Eagle Grows Up and Takes Flight

This Keyport, NJ, solid surface fabricator succeeds by offering large-scale production with small-company service.

By Greg Landgraf

     
Eagle Fabrication Inc.

Keyport, NJ

Eagle Fabrication manufactures solid surface countertops for residential and commercial markets. Annual sales are about $4 million.

Three Keys

1. Eagle works hard to brand itself through quality work and customer service.

2. Many employees are hired speaking only Spanish. Aided by a grant from the state of New Jersey, Eagle provides English classes for them and their families.

3. The company has invested in fabricating technology that facilitates fast turnaround of customer orders.

 
   
     

Eagle Fabrication Business Manager John English describes the Keyport, NJ, solid surface fabricator as stepping out of its adolescence.

“We still have a foot in the shop mentality, but we’re willing to step into a bigger idea. I’d like to stay in the middle and have the best of both worlds,” he says.

While the company may be straddling two very different worlds, it is hardly some gawky, clumsy teenager. Sales have grown to $4 million annually, and the International Solid Surface Fabricators Assn. named Eagle its 2002/2003 International Fabricator of the Year.

“One of the most difficult things to hear from customers is, ‘You’re getting too big.’” says Founder and President Phil DeCaro. “We’re getting bigger, but we’re trying not to act bigger.”

Technology Spurs Growth

“Getting bigger” has happened in both a literal sense and in the technology the company uses in production.

DeCaro started Eagle as a one-man business in a two-car garage in 1984. Eagle has had to move three times since then to larger facilities. Its current building has 13,000 square feet of production space and a 3,000-square-foot office. The company now has 30 employees.

In the shop, English says, “We’ve made tremendous strides in efficiency.” Equipment includes a Multicam CNC router, Striebig Optisaw vertical panel saw, JMR vacuum lifts, V-groover by Auto ‘V’ Grooving and a Delta shaper for coving backsplashes. Eagle uses AlphaCAM and AutoCAD software for manufacturing. Seaming is performed on a vertical table. The table uses vacuum pods eliminating the need for glue blocks. The technology allows Eagle to build fast — it can complete most custom jobs within five days.

Eagle traces templates using a laser to automatically enter dimensions and shapes into the AutoCAD system. It also has begun transporting plans and layouts by e-mail, although DeCaro notes that he does not like to use that technique exclusively. “Sometimes, you need to hear the customer’s tone of voice to better understand their needs,” he observes.

Because of its size, Eagle receives daily supply deliveries, so it needs to stock only the most basic supplies.

Staying Competitive through Customer Service

Eagle recognizes that solid surface is a maturing market. “Some American companies are starting to act like offshore companies, as if solid surface is a commodity,” DeCaro says.

That is not a path that DeCaro wants to follow, however. Instead, he says, “We’ve spent a lot of money and effort branding Eagle.”

Some of that is done through networking, particularly through ISSFA. More important to the branding efforts, however, is the company’s day-to-day contact with its customers — where it positions the Eagle brand with good customer service, quality and performance.

       
 
 
Eagle cuts sheets of material on a Striebig Optisaw vertical panel saw, with lifting assistance by Gorbel vacuum lifts. Material is then v-grooved on a machine from Auto ‘V’ Grooving and machined on a Multicam CNC router.  
       

“Those are the kinds of things you can’t buy. And the longer you do them, the more they get cemented,” English says.

“We drive home that customers are paying for more than just the countertop,” DeCaro adds.

Eagle’s customers include cabinet dealers, plumbing wholesalers, remodelers and builders, general contractors and millwork houses. The company also does work for The Great Indoors, Eagle’s first collaboration with a home center.

The strong customer service focus includes a proactive stance toward any problems a customer may have. “We have a system in place to deal with them and take care of them immediately,” DeCaro says.

“We spend money to help our customers grow as well,” English notes. “It all goes back to having a relationship with the customer.”

