Keystone Marble and Granite, Milwaukee

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   MILWAUKEE – Imagine buying a business five years ago in an industry where you have no experience – and then see the market change.
   It may sound like a formula for failure, but it’s been anything but the F-word for Lloyd Pickart, president of Keystone Marble and Granite.
   Although the Milwaukee-based business came close to being on the ropes when he purchased it, Pickart did his homework in the two years while the sale was pending. He then rebuilt the operation on a solid foundation of technology and first-rate service.
   Today, he admits he has more competition than he envisioned five years ago. But, with a good mix of commercial and residential customers, Pickart’s confident he can continue to build the business into something his son will be proud to own some day.
  
BIG HURDLES
   Lloyd Pickart admits that he enjoys work. He started at an early age, and Keystone Marble and Granite is actually his third career.
   “I spent 17 years in a machine shop, and then the last 16 years I was a full-time firefighter,” he says. “But, I was looking for a small business to buy and ran across this one.”
   Pickart says he can’t even attribute his wife’s satisfaction with granite countertops to pointing him in the industry’s direction. In fact, since Pickart took over his business, he hasn’t found time to get his crew out to his house to upgrade his own kitchen.
   However, he says he did like the idea of being involved in the production of such a high-quality niche item.
   “For a lot of years I helped guys around the firehouse do roofing and siding,” he says. “But, those are necessities for people. What’s fun is selling a luxury item. It’s not the same as putting a roof on a house.”
   Pickart says he even liked the idea of having fussy customers who would only be satisfied with plenty of attention to detail.
   “I wanted to make a quality finished product,” he says. “That’s what drew me to it the most.”
   In a strange way, Pickart also fell into what ultimately proved to be a lucky situation with the purchase of the fabrication, which initially opened its doors in the early 1990s. Although the operation had problems, it took almost two years to complete the negotiations for the sale.
   “In those two years, I traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast and from north to south to see what the stone business was all about and where it was going,” he says. “I really spent two years researching the industry, and when I got that done I came back and bought the business.”
   What Pickart ultimately got for his money was a mixed bag. On the plus side, he purchased a 45,000-ft² building with plenty of shop and showroom space. He also inherited some big problems, not the least of which was the company’s reputation.
   “The first year I got beat up by just about everyone I saw,” he relates. “Every time I went out and said, ‘I’m from Keystone Marble and Granite, formerly Such-and-Such Marble,’ people threatened to throw me out of their buildings because the previous owners had gotten into so much trouble with deadlines.”
   The reputation the company had developed was one of the main reasons Pickart opted to change the business’ name. However, he says his predecessors weren’t the only ones at the time who seemed to struggle with deadlines.
   “When we started we had only three or four competitors,” he says. “But, it seemed like every builder I’d talk to would say that even if the granite people said the job would be ready in four weeks they automatically allowed six to eight weeks. That was one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome.
   “For the last five years, we’ve built our reputation strictly on having the job done when we say it’s going to be done, and making sure the quality we tell them about up front is there at the end. When we say a job is going to be done in four weeks, it’s going to be done in four weeks.”
  
MORE THAN TECHNOLOGY
   A great deal of getting a job done is the attitude from the top, and Pickart says he’s worked on that since the first time he walked in the door of his new business. However, he adds that, thanks to his industry research, he’s been able to address some of the problems that created those missed deadlines.
   The biggest problem Pickart saw was that his new company had what he calls, “an antiquated shop,” where most of the work was being done by hand.
   “The shop was set up for a lot of hand workers and lots of labor-intensive work,” he says. “We’ve gone through and redesigned it to accommodate a CNC and make it more automated.”
   The company currently operates a CMS Brembana Speed 3, and plans are in the works for adding a second one before the end of the year. At that time, Pickart anticipates adding a couple more installers, but otherwise expects his current staff of 11 (including eight people in the shop) to be able to handle the additional output. Currently the shop produces about 300 kitchens a year, plus a fair amount of commercial work.
   “When I say, ‘commercial work,’ I mean three- and four-story office buildings that have a granite or marble entrance way and elevator lobby,” Pickart explains. “Typically we do wall cladding, floors and any countertops those projects have.”
   Both with his commercial work and his kitchens, Pickart says his best sales are strictly word-of-mouth. And, that commitment to meeting deadlines helps a lot.
   “With the commercial work, one contractor picked us up and we did a couple buildings for him,” he says. “Then the word started traveling through that circle of contractors and we started getting more jobs like that. We really don’t spend any time advertising that work or searching it out. It seems to find us.”
   Interestingly, Keystone’s reputation hasn’t spread to contractors doing residential subdivisions. Pickart estimates he’s only fabricated three kitchens that were identical in the five years he’s been in business – not that he wouldn’t like that work.
   “We just haven’t gotten there yet,” he says. “Instead, what we find is that when we start working in a neighborhood, the word gets spread around. The biggest portion of our work comes because someone has talked to someone else about who did the kitchen. It goes to friends, in-laws and all kinds of shirt-tail relations.”
   Pickart also modestly believes he’s fortunate in having a product that he says speaks for itself.
   “I tell people that the next time they have company, at least half of the guests are going to walk into the kitchen and touch the countertop,” he says. “I tell them that people aren’t going to believe how nice it looks. You don’t get that with Corian® or Formica® or other surfaces. It’s only granite that has the depth that draws you into it.”
   Not that granite is the only stone Keystone features. The company does a substantial amount of marble for its commercial customers, and Pickart says a lot of Milwaukee-area architects are now designing with a mix of granite, slate and marble, especially for lobbies.
   Along with his commitment to deadlines, Pickart says technology has gone a long way toward making his shop what it is, just as it’s changing the rest of the industry. For instance, along with the company’s CNC, he says being able to make templates using a BVH Gregg digitizing system has helped speed up the operation.
   “A typical field measurement would take anywhere from three to five hours,” he says. “Now, we can do the same type of job in 30 to 45 minutes. Travel time, not the actual measurement, has become the issue.”
   Pickart says he doesn’t have the time these days to travel the country visiting other stone shops. Instead, he keeps up with what’s happening in the industry by attending different stone shows in the United States and Europe, and he believes technology is making the stone business easier.
   “When you jump on the technology end of it, you can be more precise with your timing,” he observes. “If we plug something into the CNC, we can tell pretty much to the half hour when the job is going to be done. When you’re dealing with hand labor, you can never get things that defined. It’s really changed our business drastically.”
  
BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE
   Pickart may have been paying particular attention to the technology side of the industry while he traveled the country, but he didn’t completely ignore some of the other aspects of running a business.
   For instance, within his building, approximately a third of the space is dedicated to showroom space; Pickart tries to keep at least 135 colors on hand.
   Pickart says he’s particular about how those slabs are shown, too. One of the things that bothered him on his travels was shops that would display their granite in 12” X 12” or even 6” X 6” tiles.
   “That really doesn’t do the granite justice,” he says. “You have to show samples that are relative to countertop size for someone to get an idea of what it’s going to look as a countertop. We show pieces that are at least 44” X 22”.”
   With so much covered space available to him, it would be understandable if the owner of Keystone Marble opted to do some direct importing of stone. He says he’s done some of that, but if there’s one positive he’s seen in the Milwaukee market in the past five years it’s that he doesn’t have to take that route.
   “When I bought the business, there wasn’t a single supplier here,” he says. “Now, we have four of them. When I opened up, I had a guy on the road almost constantly going to Chicago to pick up stone and bring it back. Now, I can call and pretty much have stone on my doorstep within two hours. It’s made my life a lot easier.”
   Not so positive, he says, is the appearance of more competition in the market, especially those whose focus isn’t necessarily on a quality product.
   “These days we’re getting a fair amount of calls from people needing us to come out and rectify something somebody else has done,” he says. “I’ve done a little bit of it, but I prefer not to. But, like I say, I want people to sell granite and the only way that’s going to happen is if they’re totally satisfied with it.”
   His own philosophy is that if there’s something that bothers a customer at the end of a job, make it right.
   “I want the person who walks into the kitchen and looks at that new counter to be absolutely impressed with it,” he says.
   Keystone’s reputation for quality and service is paying off. From just serving the Milwaukee area, Pickart says his crew has done a few jobs as far away as the southern part of Chicago and into northern Wisconsin.
   “Especially where we’ve gone north, it’s because someone had their kitchen done by us here in Milwaukee and now they want to upgrade a lake home or cottage with granite,” he says. “They don’t want hassle and they’ll tell us they understand there will be travel time and motel time involved. It’s an interesting break for the guys, and since I’m a pilot and take them out to do the field measurements, it makes it fun.”
   Not that Pickart isn’t have a good time as a business owner as he goes about his daily tasks. While he foresees a slowdown in the housing market over the next three to five years, he believes he’s positioned Keystone to withstand the effects of that slowdown.
   “We do as much countertop replacement as we do counters for new homes,” he says. “Our market is such that if new home sales drop, people are going to stay in their present homes and upgrade them. And, we have our commercial jobs. Traditionally, when residential work drops, commercial work increases, and vice versa.”
   And, with his current building, he has plenty of room to expand beyond a second CNC machine. One possibility he’s considered is selling upscale faucets and plumbing fixtures. However, his biggest goals are to keep the quality of his product high, and build the business for the future.
   “I have a 12-year-old son,” Pickart says. “I’m going to build the company strong enough and big enough that if he has the desire to step in and run it at some point it’s here for him.”
   And, if his son decides to take another route, that’s fine, too.
   “Then, I’ll probably just work forever, “ he says, “because I enjoy working and I love what I’m doing.”

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