Phoenix Granite Fabrication Leechburg, Pa.
"I just want us to be basic and make it the best it can be"
All photos courtesy Phoenix Granite Fabrication.
Phoenix Granite Fabrication: (l-r) Lisa Akscyn, Alex Buhite, Connie Berry, Mark Akscyn, Jullian Baker, Ramon Mejia.
By K. Schipper
LEECHBURG, Pa. – Lisa Akscyn found the stone industry several years ago through a temporary job – and, since then, she’s been all in. It’s been far from easy, however. The first blow came when her first industry employer, Blume’s Solid Surface Products Inc., was destroyed by fire in 2015. She and the owner of a second fabrication company she helped start from scratch parted ways after approximately 18 months. However, some lucky breaks also happened along the way. The conviction she could run her own business, coupled with financial help from her parents and a banker she had met while working for Blume’s, helped get things started, and the aid of a Realtor® friend got the company its current location. Phoenix Granite Fabrication opened its doors in February 2017, and while it hasn’t yet set the world on fire, Akscyn and her crew are rising from the ashes.
NOT SO "TEMP"
Akscyn’s background is, by any measure, a bit eclectic. A one-time student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, she also spent 11 years in risk management for a large grocery chain before being laid off. Akscyn started working at Blume’s through a temp agency, and she says at least part of the initial appeal was that it was only a 20-minute drive from her home. “They said they needed somebody that was creative, because part of the duties was to help the manager show stone, and I thought it was really interesting,” she says. “Then, when I saw what they did I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ I had no idea this even existed, but it was negotiation, customer service and art all wrapped into one.” The Blumes were in the process of turning the business over to their two children, and when their daughter abruptly left the company, Akscyn was promoted to running the office side of the operation. “I found a company that was absolutely the most-fantastic, close-knit community I’ve ever had the pleasure to work for,” she says. “I loved what I did, and they had the best people. I had found my forever home.” Unfortunately, the bulk of the business was destroyed by a fire in January 2015. In the aftermath, some of the Blume’s crew found work with other fabricators. Akscyn herself was offered a position but it would have required a 90-minute commute. She sent out resumes, and the following month was contacted by a man interested in creating a new fabrication company. In the 17 months she worked there, monthly sales grew to $325,000. “After my experience at Blume’s, I thought I was going to be a bigger part of it,” she explains. “I put my heart and soul into it, there were promises of profit-sharing and I got nothing out of it.” Akscyn admits that she had always wanted to be her own boss but adds that one of the attractions of starting a new company for someone else was the advantage of using someone else’s money. “My dad kept saying, ‘Lisa, you’re better than that. You can do so much more. If you can do it for somebody else, you can certainly do it for yourself,’” she explains. “And, one night some of the people from Blume’s got together and we had a bit too much wine and chocolate, and I said, ‘I’m going to start my own company and it’s going to be Phoenix rising from the ashes.’”
"I’m going to start my own company and it’s going to be Phoenix rising from the ashes.”
UP AND RUNNING
While the matter of money was not easily resolved, Akscyn found she had a backer in a former client. The CFO of a local family bank, she had become friends with the man when Blume’s redid his kitchen. “When I began to ding around the idea of opening my own company, I asked his thoughts on it,” she says. “I’m not rich and I was unemployed, but this man said it didn’t matter. He knew what I was capable of and got us a loan for a new forklift, our Park Industries Yukon II bridge saw and a gently-used box truck.” However, the matter of money was a very real one. Phoenix Granite Fabrication started with no working capital. A loan from her parents was collateralized and held by the back to secure the loan for the equipment. Akscyn also had another ace-in-the hole: her husband Mark. Initially introduced by her daughter in 2010, she explains his background is in hotel management, but his education is in statistical analysis. “He was always saying, ‘You’re so smart; you can do this,’” she says. “He’s the math person and the CFO. He’s always done the accounting here, and we work together 24/7” And Akscyn was fortunate to find an initial location that had been previously occupied by other fabrication shops. “Our start-up work for the building was minimal,” she says. “The trenches, pit for water and all of the air/water lines were in place. We just had to bring our equipment in and start fabricating.” Then, in October 2019, the company was told its lease wouldn’t be renewed. A friend of Akscyn’s who’s a real estate agent found the business a new location. In a further bit of great good luck, the new shop shares space with a concrete company. “We have similar requirements when it comes to water, safety, weights, moving things, etc.,” Akscyn says. “It works great for us.” As Phoenix Granite Fabrication prepared to move last spring, COVID-19 made its first appearance. Akscyn had delayed the move when the company was ordered to shut down in March. During