StoneTalk Episode 26 – Karen Rothenberg

Dec 13, 2015 | Business

In Episode 26, Patrick speaks with Karen Rothenberg, founder of Natural Stone Motif, Inc.


Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Why you need to ask your customers questions to determine their lifestyle, wants, and true needs – in order to help them pick the right product for them
  • How to move to a bigger building without interrupting your workload
  • How to work with a big box store like Costco
  • How to leverage your woman- or minority-owned status to win commercial business
  • How daily 5-minute meetings can help keep everyone on the same page

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.


Patrick: Welcome to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. Bought to you by Moraware, makers of job tracker scheduling software, and CounterGo estimating software for counter fabricators.

I am your host, Patrick Foley. Today I am chatting with Karen Rothenberg of Natural Stone Motif. Let’s give her a call.

Karen: Hey, Patrick, how are you?

Patrick: Good. How are you, Karen?

Karen: I’m good. Thank you.

Patrick: Is this an okay time to chat for a few minutes?

Karen: It is. Yes, this is perfect.

Patrick: Or more accurately, there is never a good time so I’ll say is this an acceptable time. Cool.

Karen: It is, yes, this works just fine.

Patrick: All right. Well, thank you so much.

Karen: Thank you. Sure.

Patrick: I’m just going to dive in then and start by saying: tell me about Natural Stone Motif. What makes you different? What makes you stand out in your market?

Karen: Well, Natural Stone Motif is a family-owned, but women-owned, and certified in the State of Florida, City of Orlando and a couple of other cities, as a minority women-owned company. So we are different in that way. Against our competitors it also helps us get into the market in some areas where others might not be able to as well because of the minority status.

Patrick: And do you find yourself leveraging that on…does that come into play on bigger jobs? Or where does the woman-owned aspect particularly help you other than just you are a woman and so it’s part of who you are?

Karen: Yes. It helps on projects like at Disney, Universal, University of Central Florida. There is quite a few municipalities and larger commercial projects where they need to hit a certain percentage of minority status. So that helps us. Then when we work hand in hand with millwork companies, they can also use that status. Natural Stone Motif has a sister company called SJS Architectural Millwork Installation. So the other thing that is different about us is we actually can come in and install somebody’s millwork and then come right in with the stone after it.

Patrick: Nice.

Karen: The general contractors really like that, especially because they only have to make that one phone call. The millwork companies enjoy it too, they are already subbing out their business to other installers. So then they just have their stone company come right behind as well and it’s one phone call, one-stop, one-stop shop.

Patrick: That’s very interesting. So somehow or another your stone business and the millwork business need to coordinate schedules. Do they share the same scheduling system or does someone call, someone else at the stone business, and say, “Hey, we’re done. It’s time for you guys to come in here.” How does that work?

Karen: We work in conjunction with each other. We do have a shared schedule as it’s needed for certain projects if it’s something that we work together on. SJS has their own customers as well. So they do their own work on the side, outside of Natural Stone, and vice versa. So there are times where we’re working together as sister companies and there are times where we’re just working independently.

Patrick: And you mentioned commercial business. What approximate percentage of your business is commercial versus retail homeowners?

Karen: We probably do about 30% annually of commercial work.

Patrick: Nice.

Karen: A lot of it is with Disney and Universal Studios, some of the larger theme parks around. But we do a lot of other big projects as well just as needed. Right now we’re working on the Four Seasons building and that’s an SJS project. Usually what ends up happening is one has not known about the other company and we’re hired by SJS under a contract for, let’s say, millwork installation. Then, when we’re there, they say, “Oh, well you do stone too. So let’s give you this package as well.”

Patrick: Nice. Do you have a personal preference for one over the other? Commercial versus retail? Or they are just different?

Karen: They are totally different animals. Do I have a preference? Not really a preference. We service several Lowe’s stores throughout the state as well, throughout Central Florida. So we have Lowe’s and Costco and they are all different in their own way.

Patrick: Very cool. I haven’t heard a lot of people doing Costco stuff. I have a certain sense of the big box relationship with Lowe’s, Home Depot, things like that. Is Costco particularly different or?

Karen: It is.

Patrick: So what was it like working with them?

