In this edition, we sat down with Ben Kalkman, owner of Cutting Edge Kitchens in Boise, ID.
TILE: How did you first get involved in the tile industry? Please explain a little bit more about yourself.
Kalkman: It was December 2012 and I found myself in an extremely bad business partnership that I had been in for several years. I had a wife, 2-year-old and an 8-month-old baby at home. I was lost, broken and didn’t know what my next move was. Starting a granite shop during a recession, it was difficult to walk away from everything I had created and start over. Having spent years on working to get out of debt, I quickly erased all of that work by refinancing my wife’s car, taking loans from the bank, friends and family members, along with my draining my savings. I bought a Park Sierra Bridge Saw and signed a five-year lease on a new shop. The shop was the only location I could find in a short time and I stood there holding the keys to an empty 6,000-square-foot building scared that I didn’t know what I was doing. How could I fill up the space? I only had two employees. The office was more of a dungeon than a productive workspace. All I had was a dream, drive and a passion to be the best. From the moment I made the decision to leave my partner and go out on my own to the day we installed our first kitchen was only two weeks. We did everything we had to do to set up the shop and make it happen. The story of turning Cutting Edge Kitchens into more than a name had begun. We continued doing what we knew how to do well and push the possibilities of our comfort zone within our trade. It didn’t take long before customers were calling and showing up at our office with some pretty insurmountable requests. They were always referred to us by other companies in the trade, suppliers or past clients. We got the reputation for the guys who never say ‘no’ to a challenge and constantly grew hungrier for more.
It was 2017 and one of my suppliers approached me about this new, great, amazing product that we were going to have so much success with. This phenomenal porcelain product that had endless possibilities and features and benefits than other products that we had experience with. Not knowing everything I wished I’d known, we jumped in, feet first. Unable to attend training in Tennessee myself, I sent my (now) general manager. His excitement and enthusiasm upon his return home can only be compared to the excitement my kids had when we surprised them by taking them to Disneyland for the first time. We immediately ordered a small fortune’s worth of large-format porcelain-specific tools that the trainers said we would need to be successful with this product. Our first large-format porcelain tile job, looking back now, should have been a simple project. It took us nearly three months, countless replacement slabs, hours of FaceTime calls with the owners of the tooling manufactures, hours of calls with the material manufacturer, trying to figure out what we were doing wrong. We struggled to work with the material, but after three painful months, we finally completed our first kitchen. Licking my wounds and frustrated that I had spent all of this money on worthless tools and lost thousands of dollars on that job, I swore I would never touch porcelain again. There’s a quote that has become our mantra at our shop: “Only those who attempt the absurd, can achieve the impossible.” – Albert Einstein. Shortly after the wounds had scabbed over, we tried to figure out what went wrong and why we struggled so much. Suppliers had very little knowledge or information on this great product they were trying to sell. When I would call tooling suppliers to tell them about this product I was trying to cut, 90% were clueless as to what I was talking about. We spent the next several years trying out different blades and glues and methods and slowly started becoming successful with large-format porcelain panels. Our success only continued to fuel the fire. Before “Rona” (COVID-19), we made it a point to go to at least two educational workshops a year. Honing our skills and letting steel sharpen steel. Our dedication to education, patience and the drive to be ‘cutting edge’ pushed us through, and we now create masterpieces with the materials we once thought was impossible. Breaking the rules as to what’s possible with porcelain tile.
We were natural stone guys and we had to learn to work with a product that had zero forgiveness. Not only that, we had to learn the tile world and how to waterproof, use thinsets, etc. and change the way we think when producing masterpieces out of tile. Tile guys in our area aren’t willing to work with this product, so we’ve had to learn how to be the tile guy. When we learn, we search out the right way to do things and learn/train those methods. We want to ensure that our clients are getting the very best.
TILE: Are you a company owner? If so, what were some reasons for starting your own business?
