Robert Wes Carter, owner of Albemarle Stoneworks is a good friend, and an even better customer. We did just shy of $1 million a year (tools & stone) while working with Triton Stone Group in 2022. When I started with Triton, the pair's sales revenue did not exceed $170K. Some would say "we did good" during my tenure. The efforts were the result of partnership. A mutual respect of efforts via stone education, diversity and strategy of material merchandising, friendly technique & above all trust.
Since I've started teaching these skills via contract, I’ve also been dying to to tell his stone story! In just the last five years ACC, now rebranded to Albemarle Stoneworks has moved to a bright, shiny & new fabrication facility off Hydraulic Road in fabulous Charlottesville, VA. When Wes & I first met, he ran his hops on the backside of this tiny little showroom. The shop was up the hill & far in the back off Market St. - Downtown Charlottesville, VA. My early years working for Cosentino, I didn’t spend near the amount of time with Wes directly as I get to today. Today we must have lunch at least once every other month. Tacos Gomez if we have the chance.
In 2011, Wes had a showroom gatekeeper from Eastern Europe, she scared most of us reps and kept the contact with Mr. Carter light and infrequent.
Ausra had a poker face. Despite this beautiful image of her smiling face, don't let that smile fool you. This ACC gatekeeper, designer, showroom manager, HR, and shop mom made it a challenge to "get in the door". You had to get through her and then try and convince the “soapstone guru” (Wes in 2011) to try an engineered quartz called Silestone. Since the first years of convincing him that quartz had a place in our society, the countertop world has most definitely transformed.
In 2022, we had the chance to venture to Brazil together finally after a couple years of hemming and hawing over how I could help Wes buy his materials more directly than from what is available at the local distributorships.
Wes expressed his need for more unique materials from the day I walked in his doors as his renewed sales rep. I used my experiences to take us on that journey and over the course of 3 years, he split several containers with others in the Mid-Atlantic, special ordering stones no one else has on the market.
We found space on containers for 4-5 slabs of green onyx for a fireplace & I sold him as much White Carrara and Calacatta Miele I could squeeze in his yard. He almost chose Italy for our first buying trip, but instead opted for Brazil and our relationship grew in August 2022. I was able to spend time with his wife Erin Roots and his General Manager Amy Boatwright both feel like family today.
The whole Albemarle team feels like family – Todd Tooley and Lynn are the dream team in outside sales. Brook and Meghan keep me laughing inside on the regular. You can read more about the team on their website. Each photograph suits their personalities perfectly!
As I was on my way out from working with Triton, I felt like I was abandoning my favorite customer on this new adventure. Although Wes & Amy purchased 7 containers while in Brazil, and I felt they were set up with exotic materials for quite a while, I was still nervous how they would get on without me as their agent and material workhorse. I knew there would be others who would try to take my place and I knew Wes was going to be mad at me for a while. In the end, we are finding ways of working together and there will be more projects for us in the future.
Wes first started “messing” with stone in 2001, he had been fabricating solid surface for some time. Although he and a friend started “messing” around in the garage with some Alberene soapstone. At the time it was all he could easily get his hands on. For those not familiar, Alberene is in Schuyler (Skyler), Virginia about 30 min south of Charlottesville, and about 10 minutes from Wes & Erin’s farm. The foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains provide us with the amazing natural beauty of both local Alberene Soapstone and Virginia Mist / Jet Mist granite. Alberene is now owned by Polycor and still produces rich black soapstone blocks regularly. The blocks are small, and the product is easy to cut without a need for huge equipment.
Eventually Wes found a “fabrication” course offered by Regent Stone Products (GranQuartz). Scott Schuster Is a local rep legend. We’ve never met, but I’ve been hearing about him since I started in the business back in 2011. Scott is highly revered as one of the best in the business. Wes ventured down to Regent for this class which ended in a presentation of tooling available for purchase. Ironically, Wes bought nothing that day, but he knew he was excited and moving towards trying to make a career in this business.
Albemarle Countertop Co. was originally located off Market Street. The business wasn’t officially incorporated until 2005! Wes says his first shop in 2002 had zero showroom space. It was essentially a garage off the back with very little space and they had zero equipment. By spring 2003, Wes went to coverings and as he put it…” took all the classes, bought all the books, and paid for as much education he could cram into the few days of the show. He saw stone cutting equipment, loading equipment, finally learned what a clamp could do for his forklift! After that first show, he finally understood how it was supposed to be done. It all started to make sense. Wes walked away with as much Marble Institute of America (now the Natural Stone Institute) literature as he could pack in his suitcase and began to form a more organized business.
