Five years ago, I remember telling friends from outside the stone industry how much the field has grown. I pointed to an import total of $870 million in 1999 and explained that this was exponentially higher than when I joined Stone World in 1993. My job, it would appear, was secure. Well, since that time, imports of natural stone have more than doubled, reaching a total of $1.95 billion in 2004. This is not only an increase of 125% since 1999, but it is also a 30% increase from only a year ago. The industry is exploding, and it appears everyone wants to get a piece of the pie.

On the international front, companies around the world are targeting the U.S. market for stone exports. In particular, countries such as China, Brazil and India are exporting more stone to the U.S. than ever, particularly granite slabs. Additionally, Italy remains the top exporter of stone to the U.S., and Turkey exports a staggering amount of marble production to America. (See a full report on U.S. stone imports later in this issue.)

Reflecting the popularity of granite kitchen countertops, granite imports had a higher value than marble imports for the first time ever last year. And despite these increases, stone usage in the U.S. remains relatively low when looked at on a per-capita basis. There is still plenty of room for growth, and exports are expected to continue increasing in the future.

Of course, all of this growth means that there will be new players in the marketplace. More stone producers are shipping to the U.S. than ever before, and companies importing stone (whether they are distributors or fabricators) need to make sure that the material they bring in is consistent in terms of quality. A lot of new faces are looking our way, and it is up to the importers to be diligent in their stone sourcing and quality control. Stone is not a commodity item, so people need to know who they are buying from, and they need to focus on the whole picture - not just price.

On the fabrication end, there are more companies cutting and installing stone than ever before. This raises several concerns. First, we need to make sure that the new fabricators are going about their business the proper way; that they are getting educated and are doing quality work. One bad installation is all it takes for people to start bad-mouthing the stone industry to their friends. Next thing you know, homeowners are saying, “There's too much to worry about with stone. Let's go with Corian.” In a time when there are more premium countertop materials on the market than ever before, we need to make sure that stone installers are never looked upon as “just another contractor.” Stone is an elite material, and the quality of the fabrication and installation needs to match the quality of the material.

Second, the established fabricators need to make sure that the quality of their work does not suffer as they grow. Most of the fabricators I speak to are extremely busy, so it is critical that no one in the shop cuts corners to meet an increased production schedule.

Fortunately, it appears that most fabricators - both old and new - are keeping up their end of the bargain. In my travels to fabrication shops around the country, I am continually impressed by the craftsmanship and professionalism that is in the workplace. They are also educating themselves regularly to make sure they maintain this professionalism. There are more educational opportunities in the stone industry than ever before, and it's great to see fabricators take advantage of this. (In fact, I am writing this column while sitting on an airplane on the way to the Stone World Fabrication Workshops in California.) Keep it up, and the stone industry will be able to deal with any competition that comes its way.