Turning Rock Into Profit

February 22, 1991|By Blair S. Walker

In Tom Doyle's office, overlooking the marble ashtray, marble pen holder, marble bust and marble pedestal, is a portrait of Ludwig Hilgartner.

A dour-looking, bearded German immigrant who has been dead nearly 90 years, Mr. Hilgartner was a stonecutter who did a booming business making marble headstones in Baltimore during the Civil War era. His gardens of stone laid the foundation for Hilgartner Natural Stone Co. Inc., a 128-year-old South Baltimore enterprise owned and operated by Mr. Doyle.

Hilgartner makes and installs marble and granite products in homes and businesses, much as it has done for most of this century. The stone-fabrication industry has encountered several technological innovations since Ludwig Hilgartner's day, but some things have remained unchanged, such as the painstaking skill displayed by artisans who use their hands to transform slabs of rock into finely detailed handiwork.

The bulk of Hilgartner's labor shows up on floors and walls and tabletops, although the West Cross Street business and its 40 employees are sometimes called on to make bathtubs and fireplaces. A few years ago, the company even took a stab at producing a line of furniture, a venture that took off like a piece of Sierra White granite dropped in water.

There is an occasional glamour job, such as restoring a museum statue, or the upcoming refurbishing of a green marble floor in the White House, Mr. Doyle said.

A Baltimore native whose job experience included a stint selling copying machines before he formed a business to renovate suites for Texas law firms, Mr. Doyle didn't know a granite polisher from a gantry saw when he bought Hilgartner in 1986.

He heard of the company through a business broker and engineered the purchase using money from the sale of his Texas business, a bank loan and funds from Hilgartner's absentee owner from 1971 to 1986, Baltimorean Benjamin Rosenstein.

"If you were going to pick a business you were going to buy, you would want to pick a business that has a quality product and a very good reputation," said Mr. Doyle, 32. Hilgartner seemed to fill the bill, though it wasn't free of warts.

"Nobody in the organization had the first idea what a gross margin was or how to make the company profitable," Mr. Doyle said. "They also had no sales background."

Among other things, Mr. Doyle introduced a profit-sharing plan, computerized bookkeeping and bought new equipment. The last time new machinery had been purchased before his arrival was 1954, he said.

Hilgartner finished 1986 pretty much as it had the preceding years -- around break-even. On revenue of about $1.4 million, it generated a profit of $7,700. The next year, revenue was about $1.7 million and there was a profit of $25,000, according to company figures.

Revenue topped $2 million in 1988 and $2.5 million in 1989. Mr. Doyle prefers not to disclose his profits for those years, but they were substantially better than 1987's.

With the construction industry mired in a slump these days, renovation of private homes is Hilgartner's bread and butter, Mr. Doyle said.

"A residential job is typically between $1,000 and $2,000 for a little vanity top," Mr. Doyle said. "Then, when you get to the wealthier homes, we can put anywhere from $5,000 worth of marble into a house to houses where we've installed more than $400,000 worth."

Having seen two of his five competitors in the state go out of business in the last few months, Mr. Doyle said he would like to expand Hilgartner's market into the Washington area.

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