Catering to Commercial
Stone in America
by T.S. Stone
Mark Fontana's zest for challenge and adventure comes across like gangbusters when he is probed for business secrets. As owner of V. Fontana & Company since 1980, when his father--himself a fifth-generation stonecutter--retired, Mark has successfully diversified from selling only monuments to producing a wide range of commercial work.
In fact, although Fontana's monument business remains strong and steady, its percentage of the business continues to decline. Years ago, memorials made up nearly a hundred percent of sales, yet in 1986 they composed only about 70 percent of business. Today, monuments account for just 50 percent--maybe even less. And Fontana definitely is pleased.
What are his trade secrets? "We're very creative," he began thoughtfully. "And we're not afraid to do something that nobody has done before. When I first got into commercial work and had to learn the right way to handle veneer, it was hit and miss because no one would show me. Sure, we lost money on those jobs because veneer is very different from granite.But you have to be patient and expect mistakes, and learn from them as you go along."
Still, before retailers take the plunge into diversification, Fontana cautions them to look at their bottom line closely to be sure initial learning mistakes can be absorbed.
"Doing commercial work in the granite industry is completely different from doing memorial," he explained. "Even the granite you buy is different. Everything is different about it. But if you have a good business in the memorial trade, you can afford to go out there and try commercial. Anybody can do it!"
Fontana is the third generation to serve as head of V. Fontana and Company in Colma, Calif., which appropriately is renowned as the "City of Cemeteries." About 50 years ago, San Francisco passed an ordinance requiring that about 145,000 bodies be exhumed and relocated to Colma, a town some 15 miles to the south. Much of Colma's land has been set aside for another 450 years to keep the bodies from being disturbed again. Yet, despite Colma's fame for 13 diverse cemeteries, Fontana enthusiastically described it as a "unique little town," full of shopping centers, banks, businesses and restaurants. Without exaggeration, he said, about 250,000 people pass through the town daily.
Colma's historical society even conducts tours, which take visitors through the expansive cemeteries, and to V. Fontana to see how memorials are made. At V. Fontana, one of the West Coasts's few self-contained facilities, visitors see the company's four very-long-term employees busy cutting and polishing granite stones.
Pete Masnada, a 35-year employee, has worked for three generations of Fontana men. Ray Ward has been with the company 26 years, and Ron DelCarlo and Russ Baker each have worked eight. "It's a great working atmosphere, and the guys will put in extra hours and do extra work to see that jobs are done right," said Fontana. "We actually check the work so often that virtually have no comebacks."
Stonecutting is a skill that can be traced back at least six generations in the Fontana family. That is as far back as the church records in Italy go. Mark's grandfather began V. Fontana in 1921, catering to the Italian community and working hard to build a "good reputation for doing quality work on time," his proud grandson related.
After World War II, Mark's father took over and operated the business by the same conservative principles and strategies. But changing times necessitated a new look at the firm's products and services.
"Basically, the business was a monument company until I started running it," Fontana stated. "From what I understand, monument sales were the best until about 1945. After that time, cemeteries started imposing restrictions on monuments, so sales leveled off. And now, with many of the older ethnic generations dying off, the newer generations are not as inclined to want elaborate works of art for monuments anymore. So a lot of factors have whittled the industry down."
Fontana fondly recalls early memories of helping his father with the business. At 14, he began around the shop, watching the men cutting the granite and sometimes helping to clean
up. Though he knew one day he would take the reins from his father, Fontana sensed he must go his own way for awhile.
He literally "bumped into" his new occupation. "One night I was involved in a car accident, and when I went to the police department to file a report, I saw an application. I filled it in, passed all the tests and they hired me." Even during his years as a police officer, Fontana continued to be involved in the family business. "I've always loved this work. Even when I didn't work here, I'd come down on my off hours and help out. It's so diversified here--cutting, polishing, talking with people. I just had to do something on my own first," he explained. He stayed on the force about six years, until his father announced a desire to retire.
