Made in the Tri-States: Local company starts in ‘stone age,’ evolves into major operation

Rickey Carner cuts a piece of granite at Mountaintop Stoneworks. The Dubuque business was started more than 20 years ago by Bob Breitbach and Eric Christensen. It makes items such as countertops and shower products out of a variety of stone. PHOTO CREDIT: Dave Kettering

More than 20 years ago, Bob Breitbach and Eric Christensen launched a new Dubuque business in an emerging but little-known industry.

Mountaintop Stoneworks opened within a cramped, 1,200-square-foot space at 400 Harrison St. The tiny location housed the shop floor as well as a dusty, makeshift office.

Breitbach and Christensen kept their day jobs and dedicated their nights to the new business. Back then, it was hard to envision what the enterprise would one day become.

“When I look back on it, it almost seems like we started this business in the Stone Age,” Breitbach said with a laugh.

Mountaintop Stoneworks now employs 10 workers and operates in a 15,000-square-foot space along Harrison Street in Dubuque.

The staff creates kitchen countertops, vanities, shower pieces and windowsills, among other things. These products are created using a wide variety of stone, including granite, quartz, quartzite, soapstone and marble.

During the past 21 years, the business has grown by leaps and bounds.

“Our sales over the last decade have grown 6 to 10% a year,” Breitbach said.

A TEAM APPROACH

Breitbach said this growth is only possible because of the employees, noting that they have developed “a great team over the years.”

Sales manager Kurt Behning joined Mountaintop Stoneworks about six years ago. During that time, he has seen the diverse range of clientele to which the company’s products appeal.

Mountaintop Stoneworks serves both commercial and residential clients. The latter range from retirees to young, first-time homeowners. Either way, the emphasis on communication is the same.

“We try to help educate all those people along the way,” Behning said. “We try to personally get to know each and every customer. We think we do a really good job of that.”

Behning said customers have a wide variety of stone from which to choose.

A significant portion of the product comes from South America, with Brazil serving as the most common point of origin. However, Mountaintop Stoneworks draws from just about everywhere in the world to find the right products.

The selection continues to evolve.

Behning said sintered stone represents the latest hot item in the industry. The organic, man-made product was used to form the mountain landscape on the business’ facade and is becoming increasingly popular in homes across the country.

“The materials are ever-changing,” Behning said.

SLOW AND STEADY

At Mountaintop Stoneworks, the growth has been slow but steady.

Since the business started in the late 1990s, it has expanded within its same location four times. The latest major expansion to the footprint took place about nine years ago.

Breitbach occasionally marvels at how far the company has come.

“We started out as a very small business and grew to a pretty substantial operation today,” he said.

When the business started, the industry was so immature that merely getting products to Dubuque served as a major challenge.

Breitbach and Christensen couldn’t find anyone to deliver stone to Dubuque. Instead, they had to drive a trailer to Chicago and bring the product back. Occasionally, they’d take customers on the three-hour trip so they could survey stoneyards and pick out product.

Today the stone is delivered weekly, Breitbach said.

Mountaintop Stoneworks also has purchased new equipment and refined its processes through the years.

Breitbach recalls cutting stone with a rail saw on his hands and knees when the business first opened. The process looks far different today.

“It used to take 30 to 40 minutes to make one cut,” Breitbach recalled. “Now with the equipment we have, it takes about 25 seconds.”

From start to finish, the process of creating a vanity, countertop or other product requires customer interaction and extreme precision.

The process begins with a “template” that establishes a vision and design for the final product. Staff generally pay a visit to a customer’s home and works frequently with the homeowners to establish a plan for the project.

Stones arrived at the business in large slabs. They are cut to approximate length using a bridge saw and later altered to precise specifications using CNC equipment.

Given the materials used, putting the stone in place can require some heavy lifting.

“Getting the stone from the truck to the house is a big part of where the challenge lies,” Breitbach said.

Looking forward, Breitbach expects that the company will continue to grow and evolve.

The business is energized by its surroundings. The recent arrival of RF2 Furniture Warehouse next door has helped created a home improvement district of sorts, where customers can stop at multiple businesses to address everything from furniture to tile and countertop needs.

“We’re always looking at new opportunities and thinking about what is next,” Breitbach said.