In StoneTalk Episode 34, Patrick speaks with Carmina Mendez of AMC Countertops.
Listen to this episode to discover:
- How partnering with a key vendor like Cosentino can help you build your business
- The value of adding a showroom to expand beyond your dealer network
- The value of doing TV shows like “Extreme Home Makeover”
- How to balance residential with commercial
If you have stories or insights that you’d like to share with other fabricators, please reach out to Patrick.
Patrick: Welcome to Stone Talk, 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’m speaking with Carmina Mendez of AMC Countertops in Wisconsin. Let’s give her a call. Hi, Carmina.
Patrick: Thank you again so much for speaking with me, and let’s jump in and start with a simple question. How did you get into the countertop business?
Carmina: Well, we knew Roberto Contreras, and at that time, he was partnering with Cosentino in, you know, bringing Silestone to the United States. So, we actually came from Mexico City to the, you know, new venture of just introducing the quartz surface, you know, and trying to convince everyone in Minnesota that quartz was better than Corian.
Patrick: Interesting, so you’re one of the first quartz fabricators in the U.S., then?
Carmina: That’s right. Yeah. We really started in Minnesota as, you know, a sales force in installers but they called them CSI, you know. It was Certified Silestone Installer at that time. So yeah, we…but we were the sales force for the fabricator that was owned by Cosentino. [inaudible 00:01:41]
Patrick: Very interesting. And you still have a good relationship with Cosentino, I assume?
Carmina: Oh absolutely. Yeah.
Patrick: That’s great. And so then what made you open an office in Wisconsin? You’re currently based in Wisconsin, right?
Carmina: That’s right. We’re kind of, you know, in the middle of nowhere but we are actually very nicely located one hour away from, you know, the main cities like Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, and we love the Midwest and we were actually…we had the opportunity to open a fabrication shop almost anywhere in the United States, you know, to fabricate Silestone and as a distributor of Silestone, but we really, really loved Minnesota so we wanted to stay close, and we picked Wisconsin. And then Axel was looking for the perfect place and Fond du Lac seemed to be the perfect place, and so far, so good.
Patrick: Very nice. And is there anything that you have found different, or special, or unique about Fond du Lac or do you think, I mean, do you think one market is very different from another, or is Fond du Lac similar to any, you know, not very huge municipal area that still has business?
Carmina: No. No, Fond du Lac is pretty much the same as any other community here in Wisconsin and very similar to Minnesota as well. You know, I would even say Iowa and the Dakotas, and a little bit of Illinois as well so, you know, it’s all Midwest, and, yeah of course, this is a small city. I mean, it’s only 40,000 people, but, you know, we service the whole state. So we’re only like, you know, the location is great for us, again, because we’re not too far from…but we service the whole state of Wisconsin.
Patrick: Nice. I’m based in Michigan, so I certainly know the Midwest ethic as well. There’s just something…something nice about the Midwest, a straightforwardness that I’ve always liked.
Carmina: Yeah, yeah. Lovely people. We’re really, really, you know, happy that we ended up in this part of the world, because we really enjoy everything, including the snow.
Patrick: Oh really? That’s…
Patrick: Coming from Mexico City, I…you like the snow? That’s awesome.
Carmina: Yeah. We don’t do a lot of winter sports, but we really enjoy everything, you know, the seasons, everything.
Patrick: That’s cool.
Carmina: Love it.
Patrick: So AMC as a brand, what distinguishes AMC? Within your market, how do you want people to think about AMC Countertops?
Carmina: We are definitely specialists in quartz countertops.
Carmina: We expanded from being only Silestone to, you know, opening up our market a little bit into granite but then, you know, we are probably 80% quartz and we have many brands of quartz.
Carmina: Just…yeah, like 20% granite or so, yeah. So we specialize in that and, you know, that has been great for us.
Patrick: So even though you have a special relationship with Silestone, you offer other brands as well?
Carmina: Yes, yes. We do Cambria, Viatera, Caesarstone, Hanstone, yeah.
Carmina: Some Zodiac of course.
Patrick: And do you work mostly with retail homeowners directly, or do you get your business through other builders or dealers?
Carmina: Yeah, most of our business is through dealers…
Carmina: …kitchen and bath dealers, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and recently, just a few months ago, we decided to go directly to, you know, the public…
Patrick: Oh really?
