak first turned the door key as the owner in the 1970s, it’d still be older the most of the competition … but that’s only part of the story.
The Denver Marble Company actually dates back well before that – to 1891, to be exact. The firm’s current vice president, Polak’s son, Scott Polak, believes the company is not just the oldest such business in Colorado, but possibly in the entire Rocky Mountain region.
That’s not to say there haven’t been ups and downs over the years, such as a near bankruptcy during the Great Depression – and, from time to time, a heavy emphasis on ceramic tile. Under the ownership of the Polaks, however, the company tied its fate to natural stone.
Rather than focusing on the countertop boom that’s fueled so much of the industry, Denver Marble pursued a mix of commercial and higher-end residential projects. It’s a strategy that not only brought in the work – last year, it also earned a Pinnacle Award from the Marble Institute of America.
Scott Polak is happy to explain that the birth of The Denver Marble Company was, “a little before my time.” The family aspect of the business at the start, however, wasn’t much different than it is today.
“Three brothers from Ohio came to Denver and established the business as the Denver Mantle and Tile Company,” he says. “Back then, they normally did ornate ceramic-tile work. While they did marble work, it was a luxury usually reserved for the wealthy.”
Among the upper-class customers for which the brothers did work was the historic Brown Palace Hotel with natural stone, including onyx. In those days, the shop was one block from the Brown Palace in downtown Denver.
The brothers continued on with the company into the Great Depression, when the construction trade fell on hard times. Despite the fact that Denver Mantle was working on Denver’s landmark City and County Building at the time, the firm almost went into bankruptcy before being sold.
So, in the 1930s, the company began emphasizing ceramic-tile work. That was still the case when Bernie Polak, a student at Regis College (now Regis University) in Denver, went to work for the company in 1955.
“My dad spent 20-plus years working in all aspects of the business,” says son Scott. “He worked his way through the shop and then into the field. As a member of the union he started as a helper and then became a marble mason. Then, in 1977, he bought the business.”
At that time, the senior Polak chose to take his company in a different direction.
“When my dad took over the business, lots of companies were installing ceramic tile,” says Scott Polak. “He decided he didn’t want to compete on the tile market. He pulled us out of tile, changed the name to The Denver Marble Company, and we began to concentrate on high-end marble work at that time.”
When Scott Polak uses the word, “we,” he means it. The senior Polak raised his sons Greg, Mark and Scott in the business, and – with Bernie Polak’s unofficial retirement a couple years ago – Greg Polak has assumed the role of company president.
“We feel like we’ve been in the business our whole lives,” says Scott Polak. “We all worked here during high school. We all started as shop hands and truck drivers. We worked in the shop, in the field and then worked our way into the office.”
That’s not to say their father isn’t still keeping an eye on the business. Scott Polak explains that when their mother passed away about five years ago, their father decided to take life a little easier.
“He lives in Atlanta now, but he flies in every couple weeks to keep his hand in,” says his son.
Scott Polak says his father’s decision to change the company’s name and focus on high-end marble work was a good one. Rather than producing multiple kitchens every day, the company does a mix of million-dollar-plus commercial projects and high-end residential work.
“We like to do more interesting and intricate work,” says Scott Polak.
Among the company’s landmark commercial projects are installing the cladding on Denver’s 52-story United Bank Building, the interior flooring for the Park Meadows Mall in Littleton, Colo., and removing the failing marble cladding on the Colorado National Bank building in downtown Denver and replacing it with granite.
Just this past summer, the company completed the renovation of Skyline Park, a downtown Denver area built in the 1960s.
“The original design was not easily accessible and had not been maintained,” Polak explains. “It wasn’t a nice place to eat lunch or take your family to. The contractor leveled the site, and we installed 40,000 ft² of sandstone plus more than 20 containers of granite from China for the planters, steps and benches.”
As a union shop, the company has good access to first-rate installers. Polak says a big commercial job might require as many as 100 people, although the firm has a core of about a dozen installers it likes to keep busy.
However, large commercial jobs are only part of the Denver Marble story. The company is also kept busy doing high-priced residential jobs, not just in the Denver area, but into the state’s ski resorts and, subsequently, around the country.
For instance, the company works with an Aspen, Colo., developer who builds one or two spec homes there each year.
“Every year the jobs get a little more intricate and complicated,” says Polak. “He knows what we installed on the last job and he designs more detail into the next project.”
It’s those jobs that have taken the Denver Marble name well beyond the company’s home base. Polak says the firm has done work from California to New York.
“Many of our clients have vacation homes in the mountain ski resorts,” he explains. “After we do their job in Colorado, they’ll ask us to install stone in another of their vacation properties, or even their primary residence.”
Reputation is very important to the company, and with 115 years of history behind it, it’s one of the best sales tools. While most of the company’s residential work literally walks in the door, Polak and his brother Greg are a bit more-aggressive when it comes to larger commercial projects.
“Information on these project is available in the local plan rooms, the Internet or the general contractor’s office; we review the jobs we’re interested in, get the plans and bid,” says Scott Polak. “With quite a few of them the architects know what we’re capable of, and know our expertise in stone and they’ll ask us to come in at the design stage to talk and give our insights on how to anchor cladding or what the best stone is for a particular application.”
Not only does that get the company’s foot in the door early on, but Polak says many of the company’s bigger jobs are negotiated with the owner or architect from the very beginning.
