Marble Palace Stockton, Calif.
"The achievement is more fulfilling than anything."
All photos courtesy Marble Palace
By K. Schipper
STOCKTON, Calif. – Gil Rangel may have identified the reason many people go into business but are embarrassed to admit: He’s having fun. The owner of the Marble Palace since 2002, Rangel says he’s enjoyed taking something, building it up, and solving problems that arise. Rangel has faced more than a few problems – including the Great Recession and the current pandemic -- along the way as he’s taking a somewhat unconventional route to success in the stone industry. Additionally, Rangel began his business with a very narrow focus and a specific market. However, the company’s success with that one product raised calls to expand the operation … which he continues to do.
"I thought I would take over the ownership and go out there and get aggressive.”
A TALE OF TWO SHOPS
The son of immigrants, Rangel knows the hard work side of interior décor. After finishing high school he went to work for a cultured marble company, spending much of the 1990s learning that trade. “I learned how to process the manufacturing of the cultured marble, and then worked my way up to become an installer,” he says. “After that, I had some ambition to start my own place.” Instead, he ended up buying the Marble Palace, a business that originated back in 1984, and which at the time was little more than a name. It had one thing going for it: location. Situated on the edge of downtown Stockton, in the state’s Central Valley, it’s well-placed to serve much of Northern California. “I thought I would take over the ownership and go out there and get aggressive,” he says. “And, over the years we went from manufacturing cultured marble to now we just process natural and engineered stone.” Rangel’s first big move was into an engineered marble product called Piedrafina, which he describes as being an agglomerate similar to engineered quartz, except that it’s made from resins and recycled marble. “Even before the recession we were getting hit with resin price increases on the cultured marble, so I started looking for a product to substitute it with,” Rangel says. The switch meant that not only did Rangel have to change his operation, but he also had to reorient his customers’ expectations. Unlike many shops selling individual jobs, whether to retail customers or kitchen-and-bath shops, his clientele remains heavily oriented to new-home builders. “Back then, we were like 99% new-home construction, so we really had to change the market,” he says. However, that change was a two-way street. “Our original focus was just doing bathrooms and vanity tops,” Rangel says. “But, because we were already doing their bathrooms, our clients pursued us to get into doing kitchen countertops. So, little by little, we started investing more into that side of the business, and we ended up really having two shops on five acres.”
"It’s fun seeing something go from nothing and really develop into a business that thrives.”
FAST AND EFFICIENT
The Marble Palace is oriented toward production. Rangel explains that his two shops – one for the Piedrafina and one for natural stone and engineered quartz -- take up about three-and-a-half acres of his site. There’s also an outdoor slab yard, and an office and showroom facility. The stone shop is also highly automated. The company operates three Baca Systems robotic saws, including a five-axis CNC bridge saw, six inline polishers, two Breton CNCs, and a host of other equipment. Next on Rangel’s wish list: a Baca Sawjet. “We have a pretty good relationship with them,” he says of Baca. “It’s just a matter of having the time to send a crew to Michigan, and having a supplier drop off a slab, so they can process it and see how efficient this new machine is. That’s on the horizon for 2021.” To support all that, the Marble Palace operates five LT-55 LX laser templaters from Laser Products Industries. Rangel believes that’s the most-valuable tool in the company. “That technology lets us measure a job in Silicon Valley right now and e-mail those drawings to one of the CAD people here in Stockton,” Rangel explains. “Within a couple hours everything’s in the network and that particular job can start being cut.” Nor does customer service end there. The Marble Palace’s goal is to have every job out the door in five working days – exclusive of templating -- although with a complex custom job it may take a little longer. “We’re able to do that because the automation makes us fast and efficient,” he says. “And we’re accustomed to turning things over in five working days because that’s how we work on our new-home construction projects.” Once a job is cut, it isn’t sitting around the shop, either. “We have 25 install trucks that go out every day,” Rangel says. “We also have four customer service technicians who handle repairs or construction damage. And, we have three field area reps who supervise all our contractual obligations to make sure we’re putting out good quality products.” Before COVID, Rangel says he employed just under 200 people. Today, that number is closer to 150, including approximately 40 in the stone shop and another 25 fabricating the Piedrafina engineered marble. Some might shy away from making such a large investment in equipment and people, especially in an economy still battling the pandemic, but then Rangel serves a large market, and he’s working hard to make sure it stays that way. “We pretty much serve most of Northern California,” he says. “That includes north of Modesto, Sacramento and pretty much all the Bay Area. There’s something challenging about getting our people over to do work there, but outside San Francisco proper we serve pretty much all Northern California.” The 80% of the work the company does now for home builders is based a great deal on relationships that Rangel has established over the years. “We have probably 25 core home builders we work for,” Rangel says. “They’ll send us a new set of plans and we bid the job. We’re not the only one bidding, but if we’re competitive, we get the work. “The other 20% is more direct sales to the end users who could be contractors or someone who just walks into the showroom.”
