Few people look at a hole in the ground and see opportunity. However, Chuck Lewis and his partners thought they could make it work.
In 2016, the quartet of investors bought the debt of a stone quarry operation out of foreclosure, rebranded it Patapsco Natural Stone, and set their minds to turning the business around. Now, in its second full year of operations, the company is on track to turn out roughly 8,000 tons of stone products annually.
The original permit for Patapsco’s Marriottsville operation in Howard County was issued in 1958, but the more historic Butler quarry in Baltimore County dates back to the 1800s. Over the years, stone and granite from these quarries has been featured prominently across the region in the facades of schools, churches and several Morgan State University buildings, and even in the rock-climbing wall at the Bass Pro Shop at Arundel Mills.
It’s once again showing up in new large-scale construction projects, most recently in retaining walls at Columbia’s Blandair Regional Park and at Goucher College, in Towson.
The stone produced by the 19-acre Marriottsville surface mine is an eye-catching metamorphic quartzite consisting of mica, feldspar, tourmaline and quartz.
With its pleasing earth tones, light scattering of mica flecks and a rugged durability that resists weathering and stands up to salt air atmospheres like those of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, it’s a natural choice for outdoor walls and walkways, Lewis said. He added that the company can provide any type of finish or edge that customers want for outdoor use or landscaping.
“The fact that it’s local is another great selling point,” he said.
Putting Patapsco Natural Stone on the right path required some tough decisions, Lewis said: right-sizing the business, paying closer attention to market drivers and, more importantly, optimizing utilization.
“We sold off the machines that were too big or too small, and got the right equipment for the right jobs,” Lewis said. “Just by changing a couple of things, we were able to get productivity up by about 30%, and we’ve got more changes planned further down the line.”
The changes have drastically reduced the amount of waste product — smaller chunks, called spall — that the manufacturing process produces, but even spall has its uses.
“A lot of it gets used in streambeds, and quite a few truckloads were used to restore the Patapsco riverbed after the Ellicott City flood,” he said.
Similar to the stone it quarries, the company’s sales model is also blended, a mix of wholesale, retail, contractor and custom orders. “About 90% of our product stays in the local region,” Lewis said, although orders have also been shipped further afield to projects in North Carolina,and as far away as San Antonio and San Francisco.
Patapsco Natural Stone currently employs 10 workers and plans to expand to 13 in the near future.
Moving away from the highly competitive granite and countertop market, Patapsco began placing more emphasis on its flagstone, cut stone, natural stone strips and natural veneers. A showpiece counter in the company’s sales office constructed of stones quarried on site also serves as a functional product display.
“We shifted our product focus to align more with the market and what was best for the company,” Lewis said.
At Blandair, as at other historic sites, the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks has made a conscious effort to source construction materials as closely as possible.
“It’s always our preference, because it helps return government funding to the community to support local businesses, and it’s a matter of economics when it comes to shipping heavy materials long distances,” said Director John Byrd. “It also made great sense to use stone from the Marriottsville quarry in the retaining walls to help us tie in that sense of local heritage.”
Although it’s not known where stones used in the historic Blandair Mansion and other buildings on the site originally came from, Byrd said interpretation signage planned for the park will likely highlight the origin of the stones in the retaining walls.
Pallets of Patapsco Natural Stone products are among the materials that contractors and do-it-yourselfers encounter seasonally at Frank’s Produce & Greenhouse, in Elkridge, and year-round at The Stone Store, in Hanover.
“We regularly pick up thin wall stone and flagstone from the Marriottsville quarry,” said Stone Store Operations Manager Kevin Scott. “It’s definitely very durable and very desirable. People do like the look of it with its color variations, and especially the way the mica chips sparkle when the sun hits it.”
Scott has also observed that people shopping for project materials frequently lean toward a local stone product when they have a choice.
“Sometimes people find it hard to select one product over another when they’re designing something,” he said. “For some of the customers we’ve seen, the fact that Patapsco Natural Stone is a local product has definitely been the tipping point for them.”
Pies ’n Loaves
Now that Patapsco Natural Stone is beginning to gain visibility in the market, Lewis and his partners are considering new ways to get their brand noticed.
Coming out of the recession, “people are still spending money on renovating or upgrading their houses, and they’re not necessarily looking to move,” Lewis said. “Plus, the price point of materials has now come more in line with peoples’ ability to action their plans, so that presents us with a unique opportunity.”
The popularity of do-it-yourself shows on television has continued to feed that trend, and consequently word-of-mouth advertising has driven a lot of customers to Patapsco Natural Stone with a lot of different ideas.
With that in mind, the partners are preparing to launch their own do-it-yourself product line in the spring, starting with a pizza and bread oven. “It comes as a kit for the interior structure,” Lewis said. “We’ll hook up the customer with a mason, and they’ll use our stone on the outside. Everybody likes to grill, and a lot of people have told us they’d also like to bake their own bread or pizza outdoors. So, this is our answer.”
Potential customers will have a chance to learn more about the company and its products firsthand in August, Lewis said, when the owners plan to operate a display booth at the Howard County Fair.