StoneTalk Episode 1 – Aaron Crowley
Listen to this episode to learn:
- How adopting a fixed production time between template and install can help guide scheduling and increase shop utilization
- Why scheduling your confirmation calls for 3 days before template can reduce the impact of customer schedule changes
- That it’s possible to use quote volume as a leading indicator to plan for production volume
- Why it’s sometimes better to say no to a customer because of a scheduling conflict, even after you spent money to turn a lead into a sale
One of the fun things about a podcast is that you can talk back – so please do! You can leave comments for this show at stonetalk.org, on the StoneTalk Facebook page, via Twitter, or on this site. And of course, you can always email email@example.com, too. If you have stories or insights that you’d like to share with other fabricators, please reach out to Patrick.
NOTE: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Patrick Foley: Welcome to our inaugural episode of StoneTalk. Today we’re going to chat with Aaron Crowley, Founder of Crowley’s Granite Concepts, a stone fabricator in Oregon with a great business and a great reputation to match. Aaron’s also a successful inventor and writer who wants to help other business people succeed – especially stone fabricators. To learn more from Aaron, I encourage you to read his book, Less Chaos More Cash, which you can find at his website LessChaosMoreCash.com. All right, let’s give him a call.
Aaron Crowley: This is Aaron, how can I help you?
Patrick: Hey, Aaron. It’s Patrick. How are you doing?
Aaron: Oh, going good. I was looking forward to our call … and speaking of Skype, for the last month, I have Skyped into our morning operations meeting, and it’s been kind of an interesting experience. So I actually know what that term means these days. A month ago, I didn’t.
Patrick: Nice. Are you doing that because you have two locations now? Is that the issue?
Aaron: No, no. We live on a farm about 45 minutes from the shop and my wife … we just found out my wife is pregnant about a month ago.
Aaron: And she’s really sick in the morning, so I told the crew, “Look, in the mornings I’m going to Skype in” … help her out and get the day going, and then we’ve got four other kids already, and my wife home schools. She’s kind of got a full plate. So that was sort of her game plan to keep me at home for as long as possible and still check in here at work. But she’s feeling better now, and I have no good excuse for me to continue Skyping in …
Patrick: Just that it works so well. Congratulations! That’s great.
Aaron: Thank you very much. Well, where would you like to start? I’ve been thinking about this and just looking forward to it. I’ve got lots of time and you just tell me where you want to go and I’ll hop on board.
Patrick: All right. Well, I’m recording. That’s the most important thing. I’ve done that in the past … I did a podcast while I was at Microsoft and one time I had a great interview that didn’t happen just because I didn’t hit record.
Aaron: Oh, no!
Patrick: You try to make that mistake once in your life, zero would be better, but once is plenty. So we’ve got that covered …
I want to take this in whatever direction it goes. You’re someone who obviously knows a ton about this business; you’ve written a book, etc., so let’s just chat.
Patrick: I know you’re super busy. Are you busy more during one part of the year or is your business steady throughout the year?
Aaron: Pre-recession, I would have said it was steady year round and gotten busy in the fall heading into the holidays, with people putting new counters in for Christmas and Thanksgiving. The downturn disrupted that, and there were some trends that developed. I would have described the last four or five years – we’d be busy in the spring, kind of average in the summer, pick up a little bit in the fall, and then it would get really scary in the winter time. That would be about the only pattern that I could describe in detail that developed with the last 12 months being the exception.
We have been steady since about March or April of last year. The last 12 months have been the best 12 months we’ve had since 2007. Very steady, very little interruption to that. We’ve got a little bit of the spring surge that’s kind of booked our calendar out a little bit further, but I wouldn’t say that we’ve added capacity or quote/unquote taken on more work. It’s just that we’ve got a bigger back log right now. I suspect that throughout the summer we’ll chew through that and be back to a normal three- to four-week lead time, and a very manageable pace. If that pattern repeats itself again over the next 12 months, I’ll be very, very happy.
Patrick: So, at what point do you decide to increase capacity or are you at a size that you don’t want to grow beyond – and rather focus on another area?