“Either you do the project at a lower margin, or you just move on."
A high point came for Marble Palace in 2018, when the company received the honor of family-owned business of the year from the Central Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
That move to direct sales is a fairly recent one. Rangel says even three years ago the company was so busy doing work for homebuilders that he turned other work away. However, even then he recognized the need to diversify. “Two years ago, we revamped the showroom,” Rangel says. “The showroom is handled by a staff of three, and it pretty much reflects what we’re offering. Quartz is trending right now, but we have our own slab yard, and if somebody wants a natural stone, we take them out to view our slabs.” Marketing to those people also requires a different mindset. Rangel’s sister, Maria Rangel-Barba, is the company’s vice president of sales and marketing and supervises that part of the business, which also utilizes a marketing firm. “We’re trying new things all the time,” says Rangel. “A lot of it is marketed through social media. Many years ago, you would do somebody’s kitchen and their son, or their neighbor would recommend you. Now, everybody wants to get information online, and we have some very, very high Yelp and Google reviews.” The company also has a newly updated website that’s interactive and includes a visualizer. Rangel-Barba isn’t the only one of Gil Rangel’s siblings involved in the business. His brother, Eliseo, has served as the operation’s controller for 16 years. “Sometimes it’s hard to work with family, but we all know our responsibilities and work well together,” Rangel says. “Our vice president of operations, Geno Gonzales, is not family, but he’s been with me for about four years now.” Top management is one thing, but Rangel adds that finding people who want to come in and work and learn the industry is probably his greatest challenge, although he acknowledges some of that may be due – once again – to the company’s location. “Being so close to Silicon Valley, all these young people want to go to work for Apple or Google or Tesla,” he says. “In order to get somebody in the door just for training purposes, we’re having to pay $3-$4 an hour over the minimum wage.” Besides keeping salaries competitive, the Marble Palace offers health insurance and a 401 (k) retirement program, and runs a training program with specific protocols for getting new employees up to speed. His other challenge: simply staying competitive, especially in the new homebuilder side of his market. “When you’re an established business and you have so many layers of management and you offer benefits, you can have a competitor who doesn’t have all that overhead and they’ll undercut us price-wise,” he says. “Either you do the project at a lower margin, or you just move on.” This past year, of course, there was also COVID. Rangel estimates his revenue in the second quarter dropped by at least 25%, mainly because of California’s stringent shutdown policy. However, the homebuilders are building, and the numbers are bouncing back – slowly. “They’re not building at the pace they were,” he admits. “With the regulations they have I don’t think they’re going to come back until after COVID, but it’s starting to be a little bit better.” In the meantime, however, Rangel will keep on thinking about the Marble Palace, and continue having fun. “It’s fun seeing something go from nothing and really develop into a business that thrives,” he concludes. “It’s not so much the monetary benefits as it is something where you know you have nothing, and you create it, you envision it, and you continue working hard at it. “The achievement is more fulfilling than anything.”