Munro’s business, reflected in this showroom, has grown from tile installation to natural stone countertops, 80 percent of the workload.
The shop currently utilize, from top to bottom, Park’s Yukon bridgesaw, Odyssey CNC Machine Center and Pro Edge line polisher. As the shop grows, Munro will look into adding other modern equipment as well, like a digital templating system.
While each employee has a specific job position, such as fabricator or installer, at least one member of each installation crew has the knowledge to fabricate onsite should any problems arise. Munro’s tile installations and countertop installations are done by seperate install teams.
Designed and installed by Supreme Surface, this formal dining room features 16-in. multicolor natural slate tiles in a staggered pattern. The floor is 18-in. Honed Scabos natural stone with a custom hand-made inlay utlizing the same slate featured on the walls, and the center of the floor showcases a directional change with slate dots.
The company designed and installed the entire bar pictured here (left and right). It features Geriba granite with an Ogee edge on the bar top, copper slate mosaic tile on the lower section of the table and Virginia Ledge stone on the face of the walls.
As a sophomore in high school, Tom Munro had a dream of starting his own flooring store. In 1996, after working for other companies in the tile industry, Munro's dream came true in a 250-sq.-ft. design studio located in Greenwood, Ind. His business would eventually grow beyond his dream and include a lucrative natural stone fabrication facility with multiple showroom satellite locations in and around Indianapolis.
In high school, Munro worked in deliveries for a place called the Tile Shop in Glen Ellyn, Ill. before training on tile installation. He was also fortunate enough to be taught in aspects of design and showroom work with customers. It was during this time that Munro found his passion for design that would carry over in his career path until Supreme Surface Inc. became a reality.
"Honestly, even today, I still look forward to hearing a customer say ‘Wow! It looks great.' at the end of a project," said Munro. "Over the years that has allowed me creative expression and that's one of the things that has helped keep this occupation fresh and interesting."
Throughout his career in tile, Munro has been recognized on numerous occasions including the prestigious Presidents Award of Excellence and The Masters Award for sales, marketing and customer service within the diversified natural surfaces division of one of the companies he had worked with.
Munro eventually made his way to Indiana working for American Equipment Marble & Tile, a company that was facing five new competitors moving into town. "As an attempt for both of us to make more money, I proposed a plan to the owner, Dewey Garrison," said Munro. "I asked if he could send me to the tile show, allow me to pick out some new large format lines of tile, buy a computer and learn to use it. Then, I would learn to make the graphics, build the sample boards and market these new products to the current customer base. Dewey gave me everything I asked for and I followed through. This was one of the first times I was allowed to design and implement an idea with very limited intervention from others."
About a year later, Garrison decided to sell American Equipment. Munro viewed this as his opportunity to get out there and try something for himself. Deciding on "Supreme Surface" as a name was a no-brainer for Munro, as it was a way for him to keep open the possibilities for multiple products and services. "We absolutely didn't want to be limited to the tile industry," he said.
The first location for Supreme Surfaces emerged out of the concept of selling tile wholesale to other stores and contractors — a similar venture to what Munro had been doing for a majority of his career. "My wife and I found our first location when we were driving through town one weekend," remembered Munro. "We saw a ‘for lease' sign in a home right on Main St. in Greenwood, Ind. It was only about a 250-sq.-ft. area in the front of a house zoned for commercial use. We liked it, signed the lease and within a few days we started building a small showroom in the front of that house."
TILE: BUILDING BUSINESS
At that time, Munro wanted to distribute more design-worthy tile in a larger format than the traditional size and style many people worked with. Confident in his eye for design, though most didn't think the tile would sell, Munro kept pushing the stylish large format tile. To show everyone the beauty of the design, he began performing his own installations, and his tile distribution venture evolved into a successful installation business quickly.
After distribution turned into installation, the company landed a job with a builder that, according to Munro, "turned out absolutely fantastic." The builder thought so, too, and asked the company to participate in a home-a-rama. Munro explained the concept of a home-a-rama as a group of show homes featured annually around the Indianapolis metropolitan area where as many as 40,000 people annually will pay admission to go through the homes. "We wound up doing two [homes] in a newly developed subdivision of proprietary-type homes," he said. "It was a great opportunity because we were new into business. We've been busy ever since."
Supreme Surface continued to install only tile for the next several years until requests from customers for other countertop materials became more frequent. With only five other shops offering granite at that time in the Indianapolis area, the addition of granite seemed like a lucrative opportunity for growth. The company had moved and was located in a plaza strip at that time, and the plaza owner was selling his house with a 40- by 80-ft. outbuilding. Munro purchased the house and was able to consolidate his home and showroom, and at the same time find a small shop location using a 20 by 40 ft. section of the outbuilding to try out a granite shop.
"We were one of the first people to introduce large format tile and do things with directional changes and decorative inlays and medallions," explained Munro. "It quickly became our niche to be able to offer something out of the ordinary. The people interested in that work were also interested in natural stone. Supreme Surfaces was at the right time and we had the right place to offer it."