Aaron: No. We’ve got a couple of leading indicators in our sales department that we watch very closely, actually on a daily basis. We track our quote volume … we’ve got a metric there that we’ve measured on a monthly basis. We divide that by the number of days in the month, and then we get a monthly average. So, we’ve been measuring that very, very carefully and very consistently, and in the same way since, I think, about the middle of 2008.
What we’ve seen in terms of the sales cycle … I’ve got almost the six year point of data to where we can see that quote volume. Our sales cycle looks about like this. We close about 50% of the dollars in the following month. Once we close that, it usually translates into actual work on the calendar a month later. So our quote volume shows about a two month blinking light to say, “Hey, if our close ratio stays the same as it’s been historically, I can look out two months and pretty much predict our dollars on the calendar in terms of what I’m manufacturing and what we’re going to actually produce and install.”
So if I saw that quote volume, and we’ve been watching that long enough to see the trends and to a certain degree follow the pattern I described earlier, a little bit of a surge in the summer and it kind of follows accordingly. With five, six years of history, if I saw our quote volume spike above the previous year’s quote volume which we watch pretty carefully, I would say, “Hey, this is telling us something.” And if our close ratio remains the same, we’re going to have more work to put on the calendar two months from now.”
But I wouldn’t say that that’s necessarily happening. The low point has kind of leveled out over the last 12 months, but we have not seen an overall substantial increase in total quote volume compared to where we were 12 months ago. So I’m looking at this and saying, if that started to ramp up, we would start discussing, “Hey, do we want to add capacity? Do we want to prepare?” But at this point it’s just stable, and I’m happy with that. If it comes our way, we’ll try and prepare to reap the harvest. If it doesn’t, well, we’re just grateful for what we do have and we’ll try and manage it as best we can.
Patrick: You do mostly retail, right?
Aaron: Yes. I’d say it’s probably 70% retail, 30% small remodeling contractors, where it’s still the same customer. In one sense it’s all retail, but 30% of that goes through small remodeling contractors, small cabinet shops, and relationships like that.
Patrick: That’s interesting, because a lot of people have been wanting to say that we’re past the downturn – and it’s certainly leveled out, it appears … some of that, I think, might be optimism. It’s very interesting that you have a metric – you measure something specific that gives you better data to make a decision on when you should actually try to expand … and that now is not necessarily the time to open the flood gates.
Aaron: We’re running so lean like a lot of companies. We just stripped our operation down to the bare essentials. When those little waves or swells occur, it feels like we’re drowning – “We have to act fast!” And it’s like, “Well, OK, I’m not going to disagree … the swell is increasing the pressure a little bit.” But how much? Let’s wait another month and see if the quote volume changes. One month is just one month.
We have a big snow storm here in February like the rest of the country, but it’s very unusual for us. So we had an off February. Our quote volume and our sales, quite frankly were off. But then March … it was like it just postponed it and the wave hit us in March and felt really intense. By the end of April (last month), things were starting to moderate a little bit and it was like, “You know what? I think it seemed overly intense because it was delayed out of February.” Having those numbers … a lot of times the emotional, the feel is, “Oh, gosh, if we don’t have the staff we’re really going to stumble trying to deliver to the customer.” That’s on the sales side.
From an operational standpoint, we have some metrics there too that prevent us from over scheduling. So when I tell you that our lead time is out further than it normally is here in the spring, that’s because we’ll make a conscious decision or a customer will say, “I want this in the middle of June.” And we’ll say, “Well, as soon as we can do that it’s the middle of July.”
So the customer says, “Well, I’ve got to go somewhere else.” Then we say, “We’re really sorry to lose your business, but we can either take it on – and disappoint you and everybody else on the calendar – or we can just be up front and frank with you. Some people will say, “Maybe we will wait.” Other people will say, “Can you recommend somebody?” And then we’ve got a couple of fabricators that we recommend.
That’s one of the other areas we’re measuring. That resulted from a lot of trial and error, a lot of taking on too much and then suffering as a result. You go through that cycle enough times, and you just go, gosh, we make less money. Everybody is wore out and pissed off, customers aren’t happy. And we make less money for the privilege. We’ve got to change something here.
