StoneTalk Episode 35 – Jim Hieb

In StoneTalk Episode 35, Patrick speaks with Jim Hieb of MIA.

035jimhieb

Listen to this episode to discover:

  • The role of an industry association like Marble Institute of America and its partnership with Building Stone Institute
  • New OSHA requirements and how to stay in compliance
  • Why and how to foster a safe workplace
  • The value of MIA+BSI’s vast training library and other resources

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

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

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Transcript

Patrick: Welcome to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. Brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I’m your host, Patrick Foley.

Today, I’m speaking with Jim Hieb, Chief Executive Officer of the MIA+BSI. How are you today, Jim?

Jim: Doing great, Patrick, thanks again and really appreciate all the work that Moraware does with the podcast really helps the industry out, thank you

Patrick: Appreciate it, thanks for your kind words. So, can we just start for anyone who might not know what the MIA is, can you explain for us at a high level what is the MIA, what does it do?

Jim: Absolutely. So, every industry has a trade association that represents it, and if you have clients that are doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, odds are those professionals belong to their industries’ trade association. So, the Marble Institute of America is the largest stone association in the world, and you may have noticed when Patrick introduced me he said, “MIA+BSI.” Because we’re…

Patrick: What’s the BSI thing?

Jim: …in a two-year joint venture with the Building Stone Institute which is another stone association. But we’re in a two-year joint venture, we’re working hand in hand, collaborating, combining resources, eliminating duplicated services, and ultimately our plans are that we believe that we’ll be formally merging in 2018. So, when you hear MIA+BSI, it’s the Marble Institute of America and the Building Stone Institute

Patrick: So, based on what you just said, it sounds like that joint venture is going well so far, you’re happy with the results?

Jim: It is going well. It is going well. At the end of the day, what’s the most important thing? That we’re serving our members well. So, as the leading stone association combined, you know, we’re all about promoting safety. We write the industry standards, we have tons of technical resources available to our members. And at the end of the day, we also help them in the promotion of natural stone.

Patrick: And let me give you a real softball question to start here. If I’m a fabricator, why should I join this organization? What’s in it for me? What am I gonna get out of it?

Jim: You know what? That’s an interesting question because we get asked at all the time, and really you have to look at it kind of from a two-prong standpoint. It’s not just about what you can get, but it’s what you can give back to the industry. So, many-many of our members, they look to their membership as an opportunity to give back to the industry that’s been so good to them. An industry that they’ve been able to feed family, support family, support the community that they are in. So, that’s one way to look at it, but the other way is what’s in it for me?

If you’re looking for turnkey safety training programs, having a pulse of what technical standards you need to keep in touch with, and just being a phone call or an email away from full-time staff that are dedicated to serving the members. And we have lots of programs, whether it’s a shipping program you save on FedEx or LTL shipments or whatever. But often times, we say one phone call to get the right information can more than pay for your membership. So, please, when you think about membership, look at it not only has what can I get out of it but what can I give back?

Patrick: Okay. And if I want…first of all, that’s a great answer. I think that’s one of my favorite things about this industry is that the people in it are so generous in [inaudible 00:03:39]. I’ve lightly involved with so many different industries in my life, but I’ve never come across one with a…

Jim: I absolutely have to agree with you. I’ve worked in other industry, and when it comes to the stone industry, some of the most genuine, sharing people you could ever meet. And a lot of times it’s just a matter of asking, and there are people always on the sidelines ready to contribute, mentor, coach and help other fabricators be successful.

Patrick: So, again, okay, I’m sold, I wanna join, what do I do? Where do I go to join?

Jim: Absolutely. You can go online to naturalstoneinstitute.org And there’s a membership section, but better yet, pick up the phone and call, call our office, talk to Jeff or any of the staff, they’d be happy to guide you through the process. And really, it’s not just what’s in it for me, but we try to be good listeners. What are you looking for? What’s keeping you up at night? What types of resources are you interested? For some, it may be that they’ve got some up and coming employees that they wanna nurture and grow and we’ve got programs for them. But for others, you know, we shouldn’t really sell safety if that’s not what they need, if they need something else. So, we try to be good listeners, but I know today we’re gonna be talking a lot about safety.

Patrick: Yeah, all right. So, we’ll come back to that at the end of the show. And I know this isn’t gonna be the last time we talk because the MIA is really important. Let’s just leave it there, if you’re not a member, you should be. But let’s jump into a specific issue for today, safety and specifically safety regulations. As I’ve heard, some of our customers talk about OSHA and some things that appear to be changing with OSHA, can you give me…again, just as someone…imagine I’m new to this industry, just started a shop and I’ve never even heard of OSHA, what is OSHA? Why should I care? How does it apply to my business?

Jim: Absolutely. So, when it comes to…if you’ve never heard of OSHA, you can go online osha.gov. But there isn’t a website address that’s within our association’s website that I wanna encourage everyone to go visit, and it’s naturalstoneinstitute.org/silica. So, its naturalstoneinstitute.org/silica, you can also do a forward slash safety. But those are two websites that have a ton of information, but in short, OSHA is the federal government’s regulatory enforcement agency where they go into all kinds of industry. And they have a variety of regulations and it’s all about employee safety. If we have any of our podcast listeners that are in Canada, OSHA is the equivalent of Health Canada. So, we try to, as an association, publish resources for both the U.S. and Canada, but specific to OSHA.

OSHA is going to come in and they’re going to regulate to make sure you have a safe shop. They’re going to be concerned about dust, hearing, they’re gonna be concerned about eye protection, they’re gonna be concerned about lock out tag out. So, again osha.gov, but better yet why not just pay attention to what fabricators need to know and you can learn more by going to our website /silica or /safety.

Patrick: That makes a lot of sense, and so to be clear, this isn’t about consumer safety, right? This is employee.

Jim: Absolutely. So, the buzz in the industry right now, and we’re gonna talk a lot about the change in the new silica rule. But this is not…obviously, our fabricators are very concerned about consumer safety. They’re doing things like maybe limiting the age of children that can tour their slab show room or they are requiring their consumers to wear safety glasses when they’re touring the fabrication shop. OSHA is not necessarily about consumer safety, this is about employee’s safety.

Patrick: And I know you…you shared with me a presentation slide deck on some of these issues. So, that…since I haven’t seen you give the exact presentation, it makes me wanna ask questions about it. I know one of the responsibilities of a trade association is to…I don’t know if lobby is too strong a word, but to represent your industry and on issues like this in front of the government. So, in general, when you think of lobbying and government, you think of pushback. But separate from all that, there are laws and regulations currently in place, do you or does the MIA see these regulations as particularly onerous? Are they a bad thing or are they ultimately toward good goals that are worth doing even if they weren’t regulations? I guess that’s what I am ultimately trying to get to.

Jim: Absolutely. You know, the response to that and I think the way the industry needs to look at it, is we as an association, the MIA+BSI and others, we really have an obligation to make as many training resources as possible to help our member companies, fabricators. And it’s not just fabricators, it’s the slab distributors, it’s the installer, it’s the folks that go out and do the restoration work, but we have an obligation to take government regulations and do as much education and training around it as we possibly can. The other side of this if there’s a good cop bad cop side of this is absolutely.

I mean, there is a sense within the industry and within our leadership at the association that the federal government, oh my gosh, they’re just being over the top in terms of the level of fines that they can levy and the regulations themselves. For 40 years in…let’s talk silica for a second, for 40 years, industry has reduced the number of silicosis cases that were impacting our industry many times over. So, why change the rules? So, often times, we say, “Oh my gosh, they’re just going over the top.” It is important that the industry knows that not only did the natural stone industry but the concrete industry, the roofing industry and most of major construction trades, we’ve jointly filed suit in federal court in Washington, D.C. and we’ve challenged the number of the things that OSHA is doing right now.

But if there are two takeaways for those that are thinking about OSHA, the over the top stuff they recently announced to that, if they come into your facility and they find something wrong, the potential fine that a company can face, they just increased those rates by over 70%. They called it a cost of living increase. Well, common sense just kind of says, “Seriously?” But the fines have gone up dramatically. Also, there will be changes to the silica rule, the important thing is we just don’t know to the extent. So, we can talk a little bit about some of those changes on this podcast. But the takeaway from the question you asked is we have an obligation as an industry to do our very best to educate fabricators and others about what’s going on with regulation.

But secondly, every once in a while, we need to challenge those regulations, and we have done that. And now the outcome of that, it’s important remember that when it comes to construction, the stone industry is a very-very small piece of it: the masonry contractors, the roofing industry, the home builders. So, it was important for us that we couldn’t tackle this on our own. That’s why we joined a couple coalitions of associations representing construction.

Patrick: And I think it’s important to recognize there’s two distinct conversations being had here. One is safety for safety’s sake, because it’s a good thing, and the other is regulations that are a part of doing business. They’re there, they’re largely out of your control on a day to day basis. That’s why getting together as a trade association so you have representation. Again, coalescing with even bigger organization can give the industry a voice. But those are two distinct conversations and let me even give my personal context on this why this is important. I have spoken to an owner of a countertop shop who lost an employee.

