StoneTalk Episode 30 – Blake Christensen

In StoneTalk Episode 30, Patrick speaks with Blake Christensen, Owner of Valley View Granite

030BlakeChristensen

Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Creating a great end-to-end experience for your customers
  • How to get good people from other industries and train them from the ground up
  • Why to avoid being the low-price provider
  • The challenge of opening a second location

Be sure to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes… and please let us know what you think! You can leave comments for this show on the StoneTalk Facebook page or on this site.

If you have stories or insights that you’d like to share with other fabricators, please reach out to Patrick.

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Transcript

Patrick: Welcome to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. Brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I’m your host, Patrick Foley. Today I am chatting Blake Christensen of Valley View Granite. Let’s give him a call.

Blake: This is Blake.

Patrick: Hey, Blake. Patrick from Moraware. How’re you doing?

Blake: Hey, doing great Patrick.

Patrick: Let’s just jump in.

Blake: Sure.

Patrick: How long have you been in the stone business and how did you get started in this business?

Blake: I started in 1997 when I was still in high school in Southern California. Took a job that was a tile company that had recently got into slab, and I started working for them. Then I started my own company in 2002 in Northern Utah.

Patrick: Why Utah? Was that family reasons or you specifically saw the market?

Blake: Yeah, family moved up there. That is where my our family is originally from. So we moved in 2001. My dad is a general contractor by trade. So I built homes with him for a while, for my whole life. And I just did a little bit of market research and saw a need for a stone company here, where we’re at.

Patrick: Cool. And is there anything unique about that market that made starting your business different or is…so far as you know your market is similar to any other fabricators’ market?

Blake: I think demographics, we are probably very similar to those that are in our area. The thing that attracted me to the stone business was I watched the ups and downs of construction. And I felt like stone is a little bit of a niche where if you follow interest rates, interest rates rise and people will remodel. Interest rates lower, people will build new. So there’s somewhat of a hedge against economic, in my opinion, and we certainly found that to be the case. In 2008 hit, we just switched from new construction to remodeling, kept growing.

Patrick: That’s actually a very interesting perspective. I’m surprised I haven’t heard someone say that before, but that makes a lot of sense.

Blake: Yeah. So that’s the main reason why I never wanted to be related or tied to a single construction industry component if that makes sense. And that is when I feel like we have good niche.

Patrick: Definitely. So, obviously, I assume you have competitors in your market, but what makes Valley View Granite different? What makes your business stand out?

Blake: We feel like we’ve put together…as a CEO, my main, primary objective is to put together the right people in the right positions and the right teams, and to give them the tools they need to perform their tasks with excellence. We feel like we’ve stayed on the cutting edge of technology and really tried to educate our staff, and educate how we do things to where we can synergize good business ethics and honest trade practices with quality and bring the technology into it as well. We feel like that’s been the reason for our success.

Patrick: And you clearly are succeeding. When you hear from your customers, what do they say they like best about you compared to other things they looked at? Or what do your customers seem to care about? Is it service, is it craftsmanship? What really resonates most with the people you serve?

Blake: I think it’s experience. Our business, or our mission statement, is to provide a wholesome quality experience to anyone involved. And we are putting together the highest quality experience from the time that a client first initiates our services, or even on the marketing side before that to what they hear about us, to word to mouth marketing or other things, to the very last, when we leave an exit packet that tells them how to care of their stone and tells them how to maintain it and offer a service that will maintain it for them if they want, it is an overall experience. And it’s improving that quality experience that makes the difference.

Patrick: So it’s fair to say you’re not just tossing some cut slabs into somebody’s home. What they’re purchasing is the end to end experience of shopping and deciding what slabs to buy? That is part of what you are selling ultimately, right?

Blake: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. And we’re such an unique industry in the sense that I consider ourself probably…it’s unique in the sense that we measure what we manufacture, what we install, what we inventory. There is not, to my knowledge, something quite in this niche or in this genre of what we do. And it makes it challenging, and it makes it fun.

