Matt Qualey says he has never made traditional business decisions.
He dropped out of graduate school, abandoning a potentially lucrative career in clinical neuropsychology, and invested in a monument business in Bangor in 2003.
When the economy tanked in 2008, he expanded and bought the biggest building he could find.
Now, as Qualey prepares to expand Qualey Granite & Quartz to Portland, he is budgeting for failure rather than banking on success.
It’s an unusual approach to business by a man who was named Maine’s Small Business Person of the Year by the Small Business Administration.
“I’ve never had a business philosophy. I’m a counter-indicator for traditional business decisions,” he said. “We kind of plan on this failing. We brace for the worst, just in case.”
Qualey Granite & Quartz of Veazie will soon open the Maine Stone Design Center in Portland as a wholesale showroom and work center for designers.
“We’re taking the ‘Field of Dreams’ approach: build it and hopefully they’ll come,” Qualey said. “We need to be able to serve all the state, and this allows us to cover southern Maine in a more thorough way.”
The Maine Stone Design Center will give designers a chance to see more than 150 slabs of natural stone and Cambria-brand quartz for countertops and other interior home accents. It also will showcase samples of the products in model kitchens and bathrooms to give designers ideas.
All of the company’s manufacturing will continue to be done in Veazie, near Bangor, where Qualey employs 18 to 20 workers. The expansion to Portland will add about five employees. Qualey would not disclose his revenues or forecasts for the new facility.
“This model will be very fluid. If it gets to the point where we need more people on the ground in Portland, we can do that,” he said.
The expansion will help the company better serve southern Maine, New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts. Its facility in Veazie has relied on demand in northern Maine and in Canada, which Qualey said never suffered the same recession as the United States.
Qualey said he started thinking about a Portland location almost as soon as he opened in Veazie. But finding the right spot was a challenge. He wanted to be in Portland, not the outskirts, and went through three purchase agreements that fell apart before he found the 15,000-square-foot leased space on Pine Tree Industrial Parkway, he said.
The biggest difference between Portland and Bangor? “Everything in Portland is five times as expensive,” he said.
Qualey Granite & Quartz processes 1,500 slabs of granite a year, about 1,000 square feet a week. Five years ago, weekly production was 250 to 350 square feet.
“We are getting more and more market share,” Qualey said. “Realtors are our best friends – they almost assault clients who don’t have granite countertops. It’s become the standard.”
Vicki Bessette, vice president of business services for Bangor Savings Bank, nominated Qualey for the SBA Small Business Person of the Year award because of his hard work, integrity and business sense.
“He’s been able to grow at a bad time in the economy and provide jobs,” Bessette said.
“Qualey has done an outstanding job growing his company through hard work, determination and meeting the needs of an ever-changing market,” Marilyn Geroux, the Small Business Administration’s district director for Maine, said in a prepared statement.
When asked about the award, Qualey doesn’t dwell on himself. He just notes that he has come a long way from his family’s potato farm in Aroostook County.
“This has been a wild ride,” he said. “Going to college and grad school was a big deal for my family, but I was bored to tears.”
Qualey was studying for his Ph.D. in clinical neuropsychology at the University of Maine when he started working for a stonemason. That appealed to him much more than his studies, and he dropped out of school.
He started doing landscaping to help raise money to buy a monument shop in Bangor. When Qualey Granite & Quartz started in 2003, it focused on exterior stone work for walls and patios, before adding countertops, fireplaces and shower-surrounds.
Within a year and a half, Qualey’s partner, a stone worker, left the business. That forced Qualey to step up his training and learn stone cutting himself so he could fill orders.
“We rode a wave of physicians in Bangor buying homes or camps or renovating homes and putting in granite countertops. Without that influx of business, we wouldn’t have grown into what we are today,” Qualey said.
Another big step was getting funding. In 2006, the company got a $200,000 SBA-guaranteed loan through Bangor Savings Bank. In 2010, the company moved into its warehouse and design center in Veazie.
Qualey wasn’t afraid to invest in his business. The company bought a CNC machine, which Qualey describes as a $500,000 router and the best investment he’s ever made, and invested in software that allows customers to see their chosen slabs of granite in their kitchen plans.
Having two locations in the state will help Qualey Granite & Quartz compete against companies such as Blue Rock of Maine in Kennebunk, Bangor Wholesale Laminates and Morning Star Stone and Tile in Topsham, Qualey said.
With the Portland facility preparing for its grand opening later this month, Qualey, the exclusive supplier of the Cambria brand of natural stone products in Maine, is already planning more locations, but he won’t say where.
“If this one does well, we’ll have three to four facilities. At that point, it may have grown to the point that it makes sense to sell it,” Qualey said.
Earlier this year, the company scrapped its retail operations after 10 years of selling directly to consumers. The decision helped Qualey Granite & Quartz win new clients such as the S.W. Collins building supply company, Qualey said.
“Pulling the plug on retail was necessary to help us grow. We needed to stop being in the position where we were seen as competing with our customers,” he said.
Qualey is quiet and reserved. His rescue dog, a greyhound named Baron, is close to his side at all times. And he doesn’t seem wowed by his own success.
He and his wife, Laurie, are involved in the Bangor Humane Society and giving money to help animal rescue groups.
“I’m not interested in camps and cars,” he said. “We’re interested in giving it all away.”
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:[email protected]