Countertops come second nature to the shop now, but in the beginning Qualey had no desire to fabricate interior stone projects.
Routed drainboards and other similar accents are the shop’s most commonly up-sold accessories for a residential top.
An average residential kitchen is between 64 and 84 sq. ft. For these types of kitchens, actively involved customers are encouraged to choose their own slabs — providing for a very unique experience.
Qualey Granite & Quartz utilizes a number of machines to make the shop go. The technology in the shop has allowed for Qualey to bid more aggressively in the commercial market.
The automated technology helps the shop to offer a two to three week turnaround time and keeps the cost down on labor, utilizing only one person to run the machines in the shop. This has allowed for Qualey to keep the shop going with as few as four employees.
The crew at Qualey Granite & Quartz unload a slab using the crane truck for transportation.
Clinical neuropsychology and PhD programs went out the window when Matt Qualey bought a small monument stone shop in historical Bangor, Me., and decided to make a go of the business in his own way. By refocusing the shop to fabricate interior stone applications, Qualey Granite & Quartz was able to gain market stability during the current economic recession through a unique customer-incentive program and planning ahead with a firm control of the shop’s capital on hand.
The beginning of Qualey Granite & Quartz happened when owner Matt Qualey was working on his doctoral thesis and decided enough was enough with his PhD program in clinical neuropsychology. Thinking about what to do next, stone was in the back of his mind.
He had experience in working with exterior stone from his time spent in Boston while his wife, Laurie, was there going to college. After Qualey and Laurie moved back to Maine he decided to get back into stone . . . this time trying to make a go of it with just his brother, Justin, and himself.
“We did primarily commercial maintenance and stone wall restoration and construction,” said Qualey. “Then, an opportunity arose where I was looking for a building and a small local monument shop was going out of business.” The shop owner had done a couple of granite countertops, but was the main supplier of stone monuments for the cemetery adjacent to the shop.
“I bought that building and business [in 2003],” said Qualey, with intentions of moving forward with his exterior stone work and possibly learning the ropes of the countertop business. “Then, one thing led to another with our partner deciding to move on and [my brother and I] were left with a bunch of countertop orders and no idea how to make them.”
The two brothers took all the money they had brought in that first summer from landscaping and went to the Regent Stone Products training seminar at Virginia Beach for a three-day crash course in granite countertops. They dove into the work when they returned to Maine.
“It was literally the right place at the right time,” said Qualey, who admits that he had no concrete intentions of specifically going into the countertop business. “We trucked along, bought a rail saw and hand-router, and then we were in the shop learning as we went.”
Things were working out for the stone shop with the exterior and interior stone divisions both growing. “Things started really picking up on the interior side and we needed more machinery,” said Qualey, who, in the summer of 2004, purchased his first bridge saw, a Park Industries Yukon bridge saw. “That was a huge deal and about one year later we outgrew that building.”
Laurie is still in that first building, which houses the shop’s current showroom and offices. “We had found another building and moved the saw over there and ordered our CNC at that time,” said Qualey. “It was time to regroup and now my showroom is in Bangor and my shop is across the [Penobscot River] in Brewer, Me.” The new shop can be found in 4,000 sq. ft. of commercial warehouse space located in an industrial area of Brewer.
TAKING CARE OF THINGS ON THE INSIDE
The move from Bangor to Brewer included the exterior division of the shop as well as the rapidly growing interior division. In 2005, at the time of the move, the business employed 12 people. Shortly after moving operations to Brewer, Qualey sold off his successful exterior stone division to nurture a profitable interior stone business. This eliminated a lot of skilled positions within the shop once the business had stopped working in wet masonry, landscaping and a number of other skilled outdoor stone installation jobs.
The decision to focus on interior stone applications was a combination of there being more interior jobs available and those jobs being more profitable. “We had a lot more going on inside, including better cash flow and machinery investments, so it made the most sense to focus on driving the business that could support that equipment,” said Qualey. “It’s certainly more competitive, but what I found is that it ultimately required less skilled labor — which can be really hard to find — than the outside division did.”
Qualey Granite & Quartz now employs six people including Qualey and Laurie, who runs the office and showroom. His shop runs on the dedicated labor of four people, including Justin as shop foreman. The shop functions on a cross-training setup with two employees dedicated to templating and installations. Those same two also spend a lot of time moving material, filling in on the bridge saw and polishing if necessary. The shop foreman coordinates all the CNC work, digitizes the templates, runs the machine, orders the material and then the fourth spot in the shop is filled with a general laborer who will polish, clean, order supplies, and be a third hand on installations, among other things.
The process of a residential job at Qualey Granite, about 95 percent of the shop’s work, requires an average of two to three weeks from start to finish, a quick turnaround time considering the amount of customer involvement on each job.
“On a lot of our jobs, the customers pick the actual slabs out of inventory, where we keep a lot of exotic stones and colors in stock,” explained Qualey on working direct with consumers. “Most of our customers are middle-aged and like to be involved in the process. They come in, typically with a floor plan or measurements, look at the product and pick out the slabs they like. Then we give them a price, they put down their deposit and we template.”
The shop utilizes a combination of luaun and digital templating with a Proliner the shop is becoming more comfortable with. “Once we've templated, the customers will come back to the shop to look at slabs, layout templates on the slabs and become extremely involved in what the final kitchen will look like,” Qualey continued. “That’s the most time-consuming part.”
Once the customers have made their decisions, running the tops through the shop is the quickest part of the process. The shop utilizes a Park Yukon bridge saw, CMS Maxima CNC machine and the Proliner digital template system. “With the machines, we do a lot of drain boards, custom edge profiles or odd backsplashes in different sizes or unique shapes,” said Qualey on using his machines to their full benefit. “Very rarely do we do just straight lines with one seam.”
