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Continued: Cambria is rocking with bigger plant, more workers

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 28, 2012 - 1:58 PM

Quartz countertop maker Cambria might have limped through the recession but it's now running full tilt with yet another expansion that will double its Le Sueur, Minn., factory by April.

An army of bright yellow backhoes, 20-wheel spreaders, and compactors descended on the factory off Hwy. 169 two weeks ago to start the building and equipment project that will add 375,000 square feet.

The $121 million expansion is the second in five years for the plant, which is benefiting from overwhelming demand for Cambria countertops. In 2007, the company spent $45million doubling the Le Sueur factory to 325,000 square feet and adding 290 jobs.

The new project will add 220 workers to the 750 now spread across the company. It also will add two production lines and speed up orders. Depending on the stone design, some back orders take four to six months to fill.

"We are rocking. Cambria is doing over 10,000 kitchens a month," said Marty Davis, president of the Cambria entity his family founded after buying stone fabrication equipment from bankrupt Technimar Industries in 1999.

The expansion is the latest in a series of investments for the Davis family, which is involved in an assortment of businesses ranging from dairy to airlines to mortgage financing.

Cambria's 800-pound quartz countertops are snatching market share from companies that make granite, marble and manufactured stone countertops. Five years ago, Cambria had nearly 60 stone designs. Today, it has more than 100 that resemble marble, granite and simple flat stone. Sales have grown from $100 million in 2005 to nearly $200 million a year thanks to brisk business in the United States, Canada, Russia, Ireland, the Netherlands and Dubai.

The spike in demand "is nice, but you have some retailers who are frustrated because we are back ordered on some designs. Hopefully they are willing to wait," Davis said. Jumping from two to four production lines will help.

That's quite a change since the recession when house construction stalled and homeowners put off kitchen and bath remodeling projects that called for Cambria quartz. The company laid off 60 workers.

But by fall 2010, all were rehired and employment grew as the recovery found its footing. Today, "business is up by a multiple of three since the recession," Davis said.

On a recent Thursday, a yellow hopper dropped what looked like cookie dough into a massive molding pan that was shaken, baked, cooled, cut and polished by a series of buzzing, bus-sized machines. Every two minutes, conveyers carried a fresh gleaming slab with shimmering flecks down the factory toward the warehouse.

In a few months, the south wall of that warehouse will be dismantled and connected with the new addition.

"I think that is phenomenal. It's great," said Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. "They are on the cutting edge of quartz technology and it's pushing these granite [companies]," Phillips said.

Plant manager Butch Brey has been with Cambria since its inception, yet he still marvels at the changes. With new stone designs featuring swirls, iridescent pops and "wild" random movement, sales "just cranked up and we've been cranking and running every hour of every day," Brey said.

On a recent visit, Le Sueur Mayor Bob Oberle examined Cambria's blueprints for the addition and beamed.

"We are ecstatic to hear of an economic input of that size into this town. We are just over 4,000 people, but we have a pretty enviable industrial base, which this enhances," he said. "With this project, I am pretty sure this makes their combined family operations the largest employer in town."

Flurry of business activity

And the Davis family has been on quite the tear lately, buying Sun Country Airlines for $34 million 13 months ago and a pet food plant owned by Mars Co. this summer. Cambria will use the site to crush and process quartz shipped in from Turkey and across North America.

The company's mortgage and consumer finance business is also flourishing after a questionable start in 2009. The Eden Prairie-based division now has 70 employees and processes about 100 applications a month for first or second homes and kitchen and bath remodels, said Cambria Mortgage President John Schroeder.

The transition "has been tough, there is no doubt about that," Schroeder said. "But now, the business piece that has really boomed is mortgage refinance. Rates have been really low."

The flurry of activity created by Cambria has rubbed off on other businesses in Le Sueur, Oberle said.

Sanofi is expanding its pet pharmaceutical lab and adding 10 to 20 workers. And Scott's Helicopter Co. just bought the rights to manufacture and design components of the Bell 47 helicopter from a Texas company no longer interested in the aircraft. A few engineers have been hired for that project.

And now heavy construction machines are tearing up the ground by Cambria. Before the news became official, Oberle said, "We just heard rumors. But we knew there was some really good news coming."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

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