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Building on success Featured

11:47am EDT September 28, 2005
In 1997, Stonehouse Building Products began producing specialty bathroom countertops from a small production facility in Hamersville.

Seven years later, production couldn’t keep up with consumer demand, so the company moved to a brand-new, state-of-the-art production facility in Florence, Ky., allowing it to increase production, keep a close eye on quality and nearly double its work force to more than 200 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Stonehouse President Bill Barkalow about the challenges and benefits that come with a new facility and new technology.

What challenges does the fast growth of your company pose?

The only thing that really is consistent is change — everything is moving so fast, it’s always changing.

We have to be able to compete against much larger competitors, and they have more resources, more marketing programs, more things to put out, so our marketing programs have to be very well-positioned and we have to move faster.

In other areas, [it’s challenging to] forecast accurately the things that are going to happen, whether it be sales or our business plan. Reality today is really different from what the perception was yesterday, so you have to be flexible and react to those kinds of changes.

What led you to build a new facility?

The size of the market that we’re in. It’s a huge market, and we have identified a very unique niche within that market and have, fortunately, created a lot of excitement around our [products]. It became pretty obvious, as this idea that we had was catching on, that we were going to need capacity in order to grow our business. And in doing that, we wanted to become more efficient as we built a new plant and designed our longer-term business focus.

So it was really out of need, because the demand for our product was strong enough that we could never do it in the facility we started out with. It’s a good thing, but it comes with a lot of headaches.

What were some of those headaches?

One of the biggest things is that we’ve entered a lot of new technologies into our manufacturing process. They’re not necessarily unique processes, but they’re unique to our industry. And a lot of it has been applying those technologies and building the right team of people around those technologies to drive the business.

One of (those technologies) has been robotics. They’re really not used in our type of industry to any degree that I’m aware of. We’ve introduced them into our manufacturing processes and gotten them to work, but it wasn’t easy. You couldn’t go tap on someone in the industry and say, ™Hey, can you come over and help me with this?’ You had to adapt.

As we got involved in applying all this new technology, we’ve had a lot of learning that we’ve had to come up, and that’s been a challenge.

How has this new facility helped Stonehouse manage its growth?

It comes down to, as we’ve added capacity, growing our distribution. It’s also allowed us to make some longer-range investments, such as the people and computer systems.

And we have brought on all of the latest technology and computer systems. Our systems are very sophisticated and allow us to measure every aspect of our business. That will improve our cost and provide information so we can make faster decisions.

With increased production ability, how do you ensure that product quality remains high?

The systems will be part of that, because they will provide information about our manufacturing process and all kinds of things that go into that. But also, our people — we first get the right people to join the company and then we provide them the proper training, not just with the systems, but with the operations, the safety, the quality. They need to know as much about the product and the business [as possible], and we provide them as much training as we possibly can.

Some of our people take on certain training roles, some of it is done through outside processes, or outside people or groups that come in, some of it is done as computer training, some of it is done through outside seminars.

What benefits have you seen from this new facility?

We’ve had a lot of things that have been positive and impactive on our cost, our scrap, producing higher volume, our speed at which we make things, as well as our quality. The long-term impacts that we will have are pretty obvious.

We will have a lot higher capacity, we will have a lot lower cost, we will have a lot higher quality as a result of all of these technologies. It’s proven itself out to be a good decision, and we continue to be learning on it every day.

How to reach: Stonehouse Building Products, http://www.stonehousebuildingproducts.com