Imagine Stoneworks, Bend, Ore.

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   BEND, Ore.  – The owners of Imagine Stoneworks ask their customers to “imagine the possibilities,” but it’s advice they’ve also taken to heart.
   With backgrounds in geology and marketing, partners Rob Angelo and Trent Gardner found themselves attracted to the stone market. And, they realized they could make up for  lack of experience through the use of today’s computerized production equipment.
   Armed with a CNC machine, a saw and a commitment to customer service, the two opened their doors in this central Oregon city a little more than a year ago. Already they’ve doubled their employee roster, and they’re beginning to add developers to their customer base of individual homeowners seeking a higher-end custom look.
  
SEEING OPPORTUNITIES
   Imagine Stoneworks might not have even gotten off the ground had Angelo’s parents not been in the process of building a home when he visited them in Sedona, Ariz., a few years ago.
   Although Angelo and Gardner became friends while both attended the University of Montana, they’d gone their separate ways after graduation. Gardner, with a marketing management degree, worked for newspapers in the Northwest, while Angelo applied his geology degree to gold exploration.
   “I spent seven years as a geologist, traveling mostly in South America, Mexico and the United States,” says Angelo. “However, I got tired of the travel and safety concerns abroad and decided to start a business. My parents were building a house at the time and getting some granite put in. I thought it would be something I’d be interested in doing.”
   After inviting Gardner to join him in the venture, the two began lining up investors for their new business and doing research. One big question was where to locate the company, and Gardner’s background came in handy as they thoroughly investigated what eventually became a dozen different locales.
   “We felt we pretty much had the opportunity to put the business anywhere we wanted to in the western United States,” says Angelo. “We looked at the Tri-Cities of Washington; western Montana; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Sedona and Scottsdale, Ariz.; Las Vegas; Bend and a couple smaller communities.”
   In the end, although they knew no one in Bend at the time, the two felt the city of 68,000 offered the best opportunity for the new business.
   “We chose it because of the explosive growth that’s going on right now,” says Angelo. “It’s growth we don’t see stopping any time soon.”
   The partners also engaged in researching the best equipment for the planned operation. That involved spending time with fabricators in Spokane, Wash., and Southern California, as well as attending the Coverings show.
   “We didn’t grow up working in the countertop and stone-fabrication business, so we needed to get some machinery that was able to take some of the legwork out of doing things by hand,” says Angelo. “That took us right to the CNC machines.”
   Ultimately, the partners opted to buy an Intermac Masterstone CNC machine and a Master saw from AGM USA.
   “A lot of that had to do with AGM’s customer service,” says Angelo. “Since this was all kind of new to us, we really needed the support right off the bat to help us get though some things initially.”
   Imagine Stoneworks opened for business in a 5,000 ft² space in an industrial park  on Oct. 1, 2003, and the two men haven’t stopped learning – or growing – since.
  
BETTER SERVICE
   Angelo and Gardner may have been new to the actual production and installation of natural stone, but they started their business with some definite ideas about how to set themselves apart from competitors. Leading the way: customer service.
   Angelo says he and his partner went into the business with firm ideas on how to best meet customer needs, and that’s been one of their strengths since their first day in business. For him, it stems back to his formative years growing up on the East Coast.
   “My father was the president of a small savings and loan, and he kept it small to provide better customer service,” says Angelo. “Customer service is the biggest thing we offer; it’s just terribly important.”
   It’s certainly the reason why the partners have 50 to100 slabs in stock and under cover at their facility.
   “Right now, we’re the only company in central Oregon that stocks any material, and that really helps us,” says Angelo. “People here don’t want to take the time to drive to Portland to look for stone. It’s three hours up and three hours back, plus the time at the warehouse, and people just don’t have that.”
   Having slabs on-hand has also proven to be a tremendous marketing tool for the young business. Angelo says it really isn’t that difficult, given the availability of three suppliers in Portland with trucks going through Bend every seven to 14 days.
   If necessary, however, the partners will make a special trip to Portland to pick up a slab.
   Angelo says that, by stocking slabs, it’s also helped the two men develop a better idea of their market and customer demand.
   “That, and our local stone rep have taught us a lot about slab selection,” says Angelo. “We’ve noticed that the middle- to higher-end slabs have been going faster than the basic standbys like Baltic Brown. People want different materials and we’re trying to focus more on the middle to upper-end stones that are different.”
   That idea of “different” stones also extends beyond Imagine’s granite base into other natural stones available as slabs, including marble and slate. The showroom features a piece of onyx mounted on an A-frame and backlit for decoration.
   The idea of customer service is a big reason behind the business’ name as well.
   “The name is what we are,” Angelo says. “We like to think that if our customers can imagine a particular job, we’re going to be able to do it for them in natural stone. We’re willing to go the extra mile to try different things.”
   While Angelo says the company’s specialty remains kitchen countertops, those other things have included floor-to-ceiling showers, fireplace hearths and surrounds, tub decks and bathroom vanities.
   Still another area the partners are actively involved in is furniture.
   “We work with a local metal artist, and he helps us design furniture,” says Angelo. “We have some pretty neat bar stools where we’ve used round sink cutouts and incorporated them into stools to match the bar in a house. We also have a beautiful reception desk here that’s brushed metal and an Absolute Black top, and we’ve made end tables and coffee tables.”
  
