Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Local Business is Born - Part 3

1982 TO 1985

A Local Business is Born” is a 20-year story of what I did to survive in the stone fabrication business before the kitchen counter revolution of the 1990s.

Mike and Dan (who eventually formed the Portland Marble Works) worked most of the winter in my garage. I remember hosing my back patio down each night where we did the grinding. I believe all the standing water in my back yard killed a small stand of birch trees I had recently planted there. We built some beautiful tables, check writing stands, out of tile on sandwich panel plywood system I had developed over the last few years. (Wonder if they're still in that bank in California.) They were both good hard-working craftsman, but work was so hard to find for us in Portland. My garage was the total stone fabrication business in town. Work ran out.

Dave Wily – who owned a large tile installation business that went back to his father coating ships with membranes during WW2 Portland’s ship building industry – bought Abby Marble's bankrupt inventory, showroom and equipment for $18,000 from the bank, and decided to go into the marble business. He needed a man to run the business and asked me to go to work for him. I needed a job and he offered better wages than I ever had in my life. It was a good family to work for. This company was commercial work only with a long history of working with large contractors. When I started we had about $90,000 worth of work on hand. It disappeared when SOM went under in Portland. When I left about 18 months later, I believe we had about $300,000 on hand, commercial work. JA Wiley tile went under and closed its doors. I remember the vultures gathering there when the news was out, that’s why I don’t go to these type of sales. I sensed that the end might be near for me and applied for a $10,000 second mortgage from Beneficial Finance on my house while I still had a job. I got the check the day before I was laid off. Wily went on in the stone business with his son taking over my job. And doing a good job of it. The second time in my Portland stone career I was replaced by a son.

At this time my brother Don dispersed Dad's will; each of seven children received $10,000. What timing for me. I had a wonderful International Scout that I purchased from Schmitty, my stone shed friend. I remember going out to his house and being attacked by the geese in their front yard. Shmitty was now living in a small trailer house in front of his house; since his wife was receiving her own social security check she banished him to the little trailer to live in. (Some of us have not been lucky in love.) Shmitty wanted me to have the Scout, my transportation for many years. That’s when I discovered that it was good to never clean a truck, when I cleaned up the interior it was like new, having been protected with dirt. All it needed was some suspension work. What a workhorse it was.

I bought an old trailer and had a dropped axle and dropped bed welded in, I then decked it with 2x6 and built wide wooden fenders to use as job site work tables all in my front yard. I knew I would not be able to buy a truck for a long time and the trailer was, and still is, a fine alternative, and headed to Eugene, Oregon where I heard a tile shop was selling a home-built stone saw. Hugo and his sons were giving up their little stone shop, in favor of the tile business. I bought the track saw, no up and down, push forward and back, all home-built by Hugo, and an old Tysman polish machine (I have no idea where it came from), and a small forklift, plus a 3-phase electric convertor for $7,000 and landed them in my front yard. I wouldn’t give up, even though I had been struggling in my adopted city Portland for 15 years now. (See “My Mom the Rose Gardener” in my Growing Up in Minnesota blog.)

Jose Devila, my long time friend from Blazing and Abby, agreed to partner up, and his son, a Portland undercover detective, wanted to join in. I agreed and found a building on SE 6th Avenue in downtown Portland to rent for $600 a month. It seemed to me that to have any success in the stone business one would have to be close proximity to the design community. The building included a 5-horsepower air compressor which I still use in my stone sculpture studio. Jose’s son got scared feet and bolted, taking his dad with him. (He later sued the city of Portland for $60,000 for discrimination, he was teased by fellow officers because of his race, and he and his dad went back to Texas a couple years later. I think it was a record settlement at that time.) I was left with the lease myself. When I think about it it was probably a good thing. A good friend of mine, a successful LA businessman, told me he made all his important business decisions as a small businessman while on his morning stool, not a bad policy. He told me all you need to know is what work you have, what you owe, and what is owed you. The three box filing system works good. I used old Styrofoam tile boxes myself. Hugo’s son helped me set up the equipment in the space. It was a saw with a wood bed I built with crank I added, to pull it through, and a counter weight I rigged up to bring it back, so I could pull it through as fast as the blade would let me. Hugo’s son welded the polish machine on the wall. Behind the saw I built work tables, got some old glass panels from a remnant sale to top them off, an idea that had mixed results.

