Carving a company's future in stone
After 35 years, Teresa Van Vleet-Danos prepares to turn over control of a steady Des Moines business
Friday, July 06, 2012 7:00 AM
After 27 years running a company where everything but the business plan is cut in stone, Teresa Van Vleet-Danos is planning for a future that doesn’t include being in the office every day for 70 hours a week.
Rowat Cut Stone and Marble Co. has occupied a spot on Southeast Seventh Street in Des Moines since 1882, supplying first limestone, then granite, marble and other natural stones.
It remained in the Rowat family, passing from father to son to son until 1984, when Van Vleet-Danos followed her fancy for exquisite rock, took a job in sales and eventually used her bonus money and a family loan to buy the company in 1986.
She had the experience, having worked at Sunderland Bros. Co. in Omaha for 12 years, first as a secretary and eventually as a yard manager. She understood the needs of contractors, designers and architects, and individuals who wanted to grace their fireplace mantels, patios, pools and fountains with something permanent.
Van Vleet-Danos turns 60 this year. She wants some time to pursue other interests.
A couple of years ago, she started to think about succession plans.
Also, “I needed an assistant,” she said, someone who could take care of business while she explored areas for the company to expand into, tend to the creative side of stone and work on projects unrelated to Rowat.
“No one in my family was interested in the company,” she said.
In addition, she didn’t want to sell to outsiders.
“I was afraid it would be stripped of value. I have seen that happen to other companies,” Van Vleet-Danos said. “They blow them up, sell them off … it’s never a fraction of what it used to be. That wouldn’t meet anybody’s needs.”
Van Vleet-Danos is in transition mode now.
“It’s hard to let go, but I have to start thinking about the future of the company,” she said.
Several years ago, she turned to advertising and marketing firm Flynn Wright Inc. to handle the marketing chores she had performed.
Late last year, she brought on David Gaer as manager. He now is general manager, but not yet a partner.
“So far, I’m happy and Dave is happy and his family is happy,” Van Vleet-Danos said.
Gaer left Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc. to join Rowat.
“I didn’t know a thing about stone,” Gaer said. “But I do understand business.”
Andy Flynn, president and CEO of Flynn Wright, is the mutual friend who suggested Gaer for the job.
The stone business has been something of a quick study for Gaer, and why not. Who could escape the fascination of watching stone carvers chisel intricate designs into a slab of limestone? Large machines take over on many time-consuming and routine processes, and in some cases, elaborate designs can be programmed into the computers that tell the equipment how to operate.
Rowat employs about 27 people, including three men who carve stone by hand.
Van Vleet-Danos has steered the company through the Great Recession and the declining construction market that accompanied it.
Rowat became a supplier of manufactured granite countertops for Home Depot Inc., the company’s one bow to mass production.
Van Vleet-Danos said the arrangement with Home Depot helped get the company through the tough times, but she also said that she shunned contracts with companies that were mass-producing residential and commercial properties because she wasn’t convinced they could survive. She was wise to trust her business instincts.
“This isn’t the only downturn that I’ve gone through,” she said. “You have to learn to change to survive, and we did.”
Another key to Rowat’s longevity – and its future – is that its employees are good representatives in the community, delivering and installing stonework.
“At the end of the day, they’re the face of this company,” Gaer said.
So when will the end of the day come for Van Vleet-Danos as head of the company she has led for 35 years?
She’s in no rush to leave.
“I’m thinking sometime in the next five years,” she said.
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