Washington Marble Works Inc., Pacific, Wash.

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  PACIFIC, Wash. -- When it comes to business, Santa Claus may owe more to fireplaces than Washington Marble Works Inc. does. Still, without them, the fabrication and installation firm might not exist.
  Company president John Pistilli grew up in the brick business, and later – with wife Carla – tried to revive a failing brickyard. However, as people asked as much about marble hearths as the did about bricks for fireplaces, the Pistillis added stone to the product mix.
  As the yard literally hit a brick wall, the Pistillis expanded into doing limestone fireplace surrounds, while enjoying the boom in residential granite and marble. In 1995, they closed the brickyard and decided to focus strictly on natural stone.
  Today, the company employs more than a dozen people, including the couple’s son and daughter. And, John Pistilli says what keeps the firm going and growing is a commitment to solving problems and keeping the customers’ faith that Washington Marble is in business for the long haul.
 
SOLID FOOTING
  It’s not too corny to say John Pistilli came to the stone industry with a solid foundation – one built on brick. Growing up in the Tacoma area, Pistilli started working with his dad in the brick business.
  In fact, aside from a stint selling real estate, that had been his entire career up until 1984, when his background in the brick business ran head into his interest in real estate.
  “I went back to work for my dad when the real-estate market kind of died down in the early 1980s,” he says. “Then, this property became available, and we bought it. And, as a means of paying for it, we thought we could get it up and operating.”
  “The property” Pistilli found had operated as Lakewood Masonry Supply. With a name change to Washington Brick and Stone, the business quickly turned around, and the new owners soon began importing boxcar loads of brick from places such as Arkansas and Colorado.
  It was also when the Pistillis first met a demand for natural stone.
  “Somebody would come in to buy brick and they’d want a marble fireplace hearth,” he says. “We started out buying from fabricators in Seattle and Tacoma, but after the first year we realized we could cut it ourselves.”
  Washington Marble Works soon became a separate division of Washington Brick and Stone, and the business seemed to feed itself.
  “We started fabricating it ourselves, and once we got it down pretty well we hired a guy,” he says. “At that time, we had the brickyard to run, too.”
  While the company started mainly producing marble and limestone fireplace surrounds and marble vanities, as early as the late 1980s, they also found themselves doing granite. Today, Pistilli estimates the business is probably 20 percent in limestone fireplaces and miscellaneous pieces, 10 percent marble, and the remainder in granite, mostly with countertops.
  Unfortunately, while the stone side of the business thrived and grew, the brick business didn’t. Pistilli attributes that to several factors, including one company that purchased many of the brick suppliers in the Seattle-Tacoma area, making it difficult to buy bricks locally. Contractors also became reluctant to buy bricks made out-of-state.
  “Also, Home Depot had moved in around here, and all of the supplies we were selling out of the brickyard you could buy there,” he says. “In 1995, we just closed the brick business and made Washington Marble Works a separate corporation.”
  It’s a decision he’s never regretted, even though Pistilli says he lost money abandoning the brick portion of the business.
  “It had become a hassle and we were really glad to get out of the brick part of things,” he says. “Once we started running the marble and granite as a separate company, we’ve done pretty well.”
 
