Peter J. Marcucci
Special Contributor

One Fabricator’s Solution for Success

The challenge of bringing a company from small to large, profitless to profitable and solidifying its position in a changing market can be a daunting task. To not only survive, but prosper takes guts, drive and determination. Robert and Irini Krolikiewicz, owners of International Artistic Stone Inc., Sarasota, Fl, possess all those qualities.

Since the 1950s, Florida has been a real estate growth machine and Sarasota offered the perfect recipe for development: a heaping teaspoon of retirees, a dash of working class, and two cups of the rich and famous. Add a pinch of Ringling Brothers Circus performers and—voila—you have a fabrication-rich environment.

After emigrating from Poland to America in 1991, Robert and Irini have been carving their way into the 21st century, taking sculpture and fabrication over the top. “We came to Sarasota, Florida in the mid nineties,” Robert says with a smile on his face. “Having done our homework before moving here, we knew that construction was everywhere. Homeowners were clamoring for natural stone products to gentrify the old and embellish the new.”

Robert paused before continuing in a more serious tone. “It wasn’t easy but we kept on pushing day after day. The hours were tough, the heat even tougher, and by the end of each day we were tired. But I loved carving and my wife and I knew that a sculpture and fabrication shop would flourish. We were in the right place at the right time. The money was coming in and the product was going out.”

Robert stated that in 2002, an abundance of select and exotic slabs with saturated colors and rich flowing veins became available. The granite rush was on. As granite popularity increased, inventory had also increased in lock-step to meet their customers’ demands.

Gone, for the most part, were the days of easy materials to work with. Homogenous granites like Absolute Black, Emerald and Blue Pearl, Bianco and Baltic Brown were still popular but had taken a back seat to the newer varieties.

As we were touring the shop looking at his well-oiled bridge saws, spotless edge machines and a home built “passive” water filtrations system, Robert shared his views on the changing times. “By 2004, our customers had become more educated about natural stone and began to demand a better final product.

“Unfortunately the new select and exotic slabs were making seams, splashes and laminates difficult to work with. If the seam of two adjoining countertops weren’t at least close in color, it stuck out like a sore thumb. Customers were becoming very difficult to please.

“The other variable was that not only had the Florida housing bubble inspired growth, it also sparked an explosion of start-up fabrication shops. Competitive pricing became key to staying in the game.

“As these problems increased,” explained Robert, “we began to think long and hard. We had always known that a quality product and customer service was what set us apart from the competition–but the competition was getting tough. We had to do more.”

Staying Ahead of the Curve

According to Robert, a small percentage of business was being lost due to lower prices from competitors within their 60-mile market radius, and more was needed to stay competitive. “My wife and I knew we needed a more aggressive pricing policy and [had to] still keep a good bottom line. After giving a bid, we waited a few days and then called the customer to find out where we stood.

“If there was any indication that we were getting priced out of the job from a competitor, we immediately responded by sharpening our numbers, adding a little extra something or reassuring them of our continued commitment after the sale and installation.” Being fully capitalized with no leverage (a core principle from the beginning) has been a big part of their success. “It gives us the confidence to tell a customer ‘we are here today, we will be here tomorrow.’”

Robert went on to say, “By 2005, we were bringing our slab customers into the shop to do material approval and a formal layout on their slabs. When they arrive at our shop for a hands-on kitchen layout, the slabs are waiting next to each other with a well thought out pre-plan using templates that we made at their home.”

He continued, “We usually begin by immediately pointing out any flaws, cracks or blotches. We then move on to show matching seams, splashes, and when possible, offer a cascade effect from the high bar, down the splash to the lower counter top, all the while trying to keep their favorite area of the slab in the focal point of the room.

“We realized involving the customer from the very beginning and pointing out all the possibilities was the best thing to do. By giving them a clear vision of what is possible, we have now gained the clients’ trust, and when the installers knock at the door, they are welcomed in with high expectations. This level of customer service also makes the clients’ designer look good.”

The Big Decision

In 2008, after many years of pricing and after-installation follow-ups, Robert became aware of another opportunity. He saw that the needs of his hi-end customers for things like limestone balustrades, columns and fountains were being met by manufacturers from out-of-state, and after much thought, decided to create a machine-line to fulfill those needs on a local level.

When we asked Robert about what this took, he said this. “We made the decision to diversify even more so we weren’t as dependent on slab fabrication and sculpture. The market had become a cut-throat environment, and we refused to low-ball our prices just to keep the doors open. Diversification was needed to keep our prices up, and dimensional components made from limestone seemed to be a natural solution to help us keep our margin. With more to offer our clients, we could provide one-stop-shopping, as well as, increasing our bottom line.

“By 2009, we were still doing all of our limestone work with a few hand tools and lots of sweat, but had made enough money to pay for some much needed new equipment.

“We ordered two PROMEC special order block saws from Poland, and a GMM lathe from Italy, which allowed us to purchase bulk amounts of large dimension limestone, giving us the flexibility to cut or spin blocks as needed, to give our customers a quality product and quicker turnaround.”  
                                                
The Future

For the last two years, Robert and Irini have been perfecting a wholesale program to give smaller out-of-town shops the ability to offer their customers large dimensional limestone components of first quality.

“We are now shipping our finished limestone around the country to other fabricators who don’t have the equipment to manufacture but do have the market for these types of products. They are steadily using us to produce for their customers, and our wholesale has been growing by seven to nine percent each year since we started.”

At the time of Slippery Rock Gazette’s visit, Robert was still using stick templates as needed for kitchens and vanities, but did indicate that jumping into digital templating is probably in his future as soon as his slab production line can be all digital.

“In my opinion,” he explained, “with digital, you either need to be fully in or fully out, from templates to finished product. The middle of the road just isn’t efficient and doesn’t make sense.”
He goes on to say, “In the next few years when fabrication volume does increase and the demand is there, we will make the investment in new digital machines and digital templating.” Robert then said, “Our near future plans definitely include a seven axis CNC for doing mass production limestone for our large scale customers.”

Among International Artistic Stone’s more recent large scale work is the manufacture and installation of countertops, columns, stairs, veneers and balustrades in a $26 million Sarasota home, as well as another local $17 million home.

Currently, International Artistic Stone is working on samples for a sizable statuary contract for a winery in northern California, as well as keeping up with their local fabrication and dimensional stone contracts.              

When asked what other ways he’s been supplementing his company’s cash flow, Robert replied, “Last year we began looking for other types of work needed by our clients while visiting their home for a follow-up of our completed work. Things like sills, thresholds, floors and furniture are all things that we know our clients will need before they move in.

“We casually ask a few questions–then offer a few solutions and the client usually replies, ‘I hadn’t thought to ask you. Please give me a price.’” Robert also stated that his sales people are continually developing better relationships with local builders, designers and architects and when volume increases, he will then commit to more containers from overseas.

He also expects an increase in carving contracts and stated that his eight current employees will not be enough in 2012, and he plans on hiring at least two more people.

When asked what changes might come next in this teetering economy, Robert answered, “We’re not sure, but we’re ready to face it head on. Our machines are good–our people are great and I know we’re on the right track. And there’s one other thing: there is nothing like natural stone–period.”

Peter Marcucci is a 25-year senior fabricator at European Marble Co., Inc. Sarasota, FL. Send any comments to .