A slab fell on them and killed them. That affected obviously the employee’s life, but it affected the company significantly, everyone was devastated. The owner was devastated. It greatly impacted their business and obviously changed his attitude about safety. I heard him mention this at an event when people were poopoing safety a little bit. So, that’s why I think it’s useful to make the distinction between, hey, there’s safety that everyone has a moral obligation to address. And then there’s regulations which you have…it’s in your business interest to work within them, because if you don’t, you’re gonna get big fines. And, you know, not be so distracted by them as an individual that you lose sight of making money and in the interest of railing against the government. The trade association isn’t…

Jim: Absolutely.

Patrick: If I’m correct, it sounds like the MIA is involved in both of those conversations.

Jim: We really are and there’s that old saying, “Focus on what you can control.” And there’s a lot with government regulations we just can’t control. It’s bigger than us and where do you wanna really invest your resources? So, what we can control is providing resources for the industry so that they’re aware and that they have the resources to take what’s going on and train their employees properly. You know, the number one cause of injury and death in our industry has nothing to do with the dust we might breathe or hearing protection or anything like that. The number one cause of death and injury is the falling of a slab or a bundle or a piece of stone.

So, what are we focused on right now? In a couple weeks, we’re gonna be introducing a new training video just on what’s referred to as the fall shadow or the danger of stone falling on an employee. We can never emphasize that enough, and so there’s often a saying we say that with safety sometimes there’s complacency. Well, I’ve been in the industry to 30 years, and I know what I’m doing, you know, every time you touch a piece of stone, you have to respect it and understand the dangers that are caused from it.

Because as you indicated, you talk to a fabricator owner that lost an employee, nobody wants to have to make that phone call to the wife or girlfriend or children of an employee to say, “We just had an accident.” And I think everybody is on the same page there whether it’s a small mom and pop fabricator, four or five employees, or as we get into some of our larger fabricator members, everybody is focused on the same thing. These are people that we grew up with, these are people that our kids are going to school with. These are the coaches of little league teams, girl scout and boy scout, troops and ultimately the safety of employees, why we’re focused on this.

Patrick: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. So, again, I think I will encourage people to go to your website and look at the videos for the discussion of safety for safety’s sake, because I think that’s a better avenue for discussing these things.

Jim: Yeah, absolutely. And you mentioned that I’d shared with you, Patrick, a PowerPoint slide deck on silica specifically and I know you wanna get into that. Just wanna remember for everyone, if you’d like to see that PowerPoint, there’s actually a webinar on the /silica page. So, you can learn a lot more about the subject we’re just gonna get ready to get into.

Patrick: Awesome, thank you. And I’ll include a link in the show notes to this as well. So, just, again, as if I’m a fifth grader because technically I’m not a fabricator So, if I went out and started or bought a fabricator business today, I would, in fact, be learning these things as a newbie. So, tell me what even is silica and why do we call it silica instead of dust? What is the issue with silica and why do people care about it?

Jim: Absolutely. So, for most of our fabricators, we’re very fortunate and most of them have a very basic understanding of geology. And if you don’t have a basic understanding of geology, all you have to do is go to our website and download a copy of the Dimension Stone Design Manual. There is a chapter in that manual on every stone type that our industry works with. There’s one on marble, one on granite, slate, travertine, limestone and the like. But silica is a mineral that is contained within granite, sandstone, some slight traces in marbles and limestones. And clearly for those fabricators that are doing quartz surfaces, silica is in quartz as well.

But if you understand that the breathing of the silica dust can cause something referred to as silicosis, and there is a couple on that same website that, Patrick, you’re gonna provide everybody with a link. There are a couple toolbox talks, most fabricators are doing toolbox meetings, safety training meetings with their employees every Friday or every other Friday. Go download, there’s a couple basic training courses on what is silica and what do my employees need to know? Bottom line, if there’s one takeaway that you wanna take away from this podcast is you wanna minimize any stone dust in your facility if at all possible.

Patrick: Everything sounds worse when you add a cosis to the end of it or an osis to the end of it, so silicosis certainly sounds bad.

Jim: Absolutely. And it is bad and we think about we are so fortunate in our great industry that the equipment manufacturers, the tooling manufacturers, is that for the most part, our industry, our fabricators are cutting wet. So, as a general rule if you are a completely wet shop, you are probably in a pretty good shape right now that you don’t have to worry about most of this. But there is something that the new standard, I wanna highlight this, Patrick, the new standard requires that you have done basically breathing measurements of your shop. And they’re gonna require that that’s done on either an annual or an every three year basis.

And so one of the new things with the new silica rule is that they are requiring medical exams. In essence, they want you to have a baseline understanding of where your employees are. So, think about this. You’re a fabricator, you’ve been in business for 10 to 15 years and you’re very successful. You’re turning a profit every year. You’re supporting a number of families, you’re getting ready to hire somebody from another shop. You have no idea that employees background, are they at risk? What have they been doing in their past lives?

We also know as a general rule that if you have smokers working for you, their measurements are going to be higher and it’s just the combination of smoking and then the stuff that we breathe in industry. So, as you look through the PowerPoint and you listen to the explanation, you’re gonna see guidelines in the new standard that, hey, you need to do medical exams of your employees. And there may be cases where you’re gonna be required to have your employees wear respirators.

But the key here is nobody should overreact. Don’t jump out and go buy a bunch of respirators tomorrow and say you’re gonna be safe. The number one key message is that fabricators need to know what their current employees’ measurements are. What type of dust is in your facility? It is not enough just to say, “We’re cutting wet, we’re okay.”

What you wanna do is say, “We’re cutting wet and we have taken measurements of our employees and we know that we’re below the allowable breathable limits for silica.” So, fabricators might be asking themselves the question, how do I know? So, there’s a couple things you wanna think about. OSHA is not only a regulatory agency. They have an arm of their division where you can actually go out and it’s called “I want to have a voluntary inspection.” Many of the folks that are listening to this podcast are already doing that. If you can actually invite OSHA in and what they do is they’ll come in, they’ll do a complete review of your facility.

They will identify things that you need to fix. So, let’s just say for example they notice that you’ve got some electrical cords that are frayed, or if you’re not meeting government regulations, if you’re using frayed electrical cords. Or let’s say you don’t have a lock out tag out program in place. What they’re gonna do is they’re going to note those things on a report. Here’s the key, they’re not going to fine you. However, they are going to give you, “You’ve got 60 days, 90 days, whatever, to correct these items.” So, it’s not necessarily a free get out of jail pass, but it’s pretty darn close, is that if you invite them in, you’re on their good list.

They’re gonna work with you, they’re gonna identify what you need to do, but here’s the key to silica. They will also come out and schedule free monitoring of your employees. So, what they’re gonna do is they’re going to set up…they’re gonna equip several employees in your shop with breathing apparatus. They’re also going to test for noise levels in your facility, and that’s all part of the voluntary OSHA visit. Now, let’s say you make a conscious decision you don’t want OSHA in under any situation. You know, if you contact your insurance company, many of insurance companies that are providing you with your worker’s comp coverage or just your general liability insurance programs, they’ll come out and do measurements for you too.

So, a couple ways to do this, you can A., invite OSHA in through the voluntary program and we do encourage fabricators to do that. There are several links on the OSHA website to find…because it’s a different age…if you’re in Michigan versus Ohio versus California, you may be working with different divisions of OSHA. But A., consider a voluntary OSHA inspection, they’ll take care of your monitoring for you. B., contact your insurance company, they’ll help you too, there’s also companies, for-profit companies that you can hire to come out. So, you just need to think about how you wanna do it. There are free avenues and there are paid avenues.

Patrick: Nice. And it sounds like…I wanna make sure I understand this correctly, there is an issue of both measuring the employees themselves as well as measuring the environment, so…

Jim: Absolutely. So, what may happen is that there may be a portion of the fabrication facility where the measurements in that area are above the allowable level and other areas, and you think about if you’ve walked into any shop, they tend to be pretty linear because our fabricators are focused on workflow. The stone comes into the building, in this side of the building, it goes out as a finished product on the other end.

So, there may be that there are certain activities that are driving up what the employees are breathing. So, you may have to take corrective measurements there. Again, don’t be scared of this, remember that so many of our shops are cutting wet today. So, they’re probably okay, but you still need to take measurements. Now if there are shops listening to this podcast that are a heavy dry cutting, man, you wanna look at all the controllable measurements you can possibly take to minimize the dry cutting and get to wet as quick as you can.

Patrick: So, why would someone be doing dry, is that a matter of cost?