COMFORTABLE NICHE
  Certainly a portion of Washington Marble Works’ success is Pistilli’s knowledge and understanding of the niche his business fills. Just as in the days when someone came in to buy brick for a fireplace and asked about a marble hearth, the company focuses its energies on smaller residential jobs.
  A lot of the reason behind that is just plain economic sense, he says.
  “The large commercial jobs are a whole different ballgame,” Pistilli says. “A lot of times they’ll import their stone direct from Italy or Canada or China, so the work isn’t there for us. It’s also difficult to get jobs installing those kinds of projects because often they’re looking for a union shop.”
  Occasionally the firm will get involved with a multi-family residential project installing multiple vanities, or a smaller commercial project, but Pistilli says often times those are jobs where contractors are slow to pay their subs. He also dislikes being caught between a designer or builder who selects the stone, and an end-user who doesn’t like it.
  “We just went through an example of that,” he says. “The designer said they’d selected these particular slabs at this particular supplier. We picked them up, cut them and put them in a doctor’s office. Now, the doctor’s saying, ‘What are these little yellow marks in it?’”
  Recognizing that his clients can be very particular about the stone they choose, Pistilli doesn’t keep much stone on hand at the shop, despite having 5,000 ft² of enclosed space and another 1,000 ft² of yard.
  He explains that early on, when the nearest suppliers were in Southern California, it was a different story. However, once suppliers began opening their doors in the Seattle area, he invariably found that whatever he had in inventory wasn’t black enough for one customer, or had too many red flecks for another.
  “They’d decide to drive to Seattle to find something they liked better, even if it was the exact same stone,” he says. “Now we just give them a list of the suppliers in Seattle. We let customers select their own slabs and it works out well because stone varies from supplier to supplier.”
  Once the customer finds just the right piece, the Washington Marble Works crew picks it up and does the fabrication. Pistilli is able to give his customers a better selection, and it’s also allowed him to reduce the size of his showroom.
  “We show samples and edge details and all the things you need for fabricating,” he says. “It just got to be fairly pointless to warehouse the stone.”
  While Pistilli does work with designers, he has another surprising ace-in-the-hole when it comes to working with residential customers. After finishing high school, he earned an associate degree in drafting. Consequently, he finds it easy to take a hand in coming up with the design for the final product, especially when the demand is for a fireplace surround or other decorative work.
  “A lot of times they’ll see something in a magazine that they’ll like,” he says. “They’ll bring it in and say, ‘Can you do something like this?’ and we’ll go measure the fireplace and design around what they have to work with.”
  Occasionally, the request goes beyond the ordinary. Pistilli tells about one customer who came to see him with the usual magazine photo. However, the job turned out so well that Pistilli’s version later made the cover of another magazine.
  Just recently, he had a request for a fireplace like the one in the movie The Parent Trap.
  “I had to rent the movie and play it through until I got to the fireplace,” he says. “Then, I put it on pause and sketched it out.”
  Despite the fact that they’re less than a quarter of the company’s business, Pistilli says fireplace surrounds are the firm’s real specialty, and the only product sold outside the Seattle-Tacoma area.
  “We send the limestone fireplaces out through Washington, Oregon and Idaho,” he says. “There just aren’t that many people who make fireplaces like we do. If somebody outside our area wants a fireplace, we just add a bit to the travel – once to measure and once to install – but it’s not that big a deal to go over and do the work.”
   
INVESTING FOR THE FUTURE
  Helping his customers fine tune their fireplace designs isn’t the only place where Pistilli’s drafting comes in handy. Over the years it’s also made the shop’s workflow go more smoothly.
  Not that Pistilli’s fabricating crew is working away with hand tools. The company has a bridge saw and a planer, and last year purchased a PRO-Edge from Park Industries. The firm also has a stone lathe – one of the few on the West Coast.
  “We use that to turn balusters for jobs where we do limestone railings and the like,” he says. “We buy our limestone from Indiana; it’s not a new stone in this area, although a lot of people don’t realize there are buildings in downtown Seattle and Tacoma that have Indiana limestone in them. We’re buying from the same quarries where the original stone was bought 50 to 60 years ago.”
  Pistilli’s commitment to investing in new machines and keeping the shop well equipped is a key part of his business philosophy, just as customer satisfaction has always been a big part of the firm’s equation for success.
  “We work on a job until the customer is happy,” he says. “That’s the only way you can do business as far as I’m concerned.”
  Ultimately, whether it’s buying new equipment or going the extra mile for a customer, Pistilli says it’s all investing in the business and, “To us, investing in our business is a commitment we’ve made for the long term.”
  And, these days the future is on the minds of John and Carla Pistilli. This year has been a banner year for the couple, with son David and daughter Kristy earning college degrees after several years of fitting in their studies around working for the company.
  Both of the younger Pistillis remain with the company, and their father says he doesn’t mind thinking about a time when the parents play a less-active role in day-to-day operations.
  “One thing I’d like to do is have some time to work on new ideas and new concepts for expanding the business,” John Pistilli says. “What happens is you get so bogged down working in the business that you can’t work on the business.”
  And, he adds he wouldn’t mind finding time to fit in a few more golfing vacations, too.
  The business has come a long way from the days when Pistilli was selling bricks and cutting marble on the side. His goal now is to reach a point where he and Carla aren’t involved at all in everyday management.
  “The idea has always been to build a viable company that could be sold off in the future,” he concludes. “To do that, you have to have it functioning without you being the main focus. That’s what we’ve worked for: We want our business to function without us.”

This article first appeared in the November 2002 print edition of Stone Business. ©2002 Western Business Media Inc.