Patrick: You have a pretty rigorous approach to scheduling. You’ve told me about that before. Can you share that with me again? In my experience, it’s not what everybody does.
Aaron: I’m not sure how our approach differs from everybody else’s, but I can describe how we look into the future. We have a certain amount of capacity. We’ve got a template capacity, we’ve got shop capacity, we’ve got install capacity, and it’s finite. It is what it is unless we add people or we require people to work over time.
And so with that being said, we know to a certain degree what we could produce week in, week out, week in, week out … not in surges. But if we were able to take our total capacity, we want to divide that by 4.2 weeks in a perfect world – and it’s never perfect, because the customer schedule doesn’t always sync up with what our capacity is or what our available dates are. But with that knowledge, we can create a first come, first serve scheduling scenario where we’ve got a certain number of slots in the calendar, every month, every week – a certain amount of work that we can produce in a day that’s physically possible, based on drive time, based on the size of the calendars.
You see patterns develop and you go, “This is what we can produce comfortably, so let’s attempt to produce that week in, week out.” What that does if you kind of reverse it, you go, “If that’s what we could comfortably produce, we know that if we take on anything more that, if we commit to more than that … well, we’ve been through that, so let’s try to avoid it.”
We can look at the calendar and just say at a moment’s notice, “This is the next available date on our calendar.” It’s not emotional … one of the things I’ve been able to do because of the emotional side of that, seeing all the financial numbers and the implications of having a sale … “But we paid money to generate that lead and it cost us money to go present it, and then we had to produce a quote. And then we had to invest dollars to follow up on it. Now, it’s a sale. We’ve got money invested in this and now we’re going to say good bye? Who does that?”
So what I’ve done is delegate that task to our Sales Department and say, “Here are the limitations, here are the constraints – because I am not emotionally capable of saying no myself, I’m going to delegate this task to you. For the sake of the overall operation – and in the grand scheme of things for the customer – and for our bottom line, we have to be able to say no on those occasions.” It’s not like that happens all the time, but it does occur. And having that sort of infrastructure, that framework, we’re just dropping jobs into those slots. When they’re full, they’re full. And we say, “Hey, if something opens up, we can move you forward, but if not, gosh, we’re all better off if we don’t take on more than we’re capable of doing right now.”
And then with Moraware, we’ve got the auto schedule. We’ve got a very repeatable process for templating to install. A lot of companies, I think, what they’ll do if the job’s ready to template, they’ll come out and say, “Well, we’ll go template it to close the sale.” We’re available to template. The customer signed the contract, gets the template, and goes, “Now when is it going to be installed?” And they go, “Oh yeah, about that. Sorry, we’re six weeks out.” And the customer’s like, “Well, six weeks out, that’s too late.” “Well, sorry, we already templated it, we already began the job, and we have a contract.” Then the pressure occurs on the other side. That’s not going to work for me. I’ve been in this position, “Let me see what I can do.” I’ll scratch my head and look at the schedule and go, “We’ll try and get it in this week.”
And then it’s too much and it overwhelms. The water only has to be about a millimeter over your nostril and you can’t breathe! It doesn’t matter if it’s a foot, if it’s ten feet, or just an inch … if it’s more than you can do, it’s more than you can do. The nature of the business – there’s so little margin for error that if you can cap it and “keep the water level,” as consistent as possible, in the long run we’ve found that to be a much more humane environment to work in.
Patrick: And it’s better for your reputation as you said. It doesn’t pay to promise things that you can’t deliver and then your reputation takes a hit, which messes everything up.
Patrick: I seem to recall you had a specific number of days … if I’m a customer saying, “Okay. I want this. I’m ready for this counter top.” And now you’re scheduling it. You do a specific number of days after it’s templated that you’re going to install. Right? How does that work in your business?
Aaron: I assume this is going to be broadcast to other stone fabricators.
