Stone Column

Don't count U.S. out!

July 1, 2009
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As is often the case during my travels, some inspiration for a column finds its way into my head, and I have to get it out before the normalcy of returning home wipes it away. That is why I am typing this column from my hotel room in Nuremberg, Germany, only a few hours after the international Stone+tec trade fair closed its doors.

The event is among the largest international stone trade shows in the world, and so there were plenty of familiar faces to greet me as I walked the floors of the show. As one of the few Americans there, however, people generally greeted me as if I were an aged supermodel whose looks have faded away.

Folks were polite, to be sure, but the first few people I met regarded me with an obscure sense of pity - as if I were a castaway from a sinking ship, or maybe a downtrodden in-law looking for work. They would ask me about the American market and turn away wistfully before I would answer, as if a response of “Horrible - now and forever” would be the only logical statement I could make. So a few of them raised an eyebrow when I said, with a measure of conviction, “We are seeing some positive signs, and people are telling me business is picking up.”

The fact of the matter is that I meant it. It truly appears that we have hit bottom, and the first signs of recovery are upon us. It is a long road, to be sure, but if I were a betting man, I’d say that the American stone industry will be in a vastly improved position by this time next year - maybe sooner. This may sound simplistic and arrogant, but we are too strong a nation to stay down for this long.

So, for the few company managers who told me, “We don’t even try and sell in the U.S. anymore,” I offer some words of caution: Don’t count us out.

It is a fact that the U.S. stone industry will improve. It might not reach the zenith that was 2006, but looking at the per-capita stone use in America, which is much smaller than other nations with comparable wealth, it just might. And for the international suppliers that have decided to target their marketing elsewhere, your place at the table might be taken by someone else when things pick up again.

This is because some companies have actually increased their marketing to the U.S. to stand out in a crisis. As I wrote this past May, our imports were still $2.262 billion in 2008, and somebody is still selling stone to us, no?

While in Germany, I had a conversation on this topic with Jouni Okko of Ylämaa Group, who is the current President of the Finnish Natural Stone Association, and he agreed with my theory. “The U.S. is a key market for European companies,” he said. “And while we are looking at other markets, we are all waiting for the U.S. to rebound. The U.S. looks for finished products that come from the highest quality large blocks, which are most important in terms of income.”

Some major stone suppliers were hoping that the solution to the international crisis could be found in the Middle East (specifically Dubai), and within recent months, several told me that they have specifically shifted their marketing efforts there. Frankly, that ship has already sailed. I know of several stone suppliers that were pioneers in selling to the Dubai market, and many have told me that the large projects there have dried up, and there isn’t much on the horizon other than ongoing projects - if those are even completed. The situation was admirably summed up by The New York Times a few months ago in an article entitled, “Laid-Off Foreigners Flee as Dubai Spirals Down” (visit www.nytimes.com/2009/02/12/world/middleeast/12dubai.html to see the article).

Even in a severely down economy, the U.S. market remains the “hub of the wheel” - so to speak - and it will remain so. In all due candor, to invest all of your marketing efforts in other nations - and still expect your place in the U.S. market to remain intact after the recovery - is foolhardy.

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