Elite Stone Imports offices in Tinton Falls, NJIN February 2010, when owners Mike Johnson, President, and Chris Vaubel, VP, opened the doors to Elite Stone Importers, they were well aware that going toe-to-toe with longtime names in the stone import and distribution business during a slow economy was a gamble.

Nevertheless, with a well thought out business model and a relentless drive to continue, they placed their bet, beating the odds and defying logic. But defying logic and beating the odds has its price, and its rewards—both soon to be paid in full.

The Past

It was late 2006 when friends Mike and Chris first sat down to begin fleshing out the basics of their future stone importing company. To Mike, with a numbers and management background, and Chris, with a logistics and sales background, this seemed fairly straightforward: write a business plan, find a lender, acquire a building and some equipment, and hang out your shingle.

At the time, the banks were still lending money and new home construction was still going gangbusters. Now fast-forward to 2008, when the doors were supposed to open. Banks were collapsing into the arms of the Feds, the economy was teetering, housing sales were coming to a grinding halt, and things didn’t look so rosy anymore.

So, with plans in hand, Mike and Chris cautiously put on the brakes, sat back down at the table and agreed to wait, watch and think. Now fast forward to 2010. A new company using an old set of business values opens its doors, bringing absolute customer service and satisfaction into the market place.

The Present

Entrance to Elite Stone ImportsWhen I first showed up at Mike and Chris’ showroom, I was immediately greeted by Laurie Escalante, one of four sales representatives, and Tucker, a 6 month old English bulldog. Within moments of making friends with Tucker, I was greeted by Mike, handed a coffee, and led into their pristine warehouse packed with a multitude of slabs primarily from Italy, India, Brazil and China.

As we slowly walked, coffee in hand, Mike began their story. “Things weren’t so great in the market place when we first opened up,” he explained. “It was a tough challenge and we knew it, but Chris and I were determined to make it work. We had been planning the company three years prior to opening up and actually held off because of the financial meltdown.

“We figured we’d wait a few years to see if some of the weaker importers and fabrication shops fell by the wayside. Then, when we felt it was the right time, we began to look for financial support.

“So, with business plan in hand, we visited lender after lender, each time hearing something like, ‘Sorry, this is no time to be opening a business that supplies the construction market.’ Then, finally, we found a lender that believed in us, and we acted on our plan, opening in early 2010.

“At that point we knew that if we could survive that first year, even though the market wasn’t very strong, we would be in a good position to be around for a long time. As it turns out, we were successful at doing that and surpassed our own expectations.”

But the success didn’t stop there. Sales from 2010 to 2011 were up by 146%, and the 2012 sales to date are up by 41% compared to last year. “We executed our plan pretty well, so we continue to grow,” Mike said, adding that they are very optimistic and are continually penning their ideas onto their list of future services.

Elite Stone Imports have ably maximized their floor space by using two overhead cranes and two heavy duty lift trucksWith over 30 thousand square feet of floor space, and 100+ colors of first quality slabs in stock at all times, Elite Stone Importers have ably maximized their floor space by using two overhead cranes and two heavy duty lift trucks.

Highly mechanized and well-equipped, Mike and Chris currently bring in 10 to 20 containers per month with the potential to easily double that amount due to fact that their highly trained team works collectively, safely and efficiently, container after container.

“We don’t have the biggest warehouse in the area because we only take in first quality slabs,” Chris explained. “We bring in commercial grade materials only on special order and don’t mix them with our premium materials.

“And as far as keeping track of slabs and transactions, the company didn’t settle here either. We felt that the software offered in the industry wasn’t everything we needed, so we created our own proprietary software. This is just how we do things.

“We’re also very proud of the fact that our warehouse is very safe, well kept, and appealing to all clients and designers that visit us. It’s a good reflection on us and a good reflection on the designers, and this helps to build client confidence.

“We also make sure that clients are greeted by either Mike or myself upon entering, and as they leave, we make sure that their experience with us was excellent. These are just some of the services we provide, and being the new guy on the block, this is extra important to us.”

Chris then finished by saying, “All start-up companies need hard work and sweat to survive, but for our company to truly excel took the dedication of all our people and the strict adherence to our business model.”

The Future

I then asked Mike one simple question: What factors have allowed your company to succeed in a supplier-saturated market where natural stone in the home has become almost a commodity? He thought for a moment and said, “First, we differentiate ourselves from all others because of the high standards of our materials and the caliber of our people, and that’s not a statement I make lightly.

“Our people are very service-oriented toward our clients, and those clients get 110% from us. For Chris and me this is the Holy Grail. It’s why clients come in and why they come back—period. So, as far as competition from other importer/distributors, we see ourselves winning in this area.

“The second is fair pricing. Most clients appreciate the quality of our stone and understand that they get what they pay for and receive a higher quality material. Another strong factor is that our clients know that when they have any issues or potential issues with our products, our people are upfront and honest about pointing out any possible problems prior to shipping. We continue to add value here.

“Third, we’ve been tough on our suppliers, but we’ve also partnered with them, and that’s another key factor to our success. We want to see them do well, and they want to see us do well, so it’s a good working relationship. We expect them to give us quality products at a fair price, and in turn, that’s what we do for our customers. Good service and a quality product at a fair price equals success, and we all win.”

I then asked Mike for his take on the next three years. He said, “Our location is just off the Garden State Parkway, and we are vigorously servicing the greater northeast. That being said, Chris and I are always doing our homework by looking at sales and demographics.

“Growth is definitely in our future, and any expansion will be market driven, not speculation driven, and as the opportunities come to light, so will the options. So until then, we’ll continue to look for other possible locations that might suit us well into the future.”

Mike then closed our conversation by saying that their team of eight employees is the company’s most valuable asset, and that hiring a few more on-the-road sales staff in the near future is a given.

For more information about Elite Stone Importers, visit www.Elitestoneimporters.com.


Peter J. Marcucci has over 25 years of fabrication experience in the stone industry. Send any comments to pjmgsxr@aol.com.