Volume 415, Issue 6 - August 2006

True Dedication
Builders and Contractors Rely Heavily on a Florida Stair Builder
by Samantha Carpenter

Rick Ashmore’s wife, Robin, was seriously ill, but Ashmore as the owner of Infinity Stairs of Ft. Myers, Fla., was still ready to sit down with SHELTER magazine for an interview. Though she was at the hospital getting prepared for surgery, Ashmore still managed to talk with SHELTER; Robin had insisted that her husband come for the interview. It’s this kind of dedication that the company and its workers display in the building of its stairs and the servicing of its customers.

The former owner of a structural concrete business in Naples, Ashmore sold it and was retired about five years ago.

But retirement didn’t last long. Rick, the oldest of his three sons, decided that he wanted to come home to Florida and start a 
business. 

Ashmore told his son he would help him get started in a stair-building business, help him run it for a couple of years and would let him acquire the business. 

Ashmore and his son worked together for about a year, and his son decided Florida wasn’t for him and went back to Colorado and left Ashmore with the business. 

“I decided I liked it. I’m a carpenter by trade, so I decided if I was going to be in the business, I was going to make a business out of it,” Ashmore says.

Asked if he misses retirement, Ashmore says, “Not at this point. The challenges of meeting the goals set for our business keeps me intrigued.” 

Expanding the Business

When Ashmore and his son started the business, they worked out of 1,500 square feet of space and made stairs with a plunge router which he says took “forever.”

“We started looking for equipment, and I looked online for equipment, and I hooked up with an equipment broker who hooked me up with Bob [Mitvalsky of Builders Automation Machinery (BAM) in Largo, Fla.],” Ashmore says. “We met with Bob, and we bought our first table and our first stair stringer, which we still have after 3 1/2 years.”

After getting automated equipment, the company began expanding. 

“We built this building last year and moved into it in December. We had about 3,500 square feet total at the old place, and now we have 10,000 square feet, and since we’ve moved in here, we’ve bought more equipment from Builders Automation, which builds some of the best equipment out there. Its service and tech support is outstanding,” Ashmore says.

When Infinity had its first piece of equipment put in, BAM trained Ashmore and his son first. When the machine was installed, Thomas Schusser, vice president of operations and a partner of BAM, spent a lot of time training the Ashmores on the machine. 

“[Thomas] is also really good at explaining stuff over the phone. The old machine was tough because it was all mechanical, but the new machine is all menu-driven,” Ashmore says, adding that the new machine builds stairs about 4 1/2 times faster than the plunge router. 

“I spent more time on the machine than anyone in the beginning. I thought it was better that someone learn it really well than everyone do a little bit at a time. So once I learned, I started teaching my son and we hired more employees, and now we have guys that do nothing but that,” Ashmore says.

Differentiating Itself

While Ashmore is complimentary of Builders’ Automation, its machinery supplier feels the same way about Infinity. In fact, Bob Mitvalsky, chief executive officer of BAM, takes many perspective and current customers to see Infinity’s operation because it’s efficient in production.

“One of the advantages that Rick has is that he is so knowledgeable about the industry. He goes out and measures the hole, he builds [the stairs for the hole] and he installs it, too. So he is doing the whole turn-key thing. A lot of builders like it because they tell him that they want ‘this’ and he does it start to finish,” Mitvalsky says.

“The fact of it is that I was in the concrete business and I’m a carpenter, so I help them a lot with their projects. If they have problems in the course of the process, I help them, so that gives us a big ‘in,’” Ashmore says. “We are probably the third biggest stair builder in the state right now and growing rapidly.”

Infinity currently runs one shift. The employees often work seven days a week. 

“I don’t set their hours. I set their start time, but I don’t set their stop time. They know what needs to be done. They worked on Memorial Day and Easter. That’s their decision-not mine. They are that loyal and they take a lot of pride in what they do,” Ashmore says.

Labor Issues

Besides Ashmore in management, the company has an operations manager, Steve Baringer. Ashmore says that Baringer spends most of his time in the field. Justin White is the CAD designer, and Max Galmez is in charge of the handrail installers.