Kalkman: I own several companies, but my bread and butter is Cutting Edge Kitchens. I’m very much a type-A personality. I have a very high and unrelenting standard and expectations. I found out at a very young age that I do not work well on the clock for others. Time seems to move in slow motion when I am punching in and punching out. I had worked for several companies in various industries from sales of fine art to manufacturing and working for a micro processing company. I found that I had a love and passion of working with my hands, and the ability to see something and come up with a solution. This led me into construction. I had enough experience working for others that I knew a construction business could be run differently and more efficiently, striving to have a unique company culture and experience for our customers.
TILE: Has the tile industry changed much since you first started? If so, in what ways?
Kalkman: My first experiences with working with tile was installing tile granite countertops. The use of different substrates and modified thinsets and epoxy grouts has all changed in the 20 years of experience I have in the construction industry.
TILE: Is there a particular job you’ve completed that stands out? Why?
Kalkman: Oh. Is. There. Ever! Being the people that never say ‘no’ to a challenge, we were confronted by one of our suppliers to completely design, fabricate and install all pieces, components for a 2,000-square-foot booth at KBIS 2020, the last major industry show before the world went on lockdown. This would not have been such a problem if proper planning and preparation had happened. We had three months (companies that do these trade booths spend at least a year doing this) to design, fabricate metal structures, build custom furniture pieces, clad refrigerators in gold glass, learn the logistics of a trade show of this magnitude, build tile-clad cabinets, package delicate items for transport to Vegas -- the list goes on and on. We literally were working seven days a week, 14- to 20-hour days, sleeping and taking naps at the shop. Our sawyer slept on a cot, waking up in between cut batches on the saw, in order to produce the amount of material we needed to in such a short time frame. Time was so short and workloads so large, there wasn’t time to test fit a single piece before arriving in Vegas. Due to shipping and trucking delays, we arrived to set up two days behind schedule. The 12-hour drive being our only break before we had to work like madmen again. Countless challenges and obstacles arose during set up, but I had assembled the ‘dream team’ and everything went together perfectly the first time. This display consisted of 2,000 square feet of 12-mm porcelain panels set on the floor with vein-matched wall cladding going up the main back wall, 6-mm tile-clad cabinetry with matching countertops with double waterfalls, an integrated porcelain kitchen sink, geometric bistro tables (our design was quickly knocked off, but imitation is the best form of flattery). We showed Vegas that a couple of boys from Idaho with motivation and will can accomplish whatever they put their mind to.
TILE: What are some common issues you have to deal with on the jobsite? How do you overcome them? What are some steps you take to educate your customers about their tile installation before you begin?
Kalkman: We are very heavy on planning and preparation on the front side of all of our projects. In doing this, it alleviates many of the typical problems you run into on jobsites. Our biggest issues are people not being ready when they say they are going to be. We overcome issues on jobsites with our amazing staff. We value each person in our company, no matter their position. We have a team that we trust and train they all strive daily to operate and demonstrate our company values. Communication, respect, accountability, safety, honesty. This is what sets us apart from others in our area. So much so that we have received pushback in working with new builders. We explain to them that if they want us to work for them, they must follow our process because it works. No matter what product we are working with, whether it’s from installing new cabinets and granite countertops or porcelain panel showers and fireplaces, countertops, integrated sinks, we walk through what the realistic expectations and our contract with every customer so that they know what to expect and how to maintain their investment into their home. When you set clear expectations and you have hired the right people and given them the right tools and training, jobs become easier to manage and maintain. The smile and satisfaction we receive when we’ve helped a homeowner transform their home into the dream they’ve always had is our driving force.
TILE: If you could lend any advice to professionals just beginning their careers, what would it be?
Kalkman: As cliché as it sounds, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. You can’t be everybody to everyone. You need to know who you are, what you stand for and what your goals in this industry are. A dream with a plan is achievable. Hire the right people, treat them right (this does not necessarily mean monetarily) and put your name on every job. Money is not my driving force. Helping people and making a difference in their lives through the services we offer is at our core; the money follows.