Karen: It’s great working with them. They are very easy to work with. Typically you are, as a fabricator, controlling the whole countertop program, setting the pricing and working with the customers directly. So they basically are giving you the contact and lead information and then you go from there and sell it. You are required to do a certain amount of visits in the store and stay for the day in the store, I think they call them road shows, per store but we service the three of them here in the Orlando area.

Patrick: That’s very interesting. Yeah, that is different.

Karen: Very different than Lowe’s.

Patrick: I personally like that story. I find myself looking for excuses to go there. I don’t know if it’s the large packages of almonds or what, but I have a strange fondness for going to that store. So that’s good to hear that they are good to work with.

Karen: Yeah, very good company.

Patrick: So I noticed on your website that it says you are moving. Where are you in that process and what prompted the move?

Karen: We have just overgrown the building that we are currently in. Surprisingly. I never thought that day would come but we have. The new building, I could put six buildings probably that we’re currently in in the size of the building that we’re moving to. Over in Sanford, which is just on the border of Sanford and Lake Mary area, a beautiful industrial park. Right now we’re in the process of moving the showroom. The offices have been built out. The showroom is currently being moved, piece by piece, and then we will start with the shop, which is always a great endeavor.

Patrick: Yeah. For me, as an individual, moving is one of my least favorite things in the world but, again, it sounds like your company just needed to do that. Is it going the way you expected or is it throwing you a curve around every corner?

Karen: No, everything is going pretty smooth. Thank God, I’m knocking on wood here. Yeah, everything is going pretty smooth. Currently what we try and usually do is keep running in both places and slowly move the shop so that we don’t have any lapse in our business and our schedule. Then we take one weekend and we just make that final move, and then we’re in the new place. It’s a slow process, usually takes a few months to do, but it’s definitely got to be very organized so that no interruptions happen with business.

Patrick: Very nice. So it sounds like you have been growing.

Karen: Yes.

Patrick: What do you think accounts for that growth? Is it just change in the market? Is it your reputation? Or is there something else specific that has made you grow to the point of needing to move to a six times larger building?

Karen: Yeah, we typically…we don’t do any advertizing. Everything is referral. We take a lot of pride in what we do and making sure that we do the right thing each and every time. To me, as the owner, that makes a big difference to me. I always want…my face is on that job, so I want to make sure that each and every job goes smoothly and every customer is happy. I think just doing the right thing each and every time has came back to bless us and just be a great attribute for our company. Everybody follows that same line, they want in the same direction, the vision that the company has and it’s working. You can’t mess around with people and their families and lives. You have to do the right thing each and every time and that earns their trust in your business.

Patrick: That’s really great. It sounds like one of the key things that you mentioned in there is everybody, all of your people, are on the same page. How do you get everybody on the same page? Is that 90% hiring the right people or do you do specific things? Obviously it won’t work if you hired the wrong people. So how do you hire the right people and then how do you keep everyone pointed toward that same goal of doing the right thing?

Karen: Every week we have a meeting, and it’s like a standing every Monday, we have a 12:00 meeting and keep everybody headed in the same direction. Every independent department has a five minute powwow every morning and just kind of gets on the same page, what we need to do for the day. What’s sticking out here? What’s needed there? What does this department need from that department? So it helps everybody stay not only on the same page, with the scheduling and with the customer, but as a group, as a whole.

Then we come together usually once a month or once every other month as a whole entire company. We all, again, share those same issues or visions. However, if we have issues, how are we going to handle it? What direction is the company going? We typically are doing that individually with the daily organization itself within departments. Then we come together for as a whole. So that we can always make sure that we are all headed in the right direction.

Patrick: I am very curious to hear what you have to say about incentives and specifically financial compensation. How do you express your goals in terms of incentives? I am asking that in kind of a vague way for a reason but…

Karen: Oh, you are probably asking about departmental payback performance type issues.

Patrick: Yeah. Do you do that?

Karen: We are actually integrating that right now into our process, where there are bonuses given out for each management department and that holds them accountable. Then within there we are starting to do the pay-by-performance for installers and fabricators. It’s something that we plan on rolling out for the installers in the next 30 days, and then the management team has always had some kind of pay-by-performance bonus. When project managers finish a job, if they finish it on time and there is no issues. then they typically will get a bonus after the project is done.

Patrick: Okay.

