FARMINGTON, N.M. – It’s a good bet that outgoing California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t a member of the Ernie Marquez fan club. However, the local chamber of commerce surely must be.
Marquez packed up his shop three years ago and left the din of Southern California for the wide-open spaces of the Four Corners area of the southwest United States – and brought his employees along.
There’s been some cultural shock along the way, of course. For one thing, Marquez observes, “It gets cold here in the winter.” However, the move has also translated into time for outdoor activities and more family time with his 12-year-old daughter.
And, he adds, with little competition, people in four states have been warming up to what his company,
, has to offer in terms of hand-fabricated stonework and great customer service.
It takes a lot to move many people away from where they were born and raised; Ernie Marquez is no exception. However, for Marquez and spouse Cathy, a little divine guidance didn’t hurt.
Marquez is a San Diego native. When the couple first decided to get away from the city, their move was fairly modest: they relocated to a small ranch outside the city.
The early part of Marquez’s working career involved general construction; he was a homebuilder, and it’s probably not surprising that as time went on he – and his clients – developed an interest in granite.
His first granite customer was himself.
“Back in the early 1990s, I decided I wanted to put granite in one of my homes that I was living in at the time,” he says. “I have friends that do tile, and they’d messed around with granite a little bit. They weren’t granite guys, but they ended up at my house cutting granite.”
Marquez liked the look, but as he says, almost two decades ago, “It was pretty expensive back then.”
However, as the early ‘90s became the late ‘90s, interest grew and prices came down. And, Marquez began to have home clients who talked to him about granite.
“I found a guy who was transporting granite,” Marquez says. “Since we lived close to the border, he was transporting granite to Mexico and getting it fabricated in Tijuana. Then, he’d bring it back to the states and sell it.
“I told him I had a side job where the client wanted granite and he hooked me up with a guy he knew – and that’s how I started getting involved with granite.”
Before too long, Marquez hired a couple fabricators and opened a small shop, cutting and finishing granite by hand and installing it for his home clients. Over time, that aspect of his business developed a good word-of-mouth clientele.
Finally, Marquez opted to get out of the construction business entirely and concentrate on stone.
“I noticed there were a lot less headaches than with all the construction I was doing,” he says. “We finished up our contracts and closed that part of the business down and started doing granite only.”
Still, the Marquezes weren’t happy with their living situation. They’d moved out to their ranch early in the 2000s; while the granite business was fine, they realized they needed to get out of California.
“We just felt that everything had gotten to be too much,” he says, trying to put it in words. “We were busy, but the competition was too much. We thought about moving to Hawaii and starting a business there.”
The Marquezes made a couple trips to the islands, and were almost ready to make the move when Cathy Marquez developed cold feet because of the long distance between Hawaii and the mainland.
Nixing a Hawaiian move didn’t end the drive to go elsewhere, though.
“I started telling buddies that I wanted to move out of California,” Ernie Marquez relates. “One buddy of mine from San Diego had moved to Albuquerque (New Mexico), and at that time (about three years ago), it was booming, so I planned a trip to go out to Albuquerque.”
About the same time, another friend mentioned Farmington -- in the northwest corner of New Mexico – because a brother relocated there.
“He said that if I wanted to do granite, there was hardly any competition,” he says.
The couple made the trip to New Mexico, and wasn’t particularly taken with Albuquerque. Marquez says not only was there a lot of competition among granite fabricators, but it’s still a good-sized city.
“I wanted something smaller,” he said.
The Marquezes made their way to Farmington, some 200 miles northwest of Albuquerque. The friend’s brother showed off the community of approximately 40,000 residents, and they liked what they saw.
Still, they weren’t quite ready to dive into a move head-first.; the couple went home to pray about the situation. After a couple additional trips back to check out the city and the area, Ernie Marquez also began studying to take the test for a New Mexico contractor’s license.
He was in New Mexico, taking the test, when one of California’s seasonal wildfires swept through the Marquezes’ property, damaging some of their outbuildings and destroying the homes of some of their neighbors.
“One (of the neighbors) was like, ‘Are you serious about wanting to move, because if you are, I want to lease your house until I can get my house built again,’” Marquez relates. “At that point, we figured it was a word from God, and we even left our furniture there. We packed up our clothes and came to Farmington.”
Once the couple arrived in their new home, Marquez quickly identified a location on Main Street for launching The Granite Guy.
“It was just a little shop with a yard on it,” he says. “Right away I started making trips to San Diego and bringing my stuff.
“I also brought a couple guys with me. They’re brothers; they first came out with me and then ended up bringing their families with them. We’ve been here two-and-a-half years now.”
Along with bringing his workforce with him, the guy from California brought something else that the community wasn’t used to seeing: slabs.
“We started out with like six slabs on consignment from our friend Caio Travassos of Amazon Stone; now I’m in the 100-slab range,” Marquez says. “It fluctuates, but I try to keep at least 100 slabs on my yard. Originally, I brought my slabs from San Diego, but then I started meeting people out in Phoenix, and I stated getting material from them.”