A couple things the shop is known for include the quality of its seams, which Qualey refers to as “invisible seams,” and its customer handling. “We make it incredibly easy to do business with us. The customers always know where they stand; what a job is going to cost; and exactly what they’re going to get before it gets to their house,” said Qualey. “Most of the kitchens are 60 to 84 sq. ft., but the client has been planning on the expense and it’s not an impact on their financial situation. They know what they want the final result to look like, so they look forward to seeing the finished product. It’s not like selling a bundle of shingles. It’s more like buying a piece of artwork. They really enjoy doing it, and so do we.”
INVENTORY: SURVIVING THE CAPITAL GAME
There are a number of mixed opinions about whether it’s better or worse to tie up cash in inventory. Qualey's slab yard handles a mixed approach to the question.
“I have a relationship with a couple of importers who will rotate their inventory in and out of my yard,” Qualey explained. “I own a fair percentage of what I have, but I also work a lot with customers in different slab yards with digital images we send back and forth. If we can find a piece somewhere else the customer likes, at my expense, I will truck materials from those yards so the customer can see it. If they don’t like it, we send it back and try again.”
Quartz surfacing, which currently accounts for approximately 10 percent of business, hasn’t been offered as long as natural stone.
“Caesarstone was the first manufacturer to make a market push in New England, and we’ve always offered that for as long as it’s been out. For the longest time, we could only get Caesarstone, but just recently we’ve had access to other lines of engineered stone like Silestone, Zodiaq, LG Viatera, etc. When those suppliers changed their approach to the market, it opened up the door to more people like me.”
With engineered stone materials, there’s a lot more uniformity, and Qualey doesn’t have to play the inventory game. He is able to satisfy customers by housing small samples in his showroom and ordering materials as needed. “I don’t have the space to inventory engineered stone and, because it’s so homogenous, the small samples work fine,” added Qualey.
FINDING MARKETING THAT WORKS
Maine doesn’t have any contract or licensing laws, and with this business having a relatively low price of entry, Qualey Granite has a fair amount of competition. “We take advantage of two things: the customer’s friends and their relatives,” said Qualey on the shop’s marketing plan. “We have a new program that we started in 2009, servicing our existing customers. If they refer someone who buys their top from us, we pay that customer 2 percent of the job quote they had previously purchased from us, and they can do that as many times as they want. Theoretically, if they sent me 50 customers, they would have gotten their job paid back to them 100 percent. It’s something none of my competitors are offering. We’re just feeling out the waters, but so far I’m very happy with it.”
The shop also advertises on TV and in print, which isn’t all too common. The shop has also never put a salesperson on the road, but rather spends the equivalent of a good salesperson’s salary on TV and print advertising. “We’re trying to scale that back,” said Qualey. “We still do focus on TV, but I’m trying to watch what I spend on it this year. Right now we’re really trying to focus on driving traffic to our Web site.”
The other marketing push occurring in New England is the cache of being comprised of “green” states. The shop has found a lot of green-specific architects, as well as a number of general-focused trade publications, it’s been working to market with in the near future.
“It’s a targeted audience, and they’re not price shoppers,” said Qualey in response to the green market. “They want a certain product, and they want someone they can trust and work with.”
Since opening in 2003, Qualey is looking to have a more focused marketing approach, rather than the shotgun approach he started with. “We’ve been around long enough now that we’ve figured out what works well for us and what doesn’t,” said Qualey. “Going forward is going to involve even more of a personal approach with new customers.”
SURVIVING AND GROWING
Since 2003, Qualey Granite has experienced at least 20 percent growth every year, and while the business was set on pace to continue that in 2008, things slowed down after the middle of September, leaving September 2008 down from 2007. October and November 2008 ended close to 2007; December picked up in 2008, though it remained down over 2007. The overall sales compared to 2007 were relatively the same. While it wasn’t a 20 percent increase, surviving and maintaining in a crumbling housing market is a notable accomplishment.
“My survival techniques were a combination of planning ahead and keeping capital on hand,” explained Qualey. “It was targeting the higher-end market and keeping expenses under control. That’s the key to any business — keeping a firm control on how much money you keep, not how much money you make. That’s been a philosophy of ours from day one. It really allowed us to project for the slowdown and to keep enough cash on hand to ride it out.”
Opportunities in the commercial market have also brought in revenue to help the company survive and grow in the current economy. “We never did a lot of commercial work until last year,” said Qualey. “We’re finally seeing more and more of that as Maine grows.”
The process of becoming more involved in the commercial market hasn’t affected the shop’s workflow. “Because we are traditionally a low-volume shop, we’ve always been underutilizing the machines we have,” explained Qualey. “For us, it’s a great way to fill production capacity, and it doesn’t affect us at all. A lot of the commercial work is subbed-out installation, so we’re just running the materials right through the shop. It’s a perfect fit for us.” The commercial work available in Maine has been mostly hotel renovations as well as a number of government projects, university buildings and airports.
The personal approach mentioned earlier is also being applied on the commercial side — but not where you might think. “It’s not the general contractors that we’re approaching that way,” Qualey said. “The personal approach works well with the architects and designers that are pulling the General Contractor’s strings.”
Most of the successes in this industry can be attributed to networking, connecting with the right people and staying in front of them. According to Qualey: “Once you get your foot in the door, especially commercially speaking, you need to understand your business inside and out and know how much it costs you to run your business because customers are going to expect you to bid those jobs as aggressively as possible. People are sick of impersonal Home Depot jobs and want some quality. That’s going to be your best investment.”
Assistant Editor Marci Presser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.