Stoneworkz, Orlando, Fla.
- Published: 03 March 2009 03 March 2009
ORLANDO, Fla. – When it comes to fabrication, Stoneworkz President Michael Burress says that “I hope we’re a little different” from other companies in the field.
After looking at the company’s newest operations in Orlando, Fla., that’s some understatement. With an eye towards efficiency, the facility streamlines fabrication into a linear process that’s more just-in-time than assembly line. It’s not, by a long shot, your father’s stone shop.
That difference, in stressing the business and the manufacturing aspects, is the hallmark of Burress’ company, which originally opened its doors in Dallas in 1998. Now, with the Orlando shop, installers in several cities and a customer base that stretches all the way to Chicago, Burress continues to look at improving the process.
With all the production efficiency, however, Burress doesn’t see Stoneworkz replacing smaller shops that emphasize personal service and hand finishing, The company, he says, will be competitive in its chosen marketplaces because of reduced costs of manufacturing.
LEARNING FROM THE START
The emphasis on production runs deep in Burress’ background; he spent seven years with Toyota Corp. as a systems analyst. His introduction to stone came while working as a consultant; he and a colleague met for dinner one night with people looking to bring one of the first engineered-stone products – Stonite – to the marketplace.
“They were looking to put in Stonite franchises across the United States,” he explains. “I spent about two years researching it and meeting with them to become their first franchisee, and then decided it wasn’t quite the opportunity I was looking for.” (As it turns out, the company set to product Stonite – Techimar Industries – collapsed, and the manufacturing operations were bought by Cambria.)
In doing his research, however, Burress became acquainted with another natural-quartz product, Granirex. Learning that he could buy Granirex direct, Burress decided there was an opportunity with it in the Dallas market and began putting a business plan together.
It took another year before Stoneworkz opened its doors in a Dallas warehouse. And, despite all his careful research and planning, Burress admits the business hit a few speed bumps in its first months of operation.
“I understood the business, but I really didn’t understand fabrication,” he says. “That’s where the learning curve came in. There were a lot of mistakes early on, that’s for sure.”
Burress found one employee with experience in stone fabrication, and both of them learned on the job, he says. Within six months, the company had 10 employees and the operation was able to tap into the knowledge pool of workers in the hot Dallas stone market.
Even though Burress established a decision matrix and a spreadsheet to help him evaluate equipment from the various manufacturers (the company opened its doors with equipment from Marmo Meccanica) he says there was still a lot to learn.
“It required everything from learning the different edge profiles to the tooling to learning the material and how the machines work and the speeds to run them at,” he says. “However, it was excellent in that I developed a really good understanding of what it takes to fabricate the material from the shop perspective, and as from a traffic flow and management perspective, as well.”
Burress also learned from his customers. Stoneworkz opened its doors to fabricate Granirex, and he says he made that decision as a way to differentiate the company in the marketplace and because of what natural quartz had to offer.
“Then, customers started asking us to get into granite as well, so we started fabricating granite,” he says. “We saw it as just another product, another arrow in our quiver as we look to meet the needs of our clients.”
Burress’ initial interest in natural-quartz paid off. The DuPont Co. bought Granirex Inc. in late 1998 and brought out its own natural-quartz product, Zodiaq®; Stoneworkz formed an early and deep relationship with the company.
Burress estimates that today Stoneworkz’ production is about equally divided between granite and Zodiaq. When DuPont opened up its infrastructure, Burress was asked to open a second facility in Florida.
Rather than simply cloning the Dallas operation, Burress left the original operations in the hands of his brother-in-law and partner, Stephan Chancellor, while he relocated to Orlando. He took two years to evaluate what he’d learned in Dallas, and how it could be improved; he also he employed a Japanese manufacturing design firm.
“We wanted to go from being a fabricator to being a manufacturer,” he says “It changed our complete mindset and we went to a new level.”
Going through another round of research on equipment, Burress opted this time to go with Löffler Maschinebau GmbH machines in a much larger facility – 90,000 ft², rather than the 30,000 ft² of the Dallas facility.
“The Florida facility was designed specifically as a large-scale buffer environment where we could take on 1,000 vanities, turn them out in less than a week and still have the room to store the job in the system,” Burress explains. “We have a storage system with 500 locations that can pick up a job and deliver it to any machine at any time when the work flow allows. It’s all driven by the software.”
And, if 1,000 vanities sounds like an impossible workload, consider that the Orlando plant is designed so that, by utilizing 35 employees in each of two shifts, output can total up to 70 kitchens a day with an average size of 50 ft².