Aaron: So, we still get pushed back and people go, “No, way!” Everybody else I’ve talked to says that this is what the normal is. But we’ve been doing this for, I don’t know, seven or eight years … we guarantee a six business day turnaround from template to installation. And so using Moraware, there’s two ways to look at it, what our next available install date is or when their cabinets are available to template. Their cabinets, if they’re available beyond our installation date we’ll say, “We can template that day then the install’s going to be six business days later.”
And vice versa for our next available install date out into the future. We’ll say, “You can reserve that now if you want to move forward on this job”, and they say, “Yeah, put us on the schedule,” or we’ll secure that installation date and then we automatically schedule the template for six business days prior to that. One of the benefits to that – and this is one of our little secrets within our enterprise – because we’re not templating lots of jobs and beginning lots of jobs, and then just kind of helter skelter deciding to work on a particular job based on the amount of pressure that we’re getting from the customer … we don’t have an excess of work in progress floating around the shop on carts or at various stages of production.
The jobs begin … they enter the shop, they’re laid out, they’re cut, and then they’re prepared for installation at the same rate they’re templated. We don’t disrupt the order. It’s always six days, so a job always … the slabs always spend six days at some stage of production before they leave. I think that benefits us, and that it alleviates some of the … “Oh, where are those pieces, and where’s that piece?” … and “that job is this material ….”
So that short turnaround time is useful for a number of reasons. One, it’s more predictable. We can then schedule exact dates eight weeks out, which we do all the time. We can tell them two months in advance, “Here is the day we’re going to be there to template and here is the day we’re going to be there to install” as opposed to the heating and air conditioning guy that goes, “Well, I’ll be there between eight in the morning and about four in the afternoon.” The customer’s like, “Well, I gotta take the whole day off of work then.” Same thing if you’ve got a template date scheduled, but there’s no definitive installation date that corresponds to that; the customer’s kind of in limbo until you get around to making the counter tops and it’s sometimes probably as much of a surprise to the fabricator that they’re ready as it is to the customer. And then they go, “Hey, they’re ready. Can we come tomorrow?” And the customer is lost. “No, I’m not available tomorrow.” Now what?
It could be 12 days. It could be 15 days. The time between template and install is kind of irrelevant. It’s the fact that it’s fixed and predictable. I think that it’s really what has allowed us to build our operation around that and serve the customer and provide a higher level of service to them. There’s a lot less of that kind of last minute … I know there’s still some of it. I hope I’m not painting this picture that we’ve got some Swiss watch or something here because we don’t. We’ve got problems with natural stone, and we’ve got customers, and human beings that are making the stuff, and scheduling it. So, I know we’ve got more than our fair share of issues to deal with, but I think we’ve got fewer of them as a result of scheduling that way.
Patrick: You include the customers in the process, in my opinion. Say I’m the customer and you’re supposed to template tomorrow … but for whatever reason the cabinets aren’t ready. And I call and say, “Hey, the template’s not going to work tomorrow. Can you come the next day?” You would tell me yes, but then the install’s going to be bumped out a day too. Right?
Aaron: Well, actually because I’m going to have another date already filled … One of the issues we deal with is what you just described. What happens when the customer is not ready? If I had stacked my schedule up first come, first serve and the next template day is booked, and the corresponding six days later is an install, as is the next day, and the next day, and the next day. If it isn’t ready, it might be two or three weeks before we could drop that job back into the calendar.
So we’ve found that it behooves us to actually proactively make the call. And we’ve got this all auto scheduled with Moraware. It becomes three day confirmation calls. I don’t have Moraware open here on the computer to refresh my memory as to the exact verbiage and wording, and what the little calendar format looks like. But, we’re able to go in and once we have that, those are auto scheduled appointments. I guess is what you’d call them.
Anyway, it’s an activity that’s auto scheduled relative to the template and install date. So our scheduler automatically calls three days … We like it to be three days in advance. Sometimes it still just depends on how busy things are, but we like to get a couple of days’ notice to say, “Hey, just double checking. It’s been, four weeks since we’ve talked last and set this date of the template for three days from now. I just want to confirm that everything is still on schedule. Are you going to be ready? Are your cabinets in? Occasionally – well actually that’s not even occasionally – more than occasionally, people aren’t ready.
