Re-Emerging U.S. Stone Industry: Vermont slate producer enters a new era
June 1, 2006
Founded in 1916 by the Hicks family as a supplier of stone from the Vermont/New York slate belt, Evergreen Slate Co., Inc. of Granville, NY, has seen the industry rise and decline several times over the past 90 years. Today, with new ownership, a recent quarry acquisition and two new divisions, the company is poised to ensure that its fortunes are positive for decades to come.
Shortly after being founded, Evergreen Slate shared in the general success of the slate belt, where individual quarries employed as many as 500 workers. However, the stock market crash of 1929, and subsequent recession, severely hurt the slate industry as a whole, and many companies in the region folded altogether. Fortunately, Evergreen Slate was one of the companies that survived, and it remained a leading firm in the marketplace for decades. During that time, the firms of the slate belt - like other segments of the stone industry - rode out the market swings of the industry, including sporadic consumer tendencies towards inferior manmade products. Since the 1970s, though, the slate industry has been enjoying a resurgence that plateaued after 9/11 and is now on the rise again.
Today, the company has 74 direct employees, and the Hicks family had owned the company for 90 years before finally selling the operation one and half years ago. Fred Whitridge now serves as President and Bob Jenks serves as Vice President, although Evergreen Slate still has a lot of experience on board, including Former Company President Clark Hicks, who is still involved in the company. Other primary employees include Sales Manager Jo Anne Baker, who has been with the company for 17 years; General Manager Chris Bean, who has been with the company for six years; and Production Manager Ray Loomis, who has been with the company for 20 years.
Whitridge and Jenks, who have an industrial background, are looking to expand the company while still respecting its storied roots. â€œWe were attracted to the idea of bringing our financial tools and management to the company,â€ said Whitridge. â€œThe quality is obviously here. The employees here have the best work ethic around. Coming from outside the industry, the people, knowledge and tradition here is really great.â€
The new principal owners at Evergreen explained that they not only want to move the company forward, but also to promote the overall possibilities of slate as a design material. â€œWhen you look at all of the potential applications of slate - fireplaces, countertops, bathrooms or exterior solutions - that has so far been a small component of the slate industry,â€ Jenks explained. â€œIt is natural that we would be the people to supply these products to the marketplace. If people are getting a slate roof for their house, the odds are that there is also a market for slate countertops, arches and other elements.â€
With this philosophy in mind, Evergreen Slate started a structural slate division in February of this year. This division will supply slate in a variety of architectural formats, including custom wall cladding, countertops, sinks, fireplace surrounds, stairs, sills, etc. Baker noted that when slate is used for countertops, it can receive a high honed finish that is â€œsatin-likeâ€ by feel. Evergreen Slate has also started a flooring division, which will sell slate tiles in a range of sizes and colors.
In expanding the company, Evergreen Slate's new owners are looking to increase consumer awareness of slate products in the marketplace. According to Whitridge, the competition is not among the various slate producers, but between the slate industry and alternative roofing products such as metal and manufactured materials. He noted that certain synthetic materials have received environmental certifications, such as designation from the Cool Roof Rating Council, while slate has not been accepted as an environmentally friendly material by green building advocates. Whitridge also advocated the need for a study to show that the processes for producing slate roofing have less environmental impact than the manufacturing of synthetic materials. The longevity of slate roofing and potential for re-use are also environmental aspects that can be promoted to firms looking to â€œbuild green,â€ he said.
A vast inventoryAccording to Whitridge, the company has a tremendous inventory of various colors and sizes - essentially 18,000 squares of roofing slate. While that allows the company to be prepared to ship many of the orders that come in, it also provided a challenge for the new owners, who implemented the task of cataloging all of the material in stock and assigning bar codes for each pallet. These bar codes can recall the products' color, length, width, thickness, quarry of origin and whether they have been trimmed and â€œpunchedâ€ (a process where the nail holes are punched into the piece).
â€œThe bottom line is making sure you can supply what your customers are asking for, and that you can be ready to deliver on short notice,â€ Whitridge said.
Lead time is three to four weeks for most products that are not in stock, which means Evergreen Slate can accommodate typical projects on a tight schedule, Baker said. The company also produces custom sizes and â€œcut-butts,â€ where one end is custom cut on the corners (or rounded) to create a unique aesthetic.
The quarriesThe company owns several quarries, and it supplies a total of 11 colors of slate from the slate belt, which sits in the Mettowee Valley between New York and Vermont (although most of the quarry sites are actually in Vermont).
A new quarry acquisition is a site for Unfading Mottled Green-Purple slate, which is being held by a related company. The site itself was very undeveloped, as it operated on a limited basis for around 20 years before being vacated in the 1970s. â€œWe had to move the old quarry stick and cables, and then do a lot of pumping, blasting and drilling,â€ Whitridge explained. â€œIt took many months of development to become a quarry. Fortunately for us, the old quarriers missed the best material.â€
In quarrying the stone, the process relies on drilling and blasting. When clearing away waste material that will not be processed, the holes are drilled close to one another, and a higher charge - usually dynamite - is used to blast away the stone. When extracting stone to be used in production, the holes are spaced further apart, and black powder is used for blasting. The blocks are removed from the quarry with backhoes and front loaders.
