Prestige Custom Stone, Crown Point, Ind.

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   CROWN POINT, Ind. – For three Indiana fabricators, turning out quality work became more important than their jobs – and eventually led to creating their own business.
   And, the focus on prime fabricating is working. The three partners of Prestige Custom Stone Products of Crown Point, Ind., grew their new shop from a single saw in a small rental space to their own 9,000 ft² building and 14 employees in less than five years.
   Randy Burgans, the company’s chief executive officer, says Prestige wants to be known as a company that’s conscientious and meticulous in providing the best possible products and service to its customers.
   And, while he says the firm’s growth has been gratifying, he and partners Chris Burgans and Paul Lay don’t ever want to grow so large that they lose that attention to detail and concern for the client.
  
ROCKY BEGINNINGS
   It’s not that the trio started out with the idea of running their own stone-fabrication company; all they wanted to do was turn out a quality product. Over time, however, they learned they’d have to do the first to accomplish the other.
   As Randy Burgans explains it, he and his younger brother started working for a monument company in the mid-1980s. It was then that they met Lay, who had started with the firm a couple years earlier and by that time was in a lower management position.
   At that point, Randy Burgans says their employer was primarily in the monument business, although the company also did some commercial building work as well. Then, about 10 years ago, the firm began getting requests to do some residential work.
   “The residential market was just in its infancy,” Burgans says. “There wasn’t a whole lot of information out there about granite countertops. It was a product that wasn’t really available to the general consumer, but it was for the very rich, and those were the homes we started going to.”
   Over time, of course, that began to change, and more people became aware of granite for use in residential applications. Their employer called on the three men to develop a residential countertop program for the business.
   “We developed most of the procedures and techniques for fabricating the countertops, and much of it was trial-and-error,” Burgans says. “We’d had a little experience, and we went out and developed a countertop program.”
   One thing the three shared was a belief that their program needed to focus on the quality of their product. However, they felt their boss had a different agenda and over time the three didn’t feel the company owner was listening to them.
   “It became a matter of him not letting his managers do their jobs and manage,” says Burgans.
   By that time Lay had become production manager and both Burgans brothers had also risen to management positions; Chris Burgans was the shop’s head craftsman, while his brother was the installation manager. Ultimately, Randy Burgans says their days seemed to be filled with putting out fires and listening to customer complaints.
   The men began to look for other opportunities, and even started doing some fabrication and installation work on the side for friends and acquaintances.
   “We felt it would be highly unethical to take jobs that were coming in for the company, but we knew people who asked us to do small jobs for them,” says Randy Burgans. “Then, the owner found out and showed us the door.”
   It was a frightening experience for the trio. All had mortgages and both Burgans brothers had young families. Although they didn’t feel ready to strike out on their own, their former employer blocked their bid for unemployment benefits. And, when they began doing some fabrication work in Lay’s garage, their former boss sent county officials to enforce regulations against home-based businesses.
   Then, Randy Burgans believes, providence took a hand. Previously, the men had looked at renting an 1,800-ft² space. What held them back was a three-year lease demanded by a real-estate agent. The day after the county shut down their operation in Lay’s garage, they decided to talk to the property’s owner.
   As it turned out, the landlord had fired the real-estate agent that very morning, because the agent kept insisting on the three-year lease. “The landlord said, ‘If you want, until you guys get going, I’ll write you a month-to-month lease,’” Burgans remembers.
  
GOOD TO GROW
   Even with that help on securing a location for their new business, Prestige Custom Stone Products got off to a very modest beginning. The partners had some hand tools, a Harris Accuglide saw and a 30-year-old fork truck bought for $900.
   “We had no investment capital,” says Burgans. “We were using our own credit cards to buy material and the few tools we needed to do the work. I was selling my plasma to get gas money. It happened that it (the plasma clinic) was on the way to the shop, but that’s how bad it was.”
   However, the new company did have a couple jobs on its books, and the reputations of the three men who had started it.
   “We approached a few storefront distributors,” he says. “We had developed some pretty good rapport and relationships with them, so we approached them and told them what we were doing and they were willing to take a chance on us.”
   From that, Burgans says Prestige landed a few good accounts and more orders started coming in. At the end of their first year in business, the partners were ecstatic to find they’d done just under $300,000 worth of business. Five years later, sales have climbed five-fold.
   “Things took off a lot faster than we anticipated,” Randy Burgans admits. “Every year we’ve shown an increase in sales.”
   As sales grew, so did the rest of the firm. Within nine months, the partners were also renting the adjoining section of the building from their obliging landlord. Later, they began renting space in an adjacent building, as well. Then, in October 2002, Prestige moved into its own 9,000-ft² building in a Crown Point industrial park.
   Burgans admits that the new building was a major step for the three men.
   “Through all our early growth we were able to operate debt-free,” he says. “However, at the time we were able to start this building, interest rates were at an all-time low, and we were able to get a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan and a tax abatement, and that was a big help.”
   While the building has a second floor in the front with private offices, and a first-floor showroom, it’s obvious that the 8,000-ft² shop is the highlight of Prestige’s facility.
   “The production floor was designed by the three of us with the proper drainage and everything,” Burgans says. “We have an overhead crane that runs the length of the building. We were also able to purchase some top-of-the-line equipment – a Gmm Techna 36-A bridge saw and a Thibaut 108-S, plus a Edgemarc Stinger router for roughing in edges.”
   Burgans says he spent several months shopping for the equipment, and tried to hit a happy medium between automation and hand-craftsmanship.
   “The Gmm allows us a greater degree of automation, while the Thibaut allows us to do more custom work more efficiently,” he says. “We’d had experience with the Thibaut, and by the time we bought our machine the new generation was integrated with computer touch screens and there’s more automation that wasn’t available on the older models. It’s been a real boon to our production and has increased our quality while decreasing the time we’re spending on very custom pieces.”
   However, Burgans is quick to add that most of the company’s edges are still hand-finished.
   “Our clientele is very particular and we cater to that,” he says. “A hand finish allows us more control and we’re able to keep our standard of having the edge finish shinier than the face.”
   As important to maintaining the company’s high quality standards is the fact that while the workforce at Prestige has now expanded to 14 people and growing, the partners still take active roles in the day-to-day output of their shop.
   “We’re all still very intimately involved in the goings-on here,” says Randy Burgans. “Chris still does some polishing in the shop and oversees the finishing end of things. Paul still does his thing maintaining the production schedule, and I’m still out measuring jobs.”
   Burgans admits he’d like to spend less time in the field and more in his office, though, and the company began interviews to fill a position that would do just that. However, he doubts the day will ever come that the three men don’t spend at least some time in actual production.
   “We came up that way, and it’s in our blood,” Burgans says. “Plus, it helps us to maintain the quality standards we’ve set for ourselves. What we’re striving for is that the quality of the product that goes out the door and the quality of the customer service we provide is unequalled by anybody else in this area.”
   Probably because they all started in the shop themselves, Burgans says the partners also try to provide a good work environment for their employees.
   “We want an environment where our employees are happy to come to work,” he says. “Consequently, we have a good group of skilled people who understand if it’s not quality it doesn’t go out the door. It just makes for a pleasant experience coming to work every day.”
  