Marquez says that relationship was a big help to his new company, because it freed up money he could allocate to other costs. And, it benefitted his new customer base, because until that time, people interested in using natural stone in their homes had to travel to Albuquerque to select it.
He adds that one of the things he likes about his new location is that he can take the time to leave the shop and go to Phoenix to select the granite, and then transport it to Farmington.
“I hand-pick 16-18 slabs at a time,” he says. “I had a big A-frame built and put on a trailer with 10,000-lbs axles. I carry a lot of the regular stuff, like uba tuba, but I also try to carry a lot of exotic materials.
“I have a lot of customers who tell me I have really nice stuff on my yard.”
Nor is that the only way in which The Granite Guy has grown. This spring, Marquez opted to rent a bay from the cabinet shop adjoining his yard, and opened a small showroom, with Cathy Marquez handling the walk-in clients.
“It’s still not completely done,” says her husband. “But, I think we’ve fixed it up pretty nice. There are no other showrooms here; the closest is in Albuquerque. We’ve put in some sink displays, and it’s working out pretty well.”
There’s another important way the business has changed since The Granite Guy opened for business in Farmington. Ernie Marquez says he’s doing a whole lot more 3cm work than he did in California.
“I started out doing 2cm and we’d laminate it so we could do anywhere from a 1 ½” to a 4” edge,” he says. “However, I noticed here that people were just using 3cm and not laminating at all. At first it was a problem because people would come and see that I only had 2cm, so after awhile I started supplying 3cm.”
He’s still doing 2cm work, but he says the 3cm lets him be a little more price-competitive when he doesn’t have to laminate.
The other change that’s taken place since the Marquezes moved to Farmington: The shop is now up to four employees.
“I have four skilled craftsmen here,” says Ernie Marquez. “We’re a team. They all came with me from San Diego.”
It’s not just the local chamber of commerce that has to be pleased with Marquez and the jobs he’s brought with him. He says he’s also brought a whole different work ethic with him from California.
When it comes to word-of-mouth sales, The Granite Guy is known for customer service.
“What I was told, even before I came here, is that people who work out here often say they’ll come out on a job, but then they don’t show up for days and they don’t even call the client,” he says. “I took what we did in San Diego and brought it here, and it’s helped quite a bit. People are just amazed.”
That means the company will do a 75-80 ft² kitchen from start to finish in three or four days, although Marquez admits he often fudges and says it will take a week.
“We’ll even do the demolition if they want us to,” he says. “The only thing I stay away from is installing the plumbing. If the customer has a plumber, that’s fine; I’ve also met plumbers here, and I turn them on to the work if the customer doesn’t have somebody.”
Marquez says his emphasis on the quick turnaround is also helpful, since he estimates about 95 percent of his current work is residential, with more than three-quarters of that as remodels.
“There just is not a lot of new construction right now,” he explains. “It’s not like California, where a developer will go in and do a tract of homes. Here, a contractor will build one, or maybe two at a time.”
He adds that he expects his work on new homes to pick up as the homebuilders get to know him, and as new construction starts to improve.
“This year there’s been a lot more new construction than last year,” he says.
Still, the Farmington area hasn’t taken nearly the hit from the economy that some parts of the country endured. The Four Corners area includes oil and natural-gas fields, and while drilling has slowed some, it, too, appears to be headed back up.
Nor has Marquez limited himself to working just in Farmington. The community is within driving distance of several communities in Colorado, Utah and Arizona, including high-end resorts such as Telluride, Colo., and the summer resort area at Mancos, Colo.
“Our name is going out, and people are starting to come by,” he says. “Then, we’re right on Main Street, so a lot of people from Durango (Colo.) drive down and stop in.”
The fact that his crew is skilled and experienced also makes a big difference, especially given that the only mechanized piece of equipment the shop runs is a Hercules Countertop Router and Profiling Machine for doing edges.
“Because we can all fabricate and we can all install, I can send out a team of two guys or three guys depending on what the job needs – and we can still have someone in the shop to keep fabricating,” Marquez says.
He adds that customers are always praising the quality of The Granite Guy’s handwork. He’d like to add a bridge saw; however, with the current economy, being a low-tech operation has its advantages.
“Right now, we’re really not having to put out a whole lot of work at one time, which is one reason I’m able to stay where I’m at,” he says. “If I had a lot of overhead it would be pretty hard right now.”
Not that Marquez is planning to stay small. He would like to see a day when each of the four men currently in the shop has his own crew of fabricators/installers. However, he believes one important element in that is time.
In the meantime, he wants both his customers and his employees to be happy.
“The customers are always telling me they were just perfect, and left everything very clean,” he says. “They have no complaints. And, they are on top of things; they’re professionals, so I’m confident we’ll continue to grow.”
Marquez is quick to add that had he made the move sooner, he knows he’d be farther ahead now. However, things are still okay.
“We’re doing well, and for the past two-and-a-half years I’ve been really able to really enjoy my extra time,” he says. “In San Diego, I never had time for the family. Now that I’m here, we’re riding quads in the mountains and forests and camping and fishing. It’s the best move I’ve done.”
Original publication ©2010 Western Business Media Inc. Use licensed to the author.
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