By Sarah Peiper
Chris Nelson started as a tile installer at the age of 19. Within a few years, he received his contractors license, and he quickly became accomplished at the trade. Chris worked hard to grow his clientele, and even during the 2008 downturn, he managed to grow the company and stay busy. He began to see a lot of solid surface and slab countertops showing up in the marketplace, and at the time, he subbed that work out to a fabricator. When that fabrication business announced its closure, Chris saw an opportunity. He bought them out and looked forward to expanding his business.
By 2011, Chris expanded by becoming a displaying dealer, showing tile from a small showroom. He began to acquire some Pacific Northwest tile vendors. Around this time, he leased another small shop and started working with stone countertops. Chris learned the trade from the ground up, learning from his mentors and industry connections. When another nearby stone shop shuttered, he purchased their used equipment. Within a year, he expanded to a more extensive showroom.
The new location, where Nelson Tile and Stone currently resides, was completely renovated by Chris and his team. They’re now able to show both tile and stone samples from their showroom. Three years later, Jennifer joined Chris, bringing her knowledge of plumbing to the business. By 2017, this growth led to system upgrades throughout the company; the Nelsons added a Northwood FabCenter to the production line and LPI’s LT-2D3D laser templator. They installed Moraware software to support growing sales. In addition, a large inventory of slabs was added to the back of the property where people could shop local instead of driving three hours to Portland.
Meanwhile, Jennifer focused on making sure every client got a full-service treatment by adding plumbing fixtures, installation and all peripherals needed to complete a kitchen remodel. Today, Nelson Tile and Stone employs 12 people and has outgrown its current space, so they’ve purchased land nearby to build a new production facility and showroom. They expect to complete this expansion in late 2022. They have high hopes for the new space, and they’re thinking strategically about how they attract their customers. “Nelson Tile and Stone is our name, but we want to make sure people understand that we’re a full-service operation with all kinds of offerings,” said Jennifer. “We have plans to brand our showroom as a kitchen and bath destination so that we reach a wider audience. We’re not just tile and stone anymore.”
Outside of tile, Nelson Tile and Stone primarily work with natural stone and quartz, but they also work with granite, porcelain and others. “We do about 30 kitchens per month,” said Chris. “About 75% of our jobs use quartz. Our market is mostly retail and residential, where we can take a greater market share. And with a background in tile, we have a unique advantage of being able to do a large format porcelain slab on shower walls.” Their widened scope with plumbing pays off, too. “A typical job has us demo-ing the shower, having the plumber come in to move plumbing, and then we return to finish the walls and tile the floor for a pretty fast turnaround on the project,” added Chris.
“We’ve seen major growth from offering limited square footage material in popular colors. We have six colors we show, and we probably use them on 80% of our jobs,” said Jennifer. “That way, customers can see the whole slab at once, instead of a small sample. Once we walk them to the area, we often return with a sale. Our colors are varied enough that one will usually be the winner. We’re very intentional about the colors we offer, which has translated to sales very well. Jobs run smoother. It has cut down on supply issues by having material in stock. Our vendor can better keep track of supply levels for us, and since most vendors are over three hours away, this has been a terrific advantage.”
“We’re a pretty strong partner with MSI,” said Chris. “They’ve done a great job keeping styles current and pricing fair. Since their strength is in larger volume pricing, our square footage program has worked well. Currently, the warmer colors and marble looks have been the strongest sellers with our clients.”
It’s All About the Upsell
About 80% of Nelson’s jobs have added products. They’ve created direct partnerships with plumbing supply companies so that they can cut out the middleman. Besides sinks and faucets, Nelson Tile and Stone can supply garbage disposals, air switches, instant hot water dispensers and more. They project-manage the plumbing and sometimes even the cabinetry. Nelson Tile and Stone has positioned themselves to handle the entire scope of a remodel.
Located in the middle of Oregon, Nelson Tile and Stone is about two to three hours away from the major cities in the state. Their service area covers about 30 miles with a population of about 150,000. “There are several fabricators in our area; I’d estimate 15 shops,” said Chris. There are only two shops that take care of the plumbing, tile and countertops. This gives the Nelsons an edge with clients who need full service. They appreciate being able to do it all in one place. “Providing a turnkey experience seems to be important in these remodels,” added Jennifer. “Before we did things this way, it was common to run into problems where the client hadn’t considered the whole process, and so they’d be left holding the bag and looking for a service, such as a plumber, late in the game.”
Staying at the Forefront
“We love being in the kitchen and bath industry,” said Jennifer. “We go to KBIS every year so we can connect with vendors and learn about new products. It has been a game-changer for our business as it enables us to bring in new products that nobody else around us has; it sets us apart from the competition.”
For instance, Nelson has an island in the showroom that completely lights up. Offering accent lighting, backlit products and other specialty details elevates the typical install, says Jennifer. They’re the only vendor in Oregon that offers the Pitt Cooking System, a cooktop with burners that mount directly on the countertop. They stock innovative sinks like Top Zero and all kinds of other workstation options. Their showroom has a boutique experience unlike anyone else in their area. “It leaves the client feeling we have a good grip on the majority of their kitchen and bath remodel,” said Jennifer.
“We are also proud members of ISFA,” said Jennifer. “Because our market is close and competitive, connecting with other shop owners who are not in our region has been a huge bonus. We’ve come away with valuable information from every event we’ve attended with ISFA. This year, we made a point to go to the ISFA Annual Conference for the first time, and it was a meaningful experience to connect with other fabricators and industry experts.”
For Nelson Tile and Stone, finding success has always been rooted in innovating and thinking outside the box. It’s what motivated their transition from tile countertops to slabs, as well as adding plumbing. While everyone else was letting plumbing supply houses control the pricing, the Nelson team was determined to think differently. More control in those areas made significant differences in how smooth the jobs went and ultimately the margins of each job.
“Sometimes our industry feels safe from what other businesses are suffering from like online sales, knockoffs and job minimizations because of automation,” said Chris. “However, I think there are still ways to innovate and be a little disruptive to the market. It’s the disrupters that are finding success in today’s market. And because we are still a fairly new industry, I think we should continue to find new ways of doing things that set us apart and generate more profits in meaningful ways. Offering luxury items and elevating the customer experience beyond the typical industrial shop persona goes a long way. It’s why we are focused on a good showroom experience. It may not be for every fabricator, but it’s worked well for us.”
For more information about Nelson Tile and Stone, visit www.nelsontileandstone.com.