In St. Joseph's Cathedral in Downtown Columbus, a railing encircles the altar and the pulpit.
Holding that railing are pillars covered with aggregate terrazzo, a special mix of tile and cement. Even the architect was unsure if terrazzo, meant for flooring, would work in a vertical format.
For his successful efforts, terrazzo specialist George Martina received the 1979 Craftsman of the Year Award of Merit jointly from the American Institute of Architects and the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trade Department.
North of Downtown, inside the Jerome Schottenstein Center, the 72,000-square-foot terrazzo floor includes 5,000 square feet of remarkably detailed mosaics depicting Ohio State University athletics. The National Terrazzo and Mosaic Association first recognized the work by Martina's firm, The Ardit Co., in 1998 as Job of the Year; then, ultimately, the project was named Job of the Century.
For the 68-year-old Martina, who at age 14 began studying the family trade of laying terrazzo, mosaic tile and marble, these accolades honor a man and his ability to lead and rise to the top.
At 16, he began a business with an uncle in Verona, Italy, becoming a leader among the older, more experienced tradesmen in the field, he says. He remains a perfectionist today; even in the process of retirement, he can be found at job sites motivating his fellow union members to complete complicated projects.
Martina's path to the top began in 1956, when, at the age of 23, he flew from his home in Spilimbergo, Italy, to the United States on a work visa sponsored by The Ardit Mosaic Tile & Marble Co. Ardit owner Louis Mirolo not only was from Martina's village, he was baptized by Martina's grandmother.
Martina's father wanted his young son to capitalize on that relationship and make the move to a country where the standard of living was three times better than in Italy.
Martina came to America with $500 in borrowed money and English learned in night school. Forty-four years later, Martina still goes to work at Ardit, but he does so as its owner -- and is now ready to hand down to his daughter and son-in-law the business he brought to new prominence.
After arriving in Columbus, Martina faced many obstacles, from the language barrier to the taste of food. But he was motivated by the money.
"I spent two weeks with my boss in Upper Arlington, the richest part of the town," he says. "They spoiled me."
But Martina wasn't to stay in those posh surroundings for long. His boss found him a room in the St. Clair area where other Italian immigrants were living.
The change didn't make much difference, however, because Martina was at work more than he was at home.
"The first week, we worked all the time," he says. "On the plane, I was told, 'You work only 40 hours a week.' Instead, I end up working six to seven days a week, 10 hours a day. That was for awhile."
His first day of work was also different from what he was used to in Italy.
"The style of work was different," Martina says. "In Europe, they take more time. The construction here is on a faster track and my work had to be done faster."
Martina's adjustment to America became easier after about six months, when he met a fellow named Mario Ceschiat and they became fast friends. Martina moved in with Ceschiat's family in the Northland area, and stayed for 10 years.
This new family helped Martina overcome a few of the most difficult things to deal with when moving to a new country -- being homesick and missing traditional Italian food.
In 1962, Ceschiat's job moved out of Ohio and Martina found him work at Ardit so he could stay. Ceschiat worked side by side with Martina, learning the trade and learning even more about Martina and his work ethic.
In 1979, things slowed down.
"Ardit got into trouble," Ceschiat says, noting that during this time, he found work at another flooring company, something that's not uncommon when business at one company became scarce. "Guys were missing a lot of time."
In 1984, when Ardit's owner became ill and the family was ready to phase out the business, Ceschiat returned as the estimator and general manager. Realizing he didn't want to run Ardit by himself, Ceschiat asked Martina to join him in ownership.
Together they wrote a check to buy the then-$1 million company. They also shortened the name.
Reaching the pinnacle
Martina and Ceschiat worked well as co-owners. Ceschiat met with clients and bid the projects. Martina knew more about the trade of terrazzo, so he bid the labor, oversaw the work on site and, in many cases, trained the men of Bricklayers Union Local 55 who worked the flooring projects.
Married in 1969, Martina's wife, Norma, a certified public accountant, joined the business as company treasurer.
Martina says his only concern as a business owner was being responsible for his employees' paychecks, adding that his goal was to get enough work to keep the men busy. Ceschiat says his goal was to build the business enough to retire in 10 years. After the partners doubled the business, partly due to the economic growth in Central Ohio, Ceschiat met his goal and retired in 1995 at the age of 62.
He sold his half of the business to Martina, who again skipped financing and simply wrote a check.
When Ceschiat left, Martina's son-in-law, Alex Johnson, a computer consultant, joined the company. He had worked part time at Ardit while studying engineering in college. Martina's only child, Michele, also a CPA, joined the 26-employee business a year ago.
How he did it
Martina believes three key factors have helped him grow Ardit: the right employees, the right economy and the right leadership.
To ensure he has the right employees, Martina prefers to work with those to whom he's taught the trade.
"I trained half of my men," Martina says. "I spent months with them on the job years ago."
As for the economy, recent boom times have increased the demand for high-priced terrazzo, a highly durable mixture of granite, marble and glass.
"Being more aggressive, we bid more work" during the prosperous economic times of late, Martina says. That's resulted in a doubling of sales during the past five years and some high-profile jobs like The Schott, Nationwide Arena and Easton's Planet Movies, where bits of mirror in the floor create a sparkling effect.
"Terrazzo is more expensive than carpet, linoleum or vinyl, but it lasts forever," Martina says. "It's expensive because of the labor involved."
Laying the terrazzo on the Schottenstein Center floor, for example, took 14 members of the Bricklayers Union seven months to complete and cost a little more than $1 million, Martina says. The larger, 110,000-square-foot, four-color terrazzo floor at Nationwide Arena took five months, about 14 men and cost more than $2 million.
"Sometimes you bid on too much to get work," Martina admits, "and you can't refuse once you get the project."
That's why hiring the right workers is so important.
"Some are good and some not so good," Martina says. "You have to put the good men in each group to keep on eye on the work."
Martina remains a perfectionist. As he slowly transitions into retirement, he can still be seen at work sites, watching the progress of a trade he was born into. He can't help it.
He knows the success of this 80-year-old business came from having the right people in the office and in the field. He wants to make sure that continues. How to reach: George Martina, The Ardit Co., 895-3535
Andria Segedy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a free-lance writer for SBN.