Intertile Natural Stone Surfaces, San Leandro, Calif.

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   SAN LEANDRO, Calif. – Saying that Intertile Natural Stone Surfaces is a fabrication company is somewhat akin to saying that McDonald’s sells hamburgers. It’s a single – although important -- facet of a multifaceted business.
   While many companies like to say that a key component of their product mix is educating their customers, Intertile takes that premise more seriously than most. As one executive puts it, “We’re where the real world meets the utilitarian needs and design value of a project.”
   Intertile certainly has plenty of the real world to offer its customers, both residential and commercial. For instance, the company has long-term relationships with reputable stone manufacturers, its own trucking system and a 26,000 ft² shop with state-of-the-art equipment.
   However, the firm’s greatest asset is its ability to educate buyers so they not only end up with the best products for a particular job, but also have realistic expectations about the stone they choose.
   
IN THE VANGUARD
   Founded in 1976, Intertile began as a wholesale distributor of natural stone, porcelain and ceramic tile and related products to builders, architects and designers. At that time, sales were handled through a network that grew to more than 2,000 retailers, design showrooms and installing contractors.
   Some 13 years later, the company began a major expansion program, as Intertile Distributors Inc. began opening the first of what were initially five distribution centers in California. Since then, three additional centers have been opened, including its first Nevada location in 1995. Today the company emphasizes natural stone, having become a very large wholesale importer.
   “Much of our growth has been in reaction to the pressures of the market,” says Dan Curtis, a senior sales representative with Intertile with more than 20 years’ experience in the industry. “We’ve been a part of the vanguard of companies that have helped usher in the burgeoning popularity of natural stone -- especially for residential use -- over the last decade or so.”
   Curtis’ role with Intertile perhaps best explains what sets the company apart from many of its competitors.  While he’s definitely focused on selling his products, he explains that his involvement can begin with the architects and designers and continue until a project is well under construction.
   “We spend a lot of time with the architects during the specification and selection phase, and then follow projects through the bidding process,” he explains. “We try to help direct their selections so they choose a material that not only meets their design criteria, but also meets the utilitarian needs of the project.”
   A great deal of Curtis’ time is spent in education, with the majority involved in making sure designers, contractors and even the end users understand that polished dark marble isn’t the best stone for an exterior, or that a floor of soft limestone won’t hold up under heavy foot traffic.
   “We want them to have realistic expectations about our products and make good decisions in their selection processes,” Curtis says.
   Unfortunately, that’s becoming harder and harder for the average designer. As with so many other industries, what’s become available on the market has increased substantially, thanks in part to the huge number of new stones on the market.
   “Twenty years ago, there were about 200 marbles, granites and limestones in commercial quality production around the world,” Curtis notes. “Today, there are some 800 – maybe more – but 800 that are readily available.”
   Each of those 800+ stones comes from a different quarry, each with its own characteristics, making it very difficult to be acquainted with -- let alone an expert on -- each product. In many cases, the designer may have never even seen Indian granite or Spanish limestone.
   “Because Intertile imports natural stone from all over the world, we see them passing through our doors and we get an idea and a feel for what to expect from these materials,” says Curtis. “We can then help educate the designers and the end users, which is a lot of what we try to do.”
   Ironically, Curtis says sometimes the end users are more informed about natural stone than the designers and architects, thanks in large part to the array of information available via the Internet. However, even then, the developer putting in some new commercial space or the homeowner planning to renovate a kitchen may not have a lot of information, or it may not be correct information.
   In those instances, he says it’s often a case of a little information being a dangerous thing.
   “Sometimes when the end user has information that’s partially correct or totally incorrect, he might decide not to use a material that may be totally correct for that particular use,” Curtis says. “For instance, there are a lot of people who say you can’t use limestone in a kitchen. But, with the appropriate finish, proper installation and proper sealing, along with proper education on its maintenance, there are a lot of limestones that can be appropriate for kitchens. Every stone is specific to its appropriate use.”
   