Patrick: Now I don’t actually sell granite. So I am a little bit of an outside from that perspective. But if it were me, I would assume that if I am selling the whole experience, then I am not also strictly speaking focused to being the low-price provider. So, is the fact that you are selling end-to-end experience, does that allow you not to chase the bottom, but to have healthier prices or are you also the low price provider somehow?

Blake: Absolutely. We are nowhere near the low price provider. In fact, we are often get clients that will, “Hey, yeah, you are a little bit more, but this is why I am willing.” You can always have the two things. You can have an on-time performance, you can have quality job, or you can have the lowest price. You can’t have all three, but you can have two. And we feel like hey, we are not going to be the lowest, but this is the standard you can expect to receive from engaging our services.

Patrick: I think a lot of fabricators miss that point. I think a lot of people assume that the only thing you can compete on is price, and that is just very much not true. Especially for such, what is ultimately a luxury purchase. This is not…

Blake: Absolutely.

Patrick: Overall it is not a commodity yet. And so, don’t treat it like one.

Blake: Right, right. And there is…we are seeing in the industry it is going to more of a commodity. There is a production homebuilder aspect, but there’s value on both sides of that equation. There’s value in never seeing or dealing with a homeowner and just dealing with a purchase order that a contractor initiates. And we are able to trim up our side of how we service that account, the need to service that account.

Patrick: Do you do both retail and dealer’s end? Or approximately what is the mix then that you handle?

Blake: With the technologies, yeah, we are able to pepper a good mixture. We’ve built a good base of both. We set up dealerships, we set up accounts that are production home dealers’ accounts, and then we also service the retail walk-in client. And we have a good base of all three types of accounts.

Patrick: Nice. And again, that gives you a little bit of the downturn protection that presumably those different types are affected in different ways when the subtle variations in the economy.

Blake: Absolutely. And that is exactly what drives that strategy.

Patrick: Cool. So I noticed you have two locations. What drove you…I presume you didn’t start with two locations. What caused you to open a second location and how has that worked out? Has it been worth it? What are the challenges of having two locations to serve your customers?

Blake: Defiantly there’s some challenges with opening your doors in a different geographical location. But our business model there is to keep all of our inventory, all of our production in one location, but extend our reach from an installation from sales perspective. So we have installers that live remotely, and then we transfer product to them. We have templaters that live in that other location and they template and upload to their system just to extend our geographical reach.

Patrick: So it sounds you are pretty digital using laser templating and uploading it into JobTracker right after they template and things like that?

Blake: Tes, that is correct.

Patrick: Cool. And again, I am sure you don’t start as big as you are now. What have been the challenges of growth itself and how have your challenges changed over the last year or two as you continue to grow?

Blake: My first reaction would be 24 hours in a day, one of our biggest challenges. I think, back to that, you are either selling yourself or you are selling a system. And I think that has been the biggest challenge to growth, and putting yourself on a slow, controlled growth pattern. And you are able to make those decisions when to grow when to maintain when to increase and take over actual market share. I think our biggest challenge probably would be in building the systems and getting the right people in the right positions to administer the systems.

Patrick: Hiring, definitely. That reminds me a brilliant friend of mine gave a talk once where he said, “A job is a system for turning time into money. A business is a system for turning other systems into money.”

Blake: Absolutely.

Patrick: I thought that was pretty succinct summary of the challenge that you just described. You’ve got to figure out how to make all those systems and how to execute on them.

Blake: Yeah, absolutely.

Patrick: So, hiring, that’s one of the key things. How do you deal with the challenge of hiring? How do you deal with the challenge of hiring? How do you attempt to hire the best employees that you can?

Blake: That is a great question. I wish I had a good answer.

Patrick: So, it is still a challenge.

