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Published on June 4, 2010

Icon of Richmond's green business sector departs

By Katherine Tam
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 06/04/2010 06:27:17 PM PDT Updated: 06/04/2010 10:45:50 PM PDT

Vetrazzo, the Richmond company that turns recycled glass into colorful countertops and won accolades from Forbes Magazine, is leaving town.

The owners are selling the business to Polycor, which runs a marble quarry operation in Georgia and can manufacture Vetrazzo's countertops more efficiently. Polycor will be able to produce four times as much Vetrazzo product as the Richmond plant, said James Sheppard, one of the Vetrazzo owners.

"We were proud of what we built here. We really needed to expand the facility and production to make it work," Sheppard said. "The right solution was to manufacture it side-by-side with another product."

Production at the Richmond plant stopped Friday as the deal was completed, and will resume in Georgia in a couple of months. Vetrazzo had 40 employees.

Vetrazzo came to Richmond around 2006, a tenant of the newly-refurbished historic Ford Assembly Plant on the waterfront. It became a poster child of the city's growing green sector, touting its triple mantra of people, planet and profit. Its countertops, tabletops and other surfaces have popped up in homes and businesses around the country and in Canada. The company was one of five finalists among 1,500 entrants in Forbes Magazine's nationwide "Boost Your Business" contest in 2008.

During a tour of the site last year, Sheppard walked among tall sacks of colorful bits of glass waiting to be turned into countertops. He and partners Jeff Gustafson and Olivia Teter launched the company because they were excited about the product. "People notice it, they ask questions, and it starts a dialogue about recycling," Sheppard said. "They'll buy it because it's beautiful; they'll change behaviors because it inspires them."

The trio sought capital to expand as the economy struggled. Among the funds, they won a $1.4 million grant from the state Department of Conservation, but the state froze the grant due to its deficit. Vetrazzo had to shelve an equipment plan. The grant eventually was reinstated 9 months later, but it was too late.

"It's a challenging economic environment," Sheppard said. "Investment capital is hard to come by these days."

In the meantime, Richmond will continue trying to recruit other green businesses through such means as promoting its available space and by adopting policies that show the city is environmentally-minded, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said.

"In the worst of economic times, we have to expect some zigzagging but we have to keep the direction going," McLaughlin said. Vetrazzo "set an example. We want to have new businesses come in with that sense of responsibility. We're very sad they can't stay."

Sheppard did not disclose how much Polycor paid to buy Vetrazzo. Having Polycor manufacture Vetrazzo alongside its other operations will drop the price for the countertops, making them more affordable. The product, sold through a network of authorized dealers, had cost $150 to $200 a square foot for installation, which is similar to premium granite.

"The product will go and thrive," Sheppard said. "It will continue to be manufactured in the U.S., which is important to us."

Katherine Tam covers Richmond. Follow her at Twitter.com/katherinetam.

GAYLE MCLAUGHLIN FOR MAYOR 2010
PO Box 5284,  Richmond, CA 94805
(510) 237-1456   •  Gayle@MayorGayle.net
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