Some Shops are Alive and Well
by Lee Jansen
A stonecutter and his shop were once the heart of the monument industry. "You don't see new shops opening anymore," says memorialist Mark Fontana. "Shops are from another era. They're dinosaurs."
To reduce overhead, some memorialists have shuttered their once bustling shops and redirected their focus to the sale of precut monuments. And some retailers, who open small storefronts and sell from catalogs, may never have seen the inside of a shop. Not Mark Fontana, owner of V. Fontana & Co. in Colma, Calif.
"Our shop is what we are," says Fontana. "We're manufacturers. Seeing a block of stone become a monument is what our business is all about, and we take a lot of pride in the process of memorialization. I get more pleasure out of making something than selling something."
V. Fontana & Co. was founded in 1921 by Fontana's grandfather and has always included a shop. Today, thebusiness has two locations--a four-story office building and a nearby shop. "We may be the last self-contained fabricating plant on the West Coast," notes Fontana.
The shop is about 8,500 square feet and includes a contour wire saw, a custom-engineered Savage diamond saw, a heavy-duty Lane surface polisher, a coring machine, a 15-ton overhead hoist, sandblast and shape-carving booths, a computer room, and a layout area. "We're always buying new equipment," says Fontana. "Maintaining and upgrading the shop is a continuous process."
Since Fontana began managing the business 20 years ago, the company has expanded its commercial production. "Monuments make up about half of our current productions," says Fontana. "The other half includessigns, benches, countertops and fireplace surrounds."
Located 50 miles north of the high-tech industrial area known as Silicon Valley, V. Fontana & Co. also cuts and laps 5,000-pound blocks of syntheticsilicon that is used in the manufacture of computer chips. The company also works frequently on public projects and recently produced a large mahogany base with gold-leaf lettering for a century-old bronze statue in Golden Gate Park.
Despite California's reputaton for a preponderance of flat markers, upright memorials are in constant demand at Fontana's company. "We specialize in custom-made uprights," says Fontana. "Flat markers make up only 10 percent of our monument sales. This area has about 15 cemeteries, including a number of ethnic cemeteries--for example, Chinese, Greek and Japanese. And uprights are what people want."
Another benefit a shop provides, notes memorialist Mark Fontana, is the opportunity to show visitors how a monument is made. "We bring people to the shop and show them the manufacturing process. They see the polishers, the big saws, and they can touch the stone.
"People are so impressed, they almost always buy. And having seen the process, they understand the costof a monument. Our competitive edge isn't slick brochures or pricing but the shop itself. We try to involve clients in the manufacturing process as much as possible. They might stop by two or three times to check on the monument's progress."
Often, adds Fontana, clients visit enough to develop a bond with the men crafting the monuments. "We have employees in the shop who have been here for 10 years, and one who has been here for 40 years. This isn't the type of business that attracts a lot of people. But those who are attracted to the stone industry tend to stay here a long time. This is the kind of business that becomes part of you, the kind of business you can take pride in."
The manufacturing plant of V. Fontana & Co. may seem large for retailer shops, but size is relative. "We might be the largest self-contained fabrication plant in California, but we're a small business," says Fontana whose shop has four full-time and two part-time staff members.
Notes Fontana, "We don't have the capability to do everything that comes our way and do it well. So, we probably buy 15 or 20 percent of our small, monuments ready-made. That frees us up to do what we do best--custom work."
Opening a shop has become more and more difficult, adds Fontana. "You don't see new full-service shops opening because the start-up costs are so high now. But if you've got only a compressor, a diamond saw and a computer system for layouts, I think you could open a small shop and do well. With a small shop, a retailer can take pride not only in being able to respond to a family's ideas but also in making those ideas become reality.