Tombstones to Silicon
San Francisco Chronicle 08/01/98
by Carol Emert
Talk about a cutting-edge business. V. Fontana & Co., a 77-year-old family-owned tombstone maker in Colma, has been a technological innovator for decades.
Elio Fontana, the son of the company's founder, was the first stone cutter in California to replace hammers and chisels with a programmable saw, which used early computer technology in the 1950's.
"Mark is an entrepreneurial guy," said Jed Hendrickson, a Santa Barbara memorial maker and president of the California Monument Association. "He looks for other avenues (of business) while some, such as myself, are content with what we're doing."
At the same time, V. Fontana knows when to stick to the old ways.
Mark Fontana makes holes in granite with a hand drill that was first used by his grandfather, company founder, Valerio Fontana, who immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1915.
The shop's sandblasters and engraving machines are powered by a compressor Valerio installed when
he started the company in 1921.
The powerful machine, which has never been repaired, sits in a back room of the company's workshop pumping air with loud, rhythmic thumps.
Mark Fontana, 46, was an ambitious 27-year-old when he took over the business and decided to diversify beyond grave markers. That turned out to be a wise strategy since large, expensive tombstones went out of fashion in the 1980's.
The growing popularity of cremation has also hit the grave stone industry hard, since cremated remains are often scattered, rather than buried. About 38 percent of Californias who pass away are cremated according to the Cremation Association of North America.
Immigrants are first-generation families that maintain a tradition of large, impressive grave markers have helped counter the broad trend toward more modest monuments.
A Japanese family, for example, will typically spend $10,000 to $12,000 on
a memorial, and sometimes up to $20,000 for a completely hand-crafted model, said Mark Fontana. The company's least expensive stones cost about $700.
Today, grave markers comprise only about half of V. Fontana's revenues. Items such as granite tabletops and public memorials, as well as the scientific applicatons, make up the remainder.
Fontana declined to reveal the company's sales, but said annual revenues grow 10 percent to 15 percent on average. V. Fontana has always been profitable, he added.
The company's consistent two-month backlog of projects indicates that there is plenty of opportunity for additional growth. But Mark Fontana says he likes running the company at its current size, with three full-time shop workers and a sales manager.
V. Fontana has an "outstanding reputation" in the industry for quality, said Hendrickson. The company is unusual in that it fashions its products out of large, unfinished granite blocks rather than having the stones pre-cut at the quarry, he added.
"That gives them a great deal of control over the quality of the stone as well as the finishes, " Hendrickson said.
That practice also drives up V. Fontana's costs, since up to 60 percent of each stone block winds up being discarded.
Fontana readily admits his prices are higher than many of his competitors'.
"People come to us when they want something special," he said.
It is unusual these days for a craft such as stone cutting to be passed down among generations of family members.
Still, V. Fontana has had surprisingly little difficulty remaining staffed. Pietro Masnada, a 75-year-old native Italian who has worked for all three generations of Fontanas, says he can't retire because Fontana refuses to accept his resignation.
And young people with an interest in stone work somehow manage to find their way to the Colma workshop.
Daryl Sowers, 24, a former neighbor of Fontana's, started working part-time in the shop when he was 15. More recently, Mike Del Sarto, 14, has begun hanging around the shop, doing odd jobs and learning how things work, said Fontana
Fontana also has three children, Stephanie, Theresa and David, who may one day join the business, although Fontana says they are not under pressure to do so.
Meanwhile, Elio, now 79 and still an excellent draftsman, continues to help out with design work.
His father Valerio, who once cut stone in the marble fields of Carrara, Italy, died in 1961. Valerio, a fourth-generation stone cutter, suffered a heart attack while working on a tombstone in a Colma cemetery.