At the Unfading Mottled Green-Purple site, approximately 30 feet of waste had to be blasted from the top of the quarry, explained Clark Hicks, who acquired a great deal of quarrying knowledge working in the family business over the past few decades. After clearing the stone, the quarry site will reveal a â€œslant,â€ which contains the highest degree of workable material. Generally, these â€œslantsâ€ sit at a 45-degree angle within the quarry; however, the slant at the Unfading Mottled Green-Purple quarry sits at an angle of only 15 degrees, making it much easier to work.
According to Hicks, the quarry site has 70 acres, which will allow for at least 100 years of reserves.
Another major quarrying site for Evergreen Slate is its Calder Quarry, which produces two colors - Unfading Green and Unfading Gray. This is one of the company's larger quarry sites, and it has been in operation since the 1950s.
The Calder Quarry site is also home to one of the company's largest mills, and the quarry site has a reclamation pond where the water is recycled and pumped back to the mill to be used during the production process.
Despite the cold temperatures that accompany winter in Vermont, the slate quarries operate year round. During long cold spells, the company has to make sure that the raw quarried blocks are kept in storage buildings so they can be processed as needed. Although the slate itself can withstand normal freeze/thaw cycles, a frozen block cannot be properly split, thus creating a need to keep the blocks above 20 degrees farenheit before processing.
In the future, the owners of Evergreen Slate plan on â€œselectively and carefullyâ€ acquiring more quarries. Using a backlog of orders, they will determine which colors are the most popular and show the most potential for future sales.
The millsEvergreen Slate operates several processing mills for roofing slate, which serve a variety of functions, including sawing, splitting, trimming and hole-punching. Each mill is equipped with a variety of equipment, depending on the tasks carried out.
During the production process, blocks are first split to a size that allows them to fit into the wet saws, explained General Manager Chris Bean. The material then moves onto conveyor saws, which are equipped with wet diamond blades. Pieces are first cut to the desired length and then for width.
After the slate is cut to size with the saws, the pieces are split by skilled splitters. Using a 3-pound hammer and a 2-inch chisel, these artisans literally evaluate each piece by eye before splitting the material. â€œIt's more art than science,â€ Bean said. â€œThey need to know exactly where to place the chisel and how hard to strike it.â€
After being split, the resulting â€œchipsâ€ are then trimmed to size, a process that also creates a chamfered edge on the pieces. The trimming is done in one of three ways, including the classic manually operated trimmers that have been in use for more than a century. The mills also operate more modern trimming equipment, including powered, hand-fed trimmers and conveyor-fed trimmers, which have two sets of blades and create finished roofing slate with a tight chamfer.
The methods for punching nail holes into the slate also vary. Machinery includes traditional manual punches as well as pneumatically powered punches, multi-head drills that are fed by hand and automated conveyor lines. According to Bean, the pneumatic punches operate at twice the rate of the manually powered machines, and the conveyor lines run at three times the speed.
With the new ownership in place, Evergreen Slate is looking to continue to modernize with new machinery. â€œWe want to keep moving toward automation,â€ Whitridge said. â€œWe are sensitive to tradition, but at the same time we are looking to modernize and evolve.â€ Whitridge added that the company will not â€œabandonâ€ old methods or equipment, though, since certain jobs and products will always require the traditional processing methods.
Sales and marketingOver the years, Evergreen Slate has supplied slate for projects around the world, including jobs throughout the U.S. as well as markets such as Japan, Indonesia, Australia and Europe. The company sells through wholesale distributors and warehouses as well as directly through contractors. It has sold slate in 49 U.S. states (all except Alaska), and has had strong success throughout the country. â€œReally, there isn't a region that isn't using slate now,â€ Baker said. Europe is the second largest market for the company's roofing slate, followed by Canada and then the rest of the world.
Over the years, Evergreen Slate has supplied material for some of the country's most prominent landmarks, including the White House and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, as well as dozens of prestigious colleges such as Yale University, the University of Notre Dame, Harvard University, Duke University and the University of Michigan, among others.
The size of projects completed by Evergreen Slate can be massive. At the time of Stone World's visit, for example, the company was working on a golf course/estate project in southwestern Ireland that includes 37 buildings.
But even as the company progresses, it wants to be respectful to its roots and tradition. â€œThis will always be a family-oriented company,â€ Whitridge said. â€œWe have no intention of saying farewell to the past. We were not just buying the rock, but the people as well.â€
Jenks echoed these sentiments. â€œThis business is still an art, and it always will be - not only in the production, but in the design and application.â€