Blake: Yeah. That is probably one of the biggest challenges. And we live in a region where I don’t have the luxury of having a lot of stone experienced applicants. Most of the guys that have come to us, we trained from the ground up. They have experience in the construction industry, but they’ve never done with stone. Pulled a lot of guys from the auto body industry because they understand similar principles, and then I pulled guys from digital aspects. Guys that have construction management degrees, guys that have finance degrees. But I think one of the best things we’ve done is we do a 90-day probation, and we rarely have to let people go, but it’s not uncommon. I think there’s two aspects there. One is you have to be willing to try and vet the employees as best as you can on the front end, but not be afraid to reposition or let them go on the back end if it’s not working out.

Patrick: Right. One of the other guests I had on the show a few months ago said that he started going to other geographies looking for experienced people in the stone industry who he could sell on the idea to moving to his fine location. So, I don’t know how nice your area is, but soon there could be people challenging each other all over the country trying to hire each others employees away. You never know.

Blake: Yeah, and one of my favorite quotes ever is, “There is not substitute for experience.” And there is a lot of truth to that. That experience can be gained and that experienced can be learned from other people’s mistakes. But ultimately I think that experience has to be ingrained in that individual. And regardless of…and it can be facilitated by a good system. But regardless of how good the system is, the application has to come from that individual.

Patrick: I completely agree and I am constantly amazed of what I know today that I didn’t know last month and last year. Experience doesn’t stop even once you’ve been doing something for a while. I am very curious about the idea, we mentioned systems more than once. And I know you are our customer, you use JobTracker, which solves part of the problem, but not all of it. So for example, explaining to someone the system, I need you to do this, and then this, and then this, do you have a consistent training process for that? Or do you document that, or how do you…knowing that you value the idea of systems, how do you communicate those systems internally beyond just JobTracker?

Blake: Sure, sure. And we do have..I mean, it’s constantly work in progress. We have supervisors in each department and they are tasked with the training and the implementation. JobTracker has been a key cog in that whole wheel, but you are right. It’s just one aspect of everything that we do, and it is a very important aspect, and the ability to customize that. I mean, JobTracker has gone through so many different facelifts as far as how we want to track things, what we want to do, what…say we’ve got this issue that we’ve got to deal with and need to morph in this way so it doesn’t happen again. And that’s…I think it is almost…I don’t want to say it is almost never ending process to get everything systematized, but definitely, there’s different maturity levels in that process. One of the best things we do, in that 90-day probation, we require our employees, and regardless what department you are hired in, if you are hired as a sales rep, or hired as a templater, or hired as a production floor worker, you are required to spent certain amount of time in each other department so you can better understand. As a showroom girl, you can understand what the shop has to do, what they install, at least, get a taste of it. Spend a day with the templater, spend a couple of days in the shop, spend couple of days on install, so that you can see the challenges and you can see what it is they are dealing with so that you can perform your job better. That’s been a key element in our system, in our training that has helped with the overall expediting of training and effectiveness of those employees.

Patrick: That makes a ton of sense. And one of the reasons why I find this interesting is I recently had a conversation with my teammate, Cathleen, who talks about that some people have the image or the physical reality of a binder. Where do I put…I’ve got a binder. Where do I put the documentation of what I do? And even though we make a system, we make technology, but each company’s actual systems that they figure out are different. And it’s kind of like that binder. Not everyone has a physical binder, but there is some sort of conceptual binder of here is what we do. Here is what we do in your apartment, here is what we do in this company. And I think it’s interesting that there may be a little void there that someone needs to come in and try to help out how to communicate the systems that goes beyond the technology if you will.

Blake: Well, there’s two aspects to that. I mean, I always go back to our auto shop classes growing up. We spend two days in the books, and then two days in the shop. And that’s how we’ve tried to set up. We’ll spend…your first day of employment, you are watching safety videos all day long. And then you go out and do another safety application on the shop floor. And that’s for everybody. You know what I mean? And if you are a CNC operator, your first set of training is in the books. And then you’re on the floor putting that theoretical into a hands-on type of application.

Patrick: That makes a lot of sense. And again, especially if you are taking people who aren’t experienced in the stone industry, you are literally educating them the way slabs turn into countertops. That’s not…it’s not obvious if you haven’t done it before.