Jim: I think some of it’s a matter of habit, some of it is a matter of…you know, even our wet shops, they’re gonna go in, “Op, I’ve gotta take care of edge detail that my line polisher or the guys that were doing the hand work they missed something.” And sometimes it’s just quicker to do it dry or that’s the mentality. But we as an industry really need to minimize as much dry cutting as we can. Now for those that are dry cutting, also remember, there are lots of our supplier equipment members that are providing different types of protection.

There’s air vacuums that will drive that air to be collected. So, it’s moving…the dust is moving away from the employee that’s doing the dry cutting and there other things like that. So, talk to…you know, if you can’t go completely wet, talk to the many-many suppliers out there that are providing dust collection systems to minimize the exposure to the employee.

Patrick: All right. So, when I think of complying with regulations, I think of paperwork. First of all, let’s even…let’s ask two questions here. What are the specific regulations or regulations are…it looks like there’s more than one I have to care about and how do I deal with paperwork? What kind of records am I gonna have to look at keeping in order to be compliant with these things?

Jim: Absolutely. I mean, let’s take it at the 10,000 foot level first. You want to be training your employees around all types of safety. So, if you’re listening and you’re saying, “You know, we don’t do anything,” there are a number of training documents, training videos that are available for free to the industry. And I want to be very careful, you asked me initially, what’s the benefits of membership? There’s a lot, there really is.

Patrick: Here is one right here, it’s all in one place, right?

Jim: But the one thing we’ve made a conscious decision of is that when it comes to safety, 90% of what we’re providing the industry is now free to the industry. You don’t have to be an MIA+BSI member to get access, but what you’re gonna find is once you get access to the free stuff, there’s a lot more that you get by being a member. So, first and foremost…

Patrick: I think that speaks for itself by the way.

Jim: …schedule…

Patrick: That is a great policy. Again, you don’t even have to be a member to get this information that we’re talking about here. Just go there, get the safety stuff and hopefully it’s…you will be compelled to wanna share it.

Jim: Once you see it, you’re gonna hopefully say to yourself, “I want to align my company…

Patrick: Exactly.

Jim: …with the top notch trade association that’s doing the right thing.” So 10,000 foot level, number one, train your employees. Pick a topic, sit down with them, do a training. So, from a documentation standpoint, every time you sit down with your employees, make sure there’s a signing sheet and that you’re documenting who attended. Now, if you have a couple guys that are out or they’re in the field that day, make sure you circle back with them and say, “Hey, Bob, Larry, I know you weren’t able to attend that safety meeting we had Monday morning, let’s sit down Wednesday and let’s go through everything.” But you document first and foremost that they attended the training. And that is so-so important.

The second thing you want to be thinking about around safety training is it is…it’s a lot like there’s a big difference between a marathon and the hundred yard dash. The hundred yard dash is a quick event, it’s over with and you’re done. With the marathon, you pace yourself and it’s about constant drive and striving for an end goal. When it comes to safety, there is no end goal, you have to continuously be training. So, it’s like that marathon. You know, you stop so many meters or yards into it and you take a drink of your Gatorade or you take that protein packet that you packed with you running the marathon.

The same is with safety, you pause couple times a month and do a safety training. Hey, this week, we’re talking about silica, next week we’re gonna be talking about slab handling and some things that we noticed when we had that last container delivered to our facility. We need to do a better job, guys, and we’re gonna sit down and talk about it and we’re gonna utilize either some of the training videos or some of the toolbox talks that came from the MIA+BSI. We wanna make sure everyone has a complete understanding, hey everybody, remember complacency. We cannot be complacent with this stuff, I don’t wanna be the one that has to call one of your family members to say there was an accident. So, documentation. First and foremost, document that you’re doing training. Secondly, when it comes to the silica stuff and as you read through and watch the training videos that we have on our website, it’s going to be extra documentation about the measurements of your employees.

So, if you have measured your employees, if you had OSHA out or you’ve done it privately through your insurance company, go back and look at all the logs of where they’re at today. Then compare where they’re at today with the new regulations. And for those that are…you maybe haven’t studied the regulations, what you wanna remember is the following. What was the allowable, breathable silica measurements on February 1st of 2016, the middle of March, they were cut in half? So, there is a…if the measurement is below this, you’ve gotta take action. But if it’s below something else and you’re doing fine, you don’t have to do anything.

Patrick: All right. When you say measure employees, does that mean them going to a doctor or is it a self-test? How does an employee get measured?

Jim: The employees or a certain number of employees in your fabrication facility, there will be basically devices hooked to their shirt. And over an eight-hour workday, they’re going to measure what that employee’s exposure was to airborne stuff in the facility. They’re going to take those measurements and say…and provide you with results. So, you wanna look at those results very-very carefully. It may seem daunting. Well, what type of equipment do they need to be hooked up, how long? That’s why there’s experts to do this. So, if you decide to invite OSHA into your facility, they’re gonna take care of all that. If you don’t invite OSHA in your facility and you work through your insurance company, whatever provider they have, they know exactly what to do.

The key is this, know-know-know what the current measurable rates are for your employees in your facility today. And that’s the number one message, is if you haven’t measured your employees, go out and measure them. There’s additional, Patrick, documentation that employers, fabricators are gonna be faced with now, you’re going to have to have a chest X-rays of your employees. And that’s going to have to be done every three years.

But we’re gonna be providing reminders and different training things for that. The other thing people will…how quickly do I have to do this? Gosh I haven’t done anything yet. There are…you basically have a year or two to be fully compliant. So, get into the details if you haven’t already. Don’t panic, but get into the details. And we’ve published on our website those dates that you have to be concerned about. And really it boils down to there are some compliance dates in June of 2017, and there’s some compliance dates in June of 2018.

Patrick: And if I completely ignore these things, what is gonna happen to me? If somehow or another a person gets this far in the podcast and still kind of says, “I’ll get to it eventually.” What are the consequences if I ignore these things?

Jim: Yeah, I think you have to look at…you know, and this has been the theme of our discussion throughout. There really are two consequences. Consequence number one is what the government will do if they walk into your facility and they find that you’ve done nothing. And that’s going to be a monetary fine, and so that’s theme number one. Theme number two is, man, don’t we want our employees to be in the safest possible environment we can provide for them? So, consequence number two is doing nothing and then learning a few years down the road that because you did nothing, because you did nothing, you now have an employee that is faced with some serious health issues. So, you really have to look at the consequences twofold and I think there’s the fine component, but there’s just the doing the right thing component too.

Patrick: Awesome, thank you. Any other aspects of these silica rules we haven’t covered that you wanna squeeze in, any details or high level concepts that we missed?

Jim: Yeah, absolutely. So, one of the new things coming out with the regulation is that if you have employees that measure over the allowable level, what do you do? Well, the new rule says that you have to have in place a written silica control exposure plan and you know what? Let’s be realistic. Most of our members, they’re doing safety when they can but they’re focused on a clean safe shop. But they’re ultimately focused on quality installations and really meeting their clients’ and their consumers’ expectations. Nobody has the time to prepare a written silica control plan.

So, here’s what we’re doing at the MIA+BSI. We are currently creating a template that will be 80% completed and so…and it will be done early part of 2017. So, we’re gonna make a big announcement, it’s going to be free to the industry. And you can download that written plan, put in particulars of your company. So, it meets and matches your facility and then you will have exactly what you need to be compliant when OSHA says, “Where’s your control plan?” We’re gonna have that for you. So just another added benefit for stone companies to align themselves with us. We’re trying to meet needs before you need it. So, before everybody has to be compliant, we’ll have that plan ready for you.

And I just really wanna highlight that if you have measurements, just go compare them with the current plan or current new rule. Number two, if you haven’t done measurements, go out and get measurements please. We recommend you go the route of a voluntary OSHA site visit. But if you’re not comfortable with that, there are other ways to do it. And then number three is please take advantage of all the safety training resources that we have. The last thing I wanna add is the following, you will soon see an announcement that the MIA+BSI will be rolling out a new online university for training.

Patrick: Nice.

Jim: And the first 70 classes, yes I said 70 classes, will all be safety specific and they will be free to the industry. And finally, you may…you know, so for your employees, it’s gonna be an online university, but for your employees that you wanna sit in front of a computer for 20, 30 minutes, they’ll be able to take advantage of a class. It will be much like a university. Once they take the class, there’ll be an exam. If they pass the exam, there’s a certificate of completion and in our day of instant gratification of social media and everything, who doesn’t want instant gratification that they passed a class? You can have your employee take the class.

They’ll be able to present…get a certificate if they pass, bring it to you, show you that they did it, but all these classes are also going to go to a transcript. So, as an employer, you’ll be able to be involved in keeping track of training through our online university. Now, second part of this, if you don’t have the means to sit every employee in front of a computer to take a class, as a manager, you can designate somebody who will download those resources, pull all the guys and gals in the shop together for a quick 20, 30-minute safety talk, give the class in a group setting, have the employees take the exam in a group setting.

