While Eric Tryon, owner of Premier Surfaces in Atlanta, GA, might have left the corporate world to pursue his own endeavors in the stone industry, he held on to the same business philosophy. Tryon firmly believes solid relationships are the key to success. With that in mind, he has profitably grown his company since it was established in 2002. Today it includes 175 employees over four locations in Atlanta, GA; Chattanooga, TN; and Birmingham and Huntsville in Alabama.
“We are a relationship company,” Tryon tells his staff. “Stone fabrication is just the product we represent.” He feels confident knowing his results speak volumes about the strength of his team and company. Premier Surfaces expanded through arguably the most challenging economic times. “The recent downturn in the economy absolutely decimated the construction industry and we grew right through it,” said Tryon. “That doesn’t happen by chance. Our team is very proud of this accomplishment.
Considerations for expansion
“We actually put a lot of our chips in the center of the table during the downturn,” he went on to say. “As most companies in our industry were retreating, shrinking and downsizing, we actually expanded. We follow an economist that was predicting a lot of economic indicators that were telling us there would be a significant contraction in the residential and commercial building segments. We knew that if we were in a position to not have a heavy debt burden and a strong cash position in the market, we could take advantage of the opportunities that would become available. It didn’t always feel like the right decision as we went through the process and marched forward, however, looking back at it now, playing Monday morning quarterback, it was a great strategic decision. We have learned a lot over the years of how to expand and what is most important when looking for opportunities.”
Tryon and his team at Premier Surfaces have an outline of criteria they follow for expansion. Among the main points are:
Needs to be a good culture fit
• The revenue stream has to be solid with a diverse customer base that is not too heavily weighted in one customer or one segment.
• The people have to have good nucleus. Is the workforce steady or is there a ton of turnover?
• What can and will Premier Surfaces offer the employees and customers that they are not getting today? In other words, how will we make a difference in their lives for the better? What’s our value proposition?
• Is the timing right? Do we have the bandwidth to handle the distraction that will be coming? From a systems and leadership perspective this is so important.
“Expansion is a huge undertaking that requires a lot to make it successful,” said Tryon. “I would give the following advice to other stone fabricators who are thinking about expanding — either organically, geographically or by acquisition.” Tryon’s recommendations include:
• Your systems need to be scalable. If you have any additional locations it is mission critical that all locations and branches have clear and define standard operating procedures (SOPs). Each location must process a job the same exact way with the same systems or chaos becomes the norm. These SOPs should be documented and supported by all personnel.
• Define the leadership at a new location on the front end with a defined plan. Are the leaders prepared for what is about to happen? Do they have the skill set to perform what is necessary? What voids will become present if the leader is being reallocated to perform this role from their previous position?
• Is the customer base solid and stable or is there a lot of turnover? Is the customer base heavily weighted to a handful of customers or is it made up of many smaller long-term customers? Is the revenue stream diversified between residential and commercial? Are there any critical relationships that will be in jeopardy if the management and leadership changes? Most importantly, margins and cash are king. What do both of those situations look like? Are the customers being charged the right prices and are the customers paying their bills timely? We look for a diverse customer base with higher margins and customers that pay their bills timely.
• Will the expansion fit into your strategic plan and systems or is this a completely different model required? Synergies are a good thing. You know what you are good at and what may be untested? Stack the deck to leverage your strengths and value propositions.
• We firmly believe our employees make or break us. How receptive are the employees to change? How coachable are they?
• As soon as you open a second physical location your company has changed dramatically. Don’t underestimate the challenge of multiple locations. It’s a whole new ball game. Remember those people (employees) that will make or break your business … How do they perform with minimal supervision or reduced oversight? If you can’t build and create rock star leadership, don’t open a new location. You will not have enough hours in the day and I don’t believe genetic cloning has become an option yet.
• It’s easy to get excited and say “yes” to expansion opportunities. The enthusiasm and momentum is contagious. As humans and leaders of our companies, we can easily get hyper focused on the notion of what could be if we expanded. It takes a lot of discipline and courage to say “no.” Premier Surfaces has successfully expanded four times. However, we have said “no” and walked away from expansion opportunities at a rate twice as much as we said “yes.” Most people are unaware of that fact, including our employees.
Premier Surfaces fabricates all types of natural stone and quartz. “Our mix of business is exactly where we want it today — roughly 25% custom builder-designer, 25% Big Box, 25% direct consumer and 25% commercial,” said Tryon. “Our production capacity is about 2,000 square feet per day on one eight- to 10-hour shift, five days per week. We have the ability to expand capacities by running additional shifts.”
The company’s fabrication facilities are equipped with state-of-the-art equipment from Park Industries of St. Cloud, MN, including three Fusion saw/waterjet, two Titan CNC stoneworking centers and two Fastback line polishers, as well as a Baca Systems of Auburn Hill, MI. The Robo SawJet from Baca Systems is a high-production dual-table SawJet that integrates both a high-pressure abrasive waterjet and 20HP direct-drive saw. The company primarily purchases its tools and accessories from GranQuartz, based in Tucker, GA.
“We are 100% digital fabrication at all our facilities,” said Tryon. “We hope to be paperless within the next six months.”
According to Tryon, Premier Surfaces imports a great deal of its own material, and it also has solid relationships with a lot of the larger distributors in the stone industry. It provides stone products for commercial projects located down the east coast and across the panhandle of Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and into Texas.
Currently, the company has 16 residential and five commercial installation crews on the road daily. “We put such an emphasis on training and development of our employees and how they need to service our customers, it would be very hard to get a subcontractor to get into that much detail and service with a customer,” explained Tryon. “We started an installer apprentice training program over a year ago to develop our own fully trained and developed installers. We view our program as a true career path and not just a job. We have some amazing life-changing success stories inside our organization that we are really proud of making opportunities and lifestyles for our employees come to life. We create the platform and these awesome people make it happen as they learn, develop and grow through our training programs. The right person should be completely finished with the training program within four to five months — from no experience to very competent lead installer. And we require our installers to deliver a high level of service to our customers.”
Summing it up
Tryon strongly believes that a skilled and professional staff goes hand in hand with a successful business. “We really feel as though our culture is very unique and different,” he said. “Our employees are the finest in the industry, and they are the reason why we have maintained a top reputation in our industry. We work hard every day, and we never forget to have fun and enjoy each other.”
The company has established 29 Fundamental behaviors. The 29 “Fundies” are the backbone of the organization. The employees genuinely care a great deal about their internal and external customers and show it each day. “Happy customers / employees tell everyone about their experience,” said Tryon. “That is why the employee turnover rate is minimal and the biggest source of new customers is referrals. The team is pumped about the culture they have built and the future they are creating.”
The company has received many awards over the years. A few highlights are “Consumers Choice Award” in Atlanta each consecutive year from 2007 to 2015: “Top 20 Best Places To Work” in Atlanta in 2009, 2015 and 2016. Tryon was named Top 20 Entrepreneurs in Atlanta in 2012 and number one by TiE in Atlanta in 2015. Additionally, Tryon and Premier Surfaces were named “Stone Fabricator of the Year for 2015” by Stone World.
Tryon was one of the original founding members of the RockHead group, which is an industry trade group designed for the professional stone fabrication companies and their CEOs. “The group is growing quickly in North America, as its members are getting close to representing almost $600 million in annual revenues,” said Tryon. “They are truly the industry leaders when it comes to professionally growing and running a stone fabrication business. The professional bar inside the stone fabrication industry will be raised with the growth of the RockHead group.”