Three generations and 145 years of solid experience
by Anne Averyt
Frances Bianchi and her son Eric, along with Eric’s wife, Caitlin, are the owners of Bianchi Stone Crafters, founded by Frances’ father-in-law, who came to Vermont in 1911 to work as a stone cutter in Barre. In 1989 the family opened a showroom in Essex .
It’s only fitting that the screensaver on the office computer at Bianchi Stone Crafters is a panorama of Stonehenge. Stone dominates the Bianchi family’s Essex showroom. Against one wall is an enormous deep green quartz fireplace, built by owner Eric Bianchi. Standing opposite is a curved kitchen island with a subtly textured granite countertop. Gray granite steps lead up to the business office and against a far wall lean sample headstones, memorials for humans and pets.
Presiding over it all is co-owner Frances Bianchi, the 85-year-old matriarch of a family with deep roots in the Vermont stone cutting industry. Frances and her four children — sons Anthony, Eric, and Dana, and daughter Laura — are proud of saying that together their family represents three generations and 145 years of experience in granite product manufacturing, construction, and design.
At the root of the family tree is Rodolfo Bianchi, Frances’ father-in-law and her children’s grandfather. Rodolfo began learning the granite trade as a boy of 12 in northern Italy. In 1904, at the age of 18, he migrated to the United States and, in 1911, came to Vermont to work as a stone cutter in Barre.
“When my grandfather came to the U.S.,” says Eric, “he had $15 in his pocket and a hope and a dream.” By 1920, the dream began to be realized. Rodolfo had saved enough money to buy a share in the company where he worked. It became known as Celente and Bianchi Stone Cutters. A few years later, his partner, Celente, returned to Italy and Rodolfo became sole owner.
Rodolfo’s son, Rildo, born in Barre in 1915, carried on the family tradition of stone cutting, as did his sons. The Bianchis are a “granite family” and Rildo’s sons grew up working in the shed, Eric remembers. “When we were kids, my father had all three of us boys down there picking up chips, sweeping floors, and tarring the roof when it was 90 degrees out, but we didn’t get too close to the big saws.” Rildo died in 2004.
The Bianchi Stone Cutters shed was located in the north end of Barre and, Eric says, it was the size of a football field “with gigantic cranes that lifted huge 40-ton pieces of granite off a truck coming down from the Rock of Ages quarry.” Stone work is a dangerous occupation, Frances observes, but Eric quickly rebuts. “No it isn’t, you just have to be really careful and know what you’re doing.”
A 19-foot diamond-blade saw dominated the Bianchi shed. It was used to cut the enormous granite stone into slabs of differing thickness, like pieces of plywood. “You slice it almost like bread,” Eric says. Then, depending on the orders, “you square pieces off in 8- or 6- or 4-inch widths and start whittling it into the monument-sized stone.” Next, the granite is polished — into either a smooth, glass-like finish or a textured steel finish. The final step is the inscription and ornamental carving, which was done by specialized workers.
In 1989 the family opened their showroom in Essex and expanded their retail sales. Up until that time, Eric says, “we pretty much only did monuments.” Now the business specializes in the design, sales, and installation of both traditional and contemporary granite and stone products, predominantly kitchen countertops and landscaping items such as steps, benches, and ornamental pieces. Eric estimates the company does 100 monuments a year and two to four countertops each week.
Lining one wall of the showroom are hundreds of samples of granite, marble, and quartz — in all colors and vein patterns. Granite and marble, Eric explains, are natural stone “made by mother nature.” Quartz, on the other hand, is a man-made product, a combination of coarse crushed stone, resin, glass, and color. Unlike natural stone, quartz has a very regular pattern. “Granite versus quartz — you can tell the difference just by looking at it. Quartz has a very even texture in most cases, while a natural stone surface is much more random with veins and spots.”
In the early 1990s the family sold its Barre stone-cutting operation to focus on the expanded business in Chittenden County. Until last year, the company was a jointly owned corporation, but now Eric is owner and president and Frances and Caitlin are co-owners.
Still, the whole family remains involved. Dana, an IT manager for the Vermont Department of Disabilities and Aging, and Tony, a technician at Vermont Laser Vision, maintain the IT system. Their sister, Laura, is office manager and works two to three days a week helping with monument and countertop sales. “Eric can’t sell monuments,” Frances says, “and I can’t sell countertops, but Laura can fill in to help either of us.” Even Eric’s wife, Caitlin, helps out. She is a math coordinator for the Williston schools but she is also the resident CFO, managing the accounting with Frances, says Eric.
Eric, the second oldest son, is the on-site manager of the business, although he doesn’t like the title “manager.” “That’s someone who just sits at a desk,” he says, preferring to call himself “chief cook and bottle washer.”
In reality, he is master of all trades at the business. He handles the sales, design, and installation of the countertops and lawn ornaments, and although Frances is responsible for the monument side of the business, Eric does the settings of the monuments and cleaning and restoration work at a number of local town cemeteries.
But it is Frances who is the first person people talk to, on the phone or when they walk into the store. She is, says Eric, very adept at customer relations. Known affectionately as “B” to family and friends, she worked as a nurse before her children were born, and after they were grown, she worked at a convalescent center in Barre.
“Everybody calls me B,” Frances says. “Years ago my oldest grandson had four grandmothers and the question came up what to call everyone. I said, “Well. call me Grandma B,” and it got abbreviated to B and now everyone calls me B.”
The move to the new showroom gave Frances a new job. Now, Eric says, “she does everything,” helping with customers while also handling the monument business. “She’s really good at understanding her customers,” Eric explains. “You have to be very sensitive when someone wants to buy a monument.”
Frances says people looking for a monument are often in a vulnerable place “and you have to be very responsive to their emotional needs.” She credits her years working as a nurse for helping her do that.
“Frances has a wonderful way of dealing with people,” says George Toomey. “She’s a good listener and a very calming presence.” Toomey, Eric’s father-in-law, volunteered at the showroom when he, himself, retired in order to give Frances a rare day off. “Her influence is ever present there,” he says. “She’s a delight and she has a wonderful world of knowledge. If anyone has a question, she’s the answer person.”
While Frances handles the monuments, Eric does the countertop work with the help of a high-tech computer program. The virtual image allows customers to see the stone they are going to buy. Then Eric can do simulated cuts on the computer screen to construct the exact veined countertop they want.
This kind of direct customer interaction, Eric says, dramatically increases customer satisfaction. “Showing the customer what they are going to get saves a lot of disappointment. That’s why over half our business is referrals — word-of-mouth business”
“Eric was recommended to me,” says customer Kim Adair. Adair wanted to put new countertops in her kitchen. “Another family he did work for spoke highly of him. I’ve been very pleased. It was quite a process and he was very meticulous and professional.”
The next step for the business, says Eric, is working with Dana and Tony to develop a more sophisticated online website to offer customers anywhere the same kind of hands-on design and project control that is now available at the showroom.
The Bianchis are a close-knit family and the love of family is obvious, particularly the shared affection for Frances. “She’s the glue that holds the family together,” Eric says when she is out of earshot. “She’s one of my best friends.”
When Eric and Frances can find any spare time, that, too, is centered around family. Frances is the proud grandmother of seven grandchildren and the resident Italian cook, even though her heritage is Welsh. When the family gets together, their favorite dish is B’s spaghetti.
Eric spends his spare time going on bike hikes with his young daughter and traveling to the University of New Hampshire to watch his son, who plays soccer there on scholarship.
Eric’s other passion is gardening, a pastime that also benefits the company. He says he is anxious for the weather to warm up so he can begin to work on landscaping the garden in front of the showroom. •