By Sarah Peiper
Top Priority, Inc. was founded in 2008 by Chino Haynes, who has been in the countertop industry for over 30 years. Born and raised in California, he started doing countertops as a teenager in San Diego while working for his dad. When he moved to Hawaii at age 18, he pursued the trade, working for several companies until he opened his own business. Chino got his start in thermoforming, custom lamination and solid surface. Since then, he’s expanded to several materials, including stone, porcelain, quartz and more. He’s a certified fabricator who built his business from the ground up.
The Islands’ Premier Surface Fabricator
Top Priority is located in Waipahu on the south side of Hawaii’s most populated island of Oahu. There are more than 20 fabricators operating on Oahu, but Top Priority is the island’s only fabricator of both stone and solid surface, which gives them a competitive advantage. They can offer alternatives in materials and support their market more comprehensively. Chino does not see a downside to diversification; it’s only positioned them to be a stronger, more well-rounded outfit.
The company currently supports 25 employees running in two divisions: the Solid Surface Division (Dry Shop) and the Stone Division (Wet Shop). Top Priority services all of the Hawaiian Islands, including Oahu, Maui, Hawaii Island, Molokai, Lanai and Kauai. About 85% of their business is on Oahu. They fabricate materials ranging from granite, quartzite, quartz, marble, porcelain, sintered stone and solid surface. On average, they fabricate and install 6000 square feet of manufactured and natural stone per month and 2000 square feet of solid surface per month.
Top Priority strives to stay ahead of the competition by working smarter using leading fabrication technologies. They’ve outfitted the shop with Park Industries’ Saberjet XP 5-axis CNC water saw, the Fastback II flat edge polisher, a Titan 3700 CNC router, and they’ve just added a Titan 3800 CNC router. On the tech side, they use Moraware’s CounterGo with Job Well Done and Databridge integration and SlabSmith with Slabcloud.
While about half of Top Priority’s staff has been with the company for 10 years or more, filling openings and finding the right employees can be a challenge in a limited labor pool. “You want someone dedicated to the work,” clarified Chino. “And so you need to make sure you are providing them with the right training and tools to do their job and enabling them to succeed on a daily basis.” Chino tips his hat to Tiffanie Gardner, operations manager, for dedicating time and effort to documenting processes and standard operating procedures around the shop. “It’s how we train our employees and keep focused on the work and the right way to do it,” added Tiffanie. “It eliminates so much confusion.”
Company culture is only as good as the final product, according to Chino, and the Top Priority team prides itself in being second to none. The staff is committed to upholding the standards he sets, and there is a strong admiration for how he and his managers lead by example. “It’s an open and honest environment with mutual respect,” explained Tiffanie. “We aspire to be a part of Chino’s team because he is so great at what he does.” They keep team meetings light but productive with a relaxed format, and they make it a point to celebrate birthdays and other milestones and just kick back once in a while. “There is aloha in everything we do for each other and our customers,” added Chino. “We have built really strong relationships with one another and upheld our position within the community. All of us are committed to representing our scope of work and Top Priority in the best way possible, and that’s a general unifier for our team.”
Hawaii is one of the most remote locations on the planet, more than 2,000 miles away from the closest point on the mainland U.S., so it’s not surprising that the supply chain can be delicate. “We are fortunate to have good distribution for materials here on the islands,” said Chino. While it can be challenging to stock materials, Chino says that, for the most part, it’s not a problem.
That’s because expectations are managed right from the start. Top Priority works closely with material manufacturers and distributors, and they build in longer lead times to accommodate shipping and distribution logistics. “If it’s a material not stocked here, then we’re just upfront about the extra time that might take to source,” added Tiffanie.
Due to the nature of the island geography, projects on neighboring islands are a bit more complicated, too. Depending on the scope of the job, project managers and installers have to fly over to where the job site is located — it’s not a matter of loading a truck and hitting the road with the crew. According to Tiffanie, crate and freight can be a three-day process from island to island. When the installation process takes longer, that means overnight stays.
“We have a project on Maui, a new high school,” added Tiffanie. “It’s 16 two-story buildings. Our project manager will probably make 32 trips just to do the measuring, one floor at a time as they get completed. If there are any changes to the design or delays on the millwork side, it throws off our schedule and increases our costs.” While uncertainties complicate things, as they always do with commercial projects, Top Priority manages up and submits change orders for increases in costs incurred when extra trips to the job site are required. “Good communication is key,” said Tiffanie. “But the administration part of it can get bulky.” To minimize conflicts, they sometimes require certain parts of the project to be completed before they get on the job.
