Stone Business Article
Atlantic Granite and Marble Inc., Rochester, N.Y.
By K. Schipper
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Salvatore “Sam” Scarlata knows a lot about the American Dream, hard work and patience.
A native of Sicily who learned to work stone from his father while still a boy, he came to this country as a young man in search of opportunity. However, the demand for his skills wasn’t at a premium in the 1960s, and he spent more than two decades as a ceramic-tile installer in his adopted hometown of Rochester.
While busy supporting a family, he never gave up on the idea of having his own business, and – with the help of a couple financial backers – he opened the door of Atlantic Granite and Marble Inc. in 1987. Even then, things were slow at first.
However, the company enjoyed a big boost as people began putting stone in their homes. Today, Atlantic has 16 employees, a huge inventory of slabs – much of which it imports directly – and another generation of Scarlatas is preparing to take over the business as the patriarch begins to think of retirement.
EYE ON THE PRIZE
In some respects. Sam Scarlata has come a long way from his birthplace near Palermo, Sicily. But, in other ways, he’s still not so very far removed from the child who first learned about natural stone nearly six decades ago.
Scarlata began his training in the stone business by the time he was eight years old. In those days, children often worked with their parents in their family businesses; the boy would help his father, learning to distinguish good stone from bad and techniques for hand-shaping and -finishing.
By the time he reached adulthood, the young man had a good set of skills, and a realization that his opportunities in his native country were probably limited. In 1960, he decided to emigrate to the United States, where some other family members were already living. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he decided to settle in Rochester.
Unfortunately at the time, the demand for skilled stone fabricators and installers was low. Marble and granite were seen mainly as components in large buildings. To support himself and a family that grew to include a wife and three children, Scarlata took a job as a commercial tile installer. It would pay the bills for the next quarter-century.
Even as he worked setting tile, however, Scarlata had a dream to own his own stone business. “My family had owned a business in the old country and I’d wanted to own my own business ever since then.,” he says.
Kathy Frank, Scarlata’s daughter and Atlantic’s sales manager, recalls her father focusing on that goal as his children were growing up.
“He always talked about it, always dreamed about it, but he was waiting for the right opportunity,” she says. “Obviously, with a family to support he had to have a paycheck coming in every week, but when he was a little more financially secure he was able to start his own business.”
That opportunity finally came in 1987. Scarlata had taken early retirement from his installer’s job, and he secured financial assistance from a couple members of the Rochester business community interested in economic development.
“I had two partners to begin with because I needed the money,” Scarlata says. “I didn’t have enough money to start on my own, so I got a couple guys who had money and we were equal partners. They never were involved with the actual work, but they helped me get started.”
Scarlata remains friends with both men and he adds he feels fortunate to have two such friends who were willing to invest and help him get started.
Even so, it was slow going at first. Working out of a shop/office at what remains Atlantic’s location to this day, Sam Scarlata returned to the hand methods of his youth. For the first year of business, Scarlata was the only employee and money was tight.
Later, after he began adding other people to the staff, it was still difficult to meet payroll at times. Kathy Frank attributes much of that to the fact that early on, commercial jobs made up almost 100 percent of Atlantic’s work.
It’s not that Scarlata wouldn’t have taken on residential jobs, but as a market it just hadn’t developed.
“When I started, the first year I didn’t do a single kitchen,” he says. “By the second year, I did one or two a month. Today, we do eight or 10 a week.”
Today, approximately 75 percent of the company’s business is residential.
Despite the slow start, Frank says she never doubted the operation would ultimately be a success.
“My father is very hard-working and very dedicated,” she says. “When you mix nature with design and style, there’s no way you can go wrong with this material.”
One of the people Scarlata wanted to get on his payroll was his son Tim.
Tim Scarlata has truly followed in his father’s footsteps. He learned to install tile at an early age but, because of his own growing family, he couldn’t go to work with his father until the older man could afford to pay him regularly.
Today, Tim Scarlata handles Atlantic’s project and operations management. He supervises all the fieldwork from measuring and templating through installation, although his sister describes his job as something more than that.
“He pretty much takes care of how everything is going to be run,” she says. “He knows all the machines, he knows how things need to be done to make them work when he’s on the job site and he does the problem-solving.”
Following family tradition, Frank, too, has plenty of experience under her belt, although she’s still in her early 30s.
“All of us kids came here as teenagers,” she says. “We were working part time when we weren’t in school.”
Along with being the sales manager, Frank supervises the showroom, which currently has a staff of five and covers some 4,000 ft² – not including another 10,000-ft² of slab displays.
The two siblings aren’t the full extent of family involvement at Atlantic, either. Kathy’s husband, Doug Frank, is Atlantic’s shop foreman, and is responsible for overseeing the fabrication end of the business.
Continuing family tradition, the third generation of the family is represented by Tim’s oldest son, Sam (known as Junior). Now 19, he’s employed in fabrication and programming and operating the company’s CNC machine. A niece, Sonya Russell, also works in sales and design.
That family connection is one of the reasons Sam Scarlata says his business has grown steadily to its current size.
