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Longtime aggregate producer ventures into dimensional stone

By |  February 25, 2020
More than 100 years ago, Phenix Marble relied on about 200 employees to produce roughly 200,000 cu. ft. of dimensional stone per year. Now, the company is capable of functioning with four employees. Photo: P&Q Staff

More than 100 years ago, Phenix Marble relied on about 200 employees to produce roughly 200,000 cu. ft. of dimensional stone per year. Now, the company is capable of functioning with four employees. Photo: P&Q Staff

Chris Upp had worked in quarries his entire career, and those sites had been exclusively of the crushed stone, sand and gravel variety.

Well, that was the case up until a few years ago at least.

Conco Companies recently revived a local dimensional stone operation located between Ash Grove and Walnut Grove, Missouri. According to Upp, the operation was established in 1888 as Phenix Stone & Lime, but it had been mostly dormant since shortly after World War II.

In its early years, Phenix Marble, as it is known today, largely supplied building stone to a regional market. But in the period between the end of World War I and the Great Depression, Phenix Marble distributed its signature Napoleon Gray marble nationwide.

In recent years, the son-in-law of the quarry landowner made use of remnant blocks in the quarry by taking on periodic projects – an exterior kitchen job here, an interior fireplace there.

In 2014, this entrepreneur, Freddy Flores, approached Conco Companies about supplying him with some equipment for a church steps project in Springfield, Missouri.

“They asked for help, so we got involved a little bit there,” Upp says. “It piqued everybody’s interest.”

One thing led to another, and Conco’s team saw the opportunity to rebuild the dimensional stone business and grow it by allowing Phenix Marble to lean on the Conco brand. Conco eventually purchased the Phenix Marble quarry, and it built a supporting fabrication shop at Conco’s nearby Willard Quarry.

Building the business

Phenix Marble sizes blocks down enough so they are movable. Photo: P&Q Staff

Phenix Marble sizes blocks down enough so they are movable. Photo: P&Q Staff

In the meantime, a high-profile dimensional stone project was identified that could really elevate the reputation of the revitalized business upward – if the job could be secured.

“All this revitalization was ongoing, and in the midst of it we found out the [Missouri State] Capitol renovation project was getting ready to happen,” Upp says. “We found out about the project on a Wednesday. They were looking at materials to choose from until that Friday. So we basically had a day to have samples made and get it there so we could be in the running to be a potential source.”

Phenix Marble wound up winning work at the landmark site in Jefferson City, where the Capitol renovation project is unfolding in two phases. The first phase was completed in 2016, when Conco provided new steps for the building. Phenix Marble was asked to complete the project ahead of the 2017 inauguration, and it met the deadline before former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens took office.

“It’s been quite a process,” Upp says. “Quarry guys are used to aggregates. We felt like we had the ability to make stuff work and understand the mining side of it. But it’s completely different.”

The Capitol renovation is now in its second phase, with Phenix Marble supplying new pavers for the building’s exterior and replacement stone for the building’s surface.

“The state Capitol is something we can really hang our hats on because it only comes along every 80 or 100 years – or whenever you get a chance to do a restoration project like that on a significant building,” Upp says. “It’s pretty exciting.”

New business, different process

One thing Chris Upp found as he learned the dimensional stone industry is that a lot of equipment is Italian-made. This Pellegrini wire saw in Phenix Marble’s quarry is one such example. Photo: P&Q Staff

One thing Chris Upp found as he learned the dimensional stone industry is that a lot of equipment is Italian-made. This Pellegrini wire saw in Phenix Marble’s quarry is one such example. Photo: P&Q Staff

As Upp describes, Phenix Marble cuts and moves massive blocks with large equipment and processes the stone in its fabrication shop. In his first two years overseeing Phenix Marble, Upp guesses he ventured into five or six dimensional stone operations across the country. He also familiarized himself with the industry’s equipment vendors, which required yet another learning curve for the aggregate industry veteran.

As Upp managed Conco’s aggregate business, he did everything he could to learn the world around Phenix Marble.

“I was trying to see what other people were doing, what kind of equipment they were running, whose equipment it was, where to get the equipment, how they were processing, who they were selling to and what kind of physical [stone] characteristics we had that could give us a competitive advantage,” Upp says.

Upp ultimately learned that Phenix Marble’s stone offered advantages in hardness and durability.

“It’s like a 10,000-psi stone,” he says. “It can be used as a dimensional architectural product.”

Word has gotten out over the last few years about the stone and Phenix Marble’s abilities. In addition to the Missouri State Capitol, Phenix Marble has a few other exciting projects in the works, including a high-rise building in San Francisco.

These days, Upp isn’t as hands on with Phenix Marble as he was when the operation was getting off the ground again. He has, after all, gotten busier on the aggregate side of Conco’s business. But the new venture put some exciting challenges on his plate.

“We’ve been trying to get to the point where we’re getting into some of the bigger commercial projects,” Upp says.

Kevin Yanik

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is the editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry magazine. Yanik can be reached at 216-706-3724 or kyanik@northcoastmedia.net.

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