those weeks, she says the company continued to quote jobs via Facebook and through personal contacts. Finally, the operation reopened at the new location at the end of May. “We scheduled the move and, with the help of a lot of friends with trailers and some horse-trading with a few neighboring companies with large flatbed trucks, we began moving slabs daily,” she says. “Our saw moved to the new location May 29 and we were up and running June 1.” Although the new location is rural – some 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh and about five minutes from Leechburg -- Akscyn says it provides everything she could ask for in a spot for her business, despite dating back almost a century where it spent time first as a feed mill and later a gas pump and general store. “The Bazella Group has been fantastic,” she says. “They’re a large commercial concrete company based out of Allentown and they use this mainly for storage. Because we’re a related industry, they were willing to prepare it for us and put the trenches in and a pit. They have just one person here, in an office.” Phoenix Granite Fabrication has its own offices in the same building, but the heart of the operation is the old general-store building, with a 3,500 ft2 shop space and a similar-sized basement that Akscyn hopes to turn into a showroom. She also hopes to purchase the third building on the property – a 6,000 ft2 warehouse – sometime early this year. “Before we moved, I carried about 40-60 colors in stock on consignment mostly,” she says. “Right now, the stone is outside. The third building has cranes and heated floors and LED lighting, but until I get that everything’s outside and I have maybe a dozen colors.” Quartz and remnants are stored in the shop, but she’d like to boost her inventory because the closest supplier is about an hour’s drive time.
“I’m not rich and I was unemployed, but this man said it didn’t matter. He knew what I was capable of and got us a loan."
MAKING THE BEST STONE
Storing slabs is hardly the greatest of Akscyn’s problems, however. The combination of COVID and the move did a serious number on her marketing. “Things were very slow, and we totally missed spring, which is the height of the season,” she says. “I was actually surprised because with COVID and the move, a lot of people thought we had just decided to fold up and call it a day.” Akscyn also relied upon word-of-mouth and referrals, which she found wasn’t enough. She opted to approach Justin Nolder, the business manager for the Armstrong County Department of Economic Development for help with some creative ways to get noticed. A major one was having a grand opening for the new location, complete with local officials and press coverage. “We’ve gotten a great response and we’re very pleased with the results,” she says. At the same time, she’s opted to change the focus of the business. While the emphasis has always been on quality and customer service – educating clients about stone and reducing services calls to less than 1% -- it was initially geared to kitchen and bath dealers, designers, and contractors. While that’s continuing, Akscyn finds she’s selling more jobs directly to homeowners. “I make more because there’s no middleman to add things on and the homeowner has realistic expectations,” she says. “And I tell them that if they get a written quote for the exact same thing for less, I’d appreciate the opportunity to see if I can match it. If not, I know where I stand, and I’ll look to see why not” In the meantime, she’s continuing to work with Nolder, who’s getting her into more community meet-and-greet functions where she can network, and Akscyn has also experimented with items such as whiskey barrels topped with natural stone, donating the prototypes to charity. “We just did a bar the other day, and they requested one for the island where the servers are,” she says. “This COVID has created a lot of micro-breweries and wineries and I plan to visit them and see if they’re interested in either purchasing them for their own use or having free displays there.” For now, Phoenix Granite Fabrication features a small but dedicated crew. Along with her husband, the heart of the business includes Connie Berry, the manager and a former Blume’s employee, Ramon Meija, who handles templating and cutting, and fabricator/installers Alex Buhite and Julian Baker. Both Meija and Baker had previous experience and Buhite has been with the company three years. Akscyn says Berry and Meija are truly the indispensable parts of the operation and she is not. “It’s especially Ramon’s skillset and personality that make us such a success,” she says. “Connie and Ramon work hand-in-hand daily to make sure we get things done when we promise. The rest of us can all be replaced with minimal impact.” She adds that continues out of the shop and on the jobsite. “I feel like a proud mom because we get so many compliments on how polite, professional and thoughtful our guys are,” Akscyn says. “I’m proud to say that I have never had a single negative word in nearly a thousand jobs about the guys.” But then she freely admits that she’s willing to down-sell a customer if she thinks an ogee edge isn’t the best choice for a project, and she’s not shooting to grow her operation to doing 30 kitchens a day. “I would rather do one amazing $10,000 kitchen a week than five $2,000 kitchens,” she concludes. “I’d rather make it gallery-worthy and beautiful and take the time to make it stupendous. I just want us to be basic, work the stone and make it the best it can be.”