“No, we had a problem with the cabinets,” or “the painters are running long.” And that at least gives us two or three days to finagle things. And sometimes other people are like, “I can bump forward a couple days. In fact, that’s better for us.”
If we’re trying to do that the morning of the template, it’s too late, and we’ve lost a day of production. That allocated slot for capacity just passed us by, and we’re going to incur the cost of the labor because it’s too hard. You send your template guy home that day, and your layout guy home the next day, and the installer home the next … you end up just eating it.
So calling a couple of days in advance, making sure even if they’re not ready, we’ve got a couple of days to respond, and trying to maximize that capacity that we have in the operation. Without that call, I would bet probably 15% of our capacity would go unutilized, because it would be too short a time frame to respond the day of the scheduled template and the corresponding production and install if we weren’t making those calls.
Patrick: That call seems tied into managing customer expectations as well … which kind of takes me to another topic … it doesn’t sound like you compete on being the low price provider. You’re trying to create an overall experience that is high value. And you mentioned the word predictable. Your customers appreciate a predictable experience …
How do you set your prices? At what point do you worry you’re charging too little? At what point do you raise prices? At what point would you lower prices? How have you historically thought about that?
Aaron: Boy … I wouldn’t say we’ve managed that as scientifically as we track the data. That’s more of an intuitive … “How many jobs are we losing based on price? How competitive is it as that price resistance sort of fades? Let’s raise the price until we start losing too many jobs based on price.” And at a certain point, we do a pretty good job of communicating the value upfront, and as such we have a reasonable grasp on who our customer is.
And so we qualify the customer when they call looking for a quote. We want to know if they even fall within our target customers.
A guy who’s doing four kitchens a month probably is not worth you guys doing a sales presentation to on Moraware simply because the likelihood of going onto Gotomeeting and walking through the process and sending information and sending references … maybe there’s a chance, but the likelihood is that just based on size, it’s probably not going to be a very good use of time.
We’ve approached the retail customer in the same way. We’ve screened out some people before we even do the quote. We’re thinning the pool making it more likely that the customers we’re quoting are customers that fit what we know to be our demographic and our target customer.
And then we explain. We try to go through that predictability and set people’s expectations upfront, and we’ve got a pretty good sales presentation. It isn’t so much about what you do though. I joke with our crew about this, especially our install crews that are going to job sites. We tell them we’re going to be there at a certain time. Well there’s always something that comes up, and you don’t expect it, and you end up having to call. If you don’t call …
Homeowner’s have such a low regard for contractors. That’s the baseline. Nobody expects us to do what we say we’re going to do anyway. That’s the preconceived notion. If you simply do something as basic as installing on the day that you said you would install, we’ve already actually exceeded their expectations.
A couple of those little things like the call in advance – like you say, we’re setting an expectation. “Hey, just confirming that this Friday’s going to work for you.” “Whoa! I did not expect them to be here on Friday and I surely did not expect another confirmation call.” But contractors in general, I think have created such a bad name for all of us that there’s a great opportunity in setting the expectation.
The point I’m trying to make is I don’t think the expectation itself is so important – it’ll be different for everybody – but if you meet it, you could actually wow the customer, because none of them expect us to follow through. I tell our guys, if you’re going to be even five minutes late to the job site, I don’t care if you’re around the corner, just give them a call because they’re going to be so stunned, they’re going to be so astonished that we actually took the time to say, “Hey, we’re running five minutes behind, is that going to be a problem?” Their eyeballs are just going to pop out of their head and we’re going to look really good even though we’re five minutes late. So, in terms of those expectations, I don’t think it really matters what the expectations are as long as you set them, and as long as you work to meet them, and notify the customer when you can’t, before the appointed deadline has passed.
Patrick: Let’s talk about something you mentioned in your book, Less Chaos More Cash – you didn’t think I would miss a plug for your book, did you?
Aaron: No, and I appreciate it!