Karen: Things like that. Holiday bonuses, where typical companies would not normally give a bonus on Thanksgiving or something, even just a gift card for a turkey or a gift card for something. We try and do those type of incentives for all of our employees, so that we can let them know we really care about them. It’s not just about their hard work. It’s about the family, the relationship, everything.

Patrick: Incentives are a very interesting and challenging topic to me because I talk to a lot of customers who attempt to be very granular and get down to the level that, “Okay, this installer did better than that installer, so he should be paid more this month.” Which makes sense on the outside, but then humans are funny beings that we can…if incentives are set up in a certain way, they can have unintended consequences. Where sometimes, when you get too granular with the personal incentives or even the departmental incentives, you can lose sight of the overall goal of doing the right thing and, “Hey, we’re here as a company.”

So, it will be interesting to see if you experience any of those kinds of challenges as you implement the more departmental incentives for example. Sometimes there are unintended consequences. It seems like it’s really hard to thread that needle and get it just right. Sounds easy but it apparently never is.

Karen: It’s not, it’s not easy. That’s why we hesitated so long to put it into place because we hear all the time from the other business owners in our industry, and we’ve had this discussion for years on how we were going to do this and how is it going to be fair across the board and how we are going to hold each other accountable and whose decision is it going to be to make this call or that call? Was it a certification error? Was it a template error? An install error? Where does that person get held accountable? There is always that line that you have to draw in the sand and there are going to be quirks, no doubt, it’s just a matter of working through and I think, with our team being as tight as we are in knowing where the vision is and everybody’s direction, it hopefully won’t be as hard of a process to work into.

Patrick: I hope you are right. And again, it’s something that’s worth doing because the key part of your business is your employees. They are the people who do the actual work and if you can get people aligned with the goals of the business, the results can be significant. But it’s just harder than it sounds on the outset.

Karen: Absolutely is. Absolutely is.

Patrick: A minute ago you mentioned that all your business comes from referrals. Do you do anything specific to nurture those referrals? Do you ask for referrals or is it just purely organic and it just happens?

Karen: We always do follow up calls. We do several calls throughout the process just to make sure that the customer…and then surveys. To make sure that the customers know that that survey is coming and that it’s important to us, that we want to hear from them. Because if we don’t hear from them, then we can’t fix any issues, if we have any. No company is going to ever be perfect but we certainly strife to do our best, to always be improving. So I think that the customer knowing, and then setting the expectations for that customer, is the biggest and most important thing in the initial start of a project. If we can do that in the beginning, I try to instill into my employees and my salespeople to set that expectation and then they will be nothing but satisfied if anything goes to the worst, because they already know what it could possibly be. I think that’s been the most important thing, is that these customers know already, “Okay, this can happen, this can happen and this can happen.” Hopefully, it won’t but we want you to know that this can happen. So setting that expectation gives them smooth sailing on a project.

Then at the end of the project, there is a follow up. We don’t specifically ask for referrals. It’s amazing how many people will say, “This went so well, I know so-and-so who needs countertops.” or “I know so-and-so who needs this, that, and the other.” And we will then get the referral that way.

Patrick: And that’s the only way you get new customers? You said you don’t do outside advertizing or you don’t?

Karen: No.

Patrick: Wow.

Karen: We don’t do outside advertizing. I do have several salespeople that do make calls.

Patrick. Okay.

Karen: You know, builders, kitchen and bath, and such. But they are still busy with the referrals that they don’t get a whole lot of time to go out and pound some pavement to get new business because they are just dealing with all the other new sales from referrals.

Patrick: That’s really great. So you’ve been experiencing this wonderful growth. How have the challenges you face evolved as you have been growing? Or do you find that you face the same basic challenges today that you did five years ago?

Karen: They are the same.

Patrick: Really?

Karen: On a grander level. Now, going through the initial growth spurts,as guys used to call them, you don’t really know what to expect and you’re trying to do your best. But I think we are at a position, thank God, with our company that the growth is controllable and we monitor every little job cost, every little everything. So it’s more controllable for us to see where we are going and in what direction we want to go, and where we want to build our business and how we want to focus things and if we want to grow in certain areas. So it’s easier, I think, because we’ve been there before, but there is always that financial burden of having to put more money in and having to support the growth financially. So we work with great partners that help us get through all that and we are headed in the right direction. So hopefully we keep going that way.

