In 2004 Counter Solutions purchased the patented Mobile Fab unit, a 38 ft. box-type truck with a full solid surface shop in the back, and went from a repair/restoration business to a full-fledged fabricator.
The Mobile Fab truck contains a 26-ft. solid surface shop that travels to each jobsite where templating, tear-out, fabrication and installation are all done in one day.
A large part of the company’s work is high-end or more difficult work, such as this kitchen with a full-height solid surface backsplash, scribed to look like tile.
About 10 percent of the company’s business is commercial work, such as this medical facility, but the company is careful to focus on projects that fit well with the Mobile Fab unit, such as long, straight or L-shaped countertops.
Although company president Pat Windmeier said the Mobile Fab truck is the company’s biggest marketing tool, reaching out to customers does not stop there. Counter Solutions has an elaborate booth that it takes to home shows, where it picks up a lot of its direct sales leads.
Recently Counter Solutions has done a few test runs using Eos 3cm solid surface, such as this residential kitchen, finding it much less labor intensive because it does not require any build-ups or laminations.
Imagine having your entire shop with you at every major jobsite — it sure could save a lot of time and headaches. Well that’s the idea behind Counter Solutions, based in Woodridge, Ill., where company president Pat Windmeier brings his entire shop with him in the form of a MobileFab unit. Windmeier may have gotten started in the same way as many other fabricators, but much to his success, his business has never walked the typical path.
Counter Solutions began in 1993 in Chicago serving the city and surrounding suburbs. The company’s beginning circulated around working with the manufacturer, distributor and fabricator on both warranty and nonwarranty repairs.
Windmeier first got his introduction to the countertop industry and solid surface material as an installer for two Chicagoland fabrication companies — Sound Ideas and Sprovieri’s Custom Counters, which each had very different fabrication techniques.
“At Sound Ideas, everything was done by hand,” explained Windmeier, who said hand sanding and masonry-style blades for cutting were the norm. “Later, when I joined Sprovieri’s Custom Counters, it was an eye-opening experience. Sprovieri’s was ahead of its time with fabrication and installation tools and methods.”
By combining five years of experience in both basic methodologies and more advanced techniques, Windmeier got a great education that, when combined, led him down the path of specializing in repairs. “Looking back, I could not have gotten a better education,” he said. “Both shops were very different from each other, but when you combined the differences together you got a repair person. Repairs need a certain mind-set and skill level that would require most shops to send out the best guy to fix a counter.”
With most companies not willing
to do that on a regular basis, an opening was left for Counter Solutions to fill. So from
1993 until 2003, the company’s sole focus was solid surface
“Scott Belasco, with Formica Corporation, gave us our first shot at doing repairs and Formica became one of our first manufacturer accounts,” remembered Windmeier. “We grew it from there. Today we are certified repair agents for every major manufacturer of solid surface materials and travel a five-state region doing both warranty and nonwarranty repairs.”
TAKING THE SHOP ON THE ROAD
While the company still handles a significant amount of repair work in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and parts of Iowa and Missouri, in 2003 that sole focus for the company changed when Windmeier ran into the new face of his business at what is now the Surface Fabrication & Design Expo.
It was during the show in Vegas that another fabricator told him about “a truck that you could fabricate in,” which intrigued Windmeier enough to check it out. “I looked into the MobileFab system and after meeting with Paul DeBuc, the owner, I decided to explore the idea further,” said Windmeier. “In March of 2004, after a year of putting the deal together, Rissco Corp., the parent company that owns MobileFab, brought a unit into Chicago.”
The MobileFab truck cost about the same as two high-end solid surface CNC routers, but when Windmeier saw the MobileFab truck for the first time, he not only saw an efficient way to fabricate, but also a huge marketing tool that would give him a chance to differentiate himself from some very stiff competition in the mature Chicago market.
Once the truck was in Windmeier’s capable hands, the company started doing complete fabrication using a unique (patented) 22-step fabrication system that is taught along with the purchase. The MobileFab unit itself is also patented. Additionally, Counter Solutions owns exclusivity rights via the MobileFab unit for the top half of Illinois, which includes the Chicago metropolitan area, meaning none of the other MobileFab companies, of which there are six, can do any work in that area using the vehicle.
