Carving a Niche

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

An artist's creative solution to a casting dilemma gave birth to a booming enterprise

Artist, entrepreneur and inventor Roger Questel (right) is chairman and creative director of Questech, a company with a plant in Middlebury and offices in Rutland that manufactures tiles from the composite he invented to circumvent the high cost of casting sculptures in bronze. Questech hired president and CEO Barry Culkin seven years ago to craft a strategy for moving the product line and the company in a new directon.

Roger Questel and Barry Culkin have a kind of "Odd Couple" relation- ship, without the conflict. "We have been together for seven years; we're almost like a husband and wife now," is how Culkin puts it. "We complement each other." Together they run Questech Corp., a company that has increased its sales fivefold since 1997, and see no reason to expect things to change. They work as smoothly as two stars in a binary system.

"Stars" is not an accidental term; each is a standout in his area of expertise. Questel, the artist, is chairman and creative director of the company with offices in Rutland and a plant in Middlebury. Questech manufactures lightweight tiles made from a formula of metal, special polymers and ceramics that Questel concocted in 1986 for making casts of his original sculptures. Culkin, the company's president and CEO, is the numbers guy with major brand experience, hired in 1997 to help craft a strategy to move the product line, and therefore the company, in a new strategic direction.

The story of Questech starts with Questel as a young artist. The Manhattan native laughs as he says, "I went to a variety of colleges: Bowdoin, Vassar, Minnesota College of Art and Design ... and graduated from Parsons School of Design." He waits a beat, then adds, "I was going to go to the rest of them, but I ran out of time."

The reason Questel left college the first time, he says, is that he began learning to make furniture, taught by a wood carver from France who once worked at the Louvre. "He was working at a very fancy furniture maker called Impression in Wood, and I went to work there at 19. I'd been carving wood since I was 15, and when I found him, I kind of glued myself to him."

After a year, Questel went off and developed his own clientele, working with the top interior designers in New York for clients such as Orson Welles, Gordon Getty and Ralph Lauren. "I did the Ralph Lauren store on Madison Avenue," he says. "It was quite a scene."

By age 29, he had finished his college education "put in the word 'nonlinear,'" he jokes. Things were going well for Questel so well, he found himself working 17-hour days "because it's slow work." Still, he dedicated two hours each morning to explore new products, eventually creating 10 inventions. For example, he says, "I invented a brown paper bag that didn't fall over when it was filled with groceries; did a glass wedding invitation, which was written up in Brides and Modern Bride magazine; I did a system for storing your bills called the Home Organizer; and made a refillable paint tube for artists."

The formula for Questech came out of these sessions. Questel had an idea to increase the value of his hours by carving a series of simple bowls to sit on coffee tables, thinking he'd cast 10 of each in bronze and sell them in galleries. The cost of casting each bowl, however, was steep $1,000 each "and by the time I marked it up, it would not have been the right thing," he says.

Questel wanted to find a more economical way to cast his work in bronze. "I had access to some resin, so I developed the process fairly quickly," he says. Instead of making the bowls, though, he created tiles, which he took to tile stores hoping to get information. An amazing thing happened.

"I was called back by one and asked if I would immediately help redo Radio City Music Hall. They thought I was a pretty big company at the time. And I did do that, but there was no company except me."

Questel completed the Radio City job and set about trying to figure out "how to really get started" with his process. It took a couple of years, he says, but he learned of an empty, 5,000-square-foot factory in Middlebury that had produced sinks out of resin cultured marble. "It had the components I needed to handle resin, which is a concrete building with explosion-proof lighting. It's in the industrial park." He moved his family to Vermont in 1990.

Questel discovered there was a huge opportunity in visual, point-of-purchase merchandising, and by 1993, the company had begun commercial operations producing custom brass logos and signage "for all the major brands in the United States." The client list read like a Who's Who of U.S. business: Disney, Reebok, Timberland, Polo, Tommy Hilfiger, Guess, Dockers, Levi's and the casinos in Las Vegas, Questel says.

"For four to five years, we made these custom logos and signage," he says. Having the high-end clients was a blessing, but it brought with it a set of challenges. Every one of those jobs was a custom project from start to finish. Says Questel, "The problem was, we got to a point where there were too many custom jobs at once."

