- Published: 04 March 2009 04 March 2009
FORT WORTH, Texas – Ask a psychiatrist about Onis Stone, and the doctor would probably diagnose a split personality.
Owner Bob Bennett loves natural stone, and when he started his business a decade ago it was to wholesale loads of stone to suppliers and fabricators.
Recognizing that the industry was changing, he opened a showroom and began selling direct to the public. From there, it was a quick step to fabrication, although the two operations ran at miles-apart different locations due to space limitations.
A move early this year finally put the showroom and shop under the same roof, and forced Bennett and his wife, Sheri, to add two fabrication crews.
That might be the end of the story, except that while the Bennetts enjoy fabricating high-end specialty items, they’ve also recently become a fabricator for one of the big home-center chains in the Fort Worth area, bringing plenty of customers with less-expensive projects to their door.
Bob Bennett, however, is not about to quit selling stone. The end result may just be splitting the operation into two separate companies at some future date.
SEARCH FOR ENJOYMENT
Bob Bennett didn’t start out to be a wholesaler/fabricator doing both high-end specialty projects and the more-average 40 ft² kitchen counter jobs. When he launched his business, it was with one goal in mind: wholesaling natural stone.
The company’s name is an acronym for “Our Name Is Specialty” Stone. and from its beginning in the Bennetts’ garage, selling first-rate stone has been at the top of his list.
“Ten years ago, I walked in the door, after Sheri and I had been married about a month,” he explains. “I said, ‘I’m going to do what I thoroughly enjoy doing,’ so I took all her savings out of the bank and bought a truckload of stone.”
While the announcement may have momentarily startled his new bride, Bennett had already put in more than 15 years in the trade, and had experience with both indoor and outdoor stone construction, and everything from pool decking to kitchen countertops.
“If it has something to do with stone, I’ve probably done it,” he says.
Onis also got off to a good start. Before too long, Bennett was selling truckloads of stone to some of the larger suppliers in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. From there, he expanded outward, eventually developing a list of clients that stretched from Florida to Las Vegas and as far north as Chicago.
However, he also began to encounter problems. As time went on, Bennett says he found many suppliers – especially some of the larger ones – looking at price rather than quality in the stone they were buying.
After close to seven years of dealing with the trade, the Bennetts decided to open a showroom and begin selling directly to the public. Onis began operating in a 2,300-ft² space on Fort Worth’s “tile mile” along State Highway 121.
At about the same time, on a trip to Germany, Bob Bennett was struck anew at the durability of stone. He decided to begin fabricating what he calls “heirlooms:” hand-carved fireplaces and chair rails, as well as sinks, columns and flooring.
To accommodate the fabrication end of the business, the couple rented space about five miles from their showroom. Not only did the two locations make for a difficult situation, Sheri Bennett says, but ultimately the couple decided the location of their showroom wasn’t necessarily bringing in the customers Onis is geared to serve.
“We decided that probably 60 percent of the people coming in were looking for ideas, but they weren’t interested in what we can do,” says Bob Bennett. “Only a small percentage of the time did we get to show things to people who were really interested.”
On January 1 this year, the couple opened a new facility on a 1.5-acre parcel on a major feeder street in Fort Worth. The 12,000-ft² facility is almost equally divided between showroom, shop and warehouse.
For the Bennetts, however, the best thing about it may be that they know customers now have to look for them, rather than just wandering in off the street.
“Now, when they come to where we are, we know it’s people who are really interested in what we do,” says Bob Bennett. “We know they’re coming in to see us.”
A visit to Onis’ new showroom is meant to stress that the company isn’t just about granite countertops. Although the couple is still completing the space, the emphasis is strongly on specialty items.
“We’re featuring things like our door casings and bases, crown molding and chair rails we make out of granite and marble,” says Bennett. “We’re showcasing some of our hand-carved fireplaces, and we’re doing some really high-end kitchens.”
For example, one of the kitchens features Black Galaxy granite inlaid with small squares of Tiger’s Eye. The semi-precious stone is used both in the floor and in the backsplash.
While he’s quick to note that even a small use of Tiger’s Eye involves an investment of several hundred dollars, many of the shop’s custom items really aren’t that expensive.
“We want this to be a place where anybody can come,” he says. “Sure, we have things for the million-dollar-plus home, but we also have things for the $100,000 house. Some of our bases and our chair rails are less than doing stain-grade oak in a house. It will last longer than the house will, and be a salvage item when it’s falling down.”
Because so much of the company’s output is custom and hand-carved, a great deal of the work done by the seven shop employees is done with hand-held machinery. The greatest automation comes from the shop’s bridge saw and duplicator machine.
Although the Bennetts had initial considered adding a CNC machine when they moved to the new location, Bob Bennett says that hasn’t happened yet, and may even be further in the future than he’d initially thought.
“It kind of depends on how our molding business grows,” he says. “We may need something different than a CNC. I currently have a machine designed to do moldings where we should be able to produce a foot a minute if we need to.”
