Keeping up with the times

August 4, 2004
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When Indian stone was first introduced to the U.S. market, only a handful of companies specialized in importing and distributing the material. Although these firms enjoyed success with Indian stone as they grew in popularity, they also found new competition in the marketplace. To distinguish themselves in the marketplace, firms such as Instile Stone Corp. of Rahway, NJ, now specialize in design products, exotic stones and architectural work.

Instile is owned by Mahesh Patel and Uday Patel, who became involved in the granite business back in the 1980s when they were working on their Master's Degrees at Wagner College in Staten Island, NY. “We knew a construction/real estate professional, and he told us about Indian black granite,” said Mahesh Patel. “We saw the value of Indian black granite, and had a backer in India who owned newspapers in South India. He advertised that we were looking for black granite. We went to India and purchased a container of tile at $7.50 per foot, and we had a buyer in the U.S. who was going to purchase it for $9 per foot. But the tile was out of square and the shading was off. So we took the tile around to various places, and eventually we were able to sell it.”

Ultimately, they began an affiliation during the late 1980s with Grapco Granites of Calcutta, India, with an exclusive agreement for selling in the U.S. Known as Nika International, the company had stock in public warehouses in New Jersey, first in Newark and then in Middletown.

The company began operating under the name “Instile” at the end of 1994, and it opened its own facility in Carteret, NJ, with 10,000 square feet of space indoors and an additional 10,000 square feet outside. “The early days were good, and inventory was strong,” Mahesh Patel said. “We had a 1,000-square-foot showroom and saw $6 million in annual turnover with five workers.”

In 1995, the company began expanding -- with locations in Atlanta, GA, Charlotte, NC, and Anaheim, CA - all in partnership with other individuals. Additionally, Instile opened its own factory in India -- named Global Instile Solid Pvt. Ltd. -- in 1996 near Bombay. This factory is mainly for producing tiles in granite and slate as well as mosaics. It is equipped with some Italian machinery as well as domestic equipment. A total of 60 to 70% of the factory's production goes directly to Instile, and the rest is shipped to locations around the world, including England, the Middle East, Brazil and Argentina.

As the '90s went on, more and more companies began importing and distributing stone from India, and the quality and pricing varied a great deal. “There are a lot more players today, and the competition is intense,” Mahesh Patel said. “Unfortunately, people are mixing quality to keep the price down. Also, people are buying off the Internet. There are auctions for second-quality material. Even fabricators and tile stores are buying direct.”

As a result of these developments, Instile Stone Corp. decided to end its role as a national distributor, and it has consolidated its operations to the New Jersey/New York area. “We don't see a future for mid-range distributors,” he said. “You are either seeing very small owner/operators or larger companies that make money on sheer turnover. They can buy cheaper and create turnover faster. No one specializes anymore.”

The company also diversified its product selection, and Indian stone comprises no more than 30 to 40% of overall sales. The remainder of products come from countries such as Brazil, Spain, Turkey and China. It also expanded from tiles and slabs, and it now carries mosaics and other designer stone products.

Catering to the local market, Instile started a fabrication shop in 2002. This facility, which is equipped with a Maxima CNC stoneworking center from CMS North America/Brembana -- does 7 to 10 kitchens per week. Instile also imports cut-to-size stone for larger commercial projects such as hotels and multi-unit condominiums across the Eastern seaboard. Recent projects supplied by Instile are the Hilton Garden Inn and Marriott Courtyard. To support sales of its architectural and designer products, Instile operates a retail location in Manhattan.

And to further differentiate itself from its competitors, Instile's inventory of stone from India is not only traditional tiles and slabs, but also “designer” options that utilize unique patterns and materials. Included are exotic Indian materials such as Lady Dream and Golden Sunset as well as the “Instile Metallics” line of mosaics. These “hardback” mosaics are set on a cementitious background and combine Indian stone with metal pieces, fabricated in India. Mosaic pieces and tiles are also offered with an abrasive/chemical finish, providing yet another design option.

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