By Jim Mackinnon
Beacon Journal business writer
Conti Memorials Group in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood blends artisan with high tech, all to better tell a story in stone.
The family-owned business traces its roots to its founding by the Buzzi family in 1918. And now owner Larry Conti, who bought the business in 2008, is preparing to pass it along to his children.
Conti says they are now the largest company of its type in Ohio. Operations include North Hill Marble & Granite on North Howard Street, Bethel-Miller Memorials in Canton, Youngstown Memorials and Trumbull Monument Co. in Niles that opened a year ago.
“I grew up here in North Hill,” Conti said. He was familiar with the Buzzi family business, which made the memorial for his father, who died in 1949, he said.
He started working as a salesman with Tom Buzzi at Portage Marble and Granite in 1971. When he started work with the company, Conti, now 69, said he didn’t think then that he would end up owning the business.
The Buzzi family sold their business in 1998 to Vermont-based Rock of Ages Corp., a major granite quarrying and manufacturing company that was expanding into retail operations at the time. Conti said he subsequently managed Rock of Ages’ Northeast Ohio operations and ended up buying the businesses. (The businesses still use Rock of Ages U.S.-quarried granite.)
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Now we’re a family business again,” he said. In 2008, there were 10 employees; now there are 19 including master sculptors and two graphic designers/artists, he said.
Conti said he’s not quite ready to retire but is working closely alongside his daughter, Kelly Adams, 39, who will succeed him in running the business. She’s been with the company 14 years. His son, Scott, a computer engineer, also works for the company as do two grandchildren. Conti said he tells employees to treat all customers like they are their grandmother.
The memorial business has had to change with the times, Conti said.
The work now blends old-world stone-cutting with state-of-the-art computer technology to meet evolving consumer preferences.
Customers’ desires for more personalized memorials is driving a lot of the changes, Conti said. Besides simple to elaborate granite headstones and other grave markers, they design and build such things as memorial stone benches to $600,000 mausoleums. Increased interest in cremation also is driving changes, including headstones with cavities to hold ashes carved either in the memorial or the base.
His business uses a powerful software program that lets family members, prior to making a purchase, see and try out memorial designs on a large computer screen, Conti said. The process saves time and helps family members visualize in one day what the finished memorial will look like. Before computer design, working with a family on design using paper sketches could take weeks.
“When you talk about personalization, that’s what we can do,” Conti said.
In addition, advances in stone-cutting technology now allow photo-like depictions on hard granite, he said. “We do two faces a week, if not more,” he said.
That kind of personalization is a growing national trend, said two people from major U.S. memorial associations.
“We certainly are finding people are wanting more customized, more personal,” said Jed Hendrickson, executive director with the American Institute of Commemorative Art in California and third-generation owner of a memorial business in Santa Barbara. His 60-member organization represents memorial designers. The organization sponsors an annual national design contest.
“We have to move with the times,” Hendrickson said. “Our industry moves at a glacial pace. But we do move. Virtually all design work will be done by computer today. Twenty years ago, it was done by hand. You had to gather ideas, make sketches and do a lot of revisions.”
Alison Raymer, co-owner of Emerson Monument Co. in Springdale, Ark., is vice president of Monument Builders of North America. “One trend that we see is people wanting something different and unique,” she said. “They want to tell their story in a unique way.”
Not many years ago, conformity was common, often with cemeteries dictating the size and design of memorials, she said.
That’s no longer the case, she said. “Conformity’s out the window.”
People increasingly want stone memorials cut in unique shapes and sizes to help tell a story, Raymer said. Her company recently finished a stone memorial cut to depict a tree with a raccoon in it for a young man who had loved the outdoors, she said.
“You look at the pyramids. People have been telling their stories since the beginning of time,” Raymer said.
People also can have “QR” or “Quick Response” codes placed onto memorials that allow people with smartphones to scan the code and be taken to an online site that further tells a story, she said.
Conti Memorials’ operations can also place QR codes, either etching them onto the stone or more commonly by affixing a long-lasting metal strip to the memorial for people to scan, Conti said.
Memorials aren’t just for the deceased.
Conti said they recently finished a memorial at Harding High School in Warren for football great Paul Warfield, a 1960 graduate from the school. Warfield, now 70, played for Ohio State University and then the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins in the NFL. Conti Memorials’ design included two granite stones on either side of a full-size bronze statue to tell Warfield’s story.
“That’s probably the most elaborate that I’ve done,” Conti said. “It hit CNN, so it was all over the country.”
On occasion, he’s had to say no to customers. In one instance, a woman wanted a stone memorial for her late husband that essentially called him the worst thing that ever happened to her.
“We said, we’re not going to do that. She walked out mad at me,” he said.
People do not have to pay for an elaborate memorial to honor a loved one, he said.
“You can honor someone with anything,” he said. “We sell to families what’s important to them.” Prices can range from $400 for markers to $100,000 and higher for mausoleums, he said.
“We have helped them at the most trying time of their life,” Conti said. “I really feel that we help families. ... I love what I do. I’m proud that my kids are entering the business.”
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.