GREAT SYNERGY
   If there’s one thing the partners are certain of, it’s that quality sells. In the five years they’ve been in business, their advertising budget has consisted almost exclusively of a few flyers they’ve had printed for home-and-garden shows.
   “We’ve been blessed in the sense that the people we first went around to see – the different cabinet shops and lumberyards where we’re featured – are very well known in this area and they’ve funneled a tremendous amount of business to us,” Burgans says. “A lot of the contractors who’ve bought countertops through them have told other contractors about us. We also have a lot of walk-in customers, and a lot of referrals from our residential customers.”
   That has created a service area for the company that extends on the one side from the northern suburbs of Chicago and on the other into southern Michigan.
   And, while granite is certainly Prestige’s specialty, the company hasn’t shied away from other stones. Also on the product list are marble, limestone, soapstone and DuPont Surfaces’ Zodiaq®.
   “We’re fully a custom shop,” Burgans says. “Most of the monument work we started with was custom and that’s what we got used to doing. We’re not afraid to try new areas and new things. For instance, right now we’re in the middle of doing a Korean War memorial.”
   That’s been a good approach, especially with soapstone. By offering the stone, Burgans says they’ve gotten numerous jobs from people who’ve talked with other firms that don’t do it or charge high prices for the work.
   “It’s really a very easy material to work with,” he says. “We fabricate custom soapstone sinks, and while we can outsource it, this way we have control over how they’re made. When we first got into it we played around with it for over a winter until we were comfortable with it, but then we were able to go ahead and market it.”
   If there’s one problem for the partners, it’s that they’re actually too busy. Despite running a second sawing shift and installing as many as two or three kitchens a day, a typical job takes four-to-six weeks to complete. The partners would like to cut that lead-time by about half.
   “For now, our primary focus is just to maintain our overall reputation for quality and customer service,” says Burgans. “We need to grow to the point where we can handle the influx of business we do have and get our turnarounds back down.”
   The partners would also like to begin stocking some materials. Currently, they work with several slab warehouses in the Chicago area, but with an empty lot across the street from the shop, Burgans says future plans call for a yard with stones that don’t change much in grain structure and color.
   “We’ve never had any negative feedback from sending our customers to the slab warehouses,” he says. “Often, they come back saying, ‘I didn’t realize there were so many different colors,’ or, ‘I got to pick my own stone and I know what I’m going to get.’ However, having some slabs here would be just another level of service we’d like to be able to provide to our customers.”
   Whatever direction Prestige takes in the future, the partners will, no doubt, keep their customers uppermost in their thoughts, even if they don’t always agree on everything. While Randy Burgans says the three men have great synergy and, “I can’t imagine not being in business with Chris and Paul,” he adds that they have been known to bump heads on occasion.
   “We have all kinds of discussions and disagreements, but we’ll talk things out,” he says. “We realize where each of our strengths are, and usually we’ll defer to that strength. Nobody plants their feet at the end of the day and says, ‘I’m not doing it that way.’”
   By taking a conservative course that’s included plenty of testing the waters on new products and a low amount of debt, Randy Burgans says that – after five years –  Prestige Custom Stone Products is doing much better than its principals ever anticipated.
   “We come from a Christian background and we prayed a lot about the decisions we were thinking about and we made, and we believe the Lord answered those prayers,” he concludes. “But, yes, it’s absolutely beyond our wildest dreams.”

This article first appeared in the November 2003 print edition of Stone Business. ©2003 Western Business Media Inc.