Carmina: …and the local market. Yeah. I mean, we opened our showroom just a few months ago and, you know, it’s been great for us. It’s another world as well because then…we have always been able to work directly with the homeowners, you know, just being third-party kind of, but now we can go directly, and we have to face everything that our designers face now, you know, all the questions, and now we understand them more.
Patrick: Well that’s true. So what prompted the move? What made you decide, you know, hey…it’s time for us to open a showroom and address customers directly? You know, what made you want to…because it’s very different, what made you want to do that different thing?
Carmina: You know what? I think that we should have been…we should have done this before because there is…we have an hour away from us that, you know, there’s nobody buying stone. Of course, there are some kitchen-bath dealers in our area and, you know, that sell countertops, but we can offer more, and we can capture more business here, you know, local business so yeah, that’s why it’s been a good idea.
Patrick: I think that makes sense. So is it fair to say the retail business you get tends to be closer, a smaller radius, than, you know, you might have a dealer several hours away or something or, you know, across the state that they get the business and you fabricate it, but the people that you get the business and fabricate it are going to tend to be closer? Is that true?
Carmina: That’s right, that’s right. Yeah, like, one hour radius, kind of, you know.
Patrick: That makes a lot of sense. And how are you going about finding new customers? Just kind of the traditional advertising ways, or how are you getting people to walk through your doors?
Carmina: Yeah for the retail, it’s, you know, the social media, billboard, and word of mouth, big time. You know, word of mouth is big, big time, so, you know, we try to do things as best as we can because that’s very important.
Patrick: Do you cultivate that word of mouth so, you know, when you’re done with a…you know, if you did a kitchen for me and I was happy with it, do you have a systematic way of asking me to tell my friends, or is it just you let it happen?
Carmina: Know what? For the most part of our showroom, we just let it happen.
Carmina: And now we are starting, definitely, we have learned a lot and now we are creating that, you know, like a referral, reviews, yeah.
Patricak: And is that about the same on social media? I mean, is social media just a different way of doing the same thing, or do you do something completely different on social media?
Carmina: No. Right now, we are just doing very basic social media, and, you know, awareness. We do have a few plans and practices that we have been learning from other fabricators who have done social media successfully as, you know, a word of mouth strategy.
Patrick: I think it’s still pretty young so I always find it very interesting to hear about people diving into it and hearing what works and what doesn’t, and it’s a moving target. So I think it’s very interesting to discuss social media to me, just because I don’t think everyone has completely settled into exactly the game plan that works yet.
Carmina: That’s right. Yeah. That is right, because you see it in one way or you use social media in one way and I probably use it in another way. So we’re still learning, you know, what is the way that everybody…that you’ll get your message across to everyone?
Patrick: Right. And there’s a way the kids use it, which may or may not be the way you’re gonna find money on it, so it’s again, it’s a moving target a little bit.
Carmina: Yeah, yeah, but trying to just copy the good practices from other fabricators and, you know, it’s…social media is technically free because you have to have somebody dedicated so…to the content and whatnot and you have to be creative, but there’s a fabricator that is successfully using social media to track customers and, you know, that word of mouth.
Patrick: Cool. So, on your website, which also, I would say website is kind of a precursor or a prerequisite to social media. You have to have a nice website, and you do have a nice website. It’s inviting and interesting and easy to navigate. On there, you mention you’ve done extreme home makeovers. Is that the television show “Extreme Home Makeover,” or just the concept of kind of extreme home makeovers?
Carmina: It was the TV show. Actually, we did a couple of Extreme Home Makeovers and it was the most amazing thing that we did.
Carmina: Yeah. It’s, you know, they really demolish and do everything in one week, and it is incredible. The teamwork, the prep, everything that goes in place. Of course, you know, we had to measure and fabricate and install, like, in a span of five hours.
Patrick: Interesting practice I suppose.
Carmina: Yes, yes. Of course you know everything’s so pre-planned. We knew before the homeowners, we knew everything, you know, all the details, and usually the countertops are pretty straightforward, you know, just straight cuts. Yeah.
Patrick: I mean, that’s an experience not everyone has had so that sounds really different and you’ve even done more than one. This wasn’t a one-time deal. You’ve been on more than one?
Carmina: Yeah. We had the opportunity to do two.
Patrick: That’s just crazy.
Carmina: Yeah, yeah, it is.
Patrick: Well, good for you.
Carmina: But what wonderful experience. Yeah, thank you.
