While Treos fabricates only solid surface, most of which is Eos 3cm, the company installs granite and quartz surfacing and takes pride in all of the work.
While Fanning went through a lot of growing pains before getting it right with Treos, he gives a lot of credit to his employees.
General Manager Charlie Fanning pointed out that Treos uses "the old fashioned fabrication techniques — table saw, hand tools and heart." And is pacing the company's growth before making additional capital expenditures.
Treos is quite unique in that it shares its building with a granite and quartz fabrication company — Synergy Stone — and takes advantage of this situation by offering the hard-and-shiny products, which it templates and installs only.
Treos LLC in Tuscaloosa, Ala., is doing very well under the guidance of Charlie Fanning, general manager, with 11 employees operating out of 7,000 sq. ft. However, Fanning has gone through plenty of growing pains to get where he is today.
Treos fabricates around 3,500 sq. ft. of solid surface a month and installs another 1,000 sq. ft. of quartz surfacing and granite. Fanning is careful to pace the growth of the company, whereas earlier in his career, he may not have taken the same philosophy to heart.
Fanning's story began in 1992 when he was in college studying accounting…
"I was in that zone where I didn't know what I was going to do, when I got an offer to work at a solid surface shop in Birmingham, Ala.," explained Fanning. "I had never really done any kind of construction, but I took the job as an installer, and I really got into the work. I was one of those guys that wanted to learn, learn, learn and I wanted to absorb everything I could. After five months, I was the lead installer and I started to get into commercial work from there."
The world of commercial jobs showed Fanning a fast-paced, high-production side of the solid surface industry, and most likely planted the seed that more work meant more money, which ultimately set him up for a few business lessons.
Then, in 1995, Fanning saw an opportunity to learn more about the business through a cabinet company with a small countertop shop. That company was only putting tops, laminate and solid surface, onto the cabinetry it installed, and Fanning was hired on to develop additional business.
"I went in as fabricator, installer, salesman and manager," recalled Fanning. "They just kind of threw it in my lap. So, instead of just putting the tops on the counters they were installing, I was out getting countertop business from other dealers. It was tricky, but we kind of separated the kitchen company and the countertop company under two different names and had great success."
The company was run by a father and his two sons, and Fanning credits a lot of his current business understanding to the father. "I went out and secured a lot of customers," said Fanning. "I was helping to create the market and educating everyone on solid surface. The father saw that sales side of me, my vision and my aggressiveness and my love for what I was doing. He introduced me to the management side of things and gave me the opportunity to learn a lot about business."
However, in 1995 the father decided to retire, and being a family business, Fanning said he didn't see his future at the company headed in the direction he wanted to go. At that point, he decided to open his own business.
SO FAR, SO GOOD
"I went and got a second mortgage on my house and just started doing it," said Fanning. On August 4, 1996, Fanning's 26th birthday, he opened the doors of Surface Engineers in Birmingham, focusing once again on solid surface.
"At first it was just my partner David Hopkins, who owned 30 percent of the business, and I," explained Fanning. "We rented a tiny shop that was 1,500 sq. ft. We had table saws, routers and other hand tools, and I went out and bought a van for installations."
Fanning had established a good rapport with many of his customers over the years and it didn't take long before that business was booming and the company started hiring additional installers and fabricators.
"It just started going incredibly fast and by the end of the year we had already done more than $600,000 in business," said Fanning. "We thought, ‘We have business; we're great.' At that time, I knew how to fabricate and install, but I didn't know business like I needed to."
Fanning recognized this and secured the services of an accountant as well as invested in some common accounting software. A year later, the growth had not slowed, and the company moved into a much bigger shop; however, that same growth that had been driving the business would eventually be its undoing.
A TURN FOR THE WORST
"We just kept on growing and kept hiring employees," he said. "When you're going out and fabricating and installing, and also trying to run the business, collect the money and pay the bills, things start getting out of control."
Unfortunately, Fanning did not recognize the direction his business was moving in until it was too late. "I was working seven days a week and was still not able to fully understand the business end of things," he explained. "We seemed to be making money and doing great, but we were going in the hole. I didn't really understand the principles of cash flow, and I had some problems getting paid on a couple commercial jobs."
He once again brought in an accountant. The bottom line was that the business was in trouble and needed money. Fanning was forced to break the lease on the new shop and lay off most of his employees.
"I moved back into my original location, and was pretty much right back were I started," lamented Fanning. "When growth comes quickly, it is easy to equate it with more money, and that's not always the case. We outran the cash flow, and our growth ate us up."
At that point his partner made the decision to find work elsewhere, and Fanning and one employee headed up the shop. "I stayed in there, worked hard and got everyone paid off," he said. "But by then, I was just burnt out and disappointed."
So, he approached one of his best customers and offered to sell the business. And in 1998, two years after opening the doors, Surface Engineers passed out of his hands, and Fanning went from owner to employee.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Fanning stayed on at the company for the next two or three years, and eventually the business turned back around and started growing again. It began to sell granite jobs, but subcontracted out all the work until the new owner moved to a new facility, where Fanning got his first taste of stone fabrication.
"With the move, the decision was made that there was enough granite business to underwrite opening a granite arm of the company," explained Fanning. "We moved into a huge facility, about 30,000 sq. ft., in 2003 and set up the granite shop on one side and the solid surface on the other."
Technologies started playing a larger role at that point, with the solid surface side of the business utilizing a panel saw and a double-headed v-groover. On the granite side, a bridge saw was brought in and the company started off with an in-line polisher, although CNC equipment would eventually be used also.
"We just kind of ran that way for awhile," said Fanning. "We had a lot of Lowe's business and were installing four or five jobs a day in solid surface and about the same in stone. Box store business was some of the best work we've ever done. For the most part, it was the smoothest business we had. We did HI-MACS for the box store and when you did the job, you got paid. That made the biggest difference. We went after business that paid quickly."
He said commercial work didn't disappear off the radar, but that the company avoided doing any direct general contractor work, choosing instead to work mostly for case work companies that could be billed directly.
"I was worried for awhile about our growth," recalled Fanning. "We were going to be at $4 million quick, but I saw that the owner went after fast-paying customers. The bulk of our business was paid within seven days. That makes all the difference as far as keeping cash flow manageable."
Although he was working for a successful business and had learned a lot, Fanning still had it in his heart to run his own business. "The owner was a good guy, but I was working sometimes more than 90 hours a week — and it was for someone else."