Not many companies’ words are
literally carved in stone
by Liz Schick
Charles Day, the president of
Culture Craft Sandblast Inc. in Barre,
took his first steps in the granite business
when he studied stone trades in high school.
Two years ago, when Charles Day learned that his longtime employer, Adelard Benoit, was planning to sell Culture Craft Sandblast Inc., he announced his resignation, because he didn’t want to work for new management. “At the same time,” says Day,” three of the crew were within months of retirement, and I would have been the old guy in the plant, so I gave notice.”
Benoit’s son, Brian, who also worked for the company, had told his father he did not want to take over management, and Benoit felt he had no choice but to offer it for sale. When Day gave his notice, Benoit asked him why he didn’t buy the business. Day says he laughed and replied, “You know what I make!”
Benoit had founded the company in 1968 with his partner, Phillip Giroux, and had owned it outright since Giroux’s retirement in 1992. His suggestion was serious, and he offered to help make it financially possible.
Benoit and Day and their wives, Judy and Pam, got together to talk it over. Then, says Day, he and Pam — who has a full-time bookkeeping job with a safety equipment supply company in central Vermont — gulped, and decided to buy it.
Forty years ago, when Benoit and Giroux founded Culture Craft, it was rare for a company in Barre to specialize in the carving of granite memorials, because most granite manufacturers had their own sandblasting departments. The work was so labor-intensive and detail-oriented, though, that outsourcing eventually became the easier option.
Day joined the company in 1988 as a rubber stencil cutter. Over time, he worked the whole process from design to shaping the memorial to sandblasting the letters and decoration, creating the so-called “culture rose,” and even overhauling the equipment during downtimes. The culture, or deep, rose is the company’s trademark decorative carving.
Brian Benoit (standing) is the son of the company’s former owner. He and Michael Perreault are draftsmen who keep the computer system up to date.
“As a custom sandblast shop,” Day explains, “we don’t supply any granite. It’s trucked to us by our clients, who are retail memorial dealers throughout New England, New York and Pennsylvania.” Culture Craft does the design work and drafting of the monument and sends it directly to the retailer for the customer’s approval.
There are a half dozen such custom shops in the Barre area. More are being established in other parts of the country because of increased shipping costs for the memorials and the fact that computers make cutting the stencils so much easier, says Day.
“I give Adelard credit,” says Day. “We were among the first to transition to computer stencil plotting and cutting some 15 years ago when Brian, Adelard’s son, joined the company.” Now, Brian and Mike Perreault, who started in the plant as a sandblast man 29 years ago and moved into drafting soon after Brian started, keep the system up to date and efficient, Day adds.
Culture Craft has a long list of loyal customers. “We do 3,000 memorials a year,” Day says. “We don’t try to be the cheapest — someone will always do it cheaper — but we do try to provide the best quality and service.”
Service is why Robert Peduzzi of Empire Granite, a monument dealer in Worcester, Mass., says he has been with Culture Craft since its beginning. “Culture Craft’s service is tremendous, and I don’t see any difference in our working relationship since Chuck took over,” Peduzzi says.
“Brian and Mike are a really nice drafting crew, and they are all very accommodating. If we need something the next day and the truck has already picked up, they’ll take it over to the shipping terminal themselves to make sure we get it.”
Day was born in Lebanon, N.H., because his hometown of White River Junction had no hospital. The family moved to Hardwick for a brief time, where his father ran an Aubuchon Hardware. When Day was 4, they settled on Charles Street in Barre, where his mother, Betty, still lives. He discovered the granite business by taking the stone trades course given in Spaulding High School, a program long ago discontinued.
Wanting to travel after graduation, Day put an ad in Monument Builder magazine and landed a job in Chicago Heights, Ill. Fourteen months was long enough for him to know he didn’t like living in the city, so he returned to Vermont and went to work for a monument retail shop in Burlington. After a year and a half, he moved back to Barre and worked for three granite manufacturers before being hired at Culture Craft.