And then you can come back to your employee as a manager owner, pull up your employees’ records and identify everybody that took the class and will do the same thing. It will feed to a certificate and feed it to an online transcript. So, that is pretty cool that not only are we producing resources that you can download, but now, you’re gonna be able to track it because it’s all tied to an online university.

Patrick: I think that’s just great and that highlights the sort of reasons why we like to support the MIA+BSI as well. Because our goal as a business is just to help fabricators build more successful businesses, and one of the biggest issues that we hear mentioned is employees, finding good employees, training employees, making good employees and anything in our industry to help make employees better. And also a subtle detail in their, proving that an employee has certain knowledge and skills and awareness, it’s not only it’s good for the employees, but it’s also good for businesses to find ways to show that they are getting good people when they hire someone new.

So, if you’re hiring someone who’s already gone through all these things and you can see the transcript, “Oh, okay, Johnny has already taken all these tests, great. That’s another signal that he really knows what he was doing and was working at a good shop not one that taught poor practices.” So, I think that’s a really good idea.

Jim: Yeah, and Patrick, not only do all these training resources that are available free to the industry. Not only are they good for ongoing training, but you’ve just on-boarded a new employee, think about that. You now have 60 to 70 online classes that you can utilize to bring that person up to speed. Anything that we do at the MIA+BSI, it doesn’t take the place of good hands on in the field training. But we can certainly compliment and do a lot of support for you. So that what you’re doing in the field to make sure that everybody’s safe is complemented with a battery of everything from safety posters, to videos to toolbox talks, to online university, to up-to-date links on things ranging from silica to whatever. Patrick, this has been a great discussion and I don’t think this will be the last time we talk about safety.

Patrick: Certainly hope is not the last time we talk and thank you for your time. There’s more things I wanna talk to you about. So, I’ll have to get you back on the show soon, so many things that the MIA contributes and I really appreciate that.

Jim: Great.

Patrick: All right.

Jim: And with the power of the Building Stone Institute with us, it’s gonna be even better moving forward, so thanks again.

Patrick: Thank you so much Jim, talk to you soon.

Thanks for listening to StoneTalk the podcast for Countertop Fabricators. If you liked this episode, be sure to visit stonetalk.org or subscribe to StoneTalk 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 JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I’m your host, Patrick Foley, and I look forward to spending time with you again on the next episode of StoneTalk.

StoneTalk Episode 34 – Carmina Mendez

In StoneTalk Episode 34, Patrick speaks with Carmina Mendez of AMC Countertops.

034CarminaMendez

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

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.

Download mp3 directly

Transcript

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.

Carmina: Hi.

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…

Carmina: Yeah.

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.

Patrick: Okay.

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.

Patrick: Really?

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.

Patrick: Interesting.

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…

Patrick: Okay.

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.

Patrick: Okay.

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.

Patrick: Really?

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…

Patrick: Nice.

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.

Patrick: Okay.

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.

Carmina: Yeah.

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.

Patrick: Okay.

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.

Patrick: 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.

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StoneTalk Episode 33 – Kyle Williams

In StoneTalk Episode 33, Patrick speaks with Kyle Williams of Earth Elements.

033KyleWilliams

Listen to this episode to discover:

  • How to grow very, very quickly (hint – go digital)
  • How cross-training makes your employees more valuable
  • The importance of company culture and how to nurture it
  • How to balance a luxury image with a reasonable price

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

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

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Transcript

Patrick: Welcome to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. Brought to you by Moraware, the makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I’m your host, Patrick Foley.

Today I’m speaking with Kyle Williams of Earth Elements Design Center in Bozeman, Montana. Let’s give him a call.

Kyle: This is Kyle.

Patrick: Hey Kyle, Patrick from Moraware. How are you?

Kyle: Good, Patrick. How are you?

Patrick: Good. Is this still an okay time to chat?

Kyle: Perfect.

Patrick: Awesome. Well, let’s dive in then. Could you tell me a little bit about Earth Elements? What sets you apart from other countertop fabricators?

Kyle: Well, Earth Elements as a fabrication company is relatively new. We’ve been fabricating for about 14 months.

Patrick: Oh, wow.

Kyle: Yeah.

Patrick: You guys are pretty big for 14 months old.

Kyle: Yeah, exactly.

Patrick: Wow.

Kyle: State of the art facility, you know. Brand new part equipment. Overhead cranes. We’ve got about 7000 to 8000 square feet of fabrication space and we’ve really just kind of entered the market in a big way. What we’re doing differently I guess from our competition is really catering to the market.

Patrick: Okay.

Kyle: Its a very high-end market, real fast-paced and a lot of our competition is just kind of maxed out in terms of their capacity, so their unable to cater to the market and that’s been probably our biggest niche is with the team that we’ve put together, and the equipment and the facility that we’re able to react quickly to contractors when they have a high demand, and we’re just gobbling up market share as a result.

Patrick: That’s pretty impressive. Now looking at your website it looks like you do more than just countertops, and it looks like you have quite a stunning showroom. Did that exist before doing countertops? Did Earth Elements exist in some fashion before starting your countertop business or did everything just start 14 months ago?

Kyle: That’s correct. Earth Elements began as a show room. You know and I’m kind of speaking for the owner here. I’ve only been with the company about a year and the company is probably four years old at this point.

Patrick: Jeez, only four years. Again, that’s very impressive.

Kyle: Yeah, very rapid growth over four years. So the main part of our business is the design center and at the design center it’s like 40,000 square feet. Again, its got a state of the art cabinet facility, probably 10,000 square feet of cabinet fabrication. They sell hardwood floors, hardware, plumbing fixtures, lighting fixtures, everything. It’s a a complete design center and it’s primarily high-end stuff, kind of mid-range. For example, in plumbing we certainly sell Kohler, but we sell everything under the sun above that. So that’s really the meat of our business. We’re going after full developments, full projects and the granite fabrication is just one part of what we do.

Patrick: Got it. You mentioned contractors, are most of your customers contractors or do you get a lot of walk-in homeowners as well?

Kyle: Most of our customers are developers and contractors, but we certainly cater to the walk-in traffic and the local, smaller builders that are doing in-fill projects or whatever. I mean, we don’t shy away from anything.

Patrick: Nice. You said you’ve been there about a year. What’s your role?

Kyle: I’ve been here a year. My role is the operations manager of the fabrication facility. They hired me. I come to the table with about 15 years experience in the granite industry and a lot of experience in automation. You know, running and programming saw jets, CNCs, all of that sort of stuff. I have a high aptitude for that. That was basically what attracted me to them and them to me.

Patrick: Nice, and so how many people do you have on the fabrication team itself? If you’re the operations manager, how many people do
you consider part of operations approximately?

Kyle: We’ve got 17 people in fabrication.

Patrick: Okay, so let me ask you some operational questions. Now you didn’t have to go through a transition the way some fabricators do. Some fabricators go through a transition from hand-cutting to digital which can be painful. You started digital right from the beginning it sounds like, right?

Kyle: We started digital right from the beginning, and I didn’t come on right at the beginning. I came on about four to six months into operation, and the crew that was here had no experience with digital fabrication. They had primarily all come from one other company that kind of defected over and it was a hand-fab shop.

Patrick: And are those people still around or did the transition…?

Kyle: They’re still here.

Patrick: Okay. Cool.

Kyle: They’re still here. They’re still very key people in the company. One of them I basically share the operations manager role with. I’m more in charge of the shop, and he’s more in charge in the field, but we’re very much equals in that regard. The bottom line, to answer your question is that we have not gone through the transition traditionally the way that a lot of companies do, but our team is so diverse and has so much experience that we did go through the transition but it was a lot shorter. We were able to pull on our experience, whereas maybe some fabricators I’ve seen them take a year, or two years, to make it through the transition from hand-fab to digital. You know, we had a couple months that were just grueling. Ugly. You know, just mistakes every single day.

Patrick: Wow.

Kyle: But it was a two month time frame. Everybody was able to learn the lessons in that time period and move through it to where we are today where if you walk in here it looks like any other shop in the country. Looks like we’ve been doing this for 25 years.

Patrick: And do you do a lot of cross-training or are the individual skills more specialized? So do the polishes polish and the CNC operators operate CNCs or do you have the same people kind of cross roles more?

Kyle: We do do a kind of cross-training. I don’t like anybody to get comfortable in their position and that’s part of how we’ve grown so fast in such a short amount of time. I mean, that’s just the culture here. Everybody welcomes the challenge. Everybody’s been up for the challenge. I put a guy in one position. He thinks he’s going to be running the CNCs, next thing he knows he’s running the CNC, programming the CNC, learning [inaudible 00:07:29], learning all kinds of stuff. You know, able to run the fusion. Both my operators can run both machines, program both machines, and now we’re also bringing up junior operators underneath them looking towards running a night shift at some point in time. You know, so we’re constantly cross-training and challenging the employees.

