The shop’s showroom features solely solid surface products in approximately 800 sq. ft. of space.
Libby and his crew, with combined experience of more than 45 years in the industry (his newest employee has been with the company five years) stand in front of the AXYZ CNC machine.
Libby has utilized solid surface in a number of projects including (clockwise from far left) in this dental office seating area (1), as an inlay in this built-in sink (2), in this tub surround (3), as a lightweight alternative for this boat’s kitchenette (4), and in these bathroom vanities with backsplach (5) and custom inlay (6).
This chess board inlay in the showroom is one example of the many types of custom work the shop is capable of fabricating.
When the shop opened its doors, there weren’t many projects it would turn away. That meant that, in addition to solid surface, the shop worked with laminate and even fabricated cabinets if the offer was right — both of which are now standard to refer out of the shop.
“At the time, we did whatever we could do to generate revenue with the ultimate goal of becoming just strictly solid surface,” said Libby.
Libby, who had a cabinet and millwork contractor’s license at the time, ultimately decided he wanted to go into business fabricating solid surface to save time between checks on the job. “From the time you start the project to the time that you finish the project [in cabinetry] could be a month or six weeks,” said Libby. “There are also a lot of issues with cabinets and cabinet finishes, a lot of detail and a long time between the starting and the completion of the job. With solid surface it was fairly straightforward. We’d start the job and finish it in a week and a half to two weeks.”
To get started, most solid surface manufacturers require fabricators to receive certification training. Libby went through several training courses and started out fabricating DuPont’s Corian product because the product performed well and DuPont offered supports, like a manufacturer warranty, that wasn’t around in the millwork industry.
Transitioning out of millwork was seamless for Libby and A Top En-counter as most cabinet shops were already fabricating their own tops. “It was just a matter of starting the business, knowing that I eventually wanted to do only countertops, getting the word out and building up that clientele and reputation,” said Libby.
FOCUSING ON THE MARKET
In 1996, the shop had ceased working with all other materials and was finally focused solely on solid surface. There were still a lot of shops that offered a proposed advantage to customers in being able to complete an entire job, cabinets and tops, all in one place, but Libby wasn’t worried about the competition.
“The quality of work that we do is above what the average cabinet shop can do,” Libby explained. “We work well with the cabinet shops in the area and we tell that to our customers. We can work with their cabinet shop in coordinating the fabrication and installation of the new countertops. If the cabinet shops need to know specific heights and thickness, we will give them that information to build their cabinets to accommodate our countertops. In many instances we will even refer cabinet shops.”
After A Top En-counter started fabricating solely solid surface, Libby found his referral network growing. This referral system along with the company’s Web site and other word-of-mouth referrals would gradually replace the shop’s advertising budget, with the company dropping their last Yellow Pages ad recently.
“It just wasn’t doing anything for us,” said Libby in regard to advertising. “So, there’s no sense in spending that money every month on ads when we’ve built up such a good clientele, and a majority of the work that we do now is referral and word-of-mouth at the contractor base that we’ve developed over the last 15 years.”
DOING WHAT YOU DO BEST
Over the last 17 years, a number of other premium countertops products began popping up in the industry. Granite was becoming more affordable and common, and quartz surfacing was emerging as a novelty in the high-end housing and remodeling markets. Libby thought about breaking into this market to expand his offerings in the countertop market, but opted out of that when considering how expensive the tooling was to not only fabricate a material as hard as stone, but to fabricate it at a quality he was fabricating solid surface.
“The expense in purchasing the equipment to do it right was more than what we really wanted to spend,” said Libby. “We really like specializing in just the acrylics.”
While the shop may only offer one material, it’s not limited to the countertop industry. Libby will fabricate almost any solid surface project that comes across his desk — commercial or residential — including kitchen and bath tops, as well as showers, walls, tub surrounds and more.
“There have always been different things that have come up that people ask us to do,” said Libby whose most common answer to that request is, ‘OK.’ “We do a lot of boats. In the boats we do the galleys, the heads, bait tank covers, cap rails and any other place they want. We do the same thing with RVs, motorhomes and trailers.”
In today’s economy, the residential market has dropped off and the the shop works on a large number of commercial jobs to keep business up, mostly in the medical or professional field, which is a very good fit for the properties of solid surface. “We do a lot of dental offices, usually orthodontics and oral surgery,” said Libby. “In the dental field, they’re utilizing solid surface applications in the sterilization room and labs.”
Like most of the shop’s work, growing in the commercial sector has also been through word-of-mouth without Libby actively pursuing those jobs. More often than not, when it comes to commercial work, the shop has a number of contractors they have been able to connect with and rely on causing those referral relationships to flourish.
“We don’t do a lot of cookie-cutter work, where we’re building 500 vanities or kitchenettes for hotels or big condo projects,” added Libby. “I like to call what we do ‘custom commercial.’ Every commercial job we do is a little bit different. All the sizes are different.”