STONE FABRICATORS: Stronger together as Bellagio Marble Ideas
Stone fabricators Bellagio and Marble Ideas have merged, as reported in the December issue of Natural Stone Specialist magazine. Here they talk about the collaboration.
Bellagio and Marble Ideas entered 2022 under the new name of Bellagio Marble Ideas, as the two companies merged.
Bellagio is in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, and Marble Ideas in Langley, part of Slough in Berkshire. They were far enough apart not to stand on each other’s toes, although they did sometimes find themselves in competition with each other, especially in London, as well as sometimes collaborating.
As they said in the previous issue of Natural Stone Specialist when the merger was announced, one of the benefits of having two sites is that it can reduce the distance fixers have to travel to reach their destinations.
The further they have to go, the harder it is to get there on Britain’s crowded road network, especially as there are often delays caused by roadworks and accidents. As Rob Wilkinson, the Managing Director of Bellagio, says: “Travel is a massive issue and it’s going to get bigger and bigger.”
Templaters and fixers don’t want to have to drive for two or three hours before they can start work. Having the two sites about 100 miles apart means the vans can set off from whichever site is nearest.
But of course, solving traffic problems is not the only reason for the merger.
Rob Wilkinson, who heads Bellagio, and Steve Buck, the founder of Marble Ideas, discovered they had a lot in common during trips arranged by some of the companies that make the slabs the fabricators use.
Those trips also spawned the Worktop Fabricators Federation (WFF), of which Bellagio was a member and now Bellagio Marble Ideas is a member. Two of Bellagio’s Directors, Mike Boydon and Ben Prole, are also Directors of the WFF.
Rob Wilkinson could see the benefit of belonging to the WFF to raise the standing of professional companies in the sector. He believes the organisation will really take off if a builder such as Berkeley decides to use WFF members exclusively. He thinks it will happen as an assurance of getting kitchens supplied and installed in a professional, transparently specified way.
Rob has become convinced of the benefit of the idea by being one of Silestone’s ‘Platinum’ fabricators, which gives Bellagio (and now also Marble Ideas) Silestone’s accreditation as a top-notch supplier and installer of its products.
Some kitchen studios (although not all) insist on being supplied by Platinum fabricators because the fact that a Platinum fabricator is doing the work sounds good and can enhance the sales message even if the customer does not know exactly what being a Platinum fabricator actually means.
Whether or not the WFF can convince major developers to insist on using WFF members, Rob could see the benefit of joining forces with like-minded, quality focussed companies, which was also the reason he wanted to grow Bellagio through a merger, moving up to the next level together, expanding geographically with improved buying power and competing for even the largest of projects.
And he thought Steve Buck of Marble Ideas would make the ideal partner, although it took him more than two years to convince Steve it was the right move.
They formed the new company, Bellagio Marble Ideas Ltd, in September, and have now completed all the niceties with HM Revenue & Customs to start 2022 as the new company.
Steve says he is “totally committed” to the new company and Rob says it was necessary because although they had worked together before, “however strong your friendship is, you both have your eye on your own business. Now we will both have our eyes on the same business”.
The new company has more than 80 employees in the two factories and offices, plus about 30 sub-contractors it will regularly use for templating and fixing, although both Bellagio and Marble Ideas would rather employ and train their own templater/fitters and say they would employ more if they could recruit them. As Rob says: “They’re the advert for the company. They’re the people customers see.”
As a group they hope to employ another 15-20 people and have a target of pushing 40 finished jobs a day in three to five years.
Steve and Rob both have right-hand men who have been with them for much of their careers and who they both credit with having helped them steer a successful business path. For Rob it is Mike Boydon and for Steve it is Tony Johns, which is why they are both also shareholders in Bellagio Marble Ideas.
The sales and administration team in Bellagio’s offices in Leamington Spa.
Although Bellagio and Marble Ideas are now both part of Bellagio Marble Ideas Ltd, they retain their original trading names... for now, at least.
They say they might also look for a third company to join them to extend their reach into the busy Bristol/Exeter area.
Apart from travel arrangements, one of the immediate benefits of joining forces for Bellagio and Marble Ideas is that they can share each others stock, which is useful with supplies being sporadic through the toxic mixture of Brexit and Covid. “Stock transfer between us is easy,” says Steve.
All costs are increasing, from the price of slabs to the energy to process them. The price of transport is adding to the pressure with a container having gone up from about £2,000 to between £15,000 and £20,000, and even fuel prices for transport in this country are around 25% higher than at this time last year.
Until the end of last year Bellagio and Marble Ideas had held their prices in the belief that the rising costs would fall again as normality was resumed, although as the year progressed that was looking increasingly unlikely. In December the Bank of England thought inflation had become enough of a threat to increase base rates and at the start of this year Bellagio Marble Ideas felt it had to protect its margins and pass on some of the price increases to customers. “You have to make a decision at some point,” says Rob. “It’s about safeguarding the business.”
Safeguarding the business
He and Steve say the merger of their two companies is also about safeguarding their businesses. “What’s good about the merger is that we are both very stable businesses,” says Rob. “Together we’re big enough to make it happen.”
