Frank's Marble & Granite Red Lion, Pa.
"He had the vision that this was going to get big one day."
(All photos courtesy of Frank's Marble & Granite))
By K. Schipper
RED LION, Pa. – A lot of people claim to be married to their work; for Carmine Pantano, owner of Frank’s Marble & Granite LLC, it’s been a happy relationship, too. Pantano started working full-time for the business in the mid-1990s, and running it in 2010 when his father, Frank Pantano, retired. He’d been working there during summers and on weekends growing up, and came back to the shop when he decided college wasn’t for him. Like any marriage, there’ve been some tough times along the way, including the death of the senior Pantano in a tragic accident in 2017. And while overall it’s been a good relationship, Carmine Pantano says over the next 10 years he’d like to sell the business and retire. The story of Frank’s Marble & Granite is one often told in the stone industry: young man immigrates from Italy to the United States, starts his own company, and makes good. Carmine Pantano says his father did tile work in Italy and, when he first came to this country, began working odd jobs, later working with concrete companies. “Little by little he started his own ceramic-tile business,” says his son. “Then, in the 1980s, he began making marble fireplace surrounds, and that gradually moved into doing countertops.”
Carmine Pantino, flanked by his late father Frank and mother Carmela.
"He (Frank Pantano) said, ‘I don’t see a future in tile, but I see a future in countertops.’."
Great timing: in the mid-‘90s, granite and marble began a serious move from large commercial buildings into people’s homes. At the same time, Carmine Pantano says he decided he and college weren’t a good match. And there were also rumors that Lowe’s and Home Depot were getting ready to go big in the tile market. “I told him college wasn’t for me and I was ready to give myself 100% to the business,” says the younger man. “It was right around the same time when he told me he was getting out of the tile business. He said, ‘I don’t see a future in tile, but I see a future in countertops.’” At that point, the business operated out of a small garage behind a beer distributor. In 1998, the Pantanos built and move into the same 19,000 ft2 shop Frank’s Marble operates out of today. “It was definitely a big commitment that my dad made back then,” says Carmine Pantano. “But he believed in it. It was one of those times where there was no one else doing it around here. We had a lot of friends in the New York and Philadelphia areas where it was starting to become a thing, and my dad said when it gets here, we’ll be ready.” In those days, the company cut and installed one or two kitchens a week, but Pantano says that’s all they needed to do to support themselves and one other employee. Then, in 2001, Frank Pantano went to an industry trade show in Orlando, Fla., and ended up buying an Omag S.p.A. CNC router. Carmine Pantano explains that at that point, Frank’s had a Park Industries® COUGAR® bridge saw, and a Marmo Master 3000 router from Marmoelettromeccanica. “We were having a hard time finding people to hand-router, which is why we got the CNC,” he says. “That was a game-changer for us.” He adds that he can’t stress enough how important it is to go to the shows just to see what’s new. He also has high praise for the Stone Fabricators Alliance (SFA) and all the show-and non-show demos and education sessions they have put on over the years.
“I remember going to a SFA demo at StonExpo on top-polishing seams. I bought all the equipment and taught my guys how to top-polish. Now it’s second-nature”
“I remember when top-polishing first came to people’s attentions,” he says. “Until then, you didn’t touch the surface of the granite. “But I remember going to a SFA demo at StonExpo on top-polishing seams and I bought all the equipment there at the show, had it delivered and when I got back to the shop, I taught my guys how to top-polish. Now it’s second-nature.” If the Pantanos’ story of moving into the natural-stone market is fairly typical of the industry, the story of its shop is a little unusual – or rather the location. Even Carmine Pantano describes it as, “a weird spot.” He describes it as being in something like the crown of a hat, that’s reached by going through a housing development. At the dead end, it suddenly becomes industrial, with two industrial buildings. Frank’s Marble sits on a two-and-a-half acre parcel but it’s definitely off the beaten path. On the other hand, Carmine Pantano says it means would-be customers have to be looking for the shop. People who walk in are looking for countertops and they’re serious about it. And COVID has helped the company change how it handles the showroom. “Obviously, during COVID, the showroom was open by appointment,” he says. “It’s just me and a saleswoman, and if we’d get 10 people who’d show up in the same hour, we couldn’t help that many people, so they’d leave and get mad. We found this whole appointment thing works well so we kept it, and we’re still by appointment only.” If anything, Pantano says as far as selling jobs that the company estimates, his numbers have gone up, which he attributes to that one-on-one connection. He adds that it’s much less of a problem with customers who come to him through builders, remodelers and kitchen-and-bath shops. Pantano also attributes some of that problem to people used to going to the Big Box stores. He makes the effort to educate people, explaining the difference between materials and edges. And, rather than selling through small samples, Frank’s Marble keeps some 60 colors of stone in-stock, as well as a dozen quartz colors. With 19,000 ft² available, much of the company’s stock remains under cover, although extra bundles and remnants go outside. Pantano says he was lucky during last year’s material shortages because he believes in stocking plenty of material. “We kind of saw last year coming, and we were told it was coming, so I just went out and bought the popular colors,” he says. “In some cases, I might have a whole bundle of it, but if they had three bundles, I’d buy all three. I’m still sitting on some of it.”