TAKING SURFACING FURTHER
When the company began fabricating natural stone in late 1999, the new shop was utilizing a home-made bridge saw modified from a tile saw and a table made out of cut-down sections of warehouse racking and a 4-in. concrete top. With the outbuilding turned shop, granite fabrication began and took off for the company and within about a year the company moved into a 10,000-sq.-ft. facility in Indianapolis. After the move, new equipment was added to the shop including a bridge saw and CNC machining center from Park Industries, as well as a line polisher a few years later, also purchased from Park industries.
With the initial granite shop space only 20 by 40 ft., there wasn't a lot of room and the shop was in the habit of buying granite slabs on a per job basis. Now, with 80 percent of the business focused on granite and natural stone fabrication, buying slabs one at a time doesn't quite cut it. "Typically we buy by the bundle," said Munro. "We find that it keeps our overall waste factors lowered. I think buying by the bundle has allowed us to do other things and it just gives us a lot more flexibility."
Excess slabs help the company to streamline the selection process that is done, especially considering Munro's "base-grade estimating and pricing," meaning that any estimate includes the price of base-grade material. The company also offers more than just base-grade stone, with exotic and imported stones, most often from Brazil, making up just more than 50 percent of its business. Munro is currently working with overseas distributors for the exotic stone, but imagines that one day the company will be exporting its stones directly.
Importing stone isn't as simple as keeping up with demand. "I remember the first two or three containers [from Brazil] that we received," said Munro. "We did not have a contact overseas, so we didn't know how things were done. We had some great material, but we also had some bad material."
Munro went back to the drawing board and contacted a few reputable suppliers rather than trying to import directly. "We negotiated some rates, told them what we thought we could do and it worked out for everybody," said Munro.
WORKING WITH STONE
Since beginning to fabricate stone, Munro has invested a substantial amount of money in technology and the processing of orders. "We have a very structured process of fabricating stone," Munro explained. "There are a lot of details with every job and there was a serious learning curve as we wanted to grow. How do you manage that? Through technology."
The investment of time and money has allowed the stone fabrication to grow to 80 percent of the Supreme Surface's business, a lot of which is high-end. While granite was originally a complement to the floors, now it's more than common to find tile a suitable complement to granite, especially in backsplashes and other special projects.
"We can definitely do more [tile], but usually it's full package houses that we're doing," Munro explained about his business direction. "The other way, we're doing a lot of granite for multiple people around the state and we're not doing their flooring. We don't have the capacity to do a lot more ceramic tile work with the type of tile work that we do. We could do more if we just put in straight floors, but that's not what we do."
At the company's Columbus, Ind., showroom location, the full package housing is a popular trend. "Most of the time, people building a new home come in and like what they see, as we're very design-oriented," explained Munro. "We're offering granite countertops and we can also offer a beautiful designer tile backsplash and natural stone floors and a very creative natural stone walk-in shower. It's not something that you see everywhere else."
A BALANCING ACT
The CNC equipment utilized in the shop provides an advantage in producing the high-end design work now that business seems to have shifted from new construction to home remodeling, one of the major selling points. The CNC not only offers Munro's shop accuracy, but also repeatability, though new homes and other commercial work is not as large a part of the business as it has been in the past.
"Our base is the proprietary-type home," explained Munro. "Historically it was new construction, but a lot of what we do right now is remodeling. It's just the market trends."
Munro has always leaned in the direction of design, and while all business is welcome business, he would rather be working in a remodeling setting. "The problem that I had with new construction is that a lot houses are ready at the same time, so without using subcontractors, it was difficult for us at times to manage that workload," explained Munro. "With remodeling, we're in charge. We have more involvement in the actual scheduling and we can work around our crews. In turn, we're better able to service the customers."
Whether specializing in new homes, remodeling or even commercial work, the shop has always seen a steady stream of business coming in. "I don't think we've ever been slow," said Munro. "I cannot think back to the last time my wife and I said, ‘I think we're kind of slow right now.' To me, the difference between being eight weeks out and three weeks out, they're both busy, but one is slower than the other."
No matter what the workload is or how much of it there is, Munro likes to have a healthy dose of any business out there. "I think it would be smart for us to be balanced," Munro explained of the shop's balancing act. "I don't think it's a good idea to be all tile, and I'm not certain I want it to be all fabrication of natural stone. I don't want it to be just new construction or just remodeling. I think finding balance between those is what's going to keep us busy and consistent and give everybody opportunities."
With one bridge saw, a CNC and one line polisher, the company seems to be managing that balance quite well, though it's not to say Munro hasn't entertained the idea of increasing his production by adding more machines and stations. "We're to a point where we could easily use another bridge saw, but for us to expand our equipment would mean to expand our facility again and the next expansion isn't going to be just another few thousand feet," explained Munro. "It would be relatively significant."