An unknown author once wrote: "The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away a small stone." Some people in the industry might argue that the mountain just needed to be moved, while others would debate the necessity of tearing it down and rebuilding. But almost all have agreed that some sort of action was called for in order to unite an industry that has a long history of fragmentation. One year ago, that action occurred when a diverse group of individuals -- representing a cross-section of stone industry and association leaders -- met for the first time in the spring of 2002. The result of that historic meeting was the formation of the Natural Stone Council (NSC).

"For more than 20 years, groups in our industry have talked about coming together, but nothing ever worked," said Pennie Sabel, Executive Director of StonExpo. "The difference this time is that there's a very specific goal that we can all agree upon and work towards. It's no longer a turf battle." That goal is to create a 2,500-square-foot booth at the 2004 AIA (American Institute of Architects) National Convention and Expo in Chicago to promote the merits of natural stone.

Tom Schlough, President of Park Industries and one of the original members of StonExpo, drew the same conclusion. "There was a need for one common place and one common goal which everyone could rally around, especially when it came to marketing," he explained. "I've been in the machine business for a long time, and our stone customers always saw the market as competition between each other. But now they can see that our real competition is coming from the much bigger world of building materials."

Natural stone is as old as the earth itself. Throughout the centuries, stonemasons have long understood the beauty and durability of natural stone. But until recently, this knowledge of stone as the foundation of architectural success has not been well known outside of the industry. The time was right for business and association leaders from across the country to come together and let the world know what they have learned over hundreds of years of use: natural stone is the premier product of choice.

Why now?

Addressing the timing for such an endeavor, Gary Distelhorst, Executive Vice President of the Marble Institute of America, said: "In recent decades, the proliferation of competing products and regulatory issues has combined to make the natural stone industry stand up and take notice. We saw this as an opportunity for a diverse group with mutual interests to work together for a common goal."

Jim Owens, Executive Director of the Indiana Limestone Institute, agreed. "Before now," he said, "there was no compelling reason for us to come together. But I think anything we can do to further the position of natural stone over various man-made products is a worthwhile effort."

For the past few decades, companies that make manufactured stone products have spent millions of advertising dollars convincing consumers that their stone "look-alike" products can function in the same way as natural stone. But according to the natural stone experts, there is no comparison. "The strength, beauty, and durability of natural stone cannot be replicated in a man-made product," explained Distelhorst. "There is clearly a difference between these products, and it's up to the NSC to educate consumers on what those differences are."

Mission and membership

The mission of the NSC is to increase awareness and promote education about natural stone in the North American marketplace. Its membership roster includes associations such as the Marble Institute of America (MIA), the Indiana Limestone Institute (ILI), the StonExpo Federation, Allied Stone Industries (ASI), the American Monument Association (AMA), the National Building Granite Quarriers Association (NBGQA), and the Elberton Granite Association. In addition, business leaders in the industry are represented by Luck Stone Corp., North Carolina Granite Corp., Dakota Granite Co., Becker and Becker Stone Co., Victor Oolitic Stone Co., Fieldstone Center, Inc., Cold Spring Granite Co., Park Industries, Southwest Marble & Granite Works, Sturgis Materials, Inc., Rolling Rock Building Stone, Inc., Booms Stone Company, Zoll Stone and Brick and Rocky Mountain Stone Co. Mark Fernandes, Vice President of Luck Stone Corp. and a founding member of the Council, said he had talked with hundreds of people inside the industry who all support the Council and agree it is long overdue.

"Just the fact that everyone is sitting at the same table is remarkable, and a significant step forward for our industry, " explained Ed Walsh, Vice President of Sturgis Materials. Jim Owens of the ILI echoed that sentiment. "Each one of us on the council can bring a unique perspective to the table," he said. "We can pool our strengths to present consumers with the positive attributes of natural stone products and why we believe natural stone is superior to any other product in the market."

Whether it's marble, limestone, granite, travertine, slate, or sandstone, the NSC's goal is to educate consumers on why natural stone should be their product of choice. Chuck Monson, CEO of Dakota Granite, joined the council because it offered the industry an opportunity to take a fresh perspective. "My hope," he said, "is that we can promote natural stone to the architects at the AIA conference in 2004, but then look beyond the conference to promote natural stone to the general public. There is so much they don't know, but need to know, about the attributes and applications of natural stone."

A proactive approach

It is clear to all members of the NSC that the stone industry in the U.S. is facing many significant challenges, but they also see incredible opportunities. By pooling resources and expertise from all of its members, the NSC will have the ability to go on the offensive. Mark Fernandes recognized the need for stone companies and stone associations to take a proactive approach. He challenged industry leaders to begin to address these issues and identify opportunities in the natural stone industry.

"Everyone on the council has the knowledge to move us forward in our industry," Fernandes explained. "We need to promote our product as the premier product in its class and educate our different audiences on the compelling reasons to use natural stone." He went on to outline some of the other benefits that have resulted from the Council's work:

  • We realized that all of our members brought considerable and unique strengths to the table.
  • After we recognized those strengths, we were able to develop synergies between the members.
  • What we were able to achieve was a great balance and perspective, with natural stone associations and companies collaborating together.
  • Lastly, we were able to raise awareness and show support of the work already in progress among our members to advance the stone industry.

Much of that work and details of the NSC's plans for its booth at the AIA National Convention will be revealed in an upcoming article. "One of the issues that people expressed doubt to me about was the Council's ability to raise money," Fernandes said. "But we already have some nice financial commitments from ASI, StonExpo, NBGQA, and the MIA." Fundraising efforts will soon begin in earnest to help cover the costs for the AIA booth, promotional items, and needed materials.

The natural stone industry is charting a new course as businesses and associations collaborate for the first time ever in a united and cooperative effort. Schlough explained it this way: "The stone industry is made up of a lot of small companies, which can't have as much of an impact as one large body. There's a lot of cause for optimism as we are now more willing to collaborate. Anything we can do to help the stone industry grow is a good thing, and I'm happy to be a part of it."