IMAGINING SUCCESS
   Still, the company’s bread-and-butter remains kitchen countertops, and Angelo says what continues to impress customers is the partners’ active involvement in the entire fabrication process. At least one of the two men is involved in every step of a project, whether it begins with a customer coming to the shop or the company being called to a jobsite.
   Of course, the partners’ preference is for people to visit the shop. Although their showroom space is less than 10 percent of their facility, Angelo says the backlit onyx isn’t the only effort the two have made to get the small area to sparkle.
   “We have all our slab samples, but we also have easels that show photo samples of our work,” he says. “We also have a reception bar, leather furniture and some of our stone and metal furniture. And, we have a bathroom with a slab floor and floor-to-ceiling shower all in marble.”
   Jobs are bid either the same or the next day, and as soon as a bid is signed and a deposit received, the templating is completed. While templating is currently done by hand, Angelo says one of the partners’ goals is to incorporate an electronic templating system into the operation as soon as feasible.
   “We tell people to expect their countertops to be placed within two weeks of templating,” Angelo says.
   Keeping up with that pace has required the company to add two employees. Their first employee – added six months after Imagine opened for business – previously worked for another fabricator in the Bend area who had closed his doors.
   “He brought a lot of knowledge to the company, especially regarding installation,” says Angelo. “Installation was one of the bigger learning curves we had to get over as quickly as possible. We’ve since gotten enough work in kitchens that it’s pretty much second nature at this point.”
   Beyond that, Angelo says the steepest point of the learning curve was just making the right contacts to get the business launched.
   “Trent and I knew no one when we came here,” says Angelo. “It was a matter of getting the name out, getting those first projects done, and showing people – especially the builders -- that we can do the job and be good at that we do.”
   While the two like to believe their work speaks for them, they’ve also marketed aggressively, utilizing ads on local radio and in specialty publications in the Bend area, as well as doing some sponsorships and attending area home shows.
   “We just did a local home show here in town and we’re starting to get more local individuals to come in and say, ‘We want to work with you guys,’” Angelo says. “That’s helping get our name out to the population.”
   It’s also netted the partners some jobs working for developers in local subdivisions. One has 41 kitchens and another will require more than 50 specialty islands.
   “I think the name has helped us take off, and it’s getting into the community,” says Angelo. “When I tell people what I do they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard you guys do great work.’ Then I know the marketing is working.”
   While Imagine Stoneworks passed the 12-month mark so critical to new businesses, Angelo admits the partners are still performing a balancing act between pumping out jobs and keeping the overhead low. However, they’re already looking to the future.
   Not only would they like to add a couple hundred square feet of space to the showroom, but the two men are already talking about expanding their product line into tile and quartz surfaces.
   While the natural quartz might help the duo work more closely with the Lowe’s Home Improvement store that’s recently opened in Bend, Angelo says also on the list of possible directions for expansion is growing the capabilities of the shop’s CNC machine to add edges.
   However, Angelo says he and Gardner aren’t striving to become a huge stone presence in central Oregon, or grow too large for their area.
   “We don’t aspire to be the biggest,” Angelo says. “We don’t even want to be like our huge competitors coming out of Portland. We want to be a modest-sized company that strives to do excellent work and provides the customer service Trent and I have grown up appreciating.”
   For now, though, Angelo believes the partners’ hard work is generating results and has them where they want to be.
   “It’s been a challenge, and scary at times, but I think we’re over that initial hump of entering the market and not knowing anybody,” he concludes. “The legwork of calling on design firms and builders is paying off. Our fabrication skills and the CNC have allowed us to get a name in the community, and it’s a positive one.
   “I hope to keep it that way.”

This article first appeared in the December 2004 print edition of Stone Business. ©2004 Western Business Media Inc.