Blake: If you are production worker, there’s 10 cutting boards, and that is where you start exactly.

Patrick: Speaking of cutting boards, I noticed on your website, I was just clicking around and I saw you have this do it yourself program for making cutting boards. It looked like you encourage people to buy a little piece of scrap and turn it into cutting board. Is that right?

Blake: Well, I think a lot of times they will give those away as gifts. If there is no polishing involved, we pull them off our digital saws and saw jets. And what we do is, yeah, that is correct. We just stack them on a pallet, put them up front, and they are able to get those as gifts or a trinket for clients or what not. Yeah.

Patrick: I love that because I’m always looking at interesting ways that people get rid of the waste without, strictly speaking, throwing it away, with trying to get some value from it. And that just seems like a very simple and direct one. Hey, here is this pretty chunk that you can use for this purpose. Knock yourself out. I love that.

Blake: Well, and if you want us to polish it, we will do it for a fee. But you are absolutely right. Your waste is as much a problem as anything else. And trying to mitigate that with the technologies is what we’ve tried to do, and that’s always a challenge, though.

Patrick: Defiantly. Do you have other do it yourself programs? Like I saw that you have educational classes that are open to the public, but that seem a little bit more geared to people in the industry. What do you do in that realm that you are trying to reach out to DIY’ers?

Blake: Well, we do have a programs where like if a client wants to install a vanity or even a contractor wants to tackle on a job himself, we don’t have problem at all with that assuming they will cut it, template it, fabricate it, and put it on their trailer or whatever. And once they take possession of it, they have all the liability and the exposure there. And that’s not a big deal. We have a lot of clients that are other countertop companies that don’t want to invest in millions of dollars in equipment and inventory, but yet want to be able to sell and install. That is a great program for us because we are happy. We move our inventory, we keep our equipment busy, and we never have to make the sale. but that’s probably one aspect. There is not…that’s about…same thing with ceiling and cleaning. We have a program where we can go out and steam clean and re-silicone and pour or you can just do it yourself and just buy the kit.

Patrick: Nice. One more technical question. I see that you offer Slabsmith, some sort of Slabsmith viewing with your customers. Presumably, you are using Slabsmith for everything, but do you have customers sit in on the actual process of laying out with the mouse there, or do you more create a couple of choices and let them chose from that?

Blake: So that falls into a great question. We have two different genres. The answer is it depends. We have certain colors, we have about 55 colors that we stock. And these are colors that we buy in bulk and keep in hand on our stocking or in our signature program. What we do is a client selects from these 55 colors, is billed by the square foot, and they pick up a grouping versus an individual slab. So they’ll pick out…so we bring three bundles of Venetian gold, or whatever the color is. They pick up the grouping that they like and we deserve the right to maximize the yield and lay it out however we want.

Patrick: Nice. Okay.

Blake: Because what happens is now, back to the waste, rather than pieces, cutting up two slabs for one and a half slab job, where the half slab now matches two other bundles that I have and I can use that effectively in the next layout. So rather than having a bunch of remnants out of those 55 colors, we have a bunch of cut pieces. And that is where our draftsmen start where they do the next layout. Same thing with backsplashes. We will take backsplashes and if there is 13 inches left on a slab, we will cut that all in the backsplash and set that in the backsplash rack right by those slabs. And now I’ve got three slabs of backsplash to use. Again, just trying to hold our employees accountable to every square inch of that slab and trying to use that to its maximum potential.

Now, the second type of category is a client that will hand select their material if it’s not in those 55 colors. And they will pick a custom slab, and they are billed by the slab. And then I don’t care how they lay it out. They can come and sit down…in the first case, we will still include in the approval packet just a quick snapshot of the layout that we did. And if the client has any red flags, they don’t approve it, they say, “Hey, I don’t like this, it’s a huge problem.” And then the draftsmen go back. They still don’t give the client liberty to choose how they want it, but they will submit another layout to the client. So that’s how we use that. In the second scenario, the custom scenario, they bought the entire slab. Most of the time what we find is that , in that case, a client will maximize the yield on their own. They are saying, “hey, if I am getting charged for the full slab, now instead of just the kitchen, I want this vanity and this vanity. Oh, and I’ve got window seals that I am going to do and an end table, or whatever.” And then it’s a win-win because they get to use all of their material and we now bill them for the labor that’s incurred on those additional counters.