Patrick: Very good, and obviously the goal is to run smoothly everyday and you said you went through a couple months where you rarely had a smooth day. Tell me about a day that doesn’t go smoothly now. What are the sorts of problems you might have or what challenges do you experience occasionally these days and how do you learn from that and adjust and try to prevent it from happening next time?

Kyle: It is a little bit of a false security coming so far so fast, because I still have guys that are learning every single day. But the mistakes that show up now are like maybe a rod was set a little too deep on a piece of marble and that could be [inaudible 00:08:37]. Maybe that’s happened once every three months where a new guy did something and he just didn’t know and he made a mistake, or a piece of backsplash breaks and we’ve got to recut another one. But these are the typical things you’d see in any shop. That’s what we’re dealing with now. We’re not… There was a time when the mistake was, “Oh my gosh, we offset the sink the wrong direction. Now the [inaudible 00:09:02] too big.” Okay, start over. We had another project three of four months ago where every single piece we encountered a problem. It was a quartz project, [inaudible 00:09:15] and one big piece had a scratch on it so a guy decides to try to top polish it. You know, ruins the whole piece. Recut that one. The next item we had a center piece we had cut and we decided to put it face down on the saw jet. We cut it. The guy goes over there to take it off and doesn’t look at it and just slides it all the way across the table. You know what I mean? Then it was like, “Oh my gosh, you’ve got to be kidding me. How is this happening?” You know? And that’s what I mean when I say we’ve come through that transition. It was just ugly, stupid mistakes there for a short period of time and I really attribute it more to…it’s not the skill sets, the skill sets have improved, but it’s more about the culture of the company and us coming together as a team that really got us out of that rut and really being successful today.

Patrick: Well, that’s pretty cool. So did you have to do anything to make individuals on the team care about the overall result or did you get lucky with that culture or was there something you or someone in the company did to cultivate the culture of people caring about the end result?

Kyle: Yeah, I don’t think you ever get lucky in that respect. We were very deliberate about it. When we come together, this is the first time I’ve grown this quickly with a company, but when we came together it was a lot of personalities, a lot of ego, a lot of experience, and all of those are good things. It was just a matter of learning how to work together. And I definitely remember a point in time when Josh, my other co-manager, we just sat down and we said, “You know, we’ve got to change the culture.” Now we’ve done such a great job cross-training and getting guys going in the right direction as far as their skill sets, but now it’s all about the culture. And this was probably, you know, four or five months ago and since that time we’ve been very deliberate about it. Doing things like developing an on-boarding program where the employees are engaged and basically engaging with new employees, not only on the shop floor but taking time to do company lunches and doing stuff that I think engage new employees or even certain employees making a point to engage that employee outside of work. Just so that we build a team atmosphere. People notice that they’re trusted, that their opinions count, all of that sort of stuff that really cultivates a good team.

Patrick: That gives me an idea. It seems like there would be challenges cross-training across field and fab, so having fabricators go out in the field to actually learn how to be an installer or templater or might not be cost effective and vice versa, but do you have any, for lack of a better word, exchange program where you can make sure that your field crew sees what the fabrication team goes through and vice versa? That the fabrication team sometimes goes out with the field crew and sees the result of perfect work versus imperfect work, for example.

Kyle: Right. You know, that’s a tough one because you have to pay attention to what your employees want. I don’t ever try to push somebody into a position that they’re not interested in doing, but at the same time I do want them to get feedback and see firsthand what’s going on so that, you know, just like you’re saying, there’s certain things that we can all do that make the baton that we hand off a little more comfortable.

Patrick: Right.

Kyle: So and part of the cross-training for us, we certainly have had the luxury over the last year of being relatively slow and building up to where we are right now and that’s afforded us the opportunity to take guys that might have just been standing around and saying, “Okay, let’s go over here so that you can see what’s going on with this.” And really it was an incredible opportunity that we had there, because I don’t think we’d be where we are right now if we had just tried to quantum leap to this volume of business that we’re at right now. But the ownership understood that. They gave us time, but really I knew from the time I came on how much time I had before I needed to be at a certain square feet per day, for example, based on what they thought the market was and what they wanted to achieve. So, back to the question about did we get lucky? In a way we kind of did. We got lucky that we have such great people, but we’ve worked hard at it and again, we’ve been very deliberate about it.

Patrick: Is square feet the way you think about capacity? So to prevent overloading or underloading your team, do you think in terms of trying to hit a certain square feet number a day or do you think about money or do you think about both?

Kyle: We think about both.

Patrick: Okay.

Kyle: We certainly think about both. I would say the primary driver is revenue and profitability always, but I try to talk about production with my guys in terms of square foot because they can understand that and you know, they can see a piece on their table and look at the square footage and, you know, know what they did in a day. And we’re working towards a program where we will have incentives for people on a square footage basis.

Patrick: Individual incentives or team incentives?

Kyle: Individual and team incentives.

Patrick: Oh, interesting. Very cool. You know, looking at your website here, it’s a simple thing but something I always like, I see that the pictures of your team show a lot of people wearing a company t-shirt or a jacket. I just always think that looks nice especially when customers can see employees. Is that something, do people wear company clothing on a daily or almost-daily basis and is that something that customers in some fashion, even if it’s just passing, do your customers see the people in your fabrication shop?

Kyle: I would say, I mean, the answer is yes, 100%. Nearly 100% of everyone’s wearing branded clothing all of the time. All of our vehicles have full-vehicle wraps, from the sales vehicles to the install vehicles to the slab delivery vehicles to the cabinet delivery vehicles. Every trailer that we have is fully wrapped and branded, so not only do people, our customers, notice our employees but they notice our brand in a big, big, big way.

Patrick: It’s a simple thing, but it seems to me it’s a point that some people miss, the opportunity. There’s always an opportunity to brand your company. As you said, vehicles are another great one, but t-shirts are so cheap and just putting people in company clothing, it just looks better and it costs next to nothing when you really think about it.

Kyle: Absolutely, yes. We certainly spare no expense, and again, that’s a key factor in our growth as I’m sure you [inaudible 00:16:44].

Patrick: Right, and you also have a great website. You clearly didn’t spare expense on your approach to marketing and branding. So earthelements.com, a site worth looking at as a, what seems to me, as a customer is a pretty impressive website for a design center and fabricator.

Kyle: Right.

Patrick: Nice job.

Kyle: It’s interesting, the feedback that I hear from our customers most of the time is that they’re surprised by how inexpensive that we are and when I filter that, what I think they’re saying is that because of our branding and because of the image that we’ve created that it’s not necessarily that we’re less expensive than our competitors, it’s just that we’re less expensive than the image that we’ve created, which is really cool.

Patrick: That is kind of cool. So I think it would be a mistake if you were less expensive than your competitors, but it is an interesting needle to thread to try to establish a really luxury image and then not be so expensive to pleasantly surprise people when they see the estimate and say, “Oh, I can afford that after all.” That could be a very interesting niche to hit.

Kyle: Exactly, I know that’s a key part of marketing to this area is that that luxury tends to feel exclusive to certain customers and our image has been much more inclusive. Again, I think that’s a big part of why we’ve been so successful.

Patrick: Yeah, and that is a difference. I was trying to put my hand on the branding aspect of luxury and it is exclusivity. Some customers want exclusivity and they want it to be expensive. People, celebrities, there’s an element that if I can afford it, they don’t want it, right? So there is a market for exclusivity, but there is a probably larger market for people who want high quality, want nice things, but don’t consider themselves part of the upper echelon either. There’s a place for both and again, it’s a bit of a difficult needle to thread I think sometimes.

Kyle: Yeah, there is a place for both. Fortunately for us, it hasn’t been either/or. We’ve been able to capitalize on both. I don’t know if that’s luck or if it’s the way that we’ve branded ourselves or just time that the consumers have had to come experience us and then the feedback getting out to the market. You know, I’m sure it’s a number of things but we’re definitely doing it right.

Patrick: Good. I suspect there are significant geographical differences there, so in Bozeman, I presume it would be very different from Los Angeles, for example. I just assume there are enormous differences based on how dense your population is and the overall wealth of the area I think would have a significant impact on the choices there.

Kyle: We might have to save that topic for another podcast, Patrick, but I’ve worked in both markets.

Patrick: Have you really? Lucky guess then there. So, yeah, we’ll save that for another podcast or perhaps over a beer sometime.

Kyle: Yeah, there we go.

Patrick: So let’s talk magic wand. If you could just change one thing to make your job or your team’s job easier, what would it be? Is there something that you think about in your daily work that “Ah, I wish this could be easier but I don’t know how to make it easier. This is just hard.” Is there anything like that that you notice or is at this point everything is just running so smoothly you don’t really need a magic wand?