Returning to Charlottesville from the Coverings show, Wes started teaming up with a guy in Ohio buying Chinese blanks. We shared a lot of laughs during this part of the interview. The story of buying multitudes of G-682 (Golden Leaf) blanks. An era of stone when nomenclature was not the marketing scheme it is today. Wes would drive to Ohio to split up his share of the crates and drive the material back to Virginia to sell some kitchens and try to piece it all together. This is around the time he met another great stone historian (and one of my mentors), Keith Graves. He fondly remembers Keith's mild temperament during an emergency trying to find a match, explaining he wasn’t sure he has a match and he’d have to see what he could find in terms of additional materials.
Wes started to learn this style of "collaborative buy in" wasn’t the best way to buy granite materials and soapstone wasn’t always the best option for his customers. There was competition emerging in the area as well. Another fabricator opened behind a local Chinese restaurant (King Stone) offering the same G-682 amongst other color basics! While Albemarle didn’t want to be in the same category as the shop behind the Chinese restaurant, he felt validated someone else was offering the prefab option. 2004 arrived, Wes networked with SFA (Stone Fabricator’s Alliance), and he fondly remembers the early participation of the original members and the wealth of knowledge that they shared which gave him many legs up in understanding how natural stone works. He decided to invest and buy his first bridge saw and a Pro-Edge. Used equipment was the way to go and with a new Forklift, he was officially in business.
I asked Wes where he found customers…Charlottesville is an affluent city, and stone countertops certainly weren’t all the rage & were a luxury. Flyers were his number one selling technique, and he would stalk neighborhoods and hand deliver his flyers to mailboxes because unlike today that wasn’t illegal. He offered a “free sink” and had literally zero funds for advertising, but the flyers were enough to drum up enough business for him to puddle on down the road as a fabricator. In 2005, the demand for Corian dwindled and by 2006 enter the engineered quartz companies. First came Zodiaq and Caesarstone putting up towers in his little space.
Wes attended many shows like Stone Expo, SFA workshops and almost always went to Coverings to keep up on the latest in surfaces technology. Soapstone was still a top seller for his customized mentality but with increase in suppliers in the area, other materials were more available, but the pricing was VERY different than today. In 2006 he bought his first C&C Router from Park Industries and brand new.
This life changing tool cost him $185,000. I’m amazed how these machines hold their value over time. The investment in this saw changed the outlook of his fabrication business. He mentioned it is really what took him to the next level in providing countertops for the market.
Along came the crash of 2008, Wes remembers struggling to stay afloat, but he scrambled. His local bank ended up making him a high interest personal loan of $35,000 which Wes attests is the only way he survived the 1 and ½ years of misery after the crash infiltrated the marketplace. His landlord at the time floated his rent for 10 months. He got a little emotional describing the gratitude for the Charlottesville, VA community and their support through those, the toughest years of his career. It was the” people and the bank” he says. That’s the reason he is still in business today.
Gazing upon this gorgeous modern building he has today and a wonderful, happy, staff whom I can embrace with a full-on hug for each of them, it’s a beautiful success story. A man with a business, a business family, a place that makes a difference in the community which has made a difference for him. I spoke about the years to come. Wes wants to hopefully sell the shop one day. He hopes he can spend his time in between, before and after helping others. He hopes to mentor, to teach and to foster other young folks starting a business, or of course learning fabrication. He wants to pass on the gifts he has been given staying alive and thriving in business today.
The projects Wes gets to complete now look completely different from those early days. He’s about to embark on a residential project containing over $350,000 in stone materials. He describes his “box” as long and lean. While Albemarle can run larger scale commercial projects with wash, rinse, and repeat cycles, those aren’t the projects he looks for or strives for in business. The parameters of jobs he looks for are in the details. Availability of increase in artistry is his preference, but as any good business owner knows, we don’t always have the luxury of handpicking jobs. Photo Credit: Architectural Digest, July 28th 2017 - Naomi Watts NYC Apartment - ACC Collaboration project.
I asked Wes about his favorite stone and favorite piece of equipment thus far. “It has to be soapstone, Alison & the saw jet” we both chuckle as I already knew the answer. It’s not that the soapstone is the most beautiful nor that it’s local from our backyard even…it’s that it’s his beginnings and for that he will always ode to the Blue Ridge Mountains stone which helped him grow from Albemarle Countertop Company into Albemarle Stoneworks of 2023.
Check out these fabulous stone & tile industry trade shows if you are interested in learning more about our industry. See you there in 2024!