I had another bit of luck. At this time I bid a mausoleum job to my old friend Herman, who was managing a large mausoleum and cemetery in Portland after Abby folded and was given the project for $25,000of which I figured would cost me $20,000. I got a ticket to LA to see an old friend Steve Leiser, who owned Marble Unlimited, one of three marble yards in LA at that time. I was right, and he told me he would deliver the project to Portland for $20,000. I knew I could solve any problems with my new shop. I had $5,000 left to buy some inventory for Portland. Steve said, “You're 40 now, Joe. I trust you, and will extend you another $20,000 credit, on inventory to pick out at his stone yard.” I was ecstatic, this I did not expect. My sweetheart at that time, Charis, asked me to pick up some sourdough bread in San Francisco on my way home which I did and waited for my truck load of stone from LA.

To the best of my memory, I unloaded the truck by myself, with cables and my little forklift, and leaned the crates up against the walls. It's hard for me to remember, but I parted these stone slabs out for jobs in the next few years. I do remember tremendous stress I had paying off the stone, I remember Steve Leiser forgiving about $5000 years later. I had a lot to learn, never sell a part slab, your investment gets eaten up fast.

I learned a lesson for the second time in my life just then. A large bank was being built one block from my little shop. All the street level window mullions sat on six-inch-thick by one-foot granite sills, apparently they were cut wrong. The large commercial contractor asked me to re-cut them to the correct length. I tried and tried, but my little saw wouldn’t do it. I lost the opportunity to make some money. I should have been smarter, 15 years earlier I had quit a job at Cold Spring Granite in California after a dispute I had with John Alexander over two diamond saws I had built that had too high a rim speed on the diamond blades to cut efficiently. I forgot the lesson, all I had to do was change the pulley sizes the slow the blade speed down. Take it from one who has learned the hard way, saw vibration, saw bed vibration, and correct rim speed on the diamond wheel, is everything toward efficient diamond saw cutting. Of course it's good to have the saw blade run parallel to saw direction. Something often missed.

The worst example of doing everything wrong, but getting by, I saw around this time was coming back from a Montana visit and stopping in a Montana travertine shop and seeing a sawyer repetitively diamond sawing some two inch travertine strips on a swayback plywood deck, the saw blade screaming. I suggested to him that the plywood was likely loading his blade and a concrete or stone bed would help a lot. In a typical Montana fashion he told me to get out of there, what did I know. I did. Sawing in those times where stone slabs were slowly beginning to become fashionable for reception counters etc. People were all coming up with tracking systems were they could push their seven inch skill saw, with water feeds along slabs without scratching the stone and getting fairly straight cuts. A big break through for me came when a friend, Ron, told me he pried up the stone slab and threw sand under the stone and on to the bed to aid in sliding the stone to different positions to the fixed saw blade. Such was the state of the art for me around 1984.

I remember a tile setter friend who still works in Portland gave me my first job it took me a long time to do. I have no idea how I moved and laid those slabs down by myself, but I did. He was patient, saying to me you have to crawl before you walk, Joe. Along about this time big money entered Portland’s stone fabrication industry. A friend with a more worldly vision of the stone industry,being well traveled, knew there was going to be a big future in local stone fabrication, probably something that was already happening in places like Florida and California, but some years out in Portland. He set up a large stone yard and fabrication shop with modern bridge saw, polisher, tools, and men. I think he told me he lost $100,000 his first year. Did a lot better later when he got out of the fabrication business and consecrated on stone brokering. So did a lot of other people five to ten years years later. I remember a couple years later when my son came back from working for a friend in LA stone brokerage; he said to me, “Dad, let's get into the buy it at one price and sell at another business, without much touching it.” I didn’t understand, both of us were meant to touch the stone, violating the old Italian business principle, the less you touch it the better off you are. I think I have certainly totally validated that principle as I moved to stone sculpture in my old age.

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