Taken for Granite

Mark Austin’s business is on solid ground

by Cindy Bernhardt

Mark AustinMark Austin of Johannesburg, South Africa, who had traveled the world inspecting quarried material for a large granite company, came to Vermont for what he thought would be a year. That was in 1993. Today, Vermont is his home; his company, Upon This Rock, sells and fabricates stone of all kinds.

When it comes to granite, what’s set in stone is easy to extract for Mark Austin. From cutting slabs in a South African quarry to marketing kitchen countertops, Austin has been involved with every aspect of the stone business. “Ninety-nine percent of the time I can look at a slab of granite and identify what quarry and town it came from and the port it was shipped through,” he says.

Austin’s customers at his Williston business, Upon This Rock, are the beneficiaries of this vast knowledge.

The company’s four divisions are kitchen and bathroom countertops, tile, monuments and landscaping. Although granite is the most popular stone, the company also features marble, travertine, limestone, and a synthetic product called Caesar made from 93 percent quartz.

A stint with heavy-equipment giant Caterpillar in Johannesburg, South Africa, and a subsequent job in the maintenance division of his dad’s civil engineering construction company laid the foundation for Austin’s career.

“I did engineering and construction and learned about large machinery, explosives, drilling and blasting through those jobs,” he says.

While at Caterpillar, Austin studied mechanical engineering at a local technical college and later took a sales and marketing course at Damelin College in Johannesburg.

Austin’s official entry into the world of stone began when he was offered a job with Keeley Granite, an international company reputed to produce some of the world’s finest granite.

“The construction industry was in a downturn, and this opportunity became available,” Austin says. “I decided to change careers and never looked back. The stone business gets in your blood.”

While at Keeley, Austin was exposed to every step in the stone process — “from A to Z,” he says. “My boss wanted me to experience all facets of the business. I worked in the quarries cutting and extracting stone; was involved with shipping, loading, exporting, marketing, working with customers — everything through to fabrication and finish.”

In 1993, Austin was offered a job supporting a Keeley agent, based in Montreal, who oversaw operations in Stanstead, Quebec; the states of Minnesota and Georgia; and Barre.

Mistakenly thinking Vermont might be a bit warmer than Montreal, Austin and his wife, Taryn, opted to settle in Barre. Actually, says Taryn with a chuckle, officials planning the trip for them thought Vermont was part of Canada.

They liked it here, and a year and a half later, when the agent retired, Austin bought the agency from Keeley. He operated it as Granite International, a wholesaler of rough rock to monument fabricators, with an office at 100 Dorset St. in South Burlington.

Group photoThe company has 20 granite colors (mostly from Brazil, India, Norway and South Africa) on hand, and access to 250 possible colors. Pictured are Patricia Malaney (left) head of the tile division; Nancy Samson, the bookkeeper; Bernie Lajeunesse, who oversees the monument division; Deborah Hardy, the receptionist; and Mark Austin.

Increased competition in the monument industry, coupled with a desire to expand into stone fabrication, fueled Austin’s decision to establish Upon This Rock in 2005.

“China now supplies about 50 percent of all stone used in monuments in the United States,” says Austin. “We saw a reduced need for rough blocks from the quarries we dealt with, so we decided to diversify and look at different branches of the industry.”

That same year the business moved from Dorset Street to a new home at 48 Industrial Ave. in Williston. This location features a showroom for tile and countertops, outside display for monuments, and space for fabrication and finishing processes. Upon This Rock is one of only three business in the area offering the complete spectrum of stone services from block and slab supply to finished product.

“Buying stone where it’s fabricated has huge advantages for the customer,” Austin explains. That’s particularly true in the countertop world, which, along with tile, is Upon This Rock’s largest market.

“Customers can pick out the stone they want, and we do all the cutting and polishing on site,” says Austin. “We’re able to customize jobs right here and do our own fine-tuning rather than having to ship a piece out to an outside fabricator.”

Upon This Rock’s huge CNC (computer numerical control) milling machine makes this service possible. “In the 1990s, the advancement of the industry’s diamond tool machinery allowed expansion into more sophisticated capabilities,” Austin says.

The industry, at one time led by the synthetic Corian product, was revamped. Today granite is more affordable than Corian in addition to being a highly durable, non-stainable surface. Austin notes that these days, stone applications are used increasingly in bathrooms, mudrooms and transition areas in addition to countertops.

