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STOUFFVILLE, Ont. – When he was a custom cabinet maker, Gaetan Frank fabricated solid-surface countertops. That changed, however, the day a soapstone supplier came to his shop.

200 Century Farm hpis 36980239hpis 36980239Click photo to enlargeOther fabricators in the area weren’t sold on the material, but Frank and his wife, Noreen, were willing to give it a try. Six years later, the cabinets business is gone – replaced by N & G Soapstone Countertops, offering a range of countertop substrates with a focus on the dense, dark stone.

Although Noreen Frank says there was definitely a learning curve with the material – from needing different fabrication equipment to requiring her to rethink the company’s marketing – it’s been well worth it.

Late last year, the company moved into a new 10,000 ft² facility, they’ve added employees, and they’re selling soapstone countertops all across Canada.

A GREAT OPPORTUNITY

Noreen and Gaetan Frank have always operated their businesses together since their marriage 20 years ago. At that point, Noreen Frank says her husband had been building custom countertops for about seven years, while she worked in marketing for DuPont Canada and later as a movie casting director.

“When I met him, he taught me about the cabinet business, and we did custom cabinet work until about five years ago,” Noreen Frank explains.

As a cabinet maker, Gaetan Frank prided himself on the quality of his work, and on the countertops he often made for it from solid-surface materials, including Corian®. Then a Brazilian soapstone supplier approached them about adding soapstone to their countertop line.

“It was a new product in Canada, and the suppliers were contacting the granite people, but they didn’t want anything to do with it,” says Noreen Frank. “They contacted us, and I was a little skeptical, but Gaetan thought it was a great opportunity. We did some investigating and testing, and said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’

“It was the best move we’ve ever made.”200 Gaetan & NoreenClick photo to enlarge

The decision to add the soapstone came at a good time for Gaetan Frank. His wife explains that he had grown dissatisfied with making custom cabinets as the demand for handcrafted ones had been replaced by computer-designed, CNC-cut, mass-produced ones.

“It seems like there’s a cabinet maker on every corner,” Noreen Frank says.

While the addition of soapstone also played on some of the couple’s strengths (they were one of the first to do fabrication of Corian® for residential purposes), it also brought its own surprises.

“We were told it could all be done using woodworking tools,” she notes. “We soon found out that it can’t be. Every soapstone product we get from Brazil has different strengths. Some are harder, but you need wet saws and the proper equipment to fabricate it.”

Once the couple made the investment in equipment capable of fabricating soapstone (Achilli saws and a mix of Park Industries and GranQuartz machinery, including a CNC), it was only natural to go the rest of the way with stone fabrication.

“We decided to put the skills and the equipment we have with soapstone into granite and marble fabrication,” says Noreen Frank. “Actually, there’s a little more work to soapstone. There’s more handwork involved; it’s a little more labor-intensive.”

FINDING THE RIGHT TRACK

Still, basing a business mainly on soapstone – and it accounts for about 95 percent of N & G’s sales – could be seen as a gamble. However, Noreen Frank says early on the company benefited from, of all things, an infectious disease.

When the mysterious pneumonia known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) arrived in North America in early 2003, Canadian public health officials did a study of bacteria on countertops. A resulting newspaper article touting the benefits of soapstone did much for the business.

“I still have people coming in because of that article,” she says.