Questel and his board knew something had to change if they were to grow the company. "At that point is when I hired Barry Culkin," he says. "We had 50 employees at that point, and we needed professional management."

Culkin, a CPA with a bachelor's in economics from the University of Massachusetts and an MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., who had launched his career at Deloitte and Touche and honed his business skills as president of Boston Whaler Inc., was at the time vice president of U.S. operations for Reebok International Ltd.

"It was definitely a networking connection," Culkin says of the phone call he received around Christmastime in 1996. "Someone on the board knew someone who knew someone who knew me. I said, 'I don't think so; I'm happy where I am.' They said, 'Would you mind if Robert Questel, the founder of the company, gave you a call?'"

Questel called, says Culkin, gave him a bit about his background and explained the technology he had invented. "I was curious enough to say, 'I'll come up and meet with you.'"

Culkin digresses to tell about his drive to Vermont for the interview. "It was through a blinding snowstorm," he says. "I stopped at a rest area in New Hampshire, called, and said I didn't think I'd make it up there, and" with a touch of wonderment in his voice "he talked me into driving up then." The meeting was the beginning of a productive relationship.

Chico Lager, the former CEO of Ben & Jerry's and a member of Questel's board of directors, was on the board at the time Culkin came on the scene. "They're a very interesting pair; they make an excellent team. Roger is extremely creative and a great product person, and Barry is a great manager with a gift for working not just with the professional sales and management team, but also the creative team they have in place."

Culkin joined the company in January 1977. The challenges the company faced started with the lack of a good business model, he says. "Here's what we had: unbelievable creativity and passion in the company, and an awesome, what I call 'change-the-landscape' technology. What we didn't have, like most early-stage companies, was a structure no focus, no class strategy."

Culkin knew he wanted to move the company from being one that produced a custom product to one that produced a stock product. "The problem in the custom business is that you have to restart every time, but from an operations point of view, it's unbelievably hard to manage. We'd be making things one day the size of a half dollar, and the next day, a large table for Banana Republic. It also took a long time to get the order, then they 'd need it in two weeks."

This wall of Questech tiles hangs in the company's design department. Questech has been inducted into the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design.

His second strategy was to partner with leaders in the industry who could market and distribute the company's product, "because we didn't have resources, i.e., cash, to invest. That was a key strategic decision," he says.

The third goal was to automate the manufacturing process to increase profitability. "Back in '97, it was virtually a hands-on operation. For the longer term, I wanted to establish Questech as a brand to help us when competition came into the market. We wanted to develop derivative applications of our technology," he continues, moving to his fourth strategy, which was to eventually license Questech technology.

That was a little over seven years ago. Today, stock products represent 100 percent of the company's revenue stream, says Culkin. "Our primary tile customers in the United States have a 55 percent market share."

Questech has eight metal lines in the marketplace and has just introduced a cast stone product. Its customers are huge companies like Dal Tile, the largest tile manufacturer in the country, Mohawk, American Marazzi and Crossville Ceramics; and Westminster Ceramics, a boutique manufacturer distributing through home centers and traditional tile shops.

Security is tight at Questech, and Culkin and Questel are zealous about protecting their proprietary formulas and designs, to the point of not allowing photographs to be taken of any of their 60 employees.

Once the designs are made public, though, they are quite successful in gaining publicity for their tiles, which have appeared in and on the covers of high-visibility and upscale national publications. That original 5,000 square feet have grown to 24,000 square feet of manufacturing space in Middlebury and 18,000 square feet of office, product development and inventory storage in Rutland, with a commitment to an additional 45,000 square feet of manufacturing space in Rutland in 2005.

A rosy outlook, indeed, and Questel has not stopped dreaming. "There's lots of new products we're developing, and there's great potential for the metal composite in other fields," he says, "such as metal components for skyscrapers. Skyscrapers are now covered with 1/8 inch of stone mounted on a curtain wall. But Frank Gehry, who built the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, has been building out of titanium, and it's very expensive. Our product could make buildings out of nickel or copper or ... our buildings could be a beautiful urban landscape."

Originally published in November 2004 Business People-Vermont