Patrick: Now, and on the same sentence on your website, you’re talking about some of your background, it also says you’ve done commercial work, which seems like a huge departure, a lot different even, to me it would seem a lot different from moving from a dealer to adding residential. How did commercial work come up, and is it, in fact, very different or is it less different than I’m thinking of, and what made you want to do commercial work?
Carmina: Well, we always want to give a try to every market I think. You know, you test the waters and see…want to get all the business you can so, you know, the commercial segment we wanted to try, but the commercial work that we’ve done is like light commercial. Hotels, like vanity tops for hotels, not huge hotels, but you know, smaller hotels, restaurants, and things like that so, you know, it’s…yeah, it tends to be a little bit different only because the lead time required seems to be awfully short. And yeah, you really need to…it’s a different structure. So we have a small percentage of our business devoted to commercial only.
Patrick: But you didn’t mind it and wouldn’t rule out doing more?
Carmina: Right. We always have a little bit of commercial…
Carmina: …going on for sure.
Patrick: Interesting. And so if you look at all the different parts of your business, what would you like to see grow the most or what are you working on most to improve on all these different facets of your business?
Carmina: We would love to grow the retail business for sure.
Carmina: The retail is one big focus of us and but, always, you know, what we would like to improve…there are many things, Patrick. You know, it’s like growing business there’s…you never stop wanting to improve in something and you grow a little bit more and then you see, like, right now, maybe training is something that we need to be looking into improving, and then team link. You know, it’s like a race with a baton and everybody has to pass on the baton at a specific time, and if you just drop it or, you know, that’s been happening. Sometimes it’s not as smooth as we want to but, you know, it’s always those challenges, the usual challenges, I would say, of a business.
Patrick: Sure, and I’ve heard from other fabricators that as we get deeper into the positive part of the economics cycle, that it’s getting harder and harder to find good employees to start with. Are you experiencing that as well or do you always…do you have a trick for finding good employees?
Carmina: Well, probably it’s a little bit of the two. You know, it’s difficult to find the skilled trades mostly. You know it’s more like fabricators, measure techs, you know, polishers, all those production guys are very difficult to find good people. But also I think that there is a combination here. It’s how you get people and again, you know, the training and…you know, but before training is the way to…when you hire, taking the time to hire is very, very important, and I think that’s key, taking the time. Sometimes we are in a hurry to get people and, you know, it’s not that they’re not good employees. It’s probably we hire the employee that’s not skilled or capable or doesn’t have enough interest in the job, so I think it’s kind of a 50/50 thing. It’s not only about good employees but a good hiring system. That we’re working on too.
Patrick: Nice. Yeah, and when you say training, are you thinking more in terms of taking someone who already has the trade, for example…someone who already knows how to polish, let’s just say that, and training them to fit into your environment? Or are you even saying just taking someone who seems like a good fit culturally and then giving them the training they need to do a particular skill like polish? I mean, are you training people…are you in some cases, taking people who don’t have the skills and teaching them the skills, or would you rather start with people who already have the skills and just make them fit?
Carmina: Well, we’d rather have somebody who knows, but in reality, we make people here. You know, we have to train them in…you know, they become what we want them to do because there are not as many skilled or experienced people as we need. So yeah, most of our employees we train. They don’t come from, you know, an experienced background in what we do so, yeah.
Patrick: Right. And are you doing all digital fabrication or do you do some of your cutting work by hand?
Carmina: All digital.
Patrick: Okay. So, and I’ve heard that it’s very different. Have you always been all digital or did you make a transition at some point in your business where you had cutting and then switched to all digital?
Carmina: Yeah, you know, we started a long time ago, so yeah, we have been adding, you know, from all kinds of equipment and what not, and trying to be always, to have state of the art equipment and be as digitalized as possible.
Patrick: The reason I ask is my understanding is that it’s more realistic to train someone who’s fairly technically competent to use digital equipment than…to use an analogy, I’m fairly digitally competent, I could probably be trained to run a CNC in a reasonable amount of time. Whereas it’s actually harder to teach someone how to make good cuts manually. That’s a trade that not everyone succeeds at is my understanding. I don’t know if that makes sense and I don’t know if you agree with that.
Carmina: Oh it makes sense. Yeah, it makes sense. See, for example, you know, this may sound funny, but you require certain skills like polishers, for example, they need to have rhythm. They almost need to know how to dance or something, because you see them, and they look as if they were dancing, you know?
