- Published: 10 February 2009 10 February 2009
AUSTIN, Texas –There’s something about the idea of a company flowing smoothly from one generation to the next that lurks in the soul of most business founders.
Bob Stasswender will tell you that reality can sometimes throw up a speed bump.
While his grandfather put his name on what was then Austin’s only marble and granite shop more than 90 years ago, times – and business conditions – had changed by the late 1980s. Faced with a bad economy and family squabbles, Stasswender broke off the commercial and residential parts of the business and started anew.
He admits that even his friends thought he was headed for failure. However, good contacts and a commitment to maintaining the family reputation for quality helped rebuild what became Stasswender’s Southwest Marble and Granite Inc.
Today, the business is stronger than ever, and mostly residential. Now, Stasswender is looking to technology to help maintain quality while preparing to turn the business over to yet another generation.
Stasswender is practically synonymous with natural stone in Austin, a fact easily be attributed to three – now four – generations of the family fabricating and installing stone in the community.
The Stasswender name first went over the door in 1915, when Bob Stasswender’s grandfather, Anton Stasswender, purchased the business from his employers. That company dated back to 1885, when it first opened its doors as Huffman Stone.
Although a sign from those early days proclaims the firm did all kinds of stonework, Bob Stasswender says his grandfather, a Bavarian immigrant, was trained as a stone carver. While the company did some commercial stonework, the emphasis was on monuments.
That began to change when Bob Stasswender’s father – also Anton, but known as Tony – returned from military service in World War II.
“When my father came back from the war and went to work for my grandfather, the decision was made to take it in a different direction,” says Bob Stasswender. “That’s when we really began building the commercial and residential end of it.
“We were the only company in town at the time.”
It’s a business mix Tony Stasswender maintained after his father died in 1954. Bob Stasswender says he began his own career in natural stone in the early 1960s, and it was primarily the installation of countertops, fireplace surrounds and cladding.
“I was child labor in those days,” he says. “All through high school I worked for him in the summers, and I was very upset about it because all my friends got to go water skiing or to the Gulf Coast, but Bob had to go to work.”
Still, after a four-year break to attend college, Bob Stasswender went to work for his father full-time. Over the years, the operation became truly a family one, and his mother, brother and sister continued in the business with him following Tony Stasswender’s death in 1977.
Then, in the late 1980s, the economy took a serious downturn in Texas. By that point, Bob Stasswender had taken over direction of the company’s commercial operations, with his sister handling the residential division under his supervision.
As the company literally hemorrhaged money, he says recriminations began to fly over which divisions were costing too much money and which others weren’t making enough sales.
“Finally, I said, ‘This is getting out of hand, and we don’t need to be at each other’s throats. Why don’t you take the monument business and I’ll take the marble-and-granite fabrication end of the business, and we’ll keep the family together but be separate entities,’” Stasswender explains. “My sister retired and went to work elsewhere. My mother and brother stayed on as memorialists, and I took over the marble-and-granite business.”
Although commercial and residential work had been the bulk of the company’s business, Bob Stasswender says he didn’t take much with him to start Stasswender’s Southwest Marble and Granite Inc. in 1987.
As with any breakup, he retained some important things –the company’s phone numbers, for example, which dated back to the early 1900s – but lost others, including the physical location.
After renting shop space on the northwest edge of Austin, the new company purchased its current facility in 1995.
“I took very little equipment with me,” Stasswender says. “We had a saw and a polisher and a forklift. And, I took three employees out of what had been a staff of about 25.”
With such a modest beginning and in such a bad economy, Stasswender says it was at that point that even some of his friends began telling each other that he’d never make it.
Although he’s happy to have proved them wrong, it took a radical change of direction on his part. He realized that by putting such a heavy emphasis on commercial work, the Stasswenders had virtually lost their residential market.
“To get the residential back, I had to do some serious cold-calling to old friends to tell them we wanted their business,” Stasswender says. “I called in some favors, and let people know we were still out there, and it paid off.”
Then, in about 1990, Austin underwent what he calls, “the kitchen countertop revolution.” Today, Stasswender estimates that 90 percent of his company’s work is residential.
“We’re on the high end of the spectrum,” he says of his clients. “We don’t do any tract homes; we do everything custom for custom builders. We also probably get the highest dollar of anyone in town for our product, but for that we give them quality and we give them service.”
Most of the commercial work is limited to doing kitchens and bathrooms for condominiums, along with some fabrication for a commercial marble and granite company in Austin that doesn’t have its own fabrication plant.
“We like the residential market for several reasons,” says Stasswender. “You have a high turnover of cash flow, and you don’t wait 60 or 70 days to get paid.
“You also don’t wait 60 or 70 days to get paid 90 percent of your invoice, and if you get burned it’s only for $2,000-$5,000, not $100,000-$125,000, which is what happened to us in the 1980s.”
