Stone Column

Hitting the mainstream

April 11, 2004
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In late February, I was interviewed by The New York Times for an article that they were preparing on the labor market in the U.S. I offered my insight on the stone industry and how it has grown over the past few years, particularly in the fabrication sector. The resulting article appeared shortly thereafter and devoted a healthy amount of coverage to my thoughts and comments. Given the Times' national reach, I heard from friends and family from around the country. Even my father (who, I might add, is rarely impressed with anything) called to say that he saw the article.

So I spent the next day or so feeling suitably impressed with myself, and once the swelling in my head receded to a manageable level, I began to think about what I said and what the article meant. The writer, Virginia Postrel, has written about the U.S. labor market for major consumer publications, and she has also published a book on the subject. Essentially, Ms. Postrel's piece explained that there is a new manufacturing dynamic taking root in the U.S. marketplace. While large-scale manufacturing has been moving outside of our country's borders, there has been some growth in other niche sectors, such as the stone industry. During the interview, I noted that natural stone fabricators and installers are growing on a continual basis, and new operations are being established regularly as well. And although this growth has been difficult to quantify, I was able to point to Stone World's major increase in subscribers in the fabrication sector as one indicator of growth that I could put my finger on.

Now, The New York Times article is not the first time that our magazine has been asked to contribute insight on the stone industry to consumer publications. Our staff has been interviewed for other newspapers and magazines, but these articles seemed to focus on the “novelty” of natural stone. Typically, it would be some sort of feature discussing how granite is now a popular choice for residential kitchen countertops. And while these articles in consumer publications are certainly good publicity for stone, they speak of stone from a design perspective and not an industry perspective. In other words, while the products have been acknowledged, the people who work with stone have not.

I now understand that I was not interviewed for Ms. Postrel's article because of some higher knowledge or even because of the popularity of stone as a design option. I was contacted because the U.S. stone industry is becoming a viable force on a national level. This is an exciting time for our trade, and a period when stone industry growth has defied economic uncertainties. As such, it is of national interest from a business point of view.

However, there is another side to this story. The growth and allure of prosperity in the stone industry has attracted many new firms. Many of these endeavors are going about it the right way, learning the trade, consulting established industry experts (who are generally very good about sharing information) and maintaining a level of craftsmanship that has been associated with natural stone for decades.

Unfortunately, some of these new firms have not been as responsible. I have heard from a range of dissatisfied homeowners whose initial experiences with natural stone have been less than satisfactory. The range of complaints has been varied. Templaters and installers have not shown up when scheduled. Difficult procedures such as sink cut-outs have been botched (and the defective countertop still installed). And, of course, estimates fell far short of the final bill. Although these “horror stories” are rare, they hurt the reputation of an industry that is looking to continue a pattern of growth.

Bear in mind, I am not saying this is reflective of new companies in general. In fact, I would say that these stories are the exception to the rule, and most newly established firms have been very professional. But the problems do exist, and it is important that the industry as a whole look to maintain natural stone's status as a premier building material.

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