At the same time, stone tile for bathrooms, vanities and tub surrounds is also in demand. Pat Malaney, who has some 18 years’ experience in the tile business, heads the tile division. “Pat’s very knowledgeable; we’re lucky to have her,” says Austin.

“We stepped into the upper end of technology with our fabrication machinery,” he continues, “which allows us to do amazing things. We can do extensive radius cuts; sweeps and bends as well as complicated overhangs; patterns and edging that are pretty intricate. Nothing’s too complicated.”

Austin describes the making of a kitchen countertop to illustrate the company’s technology at work. “A counter template is made, and a digitizer board transfers that information to a CAD (computer-aided design) machine. The design is then combined with sink- and faucet-hole dimensions and fed into the CNC machine, which cuts the stone.

“Making correct cuts is crucial since there’s little room for error, so accuracy is key for us. We do everything we can to get it right the first time.”

The bulk of the granite used by Upon This Rock comes from Brazil, India, Norway and South Africa. Austin says geological formations specific to each quarry dictate stone color. “Vermont granite has limited color options, so our demand for stone found here is not as great as from other quarries.”

The company has 20 granite colors on hand with access to some 250 possible colors, able to be sourced usually within a week.

Roger Jalbert and Peter WaidUpon This Rock has the advantage of being able to customize jobs on-site rather than having to ship a piece to an outside fabricator. Roger Jalbert (left) is the hand polisher, and Peter Waid is shop foreman.

Countertops aside, monuments and memorials are still a key part of Upon This Rock’s business. Bernie Lajeunesse brings to his role overseeing this division his experience from 20-plus years in his own Barre stone company.

“Bernie has the background and expertise to provide good service and the right product to families who are grieving, helping make the process as easy as possible for them,” Austin says. Upon This Rock is exploring pet marker monuments for families wishing to memorialize beloved animals.

Landscaping is another market segment targeted for expansion. The company offers a new, highly durable stone product called Rock Deck and plans to build an onsite memorial garden as an idea starter for new outdoor stone applications.

Most of Upon This Rock’s customers are from the Vermont/upstate New York area. “We want to concentrate close to home,” says Austin. “A lot of our business comes from referrals, so it’s important to us to establish a good rapport with builders and clients who know we’ll be there on time and do things right.”

The company’s largest project has been the new Marriott hotel in downtown Burlington. Chuck Deslauriers of Deslauriers & Co., who is developing the hotel, says, “Mark is a terrific guy to work with. He has a can-do attitude and a good crew, and the company’s quality is excellent.”

Upon This Rock installed over 2,000 square feet of stone throughout the hotel’s 127 guest bathrooms, and reception, bar and meeting areas.

“Mark really understands stone from slab to finished product,” says Deslauriers. “This job had some difficult applications with considerable custom work, and Mark helped specify and design what we should use for the granite pieces. Knowing Upon This Rock could do all the machining, cuts and polishing locally made it very appealing to work with him.”

Bob Schwartz of Great Northern Construction in Burlington echoes Deslauriers’ view. “Mark brings a tremendous amount of experience to the table and understands what we’re looking for,” says Schwartz. “And being local is a huge plus for us as well as our customers.”

Austin describes his management style as hands-on and open. “Everybody here has a say in what we do. We learn from every job and use feedback from outside contractors to find ways to improve by sharing information in an open forum.”

It’s not all work for Austin. Each year, he and Taryn, a therapist, who is also from Johannesburg, have traveled somewhere in the world with their children, Carey, 11, and Trent, 9.

Austin confesses that his true passion is fly-fishing. “I work to fish,” he admits. Also avid about fly-fishing are his parents, who live in South Africa. For 11 out of the last 12 years, Austin has traveled to Alaska to meet them for salmon fishing.

Austin and his family became U.S. citizens in 2002. “Vermont feels like home,” he says. “I’ve traveled the world extensively, and Vermont is as good a place as any. Coming from South Africa, we appreciate that this area is relatively crime free. You don’t have to worry about your kids playing outside.”

“It’s been an interesting experience to live in the States,” he says. “We came on a business venture we thought would be a year or two, were given opportunities, and found this wonderful place to live.” Sounds like a rock-solid base for a man grounded in stone. •