MAXIMIZING CAPABILITIES
   The changing face of the marketplace is one of the big reasons why Intertile isn’t just an importer and wholesaler.  By having a commercial-style fabrication facility, company officials believe they can do a better job serving their contractor and fabricator clients.
   Because the fabrication shop is set up to do commercial work, an outside fabricator can utilize Intertile’s facilities and inventory to manufacture something such as a building lobby or 10 identical vanity tops for an apartment project or hotel renovation.
   “We think we can help our customers maximize their production,” he says. “They can always install more than they can fabricate; we can help them concentrate on producing that $10,000 custom kitchen, plus get other jobs done at the same time.”
   The company’s other specialty is assisting smaller fabricators with jobs that may be too big or on too tight a time schedule for the smaller shop to handle, but not large enough to import it already cut-to-size.
   “That’s what we’re really set up for,” says Curtis. “We can let a contractor get started on a project quickly while the balance of the project is being completed overseas and imported to finish the job. We just help them compress the schedule a little by using a combination of our factory and inventory and some overseas production.
   “We really want to help our customers maximize their production capability.”
   Intertile’s fabrication shop is certainly geared toward high-end production. The San Leandro-based shop has a staff of 60 employees -- including three full-time mechanics to maintain the equipment -- and runs two or three five-day-a-week shifts, depending on the demand. Equipment is all state-of-the art, and includes three double bridge saws, a CNC machine,and a dual-head, dual-tank waterjet, among others.
   The company also has a resurfacing machine and antiquing machines, and Intertile is one of the few shops in the country to do machine antiquing of natural stone rather than import acid-antiqued material. It’s also an authorized industry manufacturer for Dupont’s Zodiaq®. Curtis says the addition of Zodiaq to Intertile’s line is just a simple continuation of the approach the firm tries to take with all its natural-stone products.
   “Our focus is on quality and color, just like any other industry that deals with colors and finishes,” he says. “There are fashions, and there are fashions in stone. We try to stay tuned in to those fashions and respond to the marketplace. These manmade products certainly have a place in the marketplace, and Zodiaq is a premier product in the category.”
   With its product mix of man-made and natural stone products, and its sizeable sales and fabrication staffs, there’s one thing Intertile doesn’t do: installations. The company emphasizes its commercial capabilities and targets its services toward architects, designers, installing contractors, retailers and distributors.
   However, even the person seeking stone for a home renovation is welcome at the company’s distribution centers. In those instances, however, the company’s main product is knowledge.
   “We establish what part of the project the client wants to use stone in,” Curtis explains. “We talk about what stone the client has in mind, and the colors and finishes, and then we work with the person to make appropriate selections to fit the concepts and the project.”
   At that point, the person is then put in touch with a local contractor capable of doing the fabrication and installation.
   “Typically, the fabricator works with the homeowner on details such as how things are going to go together, the finishing directions, edge details and things like that,” Curtis says.
   
SOLID FUTURE
   The company is currently in the process of remodeling some of its existing distribution centers, and plans are to open at least three additional facilities in the near future. All the distribution centers are fully stocked and, because Intertile owns and operates its own trucking system, it’s able to expeditiously deliver materials.
   That delivery system, plus long-standing relationships with Cold Spring Granite Co. of Cold Spring, Minn., and Rocamat of Ile Saint-Denis, France, also contributes to lowering the cost of its products to the end user.
    “The Intertile difference is our team effort in all aspects of the business,” says Rod Riggs, company president. “We simply have the best team of employees in the industry.”
   Curtis says he believes the firm’s attention to quality is especially important.
   “Attention to quality has always been of paramount importance to Intertile,” he says. “There are very few industries I know where you have more of a direct connection between what you pay for a product and how good it is. With natural stone it’s hard to find a bargain at good quality.”
   Additionally, the company prides itself on its ability to predict market needs and demands through its contacts with more than 3,000 architectural design firms, as well as its offices in Milan, Italy. At least for the present, Curtis sees the greatest demand coming from the residential sector.
   “The commercial market is strong in some areas and pretty moribund in other areas,” he says. “Some areas are slow because of high vacancy rates in commercial buildings, but others are still pretty good because of the tenant improvement market. People are renegotiating leases and moving and when they do that they like to dress up their new surroundings.”
   Looking into the future, he believes the stone market will see continued growth if the economy continues to support a strong residential market. However, Curtis believes the industry itself will continue to see changes.
   “I think we’re going to see an ever-expanding use of natural stone,” he says. “I think we’ll see an expanded use of finishes besides polished and honed. We’re already starting to see finishes that are more exotic and less common. That, plus an ever-increasing variety of stone available to consumers and constantly improving technology will allow the stone industry continued growth.”

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