Patrick: Nice. And you mentioned financial. There is a bunch of different parts to a stone business. There is the numbers. There is the craft of actually making the stone. There is focusing on the customers. All of them are important. What’s your favorite part personally? What do you get most excited focusing on in the business?

Karen: It could be any job. I love the whole process. Starting in the beginning, working with a customer, maybe somebody who doesn’t know anything about stone, educating them on that, and then holding their hands through the entire process. One of the things that differentiates us a little bit from other fabricators is that we do that. We typically walk them through the entire process, whether it’s from selecting their stone, we are out there at the distributers with them looking. If they can’t find something in our yard, then we are going with them and helping them select the stone and walking them through it. Going to their house, measuring the countertops beforehand so we know how many slabs and setting that expectation, start to finish. It’s truly holding that customer’s hand. Then to see the outcome at the end and the happy customer at the end is so self-satisfying. Some of these people have worked years just to get their countertops and so it’s a very important investment to them and we take whether it’s a vanity up to a full kitchen or even a commercial project. There has been something done that these people have worked hard to get to that point where they can afford to do this now. Maybe it’s not a financial thing but it’s something that they needed to do until they knew what they wanted. Whatever the reason is, it’s their project and it’s their home and they are going to live in it and they are going to see it every day. We take that really serious. If it was my kitchen, I wouldn’t want certain things done and so I don’t expect anybody else to live with something that they wouldn’t want to live with.

Patrick: When you say you are willing to hold your customer’s hand, one thing that jumps out to me there is that you can’t assume that your customers are experts. They almost certainly are not.

Karen: Correct.

Patrick: We even have that challenge in our business as well. It’s really hard to put yourself in the mind of the beginner again and say, “Well, I have this expertise but my customer doesn’t. I can’t speak to them, I can’t communicate with them in a way that assumes they know what I am talking about. I have to communicate on their level.” I am guessing you have to be very good at that if you are going to experience the story you just told me.

Karen: Yes, and very patient because we don’t just do granite, we do any surface. I mean, our tag line is The All Surface Countertop Specialist. So any surface that any customer wants, we have to distinguish between what is their lifestyle? Are they a quartz person or are they a natural stone person? Do they like movement? Do they not like movement? So you really have to get to know your customer and listen. Listen to what they are saying. Listen to what their needs are. Do they use their kitchen a lot? There are so many different…we basically have a list of questions for new salespeople or for new internal salespeople to ask these questions so that we can get to know is it really the product that they want? They just see it on TV and now maybe they are saying they want it because of what they saw on TV, but do they know that it’s not going to fit their lifestyle? So, we have to educate them on every surface that’s out there. Every surface that could be a possibility for their desires.

Patrick: That series of questions seems like that would be a big competitive advantage. Have you ever shared that with other fabricators?

Karen: No, I have not. It’s just been something that we internally train, when I train salespeople. They typically work with me and shadow me and they they’ll work with Steven, who heads up my commercial division and a lot of basically the sales department. They shadow us and they hear us. It’s something that you need to walk through and experience as a sales person instead of just asking a bunch of questions. It needs to be real and that’s something that I always try to do, what you see is what you get, and that’s who I am. That is what I train my salespeople to be is not car salesmen. We want to get to know these people and build relationships with them. So that it’s not just our first job. There is going to be ten jobs down the line. Whatever it is, but we are building that relationship first.

Patrick: I bet you could do a great talk on that at a stone event, if ever you are interested in.

Karen: I actually have.

Patrick: Okay.

Karen: Yeah. I sure have.

Patrick: Yeah, that sounds like the thing I would want to listen to. That’s really great.

Karen: Because a lot of people are out there just sell, sell, sell, but they don’t realize that you have to build that relationship and give them what they want. We offer sinks, we offer…it’s a one-stop shop here. But what do they need? What do they need and what do they want? There is a lot of difference between the two.

Patrick: Absolutely. And I assume you are running a digital shop, right?

Karen: We actually are getting into…we are running digital templates. We do not have a CNC at the moment.

Patrick: Interesting. All this growth and success and you can do all that without having full digital.

Karen: Yes. We have, I mean, we do have some, we have three inline polishers.

Patrick: Okay.

