One question can launch Marty Davis into motion -- darting up ladders, side-stepping chutes and zigging around vacuum presses, diamond-polishing beds and rows of quartz slabs at his family's year-old Cambria stone plant in Le Sueur, Minn.
As co-owner and general manager of the new company, Davis, 37, is out to tackle the most minute problem and prove that Cambria can thrive among importers as the only U.S. maker of quartz countertops.
The start-up, which also makes quartz floors, resurrected a moribund technology and brought 100 jobs to Le Sueur and 50 to Eden Prairie. Still, Cambria stands as a $35 million gamble for its bankers and the family, which is better known for making cheese.
Three generations of Davises have made cheddar cheese for Kraft Foods. The company was started by Stanley Davis as a dairy business in 1943 and has continued with his son, Mark, and Mark's sons, Marty, Matt, Mitch and Jon.
Peel into a Kraft single, rip open a box of macaroni and cheese or dig into a "Lunch able" and Davis cheese is likely inside. Every minute, a 40-pound box of cheddar rattles off conveyors at the family's separately operated Davisco Foods plant a mile from Cambria.
Davisco, with $450 million in annual sales, also makes lactose, whey proteins and other ingredients for Hershey, Bisquick, baby formulas and even a Japanese yogurt firm.
The family's transition from cheese to stone marks its first non-food venture. Regardless, it quickly has won a following. Builders, homeowners and offices have praised the gleaming, granite-like product. And bankers familiar with the family were determined to lend a hand.
Wells Fargo financed part of the plant. LaSalle Bank installed quartz stone counters in its Minneapolis office and made a multimillion-dollar loan for equipment. The rest of the money came from the family.
"They make a good product. We are cautiously optimistic that they will make this work," said Ward Nixon, the banker for the family's cheese business who gave the nod on the personal loan. "If I had to bet on a jockey, they are not bad jockeys to bet on. They have proven a lot of skeptics wrong.
"Part of what makes these guys successful is that they are incredibly energetic. You could say stubborn," he said. "They bring a professionalism and a food-processing mentality to a business that seemingly could operate at a lower level."
Still, Nixon sees that the family must master entirely new distribution routes that tap contractors, designers and architects instead of food firms.
Cambria is making progress. It sells its upscale quartz products nationwide through 24 distributors and has one customer in Asia.
In Minnesota, Cambria has opened a marketing office in Eden Prairie, launched commercials on WCCO radio and built kitchen and bathroom vanities for several Parade of Homes houses this year. Its counters and floors also appeared at the recent Home and Garden Show in Minneapolis.
Next month, Cambria will open finishing shops in Chicago and Atlanta. Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and Phoenix are on the horizon.
The journey has been swift but purposeful.
"We think we are too dependent on one industry," said Jon Davis, 32, general manager of Davisco's cheese division. "We thought it would be nice to be more diversified."
The start of something