“I have my family working with me,” he says. “We’ve got a good location, but it helps to have a family to do the work.”
Although Scarlata adds that the other members of the family work with him, Kathy Frank says there’s no question as to who’s in charge.
“He handles all of the day-to-day inside operations and, of course, everybody still turns to him for suggestions in the fabrication of particular jobs,” she says. “He also takes care of all the scheduling, he deals with all the architects and he handles the major commercial jobs we have.”
And, Frank adds, the company has also been fortunate to have some really good key employees that have also helped Atlantic grow and be successful.
Still, as Scarlata says, Atlantic has a good location, although in a very industrial neighborhood.
One of the reasons he originally settled on the space where he opened his doors was its potential for expansion. As neighboring businesses moved and Atlantic grew, the stone business simply expanded into those empty spaces, so that today – along with the warehouse and showroom – the company has a 10,000-ft² shop.
Scarlata admits that initially it was difficult to convince perspective clients to come and look at what he had to offer. “People used to mind coming to look but now they don’t,” he says. “We have a beautiful showroom and everybody knows about it.”
Frank notes that Atlantic keeps 250 different varieties of granite slabs, about 100 different varieties of marble slabs and hundreds of thousands of square feet of tile in stock.
She describes the showroom and gallery as, “like going on a field trip.” And, she adds, “My father knew we would need a lot of space for the inventory we wanted to have here. It’s just that our customers are very particular and everybody has different tastes and we like to show a little bit of everything. We have just about every color under the sun; movement, not movement, lineal striations, speckled.”
Although Atlantic works with suppliers, the company does its own importing as well. Not surprisingly given his background, a great deal of the stone comes from Italy, Spain and Greece.
While none of Scarlata’s family remaining in Europe is in the stone business, he says years of experience taught him who to deal with and what to look for when importing stone. And, he likes to have plenty of material on hand to show a client the exact slab for the job.
“Small samples can be misleading,” he says.
Despite the huge selection of slabs and tile, Frank says she actually wishes Atlantic would stock more – not less – stone.
“There’s just so much out there that I wish we could carry more,” she says. “It’s hard to say, ‘No,’ when we see an interesting material and fall in love with it. We’d like to be able to say, ‘Yeah, we’ll take it.’”
IN THE BLOOD
A beautiful, well-stocked showroom isn’t going to make a lot of sales without some human assistance, and Frank says the goal of those in the showroom is to provide customers with the best service possible.
One of Atlantic’s main goals is to help customers feel they’re getting a complete package when they buy kitchen or bathroom stone from the company.
“We try to coordinate everything involved in a project,” says Frank. “Along with the granite, they may be doing some tile and they want everything to coordinate with their cabinets and whatever else they want going on in a room. Our design consultants just do what we can to help them along the way.”
Of course, once the client has picked the exact slab for a particular job, that service also extends into the shop. Interestingly, although he learned to work stone by hand, Scarlata isn’t afraid to adapt to new technology.
“I started with one old saw, a skill saw,” he says. “Now, we’ve got just about everything.”
The centerpiece of the shop is an E.A.M. di Pierucci CNC machine with a 1,000-pound crane. The remainder of the shop’s equipment – a bridge saw, mini bridge saw (for smaller projects such as stairs), radial arm polisher, belt-driven edge machine, and edge polisher – are all from Mantello Antonino. The company is set to take delivery on a second Mantello bridge saw this spring.
The shop is actually a mix of old-fashioned skills with the new technology. “There’s only so much you can do with the machines,” Frank says. “Everything has to be touched-up and finished by hand.”
And, she adds, her father has an interesting outlook on the big machines. “He loves it, but when things go wrong he blames it on the technology,” she says with a laugh.
Today, Scarlata estimates that it takes about three weeks for a residential job to make its way from the client in the showroom to actual installation in the person’s home. He says currently the work is about 50-50 between new construction and remodels.
High-end commercial jobs, of course, take longer – and the company has had its share of those, including at the Eastman Kodak corporate headquarters, in several downtown Rochester hotels, and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Regardless of the type of work, Scarlata says the economy doesn’t seem to be putting any crimp in his clients’ spending.
“Most of our work is pretty high end,” he says. “People don’t care if the economy is down or not.”
As for the future of Atlantic Granite and Marble, Inc. that’s also well-assured. As much as he enjoys what he does, Scarlata is looking toward a second retirement, probably within the next five years, his daughter says.
At that point, Tim Scarlata and Kathy Frank are poised to take over. “If the company continues to grow as it has up to now,” Frank says, “we’ll be very happy with that.”
With Tim Scarlata’s son already getting his feet wet in the business, and other grandchildren still in school, it’s likely the family is only just starting what promises to be a long-term involvement with the stone industry in this country.
“It’s just the natural thing for us to do,” Frank says. “My father started this business so he’d have something to leave for his children. We’ve all grown up in the business, we have emotional ties to the business, and we’re happy with what we do.
“We like this business. It’s in our blood.”
This article first appeared in the January 2004 print edition of Stone Business. ©2004 Western Business Media Inc.