Patrick: LessChaosMoreCash.com … let’s talk about employees. How do you find and keep good employees, especially now that you mention the economy seems to be picking up a bit? How do you retain good people and find good people?
Aaron: We’re so far removed from the heyday when we were really frantically trying to find enough people to do the work. We’re only just now starting to get a sense of that, “Look, we’ve got to start preparing to hire” … that things are stable … and we’ve had some other opportunities that have kind of raised this question.
We have a great crew. We have an absolutely fantastic crew. I look at that as a blessing from God Almighty, that He brought people to us that have really worked out.
Over the course of the downturn, we really had to thin, and we had quite a number of layoffs, scaling the business down to the sales that we had. That sort of weeded out some of the leftovers. So the people that we’ve got, the cream of the crop that we’re left with is as much a result of those circumstances that we were forced into.
Referrals. I think that birds of a feather flock together and finding people that share your values is the single most important criteria in hiring somebody. It cuts so many ways … if you’re really quality minded, and you hire somebody that may have experience, but they like high volume (“Might as well get it out the door …”). Well, someone who’s quality-minded might in the end be very frustrated that they hired somebody who just has a hard time meeting their standards. And the reverse is true.
You’ve got a real high production output where quality is not as important to the customer, but getting it out the door is the most important thing. The boss that hires a guy that’s really meticulous, really careful, really conscientious, he’s probably going to be frustrated going, “You’ve got to do more work. I can’t afford to pay you to only produce what you’re producing. These quality things don’t matter to the customer, so get over it.”
I think regardless of what side of that equation you’re on, you gotta find people that share your values … and those go beyond just the technical skills … the ethics, and integrity … people that like to booze and carouse probably aren’t going to be the greatest fit with a bunch of family-oriented people, and vice versa. They’re not going to sync up with the general atmosphere.
Birds of a feather, that kind of cliché, I think there’s some truth in that. And so I’m thinking back through our current roster going, “Oh, yeah. He was a friend of his, even though that guy doesn’t work here anymore.” A lot of the guys we hired were associates, fellow employees, a relative. We got a couple of guys that we hired off of Craigslist that were just absolutely phenomenal, fantastic finds, but I’d say that’s the exception to the rule.
Patrick: How many employees do you have?
Aaron: We’ve got 11 full-time employees now.
Patrick: One thing I would add to that … a business owner gave me advice once that I thought was kind of clever. He said, “Hire people who play at what you work at.” I agree that you have to have people with the same values, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to hire 11 people who look just like you. You want to find people who also complement you, and he said specifically, “People who get up in the morning and want to do all the things you don’t like doing, things that are just hard for you. Find people who light up when they do those things.” I thought that was interesting advice, too.
Aaron: Yeah, that’s a fantastic point. When I wrote Less Chaos More Cash, my mindset was a little bit different than it is now. I think I put a lot more stock in the standards and the processes that you would provide to an employee. I think my mindset probably at that time would have been more, “It didn’t really matter what the person likes to do and I really don’t care what you like to do. What I care is if you meet the standard and the timing.”
But over the last few years, because of the way the business had to change because of personnel changes and what have you, we had to reorient people. And gosh, putting people in different positions that they were actually way more suited for … Just like what you’re saying. You have certain people who have certain aptitudes and interests – and certain things that are not a strength. And you go, wow! We kind of had that guy in the wrong place, and he did it. But, man, putting him in a position that he’s really well suited for, wow, you know what a difference that makes. So I think there’s a lot of truth in what you just said. Finding people that complement and shore up your weaknesses … and there’s a lot of them in my leadership and management. So yeah, that’s a great point.
Patrick: But it still needs to be balanced with values. People can have the same values but have different strengths and weaknesses.
Patrick: I’m a newbie to this industry – I just started this year – so I have a question … I went to Coverings a couple of weeks ago, and there was row after row after row of material and slabs, and different kinds of stuff. And then there was the next floor, and then there was even an extra tent because they ran out of room. There was just so much stuff. How do you process all that? Again, I’m a newbie – but at a certain point, it all looks the same to me. How do you deal with that? For example, how do even figure out where to buy your material?
