A few weeks ago, I was discussing the prosperity of the stone industry with someone from outside the trade. I talked about how the use of stone has continued to rise despite all of the uncertain economic times and international turmoil over the past couple of years. In my enthusiasm, I referred to the U.S. stone industry as “recession-proof,” a title that my colleague found highly questionable. And despite my best efforts to convince him that the stone industry has continually rode against all economic trends, he remained largely skeptical.

Some of these arguments came to mind as I reviewed the results of Stone World's market research study, which gauges the past success and future expectations of stone fabricators across the U.S. Once again, the news was overwhelmingly positive. Looking at the coming year, 81.0% of respondents expected the stone market to increase in 2004. Virtually all of the other respondents (18.2%) felt that business would hold steady this year, and a very small portion (0.7%) predicted a decline.

And looking down the road, the news is even more positive. A total of 83.2% of respondents feel the stone market will grow over the next 5 to 10 years, and 15.3% say it will remain the same. Only 1.5% expect business to decline over the next 5 to 10 years.

There are a number of reasons for this optimism, many of which were also cited in previous years. Fabricators are pointing to increased awareness of natural stone as well as greater affordability and stronger market penetration. Speaking in terms of sheer numbers, fabricators pointed to the success of 2003. Despite several obstacles, over two-thirds of respondents (66.9%) saw their business increase in 2003, and 24.8% saw their trade remain the same in 2003. Only 8.3% of respondents saw a decrease in business last year. Even when specifically asked about conflicts and terrorism on the international front, over two-thirds of fabricators felt they were largely unaffected by these events - nor did they feel that it would affect business in the future.

And as in years past, members of the stone industry were aware that even while business has increased, overall per-capital stone usage in the U.S. is still relatively low. This leaves plenty of room for growth this year and over the long-term.

So, with all of this optimism swirling around, I ask myself: “Is the U.S. stone industry recession proof?” The answer to this question is no. This industry does not sell itself. Natural stone continues to compete with man-made alternatives, and many of these products have deeper marketing budgets than the stone industry. As such, members of our trade must continue to maintain the standards of quality that are a hallmark of the business. Prosperity within the U.S. stone marketplace has brought about many new fabricators, and these new entries in the trade need to understand that natural stone is not a commodity item. It requires craftsmanship and a level of attention to detail found in few other products.

Fortunately, I have every confidence that this industry will rise to the challenges it faces. While attending StonExpo in Atlanta last December, I saw older, well-established fabricators mixing with members of new firms, exchanging information and ideas. This has become commonplace, and this sharing of knowledge is part of the reason that this industry continues to excel.

I also saw a large exhibit by the Natural Stone Council, an organization dedicated to increasing awareness and promoting education about natural stone in North America. Its very presence serves as an example that the stone industry is collectively prepared to meet the challenge of alternate materials in the marketplace. In a particularly heartwarming display of industry support, I saw that dozens of stone-related firms had pledged to donate to the Council over the three days of StonExpo. I would like to personally commend all of these firms, as well as those industry professionals who impart their knowledge to the trade as a whole. The U.S. stone industry is more united than ever, and this will ultimately play a critical role in its long-term success.