Stone Column

Does the stone industry have a future?

October 1, 2012
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When I look at the stone industry, I see a totally mixed bag — and I don’t mean that as a good thing. As editor of Stone World and (its electronic off-shoots such as this E-Newsletter), I get a firsthand look at all aspects of our business — from one-man fabrication shops in small rented warehouses to large-scale fabrication plants to massive quarrying and slab-processing operations. I see these stoneworking facilities at work in all corners of the globe, and it seems that no matter what the size or scope of a business, when it comes to worrying about the overall direction of the industry, they usually fall into one of several categories. Frankly, these classifications can also apply to technology suppliers.

A. Operations that are genuinely concerned with the greater good of the stone industry. They support initiatives that benefit the trade as a whole — whether it is generic promotion of the stone industry, associations or other mediums for promoting the craft. They share their knowledge with their fellow industry members. They are continually looking to improve their own operations while also enhancing overall consumer awareness and education. In general, these firms are the key to positioning stone as a premium building material.

B. People/firms that have the financial means and experience to offer a great deal to our industry, but that continually choose to look out solely for their own interests. Far too often, their attitude is “What’s in it for me?” or “What’s my return?” Even though they may ultimately benefit from the time and effort given by other industry members — those who contributed to fighting the “Great Radon Scare,” for example — they have no personal interest in anything that doesn’t give a direct, tangible benefit to them in return. (And believe me, if not for the efforts of the Marble Institute of America and its “Truth About Granite” campaign, that radon scare would have been a LOT worse. That program was funded by conscientious industry members, who dug into their pockets during a brutal recession because they understood just how necessary it is to foster our industry as a whole.)

C. Low-ballers who couldn’t care less where the industry is headed. They sell solely on the basis of price and generally do poor work. These companies not only drive down the value of granite countertops; they commoditize the industry as a whole. While many of these companies do not last very long, it seems that there are always a few in every market — no matter where you go or what state the economy is in. The only way to offset these guys is to keep promoting quality and service — and, once again, to support initiatives and organizations that foster our industry.

D. Companies that may want to help out the industry, but they just don’t know how to start. Or maybe they don’t feel qualified enough — or too inexperienced — to get involved. I actually don’t think there are all that many companies that fall into this category, but if you feel you are one of them, I would suggest that the trade associations are a great place to start.

So what does all of this mean in the end? It means that if the companies in Category B (you know who you are) don’t start thinking like the ones in Category A, our industry may ultimately get steamrolled. The stone industry is not just battling the economy; it is battling alternative products from giants like DuPont and other conglomerates — products with deep enough marketing budgets that they can take a massive chunk out of our fragmented industry. As I said, the low-ballers will always be there, but there are enough quality companies out there that we should be able to maintain stone’s status as a high-end, high-quality product.

Earlier this year, the Marble Institute sponsored a study of homeowners, which was conducted by Harris Interactive. It revealed that 75% of homeowners who intend to remodel their kitchens in the next two years indicated they want granite countertops. So to answer my question at the top of this column — “Does this industry have a future?” It would seem that the answer is a resounding “yes,” but it is not going to happen automatically.

Look, I know that times are still extremely tough out there, and there are some companies that are still in “survival mode.” Naturally, their priority should be ensuring that their business remains viable.

But having said that, there are so many companies in our industry that have weathered the storm, and they are currently showing growth. When I talk to stone producers (and believe me, I talk to them all the time), I hear this more often than not.

As we move forward, it is up to the current (and future) generation of our industry — stoneworking facilities, technology suppliers, stone distributors, all of us — to consider where we are going as an industry as a whole and avoid the “this-for-that” mentality. Trust me, if you’re in it for the long haul, you will benefit every time our industry advances.

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