Patrick: That’s really cool.
Carmina: Yeah, so and other, you know, our laminators and our fabricators, they sometimes need to have a certain degree of artisanry, or whatever you call it, you know, they’re almost artisans.
Patrick: That’s a…
Carmina: Not everybody has that skill.
Patrick: Yeah, and it’s harder to tell who is going to succeed at that and who isn’t. I think it would be harder to interview for someone who seems like they could dance as they polish as opposed to someone who shows the technical aptitude, yeah they’ll probably succeed at programming a CNC. That sort of thing. That’s really interesting.
Carmina: Yeah, it’s very, very interesting.
Patrick: Maybe at someone point, you’ll have to do training videos on teaching people how to polish with rhythm or something like that.
Patrick: New area of business. And once when I was speaking to you on the phone about some of these issues of trying to improve your processes and things like that, you mentioned that you were part of the Rockheads Group. Tell me a little bit about your association with Rockheads and, you know, what does that do for you, being part of that group?
Carmina: You know, it’s a new group, past just a few years, and it started with like five or six members. We were one of those, of that group, and…
Patrick: Were you really? One of the first five or six? That’s really cool.
Carmina: Yeah. It started, you know, let’s get together and just help each other for best practices and whatnot and now, I don’t know how many are Rockheads there are anymore because we keep on adding and adding good fabricators in the country and, you know, the whole idea of the Rockhead Group is to just truly raise the bar of customer service, of quality, and help each other through this network that, you know, we communicate each other what works best, what doesn’t and, wow, it’s priceless. It’s truly priceless, you know, we’ve learned so much. Many of the things that I’ve told you that we are doing or improving on, we have learned from Rockheads, our fellow Rockheads, definitely.
Patrick: That’s really cool. And do you meet mostly over the phone, or online, or do you meet in person or…
Carmina: Yeah. Most every month we have a 90 minute conference call and we meet. We have retreats every, I don’t know, like four months or so and we go to, you know, when there’s the Coverings show or the builder’s show, you know, we kind of tend to take opportunity of those dates that we know that many of the fabricators will attend, but yeah sometimes we go to other fabricators’ shops and we see their operation and you know, again, we share and share and share many good things. And then on top, we get some vendors that, you know, are working with us and we get discounts as well and many good things.
Patrick: It’s one of my favorite things about this industry, is that people actually help each other get better, that people are…I just find it very exciting that people…any time people formalize the idea of hey, let’s talk so we can each be better, I just think that’s really exciting.
Carmina: Right, and rather than being competitors, we really become partners almost in service.
Patrick: Exactly. I also know from talking with you a little bit, I know that, again, probably informed by these conversations, you’re wanting to push some of your processes farther, and part of that is improving software. You use our software but go ahead…a friend of mine had an expression, “Don’t be afraid to tell me when my baby’s ugly.” You know, he said…so, tell me about where you see software not doing what you want it to do. Tell me about the things you wish the software you have, either from us or from other vendors, where is it falling down? Where do you want software to do more that it’s currently doing?
Carmina: Well, you know that we use Moraware and we love Moraware. You know I don’t know, well, what we would do without it, you know, truly. It’s part of…as we call it, it’s the Bible for us and we do everything with Moraware and, you know, the nice thing is that with Moraware we have also acquired, like a couple more of sub-wares that help us enhance Moraware like the DataBridge, the…what is it? The Moraware inter…
Patrick: Mers [SP] I think…
Carmina: Inventory reconciliation.
Patrick: Yep. They add barcoding to the inventory process. That’s great. So that’s working well for you?
Carmina: It’s easy, it’s easy, easy, easy.
Patrick: That’s fantastic.
Carmina: Truly, it’s great. And then we have Job Well Done, and that’s fantastic for us too.
Patrick: These are new guys in the space, so what do you use them for?
Carmina: Well, it’s…the installers and measure techs receive their schedules one day before. And they are totally depending on them. You know, they love Job Well Done because before Job Well Done, they had to take pictures and they had to send them over to us and the paperwork and, you know, everyone had their own way of emailing or putting it in a Dropbox or just bringing in paper and it was a lot of work for everyone. And then with Job Well Done, you can take the pictures instantly, take a picture of the waiver and everything, and just with a click, it’s uploaded to our Moraware system and the project manager gets an email saying it’s done. You know, so we have saved so much time with this and a lot of communication, and that’s something that we’re always working on, communication between our teams.