While working full time there, Day moonlighted in his own business of cemetery lettering. From 1990 through 1997 he traveled throughout New England on weekends and nights in his van filled with cutting tools and a compressor, until, he says, he saw pictures of his family and realized he wasn’t in any of them.
“Phil Giroux had retired, but was looking for something to do, so I sold the business to him with a buy-back option,” Day recalls. “Two years later he sold it back to me, and I tried it again for a couple of years. I realized I shouldn’t have bought it back, so I sold it again, to Henri Dessereau. He’s still doing it.”
Nobody else in his family, says Day, worked in any of the granite sheds — a term disliked by many of the larger manufacturers with millions of dollars of equipment in their plants. “Some of those buildings are more than 100 years old, and back then they were sheds, and the name stuck.”
Tojo DeForge is one of two sandblasters with the ability to cut the deep rose designs, which are the company’s trademark.
Now they’ve been fixed up and expanded, like Culture Craft’s offices, sandblast and storage shop at 63 Batchelder Street, which dates from the 1930s and is “not exactly over frilled, as you can see,” says Day.
The closest his family came to working in the granite industry, he says, was when his grandfather and uncle, lifetime residents of Sharon, maintained Pine Hill Cemetery there.
Now that he owns Culture Craft, Day has family members in the business. Pam comes in a few nights and the odd Saturday to do the books. Their younger son, Corey, is working part time until he joins one of the two unions represented at the company — the Steelworkers Union and the Granite Cutters Association. Day’s other son, Kyle, 20, is an electrician with Norway & Sons, an electrical contractor in Barre.
“I like working for my dad better than working for someone else,” says Corey. “I figure by the time he’s done I’ll be about 30 or 35, and if the business is still alive and he wants to get rid of it, I’ll take it over. That’s what I’m planning on.”
“As a family,” Day says, “we’re not into hobbies,” but he admits to buying a motorcycle last year after not riding since Kyle was born. Then Kyle bought a bike, and for Christmas, Day gave his wife one. “I think she’d rather have had a classic Volkswagen convertible,” he says, “but, hopefully, we’ll have as much fun as we used to when we would go snowmobiling when the boys were younger.”
He confesses that it’s a lot tougher owning the business than he thought it would be. “It was easy to learn sales and working with customers, especially when you jump through hoops for them, the way we do. The service we provide is why I’m willing to bet we are the only shed working overtime at sandblast right now.”
His roughest transition was going from coworker to boss, after 20 years of working side-by-side with many of his eight employees. Qualified personnel are hard to find. “It’s very blue-collar and the industry is shrinking, so young people don’t want to work in it,” he says. “Plus, many companies won’t train new people because of the expense, so the trick is to find motivated staff to take over as older workers retire.”
When he bought Culture Craft, Day was able to call on long-timers Marcel Busque and “Uncle” Bud Matheson to delay retirement, and asked retiree Homer Peake to return to help make the transition smoother. They continue to come back four or five times a year to help out when work backs up.
Matheson gained the nickname “Uncle Bud” from Day, whom he helped train.
One of the two most valuable pieces of advice Day received soon after buying the company came from a client, Ernie Lavigne Sr., who is in his 80s. Lavigne tapped Day’s head and his heart and told him to be sure he ran his business with his head, not his heart.
“The second piece of invaluable advice I got from a local granite manufacturer, who told me, ‘Staff is the only cost where you have control. All the other costs are dictated, so being efficient and smart is key.’”
He claims that this, along with his wife’s bookkeeping knowledge and Benoit’s “moral support and good advice when I ask for it” have been extremely useful in his learning curve.
“There were some sleepless nights during the first year, I can tell you,” Day says. “It’s a big responsibility having all these guys’ livelihoods in my hands.”
Fortunately, Culture Craft is in a good niche, because it works on any granite, no matter where it comes from. Also, he says with a laugh, “to have the sandblast done in China would not be practical, as it’s bound to lose something in translation. It’s hard enough to get it right here, much less ship it half way around the world.” •