Karen: We are currently in the market to purchase a jet saw, so that should be going into the new building as we move into there. Then I will probably do a CNC. CNC is, a lot of companies look at CNC as being a necessity and I think that they are more for…they are not workhorses. We turn things from five to seven days from templates. So your typical fabrication facility is only turning things maybe in a week or, at the most, maybe two weeks. Sometimes three weeks, depending. But because of our turnaround time, we just have a very good production manager out there who really pushes and keeps things moving.

Patrick: Nice. Actually I remember speaking with Dave Packson as he was growing and moving into a different facility and deciding, “Do I upgrade my water saw or do I get a CNC or…” I can’t remember who was it, first or second CNC. But he said, hands down the most important piece of equipment with the highest ROI was the inline polisher.

Karen: Oh, yeah.

Patrick: The CNC is kind of the sexy cool looking thing but the inline polisher just does the work of six people, is what he told me. Sounds like you have the same analysis.

Karen: Yeah, absolutely, and we have three of them and they are running all day long.

Patrick: So have you stuck with a particular brand of equipment or are you going best of breed and picking one for this, one for that? What’s your approach to that?

Karen: I was not on any particular brand at first and then I ran into Marmo Meccanica’s machines and they are workhorses. They are unbelievable and they are fast and they are reliable. They don’t offer all of the equipment that we obviously need, but their inline polisher, we have their inline polisher with all the bells and whistles, and then we also have their backsplash machine which is just a life saver.

Patrick: Nice.

Karen: Easy service, dependable service here in the U.S. even though it’s an Italian machine. They have everything here to support it. Great machine.

Patrick: Very good to hear. I don’t have a lot of experience. I haven’t talked to a lot of customers using that particular company. That was nice to hear a new name. That’s interesting.

Karen: Yeah. Very good company.

Patrick: If you can think of something, let’s wrap up here with a story. Tell me about the hardest job that you’ve done in the last couple of months? You know, whether from a technical perspective or a customer satisfaction perspective. Tell me about something that was harder than you expected or as hard as you expected and how you conquered it? How you made it right?

Karen: It would probably be my own house.

Patrick: Tough customer.

Karen: Yeah. We have clouded [SP] all the bathrooms and the walls and my fireplace. I have my production and fabrication manager, who is by far one of the best in the industry, he does this detailed work. He can take a marble countertop and break it and put it back together and you would never know it was broken. I kind of turned it all over to them and said, “This is the color I want, this is what I imagine it to look like, and have at it. Go for it.”

Patrick: Wow.

Karen: So it has turned into a breathtaking, wrapped… my fireplace is wrapped, even the corners and it has molding. Little, you know, they did quarter round mouldings out of this corsite. It’s an unbelievable job that they’ve done. We do that kind of stuff all the time. So for you saying six months it’s like every job. You know, every job we do is like that. There is something about every job. But I would say that was the most intricate job that we’ve done recently.

Patrick: Kind of an implied showroom, too.

Karen: It is, it is.

Patrick: It’s your house, you want to show your friends what you do in an impressive way, not in a secondhand way.

Karen: Yeah, right. Well, you definitely can walk in the house and know that I have a stone shop. But you know commercial jobs are always a challenge because you are always the last one in and everybody wants you right away. But we deal with that on a daily basis as well. So I can’t say there was a specific job that pops into my head that says, “Hey, this was a challenge,” because it’s just every day is a different story, in a different way, in a different project, and no job is ever the same. Which I think I like the most about being in this business.

Patrick: Nice. Well, you have shared a lot of interesting thoughts and wisdom. Is there any parting wisdom you want to share?

Karen: I can’t think of any. No, I think we’ve cover pretty much everything. I just appreciate you reaching out for me. It’s definitely been great talking to you.

Patrick: Likewise, I just love hearing from our customers and hear what people do and you have a very interesting story. So I wish you continued success.

Karen: Thank you so much.

Patrick: Take care, Karen.

Karen: All right. You, too. Bye bye.

Patrick: Thanks for listening to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. If you liked this episode, be sure to visit or subscribe to StoneTalk in 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 job tracker scheduling software, and CounterGo, estimating software for countertop fabricators.

I am your host, Patrick Foley, and I look forward to spending time with you again on the next episode of StoneTalk.