Patrick: That makes a total sense. There’s a couple of things. I want to unpack that and compare it to other things I’ve heard.

Blake: Sure.

Patrick: First, the first thing you mentioned about giving people a grouping instead of picking the slabs when it’s from your own stock, there is a principal that I heard from one of my other guests that I think you are illustrating another example of. The idea that too many choices is not necessarily a good thing. It tends to cause people to freeze. Right? And if you are dealing with your in stock colors to begin with, chances are okay, I like that color. Alright, how about this grouping of material that’s gonna work for you? Great, you like it. We are going to optimize that. Obviously, if they want to…I assume that if I say, no, I want that slab. Great, you can buy that slab. If I want to convert to a custom with material that you happen to have on hand, obviously, I assume you would let me do that. But most customers, especially if they’re not going full custom to being with, too many choices is a bad thing. And again, if you’re showing me a completed mostly completed backsplash that I can visualize, okay, that is going to go there, and this is going to go here. Great, I love it. Reducing choices reduces that freezing as well and helps move a customer forward.

The other thing that I like in what you did there is, fabricator I talked to spoke about, he simply charges for having sit over their shoulder, because whatever reason their organization considers that premium and isn’t all that crazy about a customer saying, “Click here, click here, click here.” So they charge extra for it, which is fine too. But I like that your approach is simple in that you’ve kind of segmented the customers to begin with. Ones who are choosing from stock are going to tend to be more show me something that works. Ones that are going full custom to begin with are going to be the ones who want to sit down and verify that everything is perfect. And it seems to me you’ve found a real simple balance there. That makes a lot of sense.

Blake: Yeah, and consequently the custom materials, we have that built into that pricing and those material markups. And it’s not uncommon. When we first…we have been using the Slabsmiths, I think we are the third or the fourth company that produces Slabsmiths.

Patrick: Really? That is kind of cool.

Blake: One of the early ones. So, we’ve watched it evolve and it was not uncommon to spend three hours with a client and it’s like holy cow. This is totally…there’s extremes there. And it’s like hey, let the professional do the layout. They do it every day. It’s gonna look good. We’ve identified the areas we want to avoid in the photos already. And submit them a layout, and be happy with it. Now, of course, always doesn’t happen. But the majority of the time it works very smoothly.

Patrick: And again, the goal is to get a system that works for most times. You are going to have corner cases where you’ve got to go outside the system a little bit. But it sounds like you’ve developed a simple way of guiding people into one of two paths that is going to be compensated appropriately and give the customer what they want.

Blake: Absolutely.

Patrick: That’s great. So one more question before we wrap. I was looking at some stuff on your website and you are proud of your MIA accreditation, Marble Institute of America. How hard was that to get and why do you think that’s important for fabricators to get it? I am trying to get at is this something other fabricators who don’t have it should strive for?

Blake: Well, I feel like the MIA recently has been really pushing to legitimize and hold the standards high in the industry. We’ve kind of fallen victim to commoditizing the entire industry. And what you said earlier, you are absolutely right. And this is what I struggle personally with we see competitors even now. It’s like guys, the economy has come back. You are buried, but yet your prices are still rock bottom. Why is that? This is ridiculous to walk away from every job leaving money on the table. That doesn’t make sense to me as a business owner.

Patrick: Supply and demand. If the demand is up, you’ve got to raise your prices.