"A lot of times we get told we were the best construction crew on the entire project. You can’t ask for more than that.”
Back at the end of the 1990s, did Frank Pantano realize some day his fledgling countertop company would need all that space? “He really did,” says his son. “He had the vision that this was going to get big one day, so when things took off around 2004, it worked for us.” Even today, Frank’s Marble & Granite isn’t exactly huge. Carmine Pantano says in an average week, his team of 11 employees fabricates and installs 10 kitchens and five bathrooms, almost all of it – 95% -- for remodels. “The 5% of new homes that we’re doing is with small custom-home builders only,” says Carmine Pantano. “We stay away from doing the tract homes because we’re more detail- and quality-oriented, and those guys are looking for quick and cheap. “My dad said to stick with remodeling because, no matter what the economy, someone’s always remodeling, and you’ll always be busy.” He feels much the same way about doing commercial work, limiting it to existing residential customers who might need a new front counter at their business. Anything larger he refers to a couple shops about an hour from Red Lion. These days, the shop fabricates on a Northwood Machine CNC, a Park Industries SABER™, and a Park Industries Wizard. Frank’s Marble also runs a Prodim Proliner templater and a Beckart Environmental water recycling system, and Pantano is still a fan of hand-polishing. Currently, the company runs one three-man installation crew. Part of that is due to the fact that with remodeling jobs, Pantano is never sure just how long a demolition might take. “Sometimes, tearing out Corian® takes a day by itself,” he says. “I might have to schedule light that day just because I’d rather not have to call job number two and say that we aren’t coming. If the guys get back early, they can always clean up around the shop.” The other reason for that three-man crew is safety. Carmine Pantano says his dad tinkered with the proper number of men to send out on an install, but found that it’s a little safer, especially when carrying heavy pieces. In December the company took delivery on a crane truck, and it was already operating a No Lift Install System, and that may change his thinking. “So far, it’s working well,” he says. “We’re just picking the pieces off the truck with the crane, putting them on the cart and wheeling them in. Technically, we could probably get away with a two-man crew, and I’ll revisit that a year from now. I want to continue another year with three guys and see how it goes.” Pantano may still be following his late father’s advice on some things, but he keeps a close eye on how the business is operating and isn’t afraid to make changes. For instance, as Frank’s Marble made the move into countertops, the company served an area from Baltimore to Harrisburg, Pa. However, the expansion of the stone fabrication business in those larger communities in the mid-2000s, followed by the Great Recession, caused the Pantanos to rethink their service area. “Remodeling was still strong, and we were still busy, but people weren’t willing to travel an hour to us to look at stone,” says Carmine Pantano. “That was when we started telling people that if they were looking for price to go to the shops in Baltimore, but if they were looking for quality and could tell the difference, they should come to us.” Now, Frank’s Marble mostly serves a 20- to 30-mile radius, and most of the business comes from word-of-mouth and repeat customers, supplemented by some online advertising. That the family has been in business in Red Lion, a community of 6,500, for 50 years doesn’t hurt either, and Carmine Pantano is active in a number of community organizations. However, first and foremost, the company stresses quality. He says his greatest pleasure is taking a phone call from a satisfied customer. “Not only are they happy with the product and how awesome it looks inside their home, but a lot of them compliment my guys,” Pantano says. “A lot of times we get told we were the best construction crew on the entire project. You can’t ask for more than that.”
"I’m single, with no kids and I’ve been working here since I was young, so whatever happens happens."
That can happen because many of the Frank’s Marble employees have been there a decade and longer. One of the hardest things he faced in 2022, Pantano says, is the departure of an employee with 16 years of experience who decided to leave the industry. Although he gave six months’ notice, Pantano says he went through at least 15 people trying to fill that one position. “I’m not even sure I filled it yet,” he admits. “I have a guy I hired about three months ago, and I’m hoping he works out. So far, he seems like he is, but you just never know.” What keeps people at Frank’s Marble? Pantano says he pays well and offers paid benefits. And, because the company had a good year, he closed the shop between Christmas and New Year’s, giving people an extra paid week off. “I paid them as a ‘thank-you,’” he says. “I think it’s a good working atmosphere.” Other than that not-so-frequent experience, Pantano says his biggest challenge is educating his customers about what they’re buying. Unlike many shops, he still sells more natural stone than quartz, but filling them in on another current favorite – quartzite – is difficult. “What happens is there’s all this hard marble out there that’s being sold as quartzite,” Pantano says. “After they’ve gone to two or three shops that are selling it as quartzite, I try to tell them it’s marble. Then, I have to explain to them how they have to deal with marble. But people don’t want to do maintenance. They want to be able to spill something on the countertop, leave it and it will be okay.” Last year Frank’s Marble & Granite marked 50 years in the business. Carmine Pantano says he and his mother Carmela discussed having a celebration, but the shop was just too busy to fit anything in. Asked if he’s saving that celebration for when the shop hits its 60th anniversary, and he hedges his bets. “Honestly, my five-to-ten-year plan is for someone to buy me out,” he says. “I’m single, with no kids and I’ve been working here since I was young, so whatever happens happens. If I sell the business, I’ll be okay.”