For Lee Eyre, co-owner of The Countertoppers in Billings, Mont., business and growth have always been synonymous with opportunity. In 1993 The Countertoppers fabricated laminate counter tops, netting $75,000 per year. In 2007, the company now offers not only laminate, but solid surface, stone and quartz surfacing as well, from multiple manufacturers, netting close to $2 million. Not to mention, a second shop location in Kamploops, Britsh Columbia, is about to be added furthering the company's market reach.
The Countertoppers began as a partnership between Kay Eyre and Winston Matthews in 1993. Like countless other fabrication tales, the business began out of a garage and the two owners fabricated one product — laminate. Then, in 1995, Lee, Kay's son, found that going to school to become a cop wasn't bringing in the kind of money he would need to support his growing family, and Kaye offered him a job with the business. Matthews was eventually bought out for his share in the company, and The Countertoppers has since become a family business, complete with Lee's youngest son, now 6, sweeping the shop for a few bucks.
The Countertoppers grew out of a background in woodworking and cabinetry, when Kay began to build and supply the tops for his cabinetry jobs in order to get the jobs done faster, setting the pace for the business for years to come. "We just found over time that you have to keep adding things to broaden your customer base and to continue to serve the current trends that are going on," said Lee.
A Solid Investment
The Countertoppers took advantage of its growing market in Billings when it added solid surface to its line of product offerings in 1996. "We dove into SSV (solid surface veneer)," said Lee, which was a 1/8 in. solid surface glued up on substrates. "We ended up having a lot of problems, but at that time we had evolved pretty well into solid surface. We continued the trend of solid surface and now we do a lot of brands."
The move to solid surface came about naturally for the company, because the tooling used in laminate could also be used on the new product. "When we got into solid surface, the big thing that we started realizing was that we use a lot of pneumatic tools, air sanders and things like that," said Lee. "That's where the only difference was in tooling."
Having the right tools for the job is only half the battle when beginning to offer and market a new product. It took more than three months of research and practice with solid surface before the shop began to fabricate orders for it. The company went to outlying areas and other shops already fabricating solid surface to research the material. They talked to retailers who were actually selling the product and asked what potential customers who come into the showroom want in order to anticipate those needs. They also took several available fabrication certification courses.
"We really set ourselves up to do it by the book," said Lee, "but you're always going to have to make do in certain areas that don't necessarily fit the book." To get through in those other areas you just have to talk to other people and find out what works for them. One of the resources available now, which Lee wished had been more available back in 1996 before the Internet was as reachable as it is now, were Web forums. "I'd get into different forums and ask people questions about the best way to go about doing something or if they'd seen a particular problem in certain areas."
After getting the response it needed from within the solid surface industry, the company embraced the practice of trial and error, knowing it had to bring in solid surface in order to stay with the market demand in Billings. The shop began fabricating tops for friends and family, doing something different every time in order to decide how solid surface would best work in the shop. "We would bring a couple sheets in at a time and play with things," said Lee. "We'd figure out how to use it."
With the shop ready to handle the incoming orders and the crew trained, the next thing to do was get the consumer to choose them. "The hardest part of offering a new product is going into the market," said Lee. "People think when you start to offer new products that you're not exactly sure what you're doing with it."