Kyle: Oh, we’re never that comfortable to where we just are going to be happy with how things are running, but we’re at the same time, you know again, now we’re to this point where we’re dealing with the same problems that I think every fab shop deals with. Number one, there’s just not enough talented people out there to go around in the industry and certainly not in this market. There’s such a labor demand in this market that now we’re to that point where we’re kind of scratching our heads, you know. How do we scale beyond this point? How do we get to the next level? And I think that’s good and natural for the team that we have that we have such depth of experience that we’ve been able to get to this point really quickly and now we get to use our heads and now we’re out of our comfort zone and challenged a little bit to get to the next level. But again, I think that that’s very common. Companies in this industry struggle with all of the time.

Patrick: I can confirm that, yeah.

Kyle: Yeah. And then the other thing I would say is just on a systems level, again because we’re such a young company, you know, communication through systems is still a challenge. We use Moraware and we use it very well but we’re probably still only using, you know, maybe 50% to 60% of its potential and we have other systems that that’s a similar case. And I think that it’s just a matter of us, you know, really deciding…we’re still in that area where we’re deciding whose role is this to do this and whose job is it to make this and whose job is it to look over this detail and things like that. I don’t think there’s a magic wand is not going to solve that. That’s the kind of stuff that you solve from developing a relationship and working together over a period of time and then slowly those things become company operating procedures and things. And maybe the magic wand is a good analogy because that’s the kind of stuff that you wish you could get through so fast but you have to remind yourself that it’s a journey, you know.

Patrick: I agree and from a systems perspective, there are plenty of things we don’t do as well. You know, customers ask us to integrate more systems together. So you mention you use Slabsmith. There’s a third-party company, a couple of them actually, DataBridge Integrations and Fabricator’s Choice have both built tools to integrate Slabsmith with Moraware. There are multiple opportunities like that and again, looking at your website which is so nice, if I were a customer, I would expect to be able to interact with you online in deep ways. Well, we don’t provide anything in that regard for homeowners right now. We do some things for your repeat customers, you know, your contractors and developers, but we don’t have a customer portal yet or anything where you can text your customers or email them directly from JobTracker. People are starting to ask for that, but we don’t even know what that means yet so our magic wand is dry there as well. We know that people want some things, it’s just it’s not clear to us exactly what that is or how to get from point A to point B yet. But definitely, there are many system opportunities to make things better.

Kyle: Right, right.

Patrick: Well in lieu of a magic wand, if you look ahead two or three years from now, what do you think will be different about the company? Do you think you’ll have twice as many employees in fabrication or do you think you’ll have outgrown your huge shop yet? Approximately where do you think you’re going to be in a couple years?

Kyle: Well, there’s absolutely no limit to, at least from our perspective right now, there’s really no limit to how much we could grow. I would say maybe to be a little more realistic, we could certainly grow two to three times our capacity right now and still not have the majority of the market so if that’s what we think about everyday when we come to work and when I talk about how to get to the next level. First of all is identifying that level. Where are we trying to get? And right now we’re talking and looking at how we double our capacity? And so we look at the things that are bottlenecks. Obviously, you know, where do we have to start and train and is it adding equipment, is it adding square footage to the shop?

Patrick: Adding shifts?

Kyle: Is it moving the Night shift? I mean, everything is on the table and part of what ends up happening is kind of going to be determined by the team that we’re able to put together and the skill sets that they bring so we try to be flexible in terms of what it means to get to where we’re trying to go, but there’s no doubt in our minds that in two to three years that we should be doing two to three times the amount of countertops on a daily basis that we’re doing right now and we’ll certainly have to add square footage to the facility and add machinery and add personnel and develop tighter systems and the whole thing. I mean, it’s going to be a constant evolution and the second that we feel comfortable, we’re going to fail sort of thing.

Patrick: That’s very interesting. So put a little note in your head, nothing like 100% growth. So when you cross that 100%, when you’ve doubled where you are today, drop me a note and I’ll have to get you back on and see what has changed in such a short time that you’re planning to double your business. As you said, it’s going to be an interesting journey and it’ll be interesting to see how you deal with growing so fast.

Kyle: Definitely, that sounds good.

Patrick: So, any last thoughts you want to share with other fabricators?

Kyle: I would just say, from a personal note, I’ve been in this industry a long time and I know how difficult it is to be a great fabricator. There’s a lot of good fabricators out there. To be a great fabricator it really takes a lot more and I think that everybody out there that considers themselves a great fabricator knows that and I would just say, keep doing what you’re doing because I really love where the industry is headed. I think that the people that make it through the next 10 years and come out on top and really become manufacturers rather than fabricators, you know, really embrace the digital revolution. It’s going to be a great journey. People are going to make money. You know, I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years and there are a lot of guys out there been doing it longer than me, but I’ve been doing it long enough to remember where I started and how much work it was to get to where I am now and there’s just so many people out there that share that experience, you know. And kudos to everyone for creating this industry and making it as great as it is.

Patrick: That’ll work, I agree, it’s an awesome industry and it’s only going to continue to improve and progress so anyone who wants to be a part of that, keep pushing it forward. Great thoughts. Thank you so much, Kyle. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and I wish you continued success and I look forward to talking to you again soon.

Kyle: You’r very welcome, and I appreciate it. Take care.

Patrick: You, too. Take care. Bye.

Thanks for listening to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. If you liked this episode, be sure to visit stonetalk.org or subscribe to StoneTalk 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 JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I’m your host, Patrick Foley, and I look forward to spending time with you again on the next episode of StoneTalk.

StoneTalk Episode 27 – Chuck Russo

In Episode 27, Patrick speaks with Chuck Russo, of BacaSystems.com

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Listen to this episode to learn:

  • The advantage of using robot saws over other types of automated equipment
  • The benefits of a 2-table system
  • Different approaches to ensuring employee safety around equipment

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.

Transcript

Patrick: Welcome to StoneTalk, the pod cast for countertop fabricators, brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I’m your host Patrick Foley. Today I am speaking with Chuck Russo founder of BACA Systems, let’s give him a call.

Chuck Russo: Good morning, Chuck Russo.

Patrick: Hey, Chuck. This is Patrick from Moraware. How are you doing?

Chuck: I’m good, Patrick.

Patrick: Let’s jump in. If I am looking at things correctly, it looks like you’re a relative newcomer to stone industry, is that true? And what got you into this particular industry?

Chuck: Yes, BACA Systems is new to the stone industry in the last two to three years.

Patrick: Okay.

Chuck: And building robotic cutting systems. Our experience, though, for 25 to 30 years was specializing in robotic cutting systems for a variety of different industries. It just was not in the stone industry at the time. So that is correct.

Patrick: What made you want to enter the stone industry, why this industry then?

Chuck: I saw a lot of similarities to and we were very successful in the past doing cutting systems, primarily water jet cutting systems, routing, sawing systems. They were just for different industries. And we had great success in those industries compared to the alternative technology that was being used. I refer to them as custom gantry machines that were built. You saw similarities in the stone market and that business, we actually sold in 2006.

Patrick: Oh, Cool.

Chuck: That business grew to be the largest three-dimensional cutting company in the world, in excess of 4,000 robots cutting. It were were sold and serviced. After that, we were looking at different industries to get back involved robotically, and I found the stone industry. Really, I was looking at some different opportunities and then I got introduced and learned about the stone industry, after being to several shows, saw the similarity of custom built gantry machines for this industry and saw the opportunity that, in our opinion, the robotic cutting systems solution, Robo SawJet, could be a much more cost-effective, smaller footprint, higher output, significantly greater reliability than increased reliability than the current machines that are being offered.

Patrick: I’m a software guy so I do not know all the terms. Explain gantry to me.

Chuck: When you refer to the gantry, you got the motioning system to position the sawer [SP], the abrasive water jet force or jet application. When we refer to a gantry, we are talking about a motion piece. It’s a three- or a four-axis machine. Typically, we’ve got a machine that had built for the industry whether they’re manual bridge saws, whether they’re CNC saws that are saw only or then a combination machine that is typically referred to as a SawJet or it’s a saw and abrasive water jet. But the motion system is typically done with a ball screws or THK rail [inaudible 00:03:34] and bearings versus how we are accomplishing that is by utilizing a KUKA Robot, a six-axis robot.

Patrick: So why is a robot better in your opinion?

Chuck: We think the robot has a lot of different advantages over the traditional equipment. First, it does allow for a smaller footprint, and enough floor space is very important to the fabricators in all businesses. A lot of fabricators are looking to take out their current sawing equipment, have a more efficient machine, so floor space can be a consideration, and gears that are exposed to the harsh environment of the stone facility and cost of ownership. It’s not just about the investment today. It’s how much over the next 10 years are you going to have to put into a piece of equipment, to keep it operating.

Robots, for years, have been known to be a very reliable solution. The robot is completely sealed. There is no bearings. The harsh environment does have significant effect as we have found, and lot of customers have found, on their gantries that cause premature failures on components. So the robot is significantly more reliable. From an operating cost standpoint, it’s significantly less. Our experience also is that the robot can traverse from position to position significantly faster, therefore reducing the cycle time as well.

