Fabricator Focus

77 Stone El Paso, Texas

"It’s either wrong or it’s right .People pay for it to be right."

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All photos courtesy 77 Stone

By K. Schipper

EL PASO, Texas – Edward La Puma’s business career has, for the most part, centered around the kitchen. Since 2008 he’s been the sole owner of 77 Stone despite knowing nothing about countertop fabrication going in just a few years earlier. However, thanks to an early career stint in the cabinet and kitchen-design business. he had some idea of what it takes to construct a kitchen. And, from more than 25 years in the restaurant business, he knew the importance of having good systems in place. It doesn’t hurt that the operation is in a highly visible location and sports a memorable name, but perhaps the real secret to La Puma’s success is the core of his business philosophy. “It’s either wrong or it’s right,” he says. “People don’t pay for it to be ‘that’s okay.’ They pay for it to be right.”

"IWhen people in El Paso think about countertops, they think about 77 Stone because they recognize the brand and understand the reputation.”

Edward La Puma

CREATING A BRAND La Puma admits he got into the countertop business almost by accident. A big part of his previous career had him on the road opening restaurants around the country, until he decided to step away from that business to be home with his family. “I came back and started doing consulting work for independent restaurants, which led to consulting work for a contractor,” he explains. “This was back in 2004 -2005. We started some businesses where we would buy property and do construction on it, and then get companies to move into our buildings.” One of those companies was a small granite company owned by a friend of La Puma’s. However, when he broached the subject with the friend, the other man said he was looking to get out of the business entirely. “I said, ‘What do you want for your equipment?’ and I bought it,” La Puma says. “I didn’t know anything about it, but I got into the granite business.” The purchase got him pretty minimal equipment – a rail saw, a hand router, production tables – in an industrial location. But La Puma was able to land one large client: the home-furnishings buying club DirectBuy. “DirectBuy was a very, very big and good client, but it was also very low-margin,” he says. “Still, it helped me grow the business.” If anything, in those early years, La Puma says the biggest drawback he faced was that industrial location, because retail customers couldn’t find the operation. In 2008 he and his partner separated their businesses and he put his knowledge to work. “The most-visible spot in this city is on the freeway,” he says. “There was a tiny old gas station that we turned into our fabrication shop and a micro-showroom, and we started focusing on retail, realizing that – with the recession – the economy was going to crush the builders.” The company also got a new name. La Puma says it’s all about creating a brand. “I thought back to my restaurant-and-bar days when I looked at the building,” he says. “We were at 7700 Gateway East. I couldn’t get a 7700 phone number, but I could get the 0770 number. And so that’s the idea behind 77 Stone.” He says that he didn’t think incorporating the word “granite” into the name was appropriate because the company fabricates a range of stone products, as well the quartz surfaces that currently make up about 70% of his sales. And, not surprising given his background, he also sells and installs cabinets. “I’ve marketed it so people start seeing the brand – it’s mostly print and billboard-type advertising,” La Puma explains. “When people in El Paso think about countertops, they think about 77 Stone because they recognize the brand and understand the reputation.”

“The mom who has saved $2,000 so she can have stone in her kitchen still needs it to be done right.”

Edward La Puma

GETTING THE JOB DONE So, how does 77 Stone manage to turn out 500 kitchens a year, along with its commercial work, from such a small space with only 15 employees? The answer, La Puma says, is one that all good businesses have: systems. “It’s things like developing normal acronyms that we’ll be using when we’re doing templating,” he explains. “Even if it’s just simple things like ‘pf’ for profile and ‘w’ for wall. You don’t deviate from that so there’s no room for interpretation between the salesperson, the templator, the fabricator, and the installer.” That’s not to say that the template can’t be questioned. For instance, if someone sees a radius corner on the edge next to the refrigerator, that’s a valid concern. He notes a recent example where a client for whom the shop is doing an outdoor kitchen wanted the high bars installed although the rest of the project wasn’t ready for its tops. La Puma refused the request. “When we put something on the table, we put it on the table once and cut all the pieces,” he says. “You can’t bow to the pressure from the homeowner or the contractor. There’s almost always a problem when you deviate from your system.” At the other end of the project, La Puma is just as fussy, and it’s become another way he’s developed the 77 Stone brand. The company offers a two-year warranty on its website, although La Puma says it’s really unlimited. “If a client has an issue – whether it’s because of us or something they did – we fix it,” he says. “Even if their son caused a chip, we’ll tell them it’s not under warranty, but we’ll go look at it, and we’re happy to fix it. That’s when people talk, and you can’t buy that. That’s marketing.” Because of his location on an international border, La Puma also has access to a potentially huge market. However, he’s chosen not to take it. He says he’s only done a couple jobs over the years across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. “There are another million people living across the border and many of them are very wealthy, but what happens if something goes wrong?” La Puma explains “What happens if somebody doesn’t pay me? What happens if a truck is stolen? I have no recourse.” Instead, the company focuses its efforts on El Paso, extending into southern New Mexico and West Texas. The proximity to Mexico does afford La Puma one advantage – a large labor pool. With a lower cost of living, across the border, many of his employees are either U.S. citizens who live in Juarez, or who have work visas. He stresses that he only hires experienced people, even as polishers, although COVID has made that a little more difficult. “It’s harder to get potential employees to walk in the door anymore,” La Puma says. “We pay above market wages, and we treat employees well. I try to treat my employees like they don’t work for me, but everybody works with me. We’re all in this together.” And, while the days when La Puma would go out and template jobs are behind him, he means what he says. “We have two install crews, but we move a lot of big islands that need a lot of manpower,” he says. “In those cases, we’ll send fabricators, polishers, even me, to get the job done.”

"People came in, they saw what they liked, and they didn’t haggle. People were ready.”

Edward La Puma

TO THE FUTURE As with just about everyone else in the industry, La Puma was surprised to see how much the pandemic increased his business. Although he initially closed his showroom, he says 77 Stone had enough commercial work to see the year through. However, the combination of people forced to isolate or work at home and his company’s reputation doing higher-end projects really worked to its benefit. “It wasn’t a question about looking for the least-expensive; they were looking for what they wanted,” La Puma says. “That’s the niche we fill. People came in, they saw what they liked, and they didn’t haggle. People were ready.” He expects that to continue – at least for a while – although he says, looking at the future of the industry, that shop owners are going to have to be prepared to pay their employees more so they can get and retain good people. As for his own future … well, a CNC would be nice, as would more space, but they don’t have to happen tomorrow. Instead, La Puma says his next steps will probably be enhancing his outdoor display area and selling more cabinets. “We’ll extend our outdoor showroom with outdoor kitchens and pergolas,” he says. “Indoor and outdoor kitchens have a lot of similar properties, and we’ll show two or three different surfaces that are UV-safe. One will be a recycled glass product, and we’ll have a granite, but we don’t want to have it be out there for a year or two and start to pop the resin.” Again, he stresses that his visibility from the freeway draws people who like what they see and come in. As for himself, La Puma is proud of what he’s built, going from next to nothing to a company with a well-respected reputation, and good employees, many of whom have been with 77 Stone for years. “There’s so much sense of accomplishment,” he concludes. “I love the design aspect of it. There’s a lot of reward and you’re designing, creating, and building something. What’s even better is getting to do it every day.”