“The truck with a two-man crew is able to handle, on average, a kitchen a day, including old top removal, templating, fabrication and installation,” said Windmeier. “We can typically do from 48 to 65 sq. ft. of solid surface in one day. Although, I remember one time we fabricated and installed 90 sq. ft. in less than six hours, and that was with the extra finishing time it took to put a semi-gloss on the Staron Pebble Ebony. One of the unique things about MobileFab and its accuracy is that I can physically walk my material into the house and I will scribe off of our material.”
JUST WHAT IS A MOBILE SHOP?
On the outside, the truck looks a lot like a big box truck, measuring 38 ft. from bumper to bumper and roughly 50 ft. with the ramp down (see Figure 1). The inside, though, is a different story (see Figure 2). The interior of the MobileFab truck is 26 by 7 ft., but that’s just he beginning. There are workbenches, a built-in exhaust system to pull the dust out of the vehicle, a place to carry material securely and a spot for every power tool. “We can lay two 12-ft. sheets flat and they don’t touch in between,” said Windmeier. “So, I can rout 24 linear ft. of countertop at once.”
One of the great things about the truck is the scale of efficiency that it offers,” he continued. “It only takes one trip to get an average job done — we don’t have to send out a templator or install team.”
While there are some drawbacks, they pale when compared to the benefits. “The first couple of times you work in the truck it feels cramped, but it only takes about two or three weeks to realize you never have to look for a tool,” he explained. “When I went to Rhode Island for my initial training in MobileFab, I asked the crew of the parent company ‘What are the biggest drawbacks to fabricating out of the truck?’ The response caught me off-guard. They said it needs a bathroom. I thought they were trying to be funny, but the truth is that the drawbacks are few. Of course, the truck doesn’t have a CNC or a v-groover, but when used for the right applications, there are no major drawbacks.”
He said, though, that every so often a big island or peninsula job comes around that causes a little trouble. Anything more than 40 in. in depth makes it a tight squeeze in the truck. For very large projects he has been known to set up a temporary shop in his warehouse facility to make the necessary space. He also said in a downtown Chicago-like setting it may be difficult finding a parking place.
Windmeier said the high price of fuel is affecting his bottom line a little as of late, but the overall savings in electricity and natural gas that a typical shop would require far outweigh the rise in gas prices. “A conventional shop has to make a site trip to template and another to install, but in our case, it’s just one trip,” he added.
THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE SHOP
Utilizing the truck to its fullest, Counter Solutions goes through 40 to 60 sheets of solid surface a month, depending on the complexities of the projects they land. However, Windmeier is the first to point out that his staff are the real stars of the operation.
Windmeier, a former Marine, admitted that he could never get the military out of his system, and so tends to look for others with a similar background to work at his company. He went down a list of his staff, that sounded more like an armed forces roster than a fabrication staff.
“Our lead MobileFab fabricator, Jeff Klassen, was accepted to West Point, but lucky for us they found something on his medical record that stopped him from serving in the Army,” he joked. “And Scott Mangold, our repair tech, comes from the Air Force (we really don’t hold that against him). He is a fully certified paramedic, which does wonders for our workers’ comp rate. My partner is Chuck Clohecy, who came from the corporate world of Wilsonart and used to be in charge of our Wilsonart warranty work.”
Giving credit where credit is due, Windmeier pointed out that the true boss at the company is his wife, Becky, who joined the business after being a stay-at-home mom for eight years. “Counter Solutions would be nothing without the support of my wife and our four boys,” he said. “In addition to keeping us all in line, my wife has shared in every sacrifice that it takes to run a successful company and still continues to make huge sacrifices for the company and its employees.”
And in addition to this crew, the company has recently hired a new apprentice for the MobileFab truck and is looking to hire an office manager and a repair apprentice in the next few months. And because the mobile shop allows two fabricators to do what might typically take four or five, the company is able to pay almost twice the typical wage to its employees, meaning hiring and training new employees because of turnover is practically nonexistent.