Travertine tile bath found at the White Tail Resort in McCall, Idaho
Lapidus Granite countertops at the White Tail Resort in McCall, Idaho
A shop foreman prepares a seam for installation.
Top: A shop foreman prepares a seam for installation.
Yukon II saw from Park Industries
While 60 percent of Snake River Stone’s work revolves around kitchen and bath countertops, an additional 40 percent is made up of tile and stone installations and stone restoration. This Honey Onyx fireplace is one example of this specialty work.
Snake River Stone
Location: Nampa, Idaho
Products: Natural stone, quartzite, tile
Annual Revenue: $1 million
Market Area: Southwest Idaho, western Oregon
Facility Size: 2,700 sq. ft.
Total Years of Experience: 52
Co-Owners: Mike Norton, Stewart Johnston
The sky’s the limit when it comes to the processing and installation of stone, quartzite and tile at Nampa, Idaho based Snake River Stone.
“There aren’t any limitations to what we design and build,” reports Mike Norton, co-owner of Snake River Stone. “If you can imagine it, we can produce it.”
Norton began his surfacing career as a tile contractor, but moved into stone fabrication after seeing a need in the Boise, Idaho-area.
“In our market at the time, there was only one fabricator,” he says. “All of the houses I was working on were putting in Corian plastic countertops at $85 a sq. ft. I was working with a friend at the time, and as he got busy, he said, ‘Mike, you need to buy a saw.’ ”
In 1992 Snake River Stone opened its doors. Co-owner Stewart Johnston joined the company in 2004.
The Northwest has always been viewed as one of the best places to live, raise a family — and at the height of the housing market boom, the building industry and its related suppliers were sitting pretty. Nampa, Idaho, specifically, is one of the fastest growing cities in Idaho, ranking as the state’s second largest city. However, as the housing market crashed, the excess inventory in the overbuilt area left the region’s building market devastated.
“It used to be that 90 percent of our work was made up of new construction, and 10 percent remodeling projects — today, it’s completely opposite,” he explains.
Before the “bottom fell out,” Snake River Stone had up to 20 shop employees, but due to the current economic conditions, it has reduced its staff to five full-time employees.
While companies have increasingly been shutting their doors, Snake River Stone has managed to maintain strong margins. Norton attributes this to the company’s diverse material fabrication and installation offerings; its expert craftsmanship; and its ability to adapt to unique challenges.
“We’re more diversified than most of the shops in area,” Norton says. “There are a lot that specialize in our offerings, but none of the other shops do it all.”
Snake River Stone fabricates natural stone, quartzite and tile surfaces for residential applications — the bulk of which is made up of kitchen and bathroom countertops and entryways. Additionally, 10 percent of Snake River Stone’s business is stone restoration; and tile work makes up the additional 20 percent.
“Now that excess inventory is starting to thin, we’re seeing building permits rise quite healthily — not in numbers like we had before, but business is picking up,” he says. “Down the road I see great growth for our industry — especially in the Northwest.”
In a month, the company processes 25 to 35 slabs, completing anywhere from 12 to 15 jobs. The average project size is about 70 sq. ft. or approximately $4,000 to $5,000.
The new economic reality has prompted the company to change for the better. For example, the company is working on putting customer service systems in place so when the economy turns around, it will be doing a better job than it did before. In Norton’s words, the economic downturn has made him become a business person again.
“In the past, our quality and customer service generated enough word-of-mouth publicity to keep us busy,” explains Norton, who, with Johnston, procures new business. “However, in the current climate, it takes both word-of-mouth and some footwork to gain new business. We’re out cold calling and knocking on doors again.”
The company has also become more aggressive in its marketing strategy; it created a new brochure, sends out direct mail pieces, and has invested in television advertising.
“The commercials have created brand awareness; they show people we’re not a fly-by-night,” Norton says.
IN THE STONE SHOP
“Snake River Stone is set apart [from its competition] because of its level of service, the quality of our work, our problem-solving abilities, our quick turnaround and high-quality installation,” he says. “In addition, our top polishing and seams are second to none.”
According to Norton, the quality of Snake River’s granite face polishing is such that it naturally blends into the surface.
“When we put the seam together and the stone is warped, we can polish the top and make it so you can’t feel any lippage at all,” he says. “And, you can’t tell by looking at. I believe we’re the only company in town that can do that. A lot of people will polish the face, but you can tell that its been done.”
The company goes through a “top secret” process to make its seams knife sharp so when the granite goes together the surface appears perfectly seamless.
“We’ve worked long and hard at that process — and if I told you how we did it, I’d have to kill you,” he jokes.
Snake River Stone’s adoption of a modular system a few years ago allowed the company to enter a market it had previously been shut out of.
“Being a custom shop, there were times when the machinery was idle,” Norton explains. “With our modular system, we are able to keep both employees and machinery working. This increased our profits, lowered our prices, and it decreased turnaround time and labor cost.
“We were basically an ultra-custom shop, but started seeing a lot of preformed countertops — and we started getting a lot of calls for them,” Norton explains. “As we looked at the preformed industry, we didn’t like the quality; we didn’t like what the customer was getting. We love what we do, love stone, but we wondered why can’t we do the same thing here in the United States?”
The modular system countertops are all straight runs with notch-blended seams.
“With the infusion of preformed countertops and the purchase of our machinery, we realized we could compete with the preformed industry pricing and greatly increase the quality,” Norton explains. “Most of the kitchens we do are pretty simple so we can just let the machines do the work — cutting our labor costs and overhead.”
On the shop floor, Snake Stone utilizes a Park Industries’ Pro Edge IV edge shaper and polisher, and a Yukon II bridge saw.
“Before we had these machines, we did a kitchen every four days with a four-week lead,” he says. “With the machines, we can do three to four kitchens per day with a four-day lead time.”
In the future, Snake River Stone plans to add an addition to its existing building; and upgrade its manufacturing with new, modern machinery to make it a more digital shop. On the wish list for this new facility: a CNC machining center, a saw jet and a digital templating system.
“We just try to provide a quality product with the best customer service in our area,” Norton says. “We keep things simple. Our business plan is to do what we say we’re going to do. In the end, I think if you do that you’re way ahead of the game.”
For more information, visit Snake River Stone’s website: www.snakeriverstone.com.
Snake River Stone Fact: The Snake River is a tributary of the Columbia River spanning four states in the Northwest — including Idaho. The company’s name pays homage to co-owner Mike Norton’s passion for fishing.