Blake: Exactly. Especially when you are complaining that you’ve got too much work. Anyways, but we felt like the reason why we persued the MIA Accreditation is because we felt like…and this is, and it’s getting there, we felt like we want to align ourselves with the highest level of standards and service that we can in the industry. I appreciated the fact that it was a long process to get to that. It was a year and a half and partly because there’s a lot of things that have to be in order, and it was a very thorough process. I appreciated the work that has gone into that process and achieving that status. Things like the ocean inspection every year, things like an on-site inspection, things like all your financials, all your…they vet all your systems. And basically…and your installation procedures, and your fabrication procedures and say, “Here is the standard we want to hold this to.” And then, we feel like it is getting there. It is going to be partly industry driven, partly company driven to where we are educating our clients on hey, this is what this means. This is the clout this accreditation holds, and this is why you want to do business with an MIA-accredited company. And so we saw the value that that brought to our organization and that is the reason we pursuit that.

Patrick: That’s really helpful. I appreciate knowing that. And I think probably the biggest take away from that for me is doing…in order to get the accreditation, you’re doing good work that you probably want to do anyway. So, this is…it sounds like it is a decent guy, a business checklist that you should probably be knocking off anyway.

Blake: And it is just like…I remember the first time I saw the concept of SlabSmith. And I’ve been in the stone industry a lot of years before I saw that, and immediately the lights went on and we said that is how we have to do it. And we told ourselves in our company, and I told the owner of slabs out there. I said there’ll be a day when this is the norm when a client walks into your company and says, “If you don’t do it this way, I am going elsewhere.” And they’re starting to see that. There are multiple shops in our industry that have just barely adopted the technology. And I feel like it is because they felt like they need to, to maintain that competitive advantage. And I feel like the MIA accreditation is a similar approach. It is going to be to the point where hey, as an architect, I am specing out an MIA-accredited company to do my work. And if you are not, you miss the both.

Patrick: One more thing you just reminded me of. You are actually one of our biggest customers of CoutnerGo as well. You have a lot of users of CounterGo. So what is your perspective of why the quoting process is different from the layout process? Because some people get stuck with…well, if I am using SlabSmith, why do I need CounterGo? If I am using CounterGo, why do is it important to include my customer in the SlabSmith process, for example?

Blake: Sure. So, CounterGo, and I am not…I’ve tried to look and tried to see about everything that is out there. I have three estimators. They average probably 70 to 80 bids a day in CounterGo. That tells a story right there as to why we use CounterGo because I have yet to see something as simple in the drawing, in the number crunching, as CounterGo. We feel like it is just a great way to integrate our JobTracker and our estimating ability. And there is huge value in that.

Patrick: Well good. So before we wrap, and again, thank you for being a great customer, we really appreciate that. Any last bits of advice for our fabricators? Things you’ve learned, just anything you want to share, words of wisdom?

Blake: I don’t know.

Patrick: Questions?

Blake: I enjoy what you do. It’s neat for me. And the reason I…it’s neat for me to see employees that the reason they do what they do is because they, at the end of the day, they have that satisfaction of delivering a quality product and a quality experience for our clients. And that’s something they are very proud of. At the end of the day, it is wow. This family has saved their entire life for this kitchen. And we have delivered it for them. And it’s, again, it’s about that quality experience. There’s no reason to lower that level of standard in the industry. There is no reason to be the bottom of the price chain. Be proud of what we do and legitimize the industry is about all I think I’d say.

Patrick: I think that’s awesome advice. Well, thank you, Blake, so much for your time. This has been very enjoyable. And if there is anything that we can do for you, just reach out and let us know.

Blake: Well, thank you very much, Patrick.

Patrick: I will talk to you again soon. Cheers.

Blake: Okay. We will see ya. Thanks. Bye.

Patrick: Bye. Thanks for listening to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. If you liked this episode, be sure to visit stonetalk.org, or subscribe to StoneTalk on iTunes for more. Visit the StoneTalk show Facebook page to join in the conversation, and follow @stonetalkshow on twitter.
StoneTalk is brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I’m your host Patrick Foley, and I look forward to spending time with you again on the next episode of StoneTalk.