Aaron: I think like anything else, you probably go to that same show two or three more times. And just like I run into Harry every single time I go to Coverings or Stone Expo, you end up seeing people that you don’t see all the time. I think first and foremost you develop relationships with people over time.
As those relationships develop, you just kind of gravitate towards those same people. There’s a trust level. Work and life is hard enough as it is – when you’re doing business with people that you don’t really have a relationship with, or if they don’t value the relationship as much as they value the bottom line … the relationship is what I value.
Patrick: Where I saw row after row after row of slabs, you saw more people from the relationships you’ve developed over the years. “Here are the people I’m going to gravitate toward …”
Aaron: Yeah, I do now, but those have to be developed over time.
But in terms of this business, we don’t actually import any of our own material. We buy from local distributors. So when I go into Coverings or Stone Expo, I’m not there looking for material. I’m there kind of maintaining relationships with equipment manufacturers and vendors, and we’ve got our other business, Fabricators Friend. So a lot of times, I’m playing the role of a vendor in a sense because, some of the companies that have big booths there are distributors of our products.
There’s relationship building that goes on there. But those relationships – and even locally – a lot of times you’ve got issues that come up. The customer doesn’t buy granite countertops but once in their lifetime. You find yourself in a situation where the customer isn’t happy, or maybe it just wasn’t what they expected. And there’s something that’s very normal in the material, but they just didn’t fully grasp the implications of the stone that they got.
If you’ve got a really strong a relationship with a supplier, you can go back and say, “Hey, can we solve this together?” Whatever the situation is … and they say, “Yeah. Let’s go into this together and let’s try and make this right.” I’ve been in that scenario with slab suppliers or vendors that said, “You know what? I couldn’t care less. You bought the slab, they picked it … have a nice day. When you want to buy more slabs come back and see me, but I’m not interested in navigating this difficulty with you.”
Patrick: I suppose that’s information too. That lets you know who you’re dealing with.
Aaron: Yeah. It’s nice to be in those situations where you can have a sense of partnership with somebody to go in and take care of a customer. “Hey, I know this sucks for all of us. We’ll give you the material at 50% off if you’ll refabricate.” It comes back to those relationships … to experience those strenuous and difficult circumstances with somebody who’s kind on your team and sort of walking through that with you in this short life that we have. It’s already difficult enough as it is, so it’s much nicer to have people on your side, who back you up, and who stand behind their products and don’t leave you hanging high and dry when things go sideways. It’s really helpful.
Patrick: That’s very cool.
You’ve mentioned some other businesses, such as Fabricators Friend. Tell me a little bit more about that.
Aaron: We’ve got a line of fabrication gear. I guess it would be called shop gear. Our original product was called the Stone Sleeve and it was basically a dry suit sleeve with a waterproof wrist seal that we adapted from the diving industry or trade (I don’t even know what you call that – whatever uses a dive suit). We took that and made a sleeve out of it for fabricators who were polishing or cutting in a shop, so they could in the winter time keep their sweatshirt or their jacket dry.
That developed after a couple of years. We were doing really well. So we thought about the aprons at the time, probably ten years ago, and then we launched our second product, which is called the Bullet Proof Apron. Your highest quality apron on the market was a rubber gasket with a shoestring going around your neck and another shoestring tied in a knot at your belly.
They were cheap, they wore out, and quite frankly they were dangerous. And they were very uncomfortable. So we went to our manufacturer, and I said, “Everybody said that our sleeves were going to be too expensive and nobody would buy them … but they appear to be pretty successful. Let’s design the absolute most incredible apron, most durable apron, most comfortable apron. We’ll make it lighter. We’ll make it longer. We’ll make it wider …” We put a neoprene neck strap on it. We put thousand-denier Cordura down the front of it. In a shop setting, it is bulletproof.