Eagle hosts periodic events for remodelers, architects and designers. DeCaro says the practice has worked well for generating new business. The company is also examining potential new markets for solid surface, such as occasional furniture, window sills and outdoor applications.

“We try to brand Eagle Fabrication to our employees as well,” DeCaro says. “We try to create an environment that they’ll be proud to be part of. Everyone is really focused on driving the Eagle brand, and everyone understands what it takes to make Eagle different.

A Family Attitude toward Employees

“When we do grow, we spend an inordinate amount of time hiring the right person,” English says. “We let them be a part of where we want the company to go, give them the tools they need, and stand back and let them do it.” That attitude produces more than just good feelings — it gives employees a sense of ownership in the company, spurring them to better performance, English says.

That’s particularly useful because employees often have a significant amount of contact with customers. “A great number of customers come into the building, so a lot of the employees know our customers,” DeCaro says.

“I recognize I can’t know everything about everything,” DeCaro says. “But I can hire people who have expertise that I don’t have.”

Eagle has succeeded in hiring wisely so far. DeCaro hired his first employee about nine months after starting the business. That employee is still with the company as shop foreman. Eagle’s second hire has also been with the company nearly 19 years.

“We really try to recognize what our employees want,” DeCaro says. “We didn’t have a time clock until three years ago.”

A sizeable portion of the company’s workforce speaks only Spanish. With the help of a grant from the state of New Jersey, Eagle provides English language classes to them and their families.

The classes include both general English language instruction and job-specific terms and phrases. “I can see the classes are working when employees speak more English and are comfortable asking me more questions in English,” DeCaro says.

“We are able to provide an environment for employees to make a life for themselves,” DeCaro adds.


Eagle, DuPont and the Growth of the Solid Surface Industry

Eagle Fabrication of Keyport, NJ, started business in 1984 as a kitchen cabinet installer. Early on, Founder Phil DeCaro was approached by a Corian distributor to see if he was interested in learning about solid surface. “I was looking for some new business to open up, and I saw it as an opportunity,” DeCaro says. The result was a shift in focus for the company, whose history now parallels the history of the solid surface industry itself.

DeCaro attended a local three-day seminar hosted by DuPont, which allowed him to buy Corian solid surface. Eagle’s first solid surface work was making vanity tops for a plumbing supply company.

“At the time, the fabricator was doing no marketing,” DeCaro says. Instead, all job opportunities came through distributors.

“Very few fabricators had business backgrounds. We weren’t afraid of working, but the business knowledge came the hard way over the years,” DeCaro adds.

“DuPont had a lot to do with guiding the path of fabricators early on,” DeCaro says. “DuPont offered business classes, and with the help of distributors, DuPont created demand for solid surface.”

Eagle did not hire its first salesman until 1996, even though the company had grown to $1 million in sales by that point. DeCaro says many fabricators grew larger and more sophisticated in their marketing in the mid-1990s.

Another major change for Eagle and the industry occurred in 1998, when Eagle joined the fledgling International Solid Surface Fabricators Assn.

“The industry was a mess — everyone had a different way of doing things,” DeCaro says. “ISSFA let us exchange business ideas and best practices in a non-competing environment.

“I think ISSFA meant more to changing this industry than any of the new tools that have been introduced.”

DeCaro is a big proponent of networking and sharing ideas, and he has opened up his plant for visitors to learn about the industry. In fact, DeCaro’s willingness to share knowledge was specifically recognized at the ceremony where Eagle won ISSFA’s International Fabricator of the Year award.

A more recent, and less fortunate, development is the beginnings of a commodity model in the industry. As outlined in the main story, Eagle is countering this trend through its sales and marketing efforts. “The fabricator makes the brand; the brand doesn’t make the fabricator,” DeCaro says.

He notes that one of ISSFA’s major goals is to create its own brand and drive consumer awareness of ISSFA fabricators as well.

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