Really our customers find that by utilizing a Robo SawJet over the alternative solutions is it provides for a smaller footprint, higher throughput, lower capital cost initially because the robots are built at high volume. It’s not a machine that’s built for 50, or 100 or 200. There’s an excess of 20,000 robots produced by KUKA in an annual year. So it drives the cost down and provides for additional reliability for the customer. When you look from a technology standpoint, when you have a variety of industries that are doing not exactly the same thing, but there are similarities, there becomes real benefits for different industries.

For example, KUKA Robots are used in the aerospace industry for Boeing and Airbus. So while it’s not cutting granite or quartz, there are cutting applications for carbon fiber that are going on. There’s robots that are used, KUKA Robots in the wind energy business, and again cutting applications. Siemens uses the same robot, and there is over a thousand robots for surgeries that are being done by KUKA. So all these different applications do have synergies and similarities, so the software and the technology that is developed can be shared across a wide variety of industries, so it brings technology to the market faster and also driving cost down.

Patrick: So this is what you are talking about. The alternative is a custom built gantry, meaning because that’s not relativity mass produced the way a robot is, it’s going to cost more and just have the additional issues of variability that arises when something is custom built. I didn’t realize that.

Chuck: That is true. In our opinion, that is very true. The guys to a great job in that business, building those machines, but it’s a completely different style machine that’s built. The benchmarks and the requirements, for instance, when you go into a Mercedes Benz plant and you’ll find 4,000 robots that are cooped, that are there. The demand for the uptime and the reliability that’s pushed down from high volume producers like that, it drives those manufactures to align with certain suppliers, whether its a servomotor manufacturer, electronic bars, the requirements are just far more stringent that they put on KUKA to produce a product to do that.

For example, when you take an automotive line, even though we’re not processing a stone in the automotive line, the requirement that is demanded by KUKA from [inaudible 00:07:55] failure, how often a unit would fail over the life of the machine or the maintenance that’s required is significantly different. Another good example would be on the KUKA Robot, literally, the maintenance is you changing oil in 5 years or 10,000 hours. That’s the maintenance on the robot versus a gantry in this environment, the manufacturer may call out to pull the bellows back, wipe the rails down, you’re greasing more up, and there’s just continual maintenance where you could imagine that drives that is in the automotive, when you have 300 machines on a line, they don’t want to be out. They’re doing maintenance daily, weekly, monthly. They won’t tolerate it.

And again, literally, you can submerse the entire arm that we utilize, my [inaudible 0:08:44] arm. I’m talking about the six-axis KUKA Robot. It’s completely sealed and pressurized, so you can submerse it, literally, under water and operate the upper arm. So significantly a different type of motion solution.

Patrick: So you don’t even have to grease it on a weekly or even yearly basis? Just 10,000 hours or 5 years.

Chuck: There’s two, yeah, it’s the maintenance, and you change the batteries for the backup on the controller, so significantly different. So the customers that have been operating them, and KUKA Robots are being using, hundreds and hundreds of robots by KUKA in the stone industry over in Europe, but in the US, we’re seeing a lot of customers finding the benefit of that. Now for BACA, we have customers, actually a significant amount of our customers actually have experience with the other equipment. And because of the reliability and they’re looking for higher throughput, have been purchasing Robo SawJets from BACA.

Patrick: Now the serviceable parts on the cutting side would be the same or similar, right? You still have to…

Chuck: They are similar. You are absolutely right. You’ve got the motion sign, and I would break a SawJet into two pieces, primarily. Let’s talk about it in three areas. You’ve have got the motion piece that we have spoken quite a bit about and it’s done with the KUKA Robot. Then you have the process side. We are running a proven 20-horsepower [inaudible 00:10:13] motor that we do the cutting with, but then on the abrasive water jet cutting, BACA and the team members of BACA have been doing water jet cutting since the late 1980s. So we are very, very knowledgeable about water jet cutting. In fact, a lot of the applications that BACA, that the prior company that most of the people had worked at, those companies were 24 hours a day, 7 days a week producing components running water jet cutting machines.

So we are very focused on operating cost of the water jet equipment. There is a significant difference between manufacturers, the components, how the technology is applied. So BACA has significant experience and truly has the lowest operating cost on the high pressure water jet side than other manufactures and what is supplied.

Patrick: Cool. I see you also use two-table system by default, why is that important?

Chuck: I wouldn’t say that by default. We do, and most of our customers, I would say 98% purchase the dual table. And the reason why they’re buying the dual table is it really allows you to double your production. Once you’re done cutting the slab, and obviously, the reason why customers move to SawJet technology is the benefit of reducing or increasing your material yield and reducing your material costs — cutting all your arch, your radiuses on most materials, even cutting your sink openings and really reducing your downstream manufacturing costs of all those secondary operations. So literally the pieces come off ready for profiling, and it’s a significant reduction.

So once you cut the pieces, you got to be able to load and unload the table and remove you scrap. And by having two tables, we can be processing on table one, while we’re loading and unloading. So we eliminate the idle time during the load and unload. We’ll call it masking the manufacturing process. That allows you to be processing an entire slab anywhere from 14 to 20 minutes while you do the load and unload, and then the robot just turns around and starts processing again, because the other part is already loaded. So most customers want that benefit.

You can start with a single table and have the ability to upgrade to a side table, so there’s lots of advantages if you want to have a scalable machine as well. Again, because of the cost base, we can be very competitive with a dual table system, still with an almost the footprint they’d been running a manual or a CNC saw. So most customers do move right into a dual table. The ones that don’t may be very, very tight on floor space. That’s probably the reason why they may not buy a dual table.

Patrick: I saw one of your customer videos and your customer referred to your robotic system as being different from CNC, and it sounded like you just did as well. I mean this is still CNC, and that its computer and numerical control, isn’t it? Or is it robotic means not CNC?

Chuck: I think the term that people refer to is digital. It’s not typically robots aren’t referred to as CNC. That really has to do with the G code of the programming. The third piece that I didn’t mention is the main operating system, how easy is the machine to use. We aren’t using CAM software. It’s a PC-based operating system that makes it very easy for the customer to be able to program the system.

Patrick: So tell me about the supporting software. I see that you have VeinMatch and GraniteStudio. First of all, just at high level, what do those two pieces of software do?

Chuck: The VeinMatch is what allows you to actually, as we know on different materials, we have the material flow, and typically, when we’re trying to match veins on the other type of equipment being a CNC saw that maybe you’re not taking a calibrated photo of the material and being able to take a DXF file of those different individual pieces and actually put them together and see them on the side of the screen. So you literally visualize and see the kitchen, see how the material flows together. You can use that as a tool in the sales process so that instead of the customer looking at it and saying, “Well, how will the vein flow through where my seam is going to be or where the material turns in the kitchen,” you can actually provide that turn as a drawing and they can actually sign off on that if you choose to conduct your business in that manner.

It is very beneficial from a sales tool. It allows you to certainly be able to show to a customer a complete layout, have a sign off on a job. The VeinMatching is very, very helpful versus doing it by eye. So even if it’s on a single slab, let’s say you have bookmark slab, you can actually go down and find another vein that is similar and actually match them, and really improve the material flow on the project.

GraniteStudio is actually a standalone photo station that allows you to take your photos in advance. You can do the VeinMatching right out on the system, right in production, or you can have a separate photo station where you’re actually taking photos in advance and doing this workup prior. It doesn’t interrupt the production of the machine. So we have our own VeinMatch software. We also work very closely with Slabsmith which is another manufacture which is commonly used in the industry. We integrate with our own software, but also with Slabsmith, who has a terrific prac [SP] in the industry as well.

Patrick: Right. So you said it’s not CAD or a CAM software. If you already know how to use that software, is this similar enough that it’s easy to set up?

Chuck: Sure, if you already know how to use that software. It just doesn’t require such a separate training in a new operator. It’s much easier than somebody having to have that experience as well.

Patrick: What about CNC routers and things like that? This is on the cutting side. Do you also offer a robotic router or is that something that is in the works? Or that’s not something that’s in your wheelhouse?

Chuck: No, actually the folks at BACA have a lot of experience in routing, cutting systems as well, and we think those are great opportunities as well. We think that the stone industry and the manufacturing of solid surface materials, there’s is a lot of different opportunities in applications for KUKA Robots and for BACA to apply their knowledge, so certainly there are more applications that BACA is working on, yes.

Patrick: Cool. So with what we have today, though, let’s say I’m a fabricator and I have been doing everything manually and now I want to automate. I could start with a SawJet or I could get a CNC router or I could get a line polisher. Do you have an opinion on why you should start with one or another of those three options? Ultimately, why should I start with a robotic SawJet or should I?

Chuck: That is an excellent question. We have a lot of people who are asking us that. We do to see a trend with clients and come visit BACA and evaluating what is the next technology they should purchase. I think one of the key things is, in our opinion, it all starts at the saw. The saw can either be the bottleneck for the plant, or it can actually, it can also create so much work downstream if you’re not using a SawJet based solution.

