This core insight was patented in 1981. But, as Stevens puts it, "An idea alone doesn't get you a company." It took joining forces with inventor and marketing genius Marvin Wernick and co-inventor Gil Ross, both of whom have art degrees, chemist Lon Risley and entrepreneur George Ross to break out of the jewelry box business and into the world of solid surface.
The pilot plant for Avonite was built in Sylmar, Calif. To Ted Stevens fell the formidable task of trying to transform an experimental line into a production line. "Everything was a problem. Nothing was easy," he said. "We had to write the book as we went." And, like many a start-up company with a great idea, marketing sometimes got ahead of development.
Marvin sold the company's first solid surface job to a large hotel in California, just
when Ted was experiencing a critical process problem. An undiscovered glitch was causing
cracking in castings more than about 3 ft. long. "We sold a whole hotel — our
first order — and I couldn't produce a sheet," he said. The solution to
this problem still brings smiles to the Avonite team. The designer accepted 2- by 2-ft. Avonite
squares that were installed to make a parquet look — a design "innovation."
"I visit that hotel from time to time, and it still looks beautiful," noted Wernick.
But the true turning point came in 1985. The pilot plant was not even completed when Avonite was unveiled at the Builders' Show in Houston. For the first time ever, color and texture in granite and gemstone patterns were introduced to the national solid surface countertop market. The reaction was overwhelming. By the second day of the show "you simply could not get into our booth," he explained. The team returned from the show with 55 commitments from companies that wanted to distribute Avonite.
This success was followed with a marketing campaign that featured the memorable slogan, "Looks like stone, Cuts like wood." Results from this and other marketing efforts were explosive, and the company faced a new challenge of filling a nationwide pipeline that had suddenly expanded by a factor of 10. With far-reaching vision, the team looked for a partner that could fulfill their global expectations. The company they found was U.S. Steel. The chemical portion of U.S. Steel was spun off into a separate company called Aristech Chemical Corporation, and an equal partnership was formed.
The group turned their creative energies to helping engineer a state-of-the-art facility in 1988 in Belen, N.M., just south of Albuquerque. "Through these doors walk the world's greatest employees" is printed boldly over the door. Quality and employee involvement are central themes at Avonite. And everyone at Avonite makes no bones about being enormously proud of what they have accomplished, sometimes against great odds.
Two of its first colors, Midnight Sky and Adobe Brown, remain among Avonite's best sellers even today. Avonite's color palette has grown to 96 colors, and distribution is global, with Avonite sold in more than 45 countries around the world.
In 1996, Avonite pushed the envelope again with the introduction of a new color and a new concept. The color was "Kaleidescope," and it was manufactured from recycled Avonite products, making it the first "green" solid surface material. In the past three years, the use of recycled materials in the building trades has skyrocketed. So much so that it's become necessary for "green" products to require third party certification.
Jack Hussey of Jack's Custom Woodworking in Woburn, Mass., a solid surface fabricator since the 1970s, shared his memories of Avonite when it first came to market."When we saw the Avonite color palette — the first of its kind — we knew that our cabinets would be greatly enhanced with countertops made with this beautiful product," he said. "It was right after these colors were introduced that the solid surface industry really took off. We sold a lot of Avonite because people loved the colors and textures."