To get the firm's feet wet in the commercial waters, Fontana took on a few highly visible public projects. One of the first involved the Portola Discovery Site at San Francisco Bay. In honor of the 200th anniversary of Portola's discovery, the city sponsored a large celebration and donated a seven-ton monument made by V. Fontana.
"We also made a corresponding sign to go with it, which really put our name in public view," added Fontana. "Subsequent to that, we contacted the chambers of commerce for several cities in this area and asked for ideas of who might be looking to have granite signs made.
"From there, people saw the kind of work we could do, and our commercial end really took off." His firm now makes signs for high schools, individual communities and public buildings, such as banks and churches.
Another successful--even explosive--way Fontana has attracted business was by taking a photograph of an impressive project. He made 500 reprints of the photo, and sent them to cabinet makers, architects and interior decorators.
"We explained this was a sample of our work, and to call us if we could be of help sometime," Fontana said. This brainstorm almost backfired, however, when the company was inundated with too many calls. All requests simply could not be met. Now, Fontana does little promotion, opting instead to notify the media periodically about unusual projects his company has done.
A self-described whirlwind of energy, who finds sleeping more than six hours a night impossible, Fontana routinely puts in 12-hour days and six-day weeks. His own workday break comes at 6 a.m. each day, when he permits himself time to play rqcquetball a "tension reliever."
Currently, business seems to be more than booming. "Right now, we're backlogged with commercial orders. We're accepting orders (three and four months out)," said Fontana. "We tell people we'll do a great job for them, but that they'll have to wait. Some will and some won't."
Two big projects at present are for new restaurants. The last step before the restaurants can feature their grand openings is completing the granite tables and counter tops. "We try to keep all the granite in our shop so we aren't tied up ordering from quarries," he explained. This type of project may take four or five months, depending on the amount of counter space needed.
"Granite counters have to be exact," emphasized Fontana. "Monuments, in comparison, can be off by one-eighth or one-quarter of an inch and nobody would ever see that. But counter topshave to be trimmed perfectly to match up in color and grain. I understand why other monument companies haven't become involved in this. It's not easy," he admitted, "but it is rewarding because the public gets to see your work--and they appreciate it."
V. Fontana now clearly divides its jobs into either memorial trade orcommercial. Its largest ongoing memorial project is the building of a chapel. Commercial projects range from conference tables and bathroom vanities for residences or offices todedication and award plaques for corporations, such as Apple Computer. The company also makes granite time capsules for unsealing in future centureis. Statuary work is the only area where Fontana draws the line.
Old-fashioned service and courtesy are areas in which Fontana sees eye to eye with his father and grandfather. "We operate in a very straight-forward, old-fashioned way," he said. "We explain everything to our customers, then deliver the goods--on time. There's no hard sell here. And if it's a job that just can't be done on granite, then we tell them."
He even invites customers to stop by frequently to check on the progress of their jobs, and to watch at various stages so they understand and become involved. Fontana especially enjoys the variety his job gives him--both in people and projects. Because his firm does not do installation work, customers sometimes forward pictures of the completed work to him.
Fontana's father, though throughly enjoying retirement near Carmel, Calif., still helps his son out from time to time. He assists with the artwork, selling and paperwork. "He made this business, and really established the business' reputation. My grandfather laid the cornerstone as the business that does quality work. But he was old-fashioned about promoting the business. When I came in, the business was well-established and well-thought-of in the community," credited Fontana.
Fontana, himself is a family man. His wife, Beverly, is an emergency technician at a local hospital. The couple have two children: David, 9; and Theresa, 2. Would he like their children to follow in the Fontana footsteps? "Sure, I'd love to see either of them come in, but I won't put that on them because it wasn't put on me," Fontana
stated. "I kind of slid into the business because I wasn't pressured. You've got to let kids do what they are interested in."
Buzzwords like "networking," "civic functions" and "business cards" clearly do not interest Fontana. "I don't believe in that stuff," he said sternly. "If organizations, groups, churches or schools come to us and request something but don't have the money, we'll gladly donate without publicity.
"Besides, I'm not a suit-and-tie kind of guy. Those situations aren't my style. And I don't have time for civic activities because my free time goes to my family." Very fitting for a six-generation family tradition.