Partnering in Paradise
Top Priority doesn’t currently offer any additional in-house contracting services. Instead, they partner with other contractors to handle demolition, plumbing and electrical for their projects. To ease the process, they can project manage and bill directly, so the customer doesn’t have to source and manage multiple vendors.
Chino says upselling is critical to their smaller general contractor partners, kitchen and bath, and home center accounts. “We have a project manager assigned to each of our business channels,” explained Chino. “These relationships help build the scope of a project, suggest additional solutions, upsell and, of course, increase margins.” Top Priority services both major home centers — The Home Depot and Lowe’s — and other kitchen and bath outfits, including Hawaii’s Homeowners Design Center and smaller general contractors like Home Works Construction and Hardware Lumber Maui.
For larger projects, they work with several construction groups across the islands. Chino and his team see some government and military contracts as well.
About 45% of Top Priority’s business is existing residential remodels; 25% comes from new developments; 30% is commercial or government contracts.
On the islands, the most popular surfaces are quartz products from Caesarstone and Viatera, and Cosentino’s Silestone. These account for most of their developer and commercial specifications, with a smattering of HIMACS solid surface in the mix. They see a lot of MSI, Cambria and Daltile granite coming in from home center accounts, and sintered stone is trending as well.
“Hawaii is unique when it comes to design,” explained Tiffanie. “We don’t necessarily follow every trend that comes from the mainland. Some things, sure. Everyone is on-trend with the calacattas or the grays. But Hawaii has a lot of influence from Polynesia, which embraces an island flare, and Asia, which means simple, sleek and streamlined. High-end kitchens will boast rich, native Koa hardwoods and natural stone elements. There’s so much diversity here, so there are a lot of different approaches to design.”
In Hawaiian, “Mālama ‘Āina” means “to care for the land.” The culture on the islands is rooted in pride and respect for the air, land and sea and everything that lives here — plants, animals and people.
For Top Priority, this means being mindful of the environmental impact they have. There are voltaic solar solutions installed on the roof of the warehouse. Their office space is built with recycled shipping containers. They recycle water in the Wet Shop, and they are looking to invest in a new, more extensive water system to handle capacity.
Chino has been looking at new ways to recycle offal material as well. Oahu has limited capacity for waste disposal with only one small landfill dedicated to construction materials. “We can spend north of $2,000 per month for offal disposal,” he added. “So we’re looking at adding a stone grinder to create aggregate to minimize waste and put it to good use.”
Meanwhile, they do what they can to make a difference by donating usable remnants to Re-use Hawaii and Habitat for Humanity. “We also have members of our staff who volunteer for these programs,” added Chino. “It’s important to give back and do what you can to make a difference.”
Customer Focused: Everyone is ‘Ohana
Hawaii is a unique market as a strong sense of community and preservation of “’ohana” (family) is … top priority. It’s a powerful driver for how you do business. Word of mouth is perhaps the most vital marketing channel. Chino and his team have built a reputation for being the best at what they do by delivering quality work and building strong relationships.
Top Priority’s strategy for success — what sets them apart from other fabricators — is constantly innovating to bring the best service to their customers. They lead the market in technology, employee education and project management from start to finish. “We are a skilled, competitive and fun, family-oriented organization,” said Chino. “We stay grounded by keeping a close watch on the trends of our industry, cultivating relationships across all builder channels, training for knowledge and efficiency, and providing our team members all the education, tools and support to be successful in each role. But none of that matters without happy customers who come back to us for other projects and refer us to their friends and family.”
Despite Top Priority’s remote location, Chino believes it’s essential to participate in as many associations, groups and events as possible; this connects them to other industry professionals, training opportunities, business strategy discussions and more. “It’s not always possible to make it to every mainland event,” added Chino. “But it’s a company goal to attend more.” Chino wants to see and be seen—not only as Hawaii’s largest countertop fabricator but also as a contributing player on a national scale.
Top Priority is a proud member of the International Surface Fabricators Association (ISFA), and they regularly attend ISFA Mixers, workshops and webinars. Two Top Priority staffers, including Tiffanie, serve on ISFA’s events committee. “ISFA has been a reliable resource for us,” said Tiffanie. “I reached out to ISFA for help with commercial job specifications and documentation, and they put me in touch with some mentors who helped me learn how to tackle big projects like these. I really enjoy the camaraderie the association facilitates.”
“The business has grown so much. We are so thankful,” said Chino. “We are grateful for our customers, our employees, our distributors and everyone in the business who helps us succeed at doing what we love.”