If you’ve ever driven past the F-W-S Countertops building at the corner of West Willow Street and U.S. 51 in Carbondale, you may have seen stone slabs the size of billboards displayed at the front of the building. Inside F-W-S, there are some 20 more monolithic examples of natural stone and endless manufactured surface options that will help you change the look of your home.
Small business ownership at it’s finest
F-W-S owner Al Kuczynski is at the office on a Saturday. Like many small business owners, his job is 24-7, and the quiet of a Saturday gives him the time to focus on detailed work.
“During the week, the doorbell rings and I have to drop whatever I’m doing and serve that need,” Kuczynski said. "But it keeps things edgy. I like to keep moving, I’m not one to sit down.”
Kuczynski has kept things moving since 1978. After graduating from SIU with a bachelor's degree in mass communications, he found himself, along with several friends, in Makanda trying to start a business.
“We had what we jokingly called ‘The Boys Club.' We were all Chicago transplants," he said. "We restored the buildings down there. We put in floors, put roofs on. As a collective we got the storefronts working. It sounds really altruistic, but in reality, we just needed more space.”
It took 15 years in Makanda for Kuczynski to outgrow his workshop and make the leap to Carbondale. Since 1993, he has occupied the F-W-S building in phases, expanding over time, into a sprawling series of buildings that house all facets of his business. The first space that he occupied was what is now called the dry room, a garage-like space right off of Willow Street. It’s what you walk into when you ring the bell.
“The guy who owned it was ready for a change, and so I gave the bank my house, got a mortgage on this place, and have spent the last 20 years tearing down what was there and building up my business,” Kuczynski said.
Kuczynski talks affectionately of the process.
“When Tasis (Karayiannis) came along and opened the Southern Recycling Center, he was wondering what to do with all that space, and so I decided to buy the building next door," Kuczynski said.
Then Susan Barnes opened her dance studio, and a little warehouse district was born.
From skills and talent form beautiful creations
The layout of Kuczynski’s property is determined by function. In the front building, you will find the dry process room, where anything that uses dry powered equipment is manufactured. They build casings and cabinets out of wood, Formica, particle board and Corian. They don’t advertise it, but they do build custom furniture.
“We have so many talented people, if you give us something to build, we can build it.” Kuczynski said.
Then come two interior rooms where the technical drawings are processed. F-W-S has two CAD operators in their office. Next you enter a space which more accurately reflects the vibe of a Natural History Museum. This large, airy room displays several rows of 1,500-plus pound stone pieces cut to showcase color, composition and texture.
“You don’t have to seal these rocks, because they won’t stain, but we might use a mineral oil, or a walnut paste, to subtly change the color and finish,” Kuczynski said. “We have different rocks from all over the world.”
While F-W-S owns most of the slabs, they do have a consignment agreement with about 10 importers.
“They buy it, and we show it,” he said.
Showing off the products
The next room is dedicated to showing product samples from different producers of engineered quartz.
“People choose quartz for a look and a color,” Kuczynski said. “About 20 years ago, this product was pretty limited, but it has evolved to the point where we are seeing man made rocks that look anything but. And technology continues to explode, so who know what we will see in the future.”
Last, we come to the wet room, called so because the water needed to cut the stone into its new shape as a countertop, a desk, a fireplace surround, etc. It is a cavernous, barn-like structure with the original wooden beams and panels of the ceiling exposed.
“When we bought this building, this room was dysfunctional.” Kuczynski said. “It was impossible to heat, a virtual hockey rink in the winter, and a sauna in the summer. But we just had the building fully insulated from the outside in and that stabilized everything.”
Here, several matching slabs wait to be cut into countertops and vanities for a hotel/motel in Mount Vernon.
Kuczynski said that "builders will often times buy in quantity, because it becomes really cost effective.”
Home project aficionados take note: In the back of this room lie the Orphans, which are the pieces of stone left behind once larger jobs have been fulfilled. F-W-S sells them at discounted prices. These pieces of stone would be suitable for smaller table tops, end tables, even outdoor BBQ surrounds.
Giving back to the community
And don’t feel shy about visiting.
F-W-S is a good spot for field trips of every kind. Most recently they had the Southern Illinois Gem Society in to look at all the rocks. They have also had the Jackson County CEO program bring kids by to observe what they do.
“We open our doors when we can to try to help educate folks. As a small business owner, I have had to learn so many skill sets — business management, human resources. We have over 20 employees now, so human resources is huge — accounting, purchasing, maintenance," Kuczynski said. "I wear so many hats. And it’s good for young people to get a sense of what it means to run a business."
Kuczynski’s involvement in the community stretches back decades. He met his wife, Colleen, at “The Club,” which used to be next to Booby’s.
“She was sitting on a cigarette machine, and I never looked back.” Kuczynski said.
They’ve been married since 1986 and have a 13-year-old daughter, Isabel. Colleen works at SIU for the Evaluation and Development Center off Wall Street.
“We have been fortunate to travel the world — most recently we were in Italy, Turkey and Japan," Kuczynski said. "But we love living here. Living in Southern Illinois is all about a lifestyle."
Kuczynski also supports local up-and-coming craftspeople by offering them low cost work space. Off the wet room is a little back room that currently houses four people: A man making hand-made leather wallets, someone fabricating costumes for movie, TV and cosplay, another man making silk screened prints the old-fashioned way, and someone making folk art.
It was formerly occupied by Jared Smith, a local metal worker, who became successful enough to move out into his own space.
“To put it bluntly, we feed off them, they feed off us,” he said.
And, as Kuczynski said, “If you are going to stay in business, you need to roll with the punches. When the market changes, you adapt.”