Marble Ideas has been trading for 30 years next year and Bellagio was formed in 2006.
Before starting their own companies, both Steve and Rob had worked for other stone companies.
Steve started working in stone when he left school aged 16 in 1984. He had been good at technical drawing at school and was keen to become a draughtsman, which was the position he was offered at Southall marble company Honey Allaway.
Steve is grateful for his time at Honey Allaways, and particularly to Alf Thompson, a man who worked at the company for 50 years. “He was an old-school master mason. I learnt about quality and how things should be done from him. That’s stuck with me ever since.”
Although it was not stone that attracted Steve into the industry, he encompassed it as a speciality. He moved to stone wholesaler Pisani’s depot in Brentford – which taught him a lot about the range of stones available – and then on to Croft Brothers in Finchley as contracts manager.
The combination gave him a good grounding in the industry for when he started his own business in 1992. From the start he called it Marble Ideas, although originally he and his co-Director, Tony Johns, began by templating and installing only. The company expanded and after five years opened its own factory in a former engineering works in Uxbridge.
In 2015 Marble Ideas moved into its current premises in Langley, next to the railway station, which provides easy access by public transport into London for seeing clients and for digital templating.
Langley is not far from Uxbridge, but Uxbridge is in London and Langley is in Berkshire, and Marble Ideas got three-and-a-half times the space it had occupied in Uxbridge at much the same cost. It has a 1,600m2 factory and offices and a 1,800m2 yard with a gantry where the slabs are unloaded and some are stored.
Before starting Bellagio, Rob worked for Oriental Stone, which was wound up some time after he left it. He started his business in a small unit where the neighbours complained about the noise and dust involved in him cutting stone, so he moved to a larger unit that allowed him to expand and in 2016 moved into his current, 2,000m2 modern premises that give him comfortable, open-plan offices and a showroom as well as a well equipped factory.
Both companies have similar production capabilities. In Langley, Marble Ideas’ machinery includes three Brembana CNCs and a waterjet, four Emmedue saws and two Marmo Meccanica edge polishers.
Bellagio went for Breton CNCs, of which it has two working alongside an older Intermac. It has two Breton bridge saws, including a CombiCut that combines disc and waterjet cutting, and uses Comandulli edge polishers.
Bellagio Marble Ideas is currently investing in Thibaut horizontal cut saws for both factories, so they can cut slabs for vertical use that will vein match with worksurfaces.
Parts of the factories of Marble Ideas (above) and Bellagio (below). Their target is to achieve a production rate approaching 40 worktops a day within three-to-five years, although Marble Ideas hopes to have moved into a new factory by then.
The merger will give both companies the same accounting staff, but they say the merger was never intended as a cost-cutting exercise. In fact, both sites would like to employ more people, especially fitters and skilled CNC operators, but are finding the same difficulty of recruitment as the rest of the country. Retention is not such a problem because they say they pay well in a conscious effort to develop elite teams.
They anticipate, as a larger company, picking up more work that they might not previously have been able to win, but say a 10-15% increase will push them to their limit. They are already talking about Marble Ideas moving into larger premises within a couple of years.
Bellagio is working two shifts on its CNCs and edge polishers, although Marble Ideas is on a single shift.
Although both factories supply individuals and trade customers, most of their work is for the trade in a fairly wide geographical spread and they would like to increase the amount of domestic work they carry out within an hour’s drive from the factories.
The new company has employed a public relations professional to try to increase the amount of work they win from householders, especially as Bellagio has an attractive showroom for them to visit – although Mike Boydon says they have learnt a valuable lesson from the website not to be too up-market or people are put off because they think the prices will be high.
Both Bellagio and Marble Ideas have worked on some impressive projects and boast customers such as Pizza Express in Marble Ideas’ case and Wagamama in Bellagio’s.
Bellagio has also been working with housebuilder Redrow for nine years and Steve Morgan, who used to own Redrow, was impressed enough to continue to use Bellagio for his own projects after selling the company.
During 2020 Bellagio continued to supply some Redrow projects and has reason to be grateful for the government-backed Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme that meant it was able to do so. It was squeezed because although Redrow only wanted 20% of the kitchen worktops it had previously needed, Bellagio needed 80% of its workforce to supply them. And it did not want to stop supplying them for fear of losing the contract. That continued for six months or so during which the loan kept the company afloat before demand returned to its former level.
Marble Ideas closed down for three months with the first lockdown in 2020 with staff furloughed (using the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme). When they returned to work, Steve says the main difficulty was finding people working at home to make decisions. Teams were no longer in the same office and able to talk to each other, so getting decisions was frustratingly difficult. “Even now it’s crazy trying to get hold of people,” he says.
But nobody ever said running a business would be easy and whatever difficulties they might face in the years ahead, Steve and Rob are convinced they are better able to face them together.
Pictured in Bellagio’s showroom in Leamington Spa are (left to right) Mike Boydon, Steve Buck, Ben Prole and Rob Wilkinson.