That was certainly the case with the project that earned Denver Marble a Pinnacle Award in the commercial division, with the flooring, staircase and wainscot walls for the Aurora Municipal Center in Aurora, Colo.
“The designer wanted a starburst logo in the main lobby floors,and she also knew our waterjet capabilities,” Polak says. “The architect was one I’d worked with many times in the past. She told me what colors and textures she was looking for, we came up with the stones for it, did some AutoCAD® drawings and landed the job.”
The company’s Flow International waterjet sets it apart from many of its competitors, but Polak says Denver Marble has always been focused on having first-rate equipment because, “equipment is what makes our job easier.”
Currently the company has more than 20 shop employees to operate its two bridge saws – a GMM and a Terzago Macchine – a Pro-Edge and a Wizard from Park Industries, a radial-arm polisher and a lathe for turning columns, as well as the waterjet at its 12,000-ft² shop in Englewood, Colo.
“We have a nice variety of equipment that allows us to do many different things,” says Scott Polak. “We do a lot of waterjet cutting outside the stone industry. We cut glass and mirrors for glass companies in town, and metalwork for signage, letters and company logos.”
Having good equipment might have contributed to making that job an award-winner, but for the project cited in the residential interior/exterior category – a fireplace in a private home in the upper class Denver neighborhood of Cherry Hills – Polak believes what set it apart was the extra effort put in by Denver Marble’s staff.
For this project, the designers had already selected the limestone they wanted to use (and had it on-hold in California), then came to the company with a concept.
“It was all heavy-molded, ornate limestone work,” Polak explains. “That’s one of the things we specialize in. We can laminate and cut the stone so it appears solid, but it’s veneered. Rather than telling the customers they’d have to order more material from France, we looked outside the box and said, ‘This is what we can do.’”
Polak attributes some of the project’s success to the shop’s draftsman, who’s skilled at visualizing a project in two dimensions and translating it to AutoCAD. And, in this case the company also made three different Styrofoam® mockups before coming up with a design that satisfied everyone.
“It’s not uncommon for us to do that,” he says. “After we were happy with the way the stone was going to look, we submitted it to the designers who showed it to the owners. Then, we listened to their feedback and went from there.”
While that particular job involved a designer, most residential projects usually involve a homeowner who walks in to the company’s offices and sits down with Greg or Scott Polak (or the company’s two inside sales people) to talk about edge details, finishes and whether a waterjet-cut mosaic might serve as a backsplash.
One thing the company doesn’t do is stock an extensive line of stone in its own yard. Scott Polak notes that when his dad first took over the business, there weren’t any slab wholesalers in the Denver area, and Bernie Polak would make buying trips to California to send stone back by the truckload.
Now, with many large supply houses in the area, that’s not necessary, and customers have the option of selecting their slabs locally.
Of course, the company does keep a few slabs on hand to get customers thinking, but many of them are stones Denver Marble has imported.
“With commercial jobs, we usually import directly,” says Scott Polak. “We brought in close to 50 containers from China in 2004, and we also import from Italy and Brazil. We’re not doing anything like 10 containers a month, but as the need arises, we bring it in. Usually, when we import containers for a specific project, there is extra space available in them, so we fill them up with slabs of product we want.”
Rather than working on volume, Polak says the company enjoys working with each customer as an individual, getting as much satisfaction from doing a remodel as new construction. The staff even enjoys working on repairs, which are often referred to the firm because of its expertise.
“You don’t know how many times we’ll get a customer saying they called three other companies before being told to call Denver Marble,” he says. “We take the time to go out and look at their broken table and say, ‘We can fix this.’
“This isn’t our most-profitable work, but it’s important to help these people out. You never know when a customer whose table you repaired a year ago is going to have a bigger project on their hands, and they will remember that you helped them.”
Perhaps ironically, given the company’s strong background in natural stone, Denver Marble has recently become a fabricator of quartz surfaces. Polak explains that a local distributor came to the company early last year and talked about the need for a good quality fabricator who could get jobs out in a timely manner.
“We said we’d try it, and now we are fabricating three or four engineered jobs a week,” he says. “They bring the templates, we pick up the material, cut it and load it onto their trucks to take and install.”
While he estimates Denver Marble only did one job of their own in engineered stone last year, fabricating such jobs is, “a nice little niche for us to get into.”
But, ultimately, Scott Polak says the company has always been looking for the right niches to fill. It’s just that right now, there are so many of them.
“Commercial construction is definitely booming right now, and that’s going to help keep our business strong,” he says. “As the price of stone comes down, there are going to be a lot more lobbies with stone floors and walls.
“The residential market may be a little soft right now, because there are so many fabricators, and they are doing work so cheap that some of those companies will eventually burn out and disappear.”
Certainly, with so much history behind it, Denver Marble is in the business for the long haul. And, while Polak admits that with a new generation of owners the company is currently in something of a transition, he’s confident it will remain when some of its competitors are no longer around.
“We’re a strong, middle-sized company and I think we’ll continue to grow,” he concludes. “The American usage of stone is still small compared with how it’s used in the rest of the world. There are a lot of good opportunities here, and our strength is our versatility.”
This article first appeared in the February 2005 print edition of Stone Business. ©2005 Western Business Media Inc.