We ran a contest on Stone Advice a year or two ago to see who could show the apron that was the most abused and had been in the shop the longest. And then we gave a little award to the winners of that contest with our newest product which is the Bullet Proof Apron Deluxe. We added an iPhone or Smartphone pocket, and we changed the neck strap to kind of a suspended type strap so it goes over your shoulders as opposed to around your neck.
We just re-launched our fab coat which is kind of a hybrid of all of the products. It’s got a big coast guard jacket coat on it to fit over earmuffs. It’s got breathable Cordura on the back. It’s got the thousand-denier Cordura on the front. So it’s real durable. It’s got detachable stone sleeves on it. Guys that are standing in the sink cutout all day with water raining down on them are completely, absolutely dry. We just re-launched that in the last month or so.
We’re working … I think this fall, we will have our own line of really high-end shop boots that we’re going to be unveiling. We’re working with our distributors to plan that roll-out. We’re testing those products in the shop right now with our third iteration of the prototype to make sure that they actually stand up to eight, ten hours a day on a concrete floor, day in, day out.
Patrick: That’s awesome.
Aaron: At Fabricator’s Friend we sell those through all of the big distributors, Braxton-Bragg, GranQuartz, Granite City Tool.
Patrick: So that’s a whole other business for you. Just from a business perspective, do you have one business or did you create a separate L.L.C. to do these things you sell, or since it kind of grew out of your stone business, is it just part of your stone business?
Aaron: For a number of years, there was a line on the profit and loss for those products with corresponding expenses. Probably ten years ago or so we founded a separate company just like you said. It actually is an L.L.C., so it’s a completely separate company, a completely different set of financial statements. It’s a completely different business model.
It’s been quite fun to learn that side of distribution. It is a whole lot different and quite frankly a whole lot easier than manufacturing because we don’t make the product. We have a company here in America that manufactures it all for us. They were a company that actually manufactured stuff for the military, so it’s very high quality, very high standards, very high quality materials. And the price reflects that. The pieces don’t wear out. They’re more expensive than your average product, but they last forever. They’re just extremely well made. And so we’re not dealing with returns … There’s normal frustrations and quite frankly I don’t deal with them anyway because somebody else makes it. We inventory the product and then ship as we receive orders. It’s a completely different side of the business that’s been really fun to learn.
Patrick: Very cool. Last question – Equipment. Have you purchased anything new or do you have your eye on something that you want to be purchasing, or are you pretty much settled on what you have?
Aaron: Relative to where we were at the peak, we could grow for a while before we would be able to justify or really be in the position to have to buy any more equipment. But what I will say is we have been working on a prototype for a piece of install equipment that we’re going to be rolling out here, oh, maybe by the beginning of next year that I believe will be one of the most significant developments in install technology to possibly have ever been made available …
Patrick: Wow! You’re developing this or you’re going to be purchasing this?
Aaron: We’re working on it. We’re working on the prototype that we have been using with our install crews for about six months now. And we’ve begun to engage some people that have a little better grasp of engineering and manufacturing for these kinds of products … like you say, complement our weaknesses and the things that we’re ignorant about.
So, I’m hoping to be selling some equipment here in the next year that other people will be buying to be honest with you.
Patrick: Well, if this show takes off, then we’ll have to have you back when you launch it and tell people all about it.
Aaron: Oh, that would be so neat. That would be really fantastic, and I think that you’re a great interviewer. I think there’s a great likelihood that this is going to be successful – if you can get better guests on, then you’ve got a very good chance of making this thing successful.
Patrick: Ha! We’ll see what we can do. But, actually when I met you, I knew you were going to be my first guest …
I could talk to you all day, but I know you have a couple of businesses to run. So I will let you get back to work. Thank you so, so much for talking to me. This is just really cool.
Aaron: Yeah. Well, if it doesn’t fly, you’ll know who to blame.
Patrick: Absolutely! I am absolutely going to blame it on you, but then we’ll just try again. That’s how this stuff works. You just gotta try something and then adjust, and try again.
Aaron: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, thank you so much for the opportunity to spend the time with you Patrick. I really appreciate it.
Patrick: You bet. Thank you and I will talk to you very soon.
Aaron: Okay, looking forward to it.