“We don’t have a big turnover in labor. We pay our employees well, and provide free lunches and sodas daily,” Ashmore says. “We treat them well and try to let them know we appreciate their hard work and dedication. Health insurance is available to the workers. A few of them I do pay for, such as ones that are in charge of different areas.”

Ashmore says that language-barriers can be a challenge with employees. 

“Communication can be difficult at times [with the Hispanic employees], but we are fortunate enough to have several bi-lingual employees. Aside from that, there are no real challenges.”

The company builds about 100 sets of production stairs (no circular stairs) in a week. Ashmore estimates that the company is currently at 25-percent capacity with the equipment. The company installs all of that. It also builds some semi-custom stars, which are described as flare stairs because the stairs flare out at the bottom.

The company made $3 million in sales last year. Ashmore estimates that figure will nearly double this year. 

The only component the company uses to make its stairs is yellow pine. It buys by-the-truckload out of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. The company uses Ply-Trim, which is structurally-engineered laminated veneer lumber for stair stringers.

To build the stairs, the company uses a homegrown CAD program, which Ashmore says was developed to meet his customers’ needs.

Saving the Day
Ashmore says the company hasn’t had any problems with construction-defect lawsuits.

“We’ve had very few callbacks even. If we have a callback, it’s usually not our fault. Our operations manager is a carpenter by trade and is really good. We make sure when we measure that [the product] goes out right,” he says.

“There are a couple of types of stair builders,” Mitvalsky says. “There’s Rick, who measures and installs, and when he goes into to install, the roof is up and the walls are up. There are other stair builders that are truss-and-wall panel people. They throw it on the load when the wall panels and trusses are delivered. Most stairs sit outside, and those people are wrapping those in plastic to keep them dry before they go into the house.”

Ashmore adds, “We wrap the stairs in the rainy season, too. If the roof isn’t dried in, we try to keep a schedule, so if they ask us to deliver on a certain day, we do, but we cover the stairs in plastic, too, in the summertime, to make sure it’s protected until the roof gets dried in.”

Stair codes don’t seem to stump Ashmore and his employees. 

“Stair codes can be a little individual with the different areas. They pretty much follow the Universal Building Code or the Southern Building Code, so they don’t vary too much. There are certain criteria that you have to use,” Ashmore says.

Mitvalsky adds, “Orlando and some other places in the United States get a little funny on its codes, but that’s where the Stairway Manufacturers’ Association (SMA) has come in [to help interpret the codes.]”

Ashmore says that his company is thinking of joining the SMA. The company also has plans to expand more in the future and look at new markets.

Meeting the Date

To build a set of stairs from start to finish takes less than an hour, according to Ashmore. Usually, the company is so busy that it asks for a week to ten days’ notice from customers on what they need.

“Whenever we set [delivery] dates, we beat the dates, so they aren’t sitting out there waiting on us ever,” Ashmore says.
Infinity’s customers are complimentary of the service they receive.

“We started a project in February with a different company that wasn’t really performing the way it should be. We interviewed Infinity, and they have been with us ever since doing all of our work,” explains Jack Leeman, project manager for the townhouse division of Levitt and Sons, a homebuilder based in Boca Raton, Fla., “We plan to use them not only [for] this project but on our other projects in Sarasota and some other areas.”

“When we called them in, we were behind on certain areas and in other homes we were building, and they came in and not only helped us get back on schedule but did clean up on some of the product that was delivered by their competitor,” Leeman adds.

“The quality of their work is far better than anything in town. Their warehouse is completely automated and computerized. When their stairs come out, they are actually a piece of artwork compared to the [other] stair manufacturers,” says Don Harron, construction manager for the Southwest region for WBC/Select Build, a contractor. 

“From time to time, when I’m starting up new communities, I actually call Rick in to meet with me when I’m doing my preconstruction meeting with the builders and have them review the plans right there with us, and within a matter of ten minutes, he can say, ‘Oh you are going to have a problem here,’” Harron explains. “The builders love it because when they get to that application-which for some homeowners is a sticky situation-all that stuff gets eliminated with Infinity.”

With the help of new technology, Infinity is able to give its customers outstanding service and is truly dedicated to them. Ashmore recently took a few days off from work because his family was visiting from out of state, but when a customer called him in on a big construction project, Ashmore gave him the helping hand he needed. 

SHELTER
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