“We process all the jobs during the day, so the total employment runs around 80 people,” Burress explains. By comparison, the Dallas shop and its 20 employees create about nine kitchens a day in a single shift.
In the early days of the business, Burress spent his mornings in the shop and his afternoons on the road selling jobs. As soon as he could afford to hire a salesman, he did, but what’s really made the difference is getting out of sales entirely.
“We have an out-of-house marketing firm,” he explains. “They are our representatives in several venues right now, from home centers to production builders, and also with some commercial work. We have another marketing firm that represents us in the food-service industry.”
Not only has the company gotten a better response by having its products sold by people already integrated into the industry, but it allows sales to remain – for the most part – on a business-to-business level.
Burress says occasionally a friend of a friend will send a job to Stoneworkz, but home-center customers are sent to the company’s suppliers, or they can come on-site to choose a stone. The Florida location also has online viewing of slabs.
“That way we circumvent the homeowner having to travel,” he says. “They can sit back at home, go to our Website, view slabs, select one, and reserve it for production.”
Burress admits the Florida operation is, “a big mouth to feed.” The company continues to refine the operation, an approach Burress learned while working at Toyota. For instance, Stoneworkz has added shipping to its services, and has installation crews in eight major cities.
“We used to use a common carrier and we’ve migrated over to a private carrier,” he explains. “Again, we out-source that to a contract carrier, but they’re our own private trucks that are dedicated so the product does not leave the truck. One thing we found in looking at the trucking industry is that when you ship something, the product can leave the truck as many as eight times, and every time it leaves the truck there’s opportunity for breakage.”
The details on shipping aren’t only in the carrier, either. At the Orlando facility, for instance, finished pieces are shipped on custom pallets designed to reduce tip-overs and breakage; all pallets are wrapped in plastic that reduces exposure to UV radiation in sunlight.
While the Orlando plant is turning out product for customers as far away as Chicago, Burress says the location is most ideal for serving Florida, Atlanta and the Eastern Seaboard. Perhaps not surprisingly, Stoneworkz and its parent company (The Sierra Group) are now weighing other venues.
Naturally, the next iteration of Stoneworkz won’t simply clone the Florida plant. However, Burress is hopeful it will mark a significant advance in technology for the stone industry.
“I don’t want to give too much away,” he says. “That’s the intellectual properties side of the business. We have a patent on our plant in Florida, and this next one will be a completely new design that we hope to get down to – at most – 10 people putting out 35 kitchens a shift.”
And, while that may sound hugely ambitious, Burress says the Florida plant currently requires five days from when all the information is received for an order until the finished product ships.
“Our next milestone will be at three days,” he says. “When I hired the design firm to work on the Florida facility, I said that if they can build a car in eight hours, there’s no reason we can’t build a countertop in eight hours. That’s the approach we’ve taken all along.”
Within the next five years, Burress says he’d like to have a maximum of five such facilities in different parts of the country, each running about 70 kitchens a day.
The numbers alone are mind-boggling, but Burress says he doesn’t think Stoneworkz will replace the small shop craftsman or that he’s competing by selling an inferior product.
“It would be difficult for us to get down to the local level in some markets,” he says. “Sales are built on relationships, and we’re never going to be able to service a complete marketplace. There’s a need for all sized shops.”
Still, he says for everyone from large production builders to kitchen and bath shops, there’s a certain level of customer that’s going to like Stoneworkz and what it’s bringing to the table.
Certainly the company is not skimping on quality. Each piece may go through as many as 107 different inspections and there are standards and work reference pieces on the shop floor that employees are expected to meet, although every step is evaluated on whether it adds value to the product.
“We track every mistake in the plant and measure ourselves by those quality standards,” he says. “I believe in the old adage from the retail industry that if a customer has a bad experience, something like 13 people know about it, but if it’s a good experience, only one or two know about it. Each time we have a mistake we track it down to a machine or employee and either meet with the employee or try to figure out what’s happening with the machine.”
Burress says Stoneworkz certainly makes the occasional error – but, at the moment, the company is about 97 percent mistake-free, and he aims for every day to be a little bit better – and production a little bit faster – than the day before.
“There have been a lot of hiccups along the way, and the learning curve never ends,” he concludes. “That’s why we live with the philosophy of continuous improvement. When we hit an obstacle, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road; it’s an opportunity for us to learn and improve our process.”
This article first appeared in the August 2004 print edition of Stone Business. ©2004 Western Business Media Inc.