In our opinion, and again, that has to do with really being able to process as much as possible right at the sawing operation, and that is to be able to cut all your arcs, all your radiuses, and eliminating the secondary sawing by hand, eliminating even after you saw your arcs and radiuses and you still have to clean those areas up before you go to profile, whether it’s on a CNC or by hand, and so as well as by the sink openings that can be cut right on the SawJet. So when you look at reducing labor and reducing the man-hours that go into producing a kitchen, the benefit of being able to get a job done with two slabs and not move into a third slab and maybe save, if it’s a job that has higher end material costing anywhere for $700 to $1200 on a single job, because you don’t move into that third slab, or you get the job done with one slab, that happens all the time by using a ROBO SawJet.

When you look at the return on investment, being able to do that, I just don’t know that by profiling and polishing on a CNC you can accomplish the same thing on a specific project. So having material yield savings on every job you do is significant. Reducing the man-hours that goes into cutting the slab which also reduces your downstream manufacturing is significant. I don’t know of another piece of equipment that allows you to, for instance, cutting two slabs on average. Every plant is different, but on average, if you take two slabs, and you take your load and unload, your layout time, your cutting of the slab, the material yield, and then your secondary worker, again, cutting the arcs, cutting the radiuses, doing the sink. If you total all that up to do two slabs, you can be at two or three hours a slab, so you got six hours of labor that goes into cutting two slabs, as well as the downstream manufacturer. All that work can be done in 40 minutes on a ROBO SawJet and two slabs, and then having the higher material yield savings.

So we hear from a lot of customers, they find that the best and single most important way to increase their profitability in their plant is to implement a ROBO SawJet. Then they find also that taking that and going right to a line polisher is very cost effective. So there is the need for the CNCs, but I think those are two of the very important pieces of equipment in the facilities.

Patrick: If you had a customer who is using you SawJet and they asked you about who should I go to for a line polisher, is there someone you would recommend?

Chuck: I think there are several very good manufactures that make line polishers.

Patrick: Okay. By the way, before I forget, you mentioned your robots are six axis, does that allow me to tilt the blade and cut a miter at an angle into the stone or some other way to tilt the table, so that I can accomplish a miter [inaudible 00:20:55] or something?

Chuck: Yes, if you are going to do mitering, you can tilt the saw blade to be able to do mitering. The model that we have out today, most of the customers are not mitering with the ROBO SawJet.

Patrick: Why not?

Chuck: First of all, when someone is running the ROBO SawJet, they are looking for high output. They’re really blanking out the material. Not every customer is doing mitering. If they are, a lot of them have other equipment that they also have in their facility. And when your water jet table is not a flat surface, over time, when you’re cutting, the slats end up on not flat, the material is B side down. So when you have your stack up, you have variation in the material.

Now you can probe the material and be able to do an offset for the material not being completely flat. But you’re using a blade that’s really made for speed for saw cutting, not a blade that’s the ideal blade that would produce minimal chipping. So some customers choose to actually do the mitering as a second step. But there’s different work robot envelopes, larger robots that can allow you to do the mitering and have the work envelope needed. It’s really customer preference.

Patrick: Interesting. So let’s talk about how you fit in a little bit. This is a competitive space how do you try to distinguish yourself from the competition and just from a branding perspective? What’s special about BACA systems? If you met someone at a cocktail party who was considering three saws, in a statement, what makes BACA Systems the one they should go with?

Chuck: Actually you’re asking specific to the difference about BACA in regards to they’re already had made their mind up that they’re looking at a SawJet based solution?

Patrick: Correct. Right.

Chuck: So the customer already realizes the return on investment for running a SawJet. The reason why companies look to BACA, today, we have the smallest footprint, highest output, highest reliability in a system, and the operating cost at that point really becomes really the water jet cutting technology and we have more experience, in our opinion, than anyone else that’s applying SawJet solutions that understand water jet and are focused on the operating cost of the system, short term and long term, for our customers.

Patrick: Nice. So I know service is important to people, so what about service? So if something does break, how do you deal with it? What can a customer expect?

Chuck: Sure. It is extremely important, and certainly, you know, [inaudible 0:23:34] I had mentioned, service is always important to all customers. We had customers that run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We have our own hotline. We are able to support the systems, if you’re actually seeing the operation of the systems, be live with our customers, troubleshoot, answers questions immediately, which it’s more about how do I use do this feature, something that they learned in training that they need to be refreshed on. We are able to do that immediately and provide service. We service the entire system from the high pressure to the complete motion side. We have service technicians that are across the country being partnered – we’re actually KUKA’s exclusive partner for America. And being able to work with KUKA, we have service technicians from the west coast to the southeast to Texas to the northeast. So we have local people, if, in fact, there is a need.

Patrick: Cool. What’s your strategy for growing your business, for adding new customers? How do you find customers and how do you handle the sales process?

Chuck: We are a growing business. We have a lot of customers. As large as the industry is, it’s a small industry that people really know each other. Today, BACA receives a lot of phone calls from other folks that are in, with their other associates that they know in the industry, they see the ROBO SawJets. We have some systems across the country today. We continue to grow through opportunities of customers talking with their other peers in the business.

We obviously go to the trade shows and have a lot of interest from the trade shows and customers visit to better understand the technology and get educated, and that’s really our job to make sure we can share the information with potential customers, so they have all the background information to make an educated decision.

Patrick: I have to call out because it’s kind of interesting, on your website, you have an offer, “Fly to Detroit at our expense. We invite you to see the system in action for free.” That is a pretty aggressive offer.

Chuck: Well again, I think that’s exactly what I had just stated. We want people in the industry to better understand the technology, understand the differences and what it can do for them. The best way to demonstrate that and show that is to have them be able to come in and see firsthand.

Patrick: That’s cool. So let’s end on a bit of a chin-stroking question. There is probably a future element to this. I have been interested, as I go into shops, how customers deal with problems of safety and even things like noise. Any equipment is going to make some sound. It’s the nature of the equipment. How do you participate in thinking about these problems and making improvements on that? Again, you can’t completely get rid of noise and you cannot have a 100% safe product. How do you think about it and improve that going forward, how do you look for opportunities there?

Chuck: There are a couple areas. And you’re right, there’s certainly the decibel level that exists already in the plant from other processes going on. So there are a couple things, you’ve got the abrasive water jet that there are different means of diffusing the DD level. At times, you could consider raising the water over the material. There are pluses and minuses with that, having baffle systems in the tanks to do that. Most of the people in the industry find not cutting under water, but having the water table up as close to the part is adequate to accomplish the DD level.

From a safety standpoint, we do supply different than some other machines in the industry. We do supply guarding that surrounds the system allows you to be, again, loading and unloading on table one while you are cutting on table two. But if, in fact, you were to re-approach that table and then go past the safe zone, the machine actually stops. Then you just have to hit resume to start. We really don’t want to have our customers have their operator up at the table when the robot is processing on the table.

Now the other machines that are out in the industry, there’s just quite a few of them that you can actually go right up and have your hands up on the table and be working on the table, reaching around the safety device that they have. That’s not something that we’re doing. We’re providing a completely guarded system from BACA.

Patrick: I’m glad I asked that question, that’s an interesting answer, actually. I value fingers, so I prefer people don’t lose them.

Chuck: People never want to get hurt. And certainly, honestly, the companies don’t want their employees to be injured. What I think what we’ve all seen is somebody thinks they’re doing their company a favor, when they see something happen, they reach back up onto the table to take a piece out or a piece that moved. And by reaching up there, all of a sudden, the machine comes over and an accident happens. We’re not in the business of getting people hurt.

Patrick: That’s awesome. This was super interesting. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and share this with our audience. Again, I didn’t know the difference between robotic and gantry systems, so this was eye-opening to me. I also agree that education is key, I hope a bunch of different people hear about this option and make informed choices as they go in this type of direction.

Chuck: We’re actually happy you called to have us be able to share what BACA is doing. We’re excited about the industry. There’s lots opportunities. Robotics are, from all types of industries, as you Google KUKA Robotics and you look at the work they’re doing again in the aerospace field, in the automotive, robots in freezer applications at 20 below, it’s very interesting, all the different applications that are being done worldwide and will be continued to be done. There is great opportunity for KUKA Robots and BACA Systems in the stone industry, and we are very happy to be participating.

Patrick: Very cool. Well thanks again, if you have any updates, let us know, and perhaps we’ll have you on again in the future.

Chuck: Sounds great, thanks for your time.

Patrick: Thanks a lot, Chuck, bye.

Thanks for listening to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. If you liked this episode, be sure to visit stonetalk.org or subscribe to StoneTalk in iTunes for more. Visit the StoneTalk Show Facebook page to join in the conversation and follow @stonestalkshow on Twitter. StoneTalk is brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker 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.