In the meantime, he says the shop crew is such a group of skilled artisans that it’s difficult to tell a radius done on a profile by hand than one that’s created by machine.
“I’m really proud they can do that,” he says.
To show off their artistry, as well as generate some publicity for Onis and some dollars for a local charity, the shop is in the beginning processes of creating a 5’ X 8’ 3D-carved stone mosaic of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” Once completed, it will be donated to a charity to be auctioned off to raise funds.
“It’s something we’d love to do,” Bennett says. “The guys would love being a part of it, and I’m going to keep records of time spent to see what it actually cost us. That way, if somebody comes up and says that they want something done in the entryway of their new house, we’re going to have to be able to price it.”
One thing the company has added along with the move is two installation crews. Until recently, the Bennetts contracted out that part of their business, but Bob Bennett says it became a matter of quality control.
“Before we were using three different companies, and one of them is owned by a man who taught me a lot of what I know about the granite business,” he says. “We’re still good friends, but it’s nice to have control. When a job goes in, I can walk in and if there’s a problem, we can take care of it immediately; I don’t have to call anyone.”
And, at some point, a CNC machine may come in handy as the company takes on jobs as a vendor for seven Lowe’s Home Improvement stores in the Fort Worth area.
The biggest advantage to taking on such a relationship, Sheri Bennett says, is that the company pays well and promptly. However, there’s also the downside of having to meet company requirements for workers’ comp, and educating both Lowe’s employees and customers.
“Especially with the employees, the more they learn from us, the more-excited they are about it,” Sheri Bennett says. “But, we’re also dealing with people where their passion isn’t necessarily stone, and maybe they catch on and maybe they don’t.”
While the Bennetts recognize that today’s small job may translate into tomorrow’s higher-priced one, and they’re grateful Lowe’s officials were looking for someone to do their work who doesn’t cut corners, it’s no secret their real passion is for high-end jobs utilizing higher-end stone.
One of their current favorites is a job they did for a woman they call, “the marble lady.”
“This is a remodel of a home built in 1913 in old Fort Worth,” Sheri Bennett explains. “This is an area where doctors lived, and we have honed all the marble floors and installed marble door casings, marble bases and marble chair rails. It’s beautiful.”
Another of Bob Bennett’s favorites is travertine flooring, especially Mexican travertine. He expresses concern about some of the travertine now on the market because of the amount of fill involved, and he’s afraid that in a few years the failure of some of these more-porous stones will give travertine a bad name.
“I’ve seen travertine on people’s floors that’s 25-30 years old, and it’s just gorgeous,” he says. “I want my customer to come in 10 years from now, or 20 years from now and say, ‘You’re right; my floor is just continually getting better looking.’ I try to educate everyone who walks through my door on what makes a good stone.”
Still another item the couple is hot on are the petrified-wood sinks the shop has turned out.
“I love one-of-a-kinds and I look for what I can do that nobody else can do,” Bob Bennett says. “That’s what gave me the idea for those petrified-wood sinks. It’s wild to go in there and do something like that.”
Especially with the company’s molding, the Bennetts have also found they have a product that’s still light enough that it’s practical to fabricate it in Fort Worth, then ship it around the country. While Onis maintains a wide selection of stones, in at least one case, a builder shipped a slab from Florida to ensure a perfect match.
“They shipped it, we cut it up and made the stuff and then shipped it back to them,” he says. “They got exactly what they wanted and it’s also something that nobody else has, and that’s what I like about it.”
Bennett’s so confident in the quality and uniqueness of some of his designs that he’s in the process of copyrighting them. The couple also spent a week in New York last year making initial contact with some of the kitchen and bath design firms there, and one of their goals for 2004 is to follow-up on those visits and start showcasing their wares to other designers.
In the meantime, though, Bob Bennett also hopes to build up the wholesale side of the business – possibly taking that nationwide at some future date, as well. And, he says the continued heavy demand for natural stone, coupled with lower prices, should help him achieve that goal.
“The price I’m getting for raw materials is obviously a lot less, and that makes it very competitive for us to go against some of the larger companies out there,” he says. “We’re trying to make deals with several suppliers now, but when you go direct and buy direct it helps quite a bit.”
Ultimately, he acknowledges that his dreams may be too big to do business as one company with one name.
“I think we’re going to end up being a little diversified,” he says. “We’ll want to separate into two companies that have two different directions, with one of them focusing on the shipping of materials and products all over the United States.”
However, if the key ingredients to success are enthusiasm for his product, and enjoyment of what he’s doing, it’s pretty likely Bob Bennett will reach his goals.
“Sure, there are times when I’ve been ready to give up, but I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing, because it’s something I love,” he concludes. “Out of 365 days in the year, I’m probably excited about coming to work 355 of them. I’m always wondering what can I do today and where can I go with this company today.”
This article first appeared in the June 2004 print edition of Stone Business. ©2004 Western Business Media Inc.