Patrick: That’s great. So you have…you’re using Data Bridge to improve some of your inventory things, using Job Well Done to improve some of your field communications…
Carmina: Here’s where I would love to integrate now, our customers. It would be lovely to have our customers enter their orders and then, you know, that they…somehow we could update them on dates and maybe communication…a little bit more of automatic communication with them. That’s probably something that we’re looking…
Patrick: Yeah. That particularly warms my heart to hear you say, because I remember…the closest things I’ve seen is last time I refinanced my home, several years ago, I had this…the company I used, I think it was Quicken Loans, had this great system that kept me up to date every step of the way because, you know, it’s not something you do in an afternoon. There are multiple steps and milestones along the way, and they would send me emails automatically and I could log in to their site and see all my documents as things moved through.
I would love to see the same sort of thing for the countertop industry. We haven’t had enough people ask for that yet. So we only do things that our customers ask for, and we can only do a small fraction of things that our customers ask for, but I have to think more and more of your customers are going to demand something like that. So someone, whether us or one of these partners, someone is going to have to build more communication features into this overall work flow over time. They have to.
Carmina: Yeah, exactly. That it’s, you know, more automatic, because we do it but it takes time, effort, and, you know, one more thing to do. And you know how complicated the stone countertop business is.
Patrick: Yeah. Exactly. And any time you can eliminate one more thing to do, it lets you focus on more important things to do, which is nice.
Carmina: Correct. Correct.
Patrick: Just to give me an idea of scale, you mentioned inventory. How much inventory do you typically have on hand at one time?
Carmina: Like number of slabs or…?
Patrick: Yeah. A hundred slabs, 300 slabs, how many do you typically…?
Carmina: You know, Patrick, that would be difficult for me to answer and we really don’t stock. Okay?
Patrick: Oh, you do special order, okay.
Carmina: However, in transit, we have, yeah, you know, probably, I don’t know, I would…I’m just gonna say a number, maybe a hundred slabs? I’m looking right now outside the window and I see a good number of slabs, for sure, yeah.
Patrick: That’s very interesting to me, because we often see people that would, particularly because you mention Mirrors, the software from DataBridge. And my impression has been that that has typically only been used by people who keep a lot of inventory on hand and are talking, you know, almost pushing 1,000 slabs, perhaps, and yet you said…it sounds like you do more special order and yet that was still very useful and valuable to you.
Carmina: Yeah. Well, yeah, sometimes, we do buy a container of, you know, a certain color or a couple of colors that we know that will move fast, but it’s…we know that those slabs are going to be cut pretty soon after, so yeah, we do stock some slabs. I shouldn’t say, “no,” and we do have a lot of slabs on consignment.
Carmina: That makes us a little bit different too, because we are…we have a showroom of slabs with a lot of quartz colors, not granite. We have granite colors as well, but a lot of quartz on display. And what we use Mers for is for all the partial slabs that generate from those slabs.
Patrick: Oh. Okay. So you track all your remnants as well?
Carmina: Yeah, yeah we do, so that we can do good use of, you know, the material that we have here and possibly not have to buy a whole slab.
Patrick: That makes a lot of sense. Well, again, thank you for sharing your wisdom with us today. Is there any specific advice or wisdom you’d like to share with our listeners? Anything else you’d like to interject and remind people?
Carmina: Well, yeah, you know we’re all in this business, and whatever a fabricator does, if it’s good, it’s gonna talk good about all the other fabricators, you know, all the industry, and it affects us all, whatever we do. So if I give excellent customer service to a homeowner and do good quality, I’m sure that I am representing a lot of fabricators, you know, I’m representing the industry so [inaudible 00:30:01].
Patrick: That’s a wonderful message.
Carmina: Yeah, we all have to work together for excellence.
Patrick: I absolutely love that. Thank you. Thank you, Carmina, and I hope to talk to you again soon, and let us know if we can help with anything.
Carmina: Patrick, it was a pleasure. Thank you very much for the opportunity.
Patrick: You bet. Talk to you more soon.
Carmina: Yes. Thanks. Bye-bye.
Thanks for listening to Stone Talk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. If you liked this episode, be sure to visit stonetalk.org, or subscribe to Stone Talk in iTunes for more. Visit the Stone Talk Show Facebook page to join in the conversation, and follow @StoneTalkShow on Twitter. Stone Talk 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 Stone Talk.