He adds that there have only been three jobs over the past decade where he hasn’t been paid. A lot of that can be attributed to the company’s emphasis on educating its clients, both in person and on its Website. Stasswender also offers a 10-year warranty.
“That warranty is only as good as the product you put in and the people who maintain it,” he says. “If you’re dealing with stone and you use a good stone product and you do a very good job of educating your client, you don’t have warranty issues.”
It’s a philosophy he inherited from his father, who used to refer to it as, “Tony’s Information Service.”
“We certainly don’t get every job that walks in the door, but we try to educate every person who walks in the door,” he says. “We tell them the good and we tell them the bad and we tell them exactly what they can expect.”
Stasswender is confident enough of his approach that after every job, a client is mailed a copy of the warranty and a questionnaire. Although it can be mailed in, people returning it to the shop get a free bottle of cleaner and sealer.
“We put them in a book (and on the company’s Website), good and bad, and we put that book in the showroom and invite people to look at the comments about our work,” he says. “That sells a lot of work for us.”
In fact, since he doesn’t have an advertising budget, Stasswender estimated about 80 percent of his jobs come by word-of-mouth, although the shop does employ a sales manager to call on developers and remodeling firms.
Stasswender believes his other major selling tool is the 1,500-2,000 slabs he maintains in his yard – a selection that includes some marble, as well as plenty of granite.
“It puts us in a better position to have people come to us,” he says. “If you don’t show it, you can’t sell it.”
It’s Stasswender’s emphasis on quality that’s led to the purchase of Southwest Marble and Granite’s first CNC machine.
The days of making do with a saw and a polisher are long gone. Today, the company runs a host of Antonino Mantello equipment, including a large industrial bridge saw, two edge-polishing machines and a radial-arm polisher, as well as a bowl-cutting and profiling machine from Bacchieri Pietro & C.S.n.c. The most recent addition is an edge-polishing machine from Sassomeccanica S.r.L.
Although he’s been looking at CNC machines for the past five years or so, as friends in the industry would share horror stories about their purchases, Stasswender says his interest would wane.
“I’d say to myself, ‘Well, with the skill level we have with our employees, we don’t need these machines,’” he says. “My key guys have been with me since the early 1980s; we have a very small turnover here and all our employees are skilled.”
However, as sales increased (up to $2 million last year) and schedules tightened, Stasswender says he could see problems arising with his production flow.
“Especially because of our tight schedules, I could see our quality was slipping,” he says. “We were having to correct more work in the field and that was costing us money.”
About the time Stasswender was willing to rethink his position, he says Bottero Inc.’s Carey Brayer contacted him. He also saw one of the company’s CNCs demonstrated during a trip to a shop in Las Vegas.
“They went from ten people doing hand-finishing down to three, and they were able to increase production,” says Stasswender. “Carey told me it might increase production, but it would definitely increase quality.”
The machine is scheduled for delivery in August 2006, and marks a major commitment by the company, since it’s requiring a 2,000 ft² addition to its current 6,000 ft² shop space. Stasswender is also planning to add at least two more people to his seven-person shop crew.
Even so, Stasswender doesn’t expect to expand his service area, which is primarily within 50 miles of Austin. Although the company does some negotiated work for people outside the area – mainly friends of his who own property in other parts of the country – “We’re doing less and less of that compared with what we used to do,” he says.
The new CNC is also a major investment for the future at a time when Stasswender could be excused for taking a much-shorter perspective. But, as he says, the Stasswenders are in stone for the long haul.
Now in his late 50s, Stasswender is looking at a five-year exit strategy from the business that should have him making up for those long ago summers spent working by the time he reaches 62.
To make that a reality, he’s counting on the help of his daughter, son-in-law and the shop’s general manager, all of whom are experienced hands in the business.
“In three years, I’m going to turn over half ownership of the business to the three of them,” he says. “Then, in the next two years after that, I’ll probably fully retire and turn the other half of the business over to them, once they’ve shown me they can handle it.”
Before then, however, he expects to have Stasswender’s Southwest Marble and Granite in a new building. Although the building he purchased in 1995 was then at the edge of town, today it’s surrounded by high-density residential development and a new building farther west would be more efficient, he says.
Despite his retirement plans, Stasswender thinks he’ll always have an oar in the stone industry, if only through his continued involvement with the Marble Institute of America. (He served as the industry group’s president in 2002.) And, he’s confident the industry has yet to hit its high-water mark.
“We might see a national slowdown, but down here I’m seeing a five percent to 15 percent increase per year for the next three to five years,” he says. “I see the industry coming full circle back to the use of more natural stone. People are going to realize, with all things considered and the cost being equal, there’s nothing better than a natural product.”
This article first appeared in the August 2006 print edition of Stone Business. ©2006 Western Business Media Inc.