Q: I would like for the Stone Fabricators Alliance (SFA) members to explain the organization to our readers. What are its goals, objectives, etc., and more importantly, how is it looking to achieve these objectives? Also, how does the SFA differ from trade associations such as the Marble Institute of America (MIA) and the Building Stone Institute (BSI)?

Donny Taylor, Albany, GA:The Stone Fabricators Alliance, just as the name implies is an alliance of fabricators, for fabricators. We are a brotherhood of sorts. The objective is to better the industry; to “raise the bar” in quality of product and customer service.

We focus primarily on raising the level of quality in our members. We teach each other methods of achieving the perfect seam, the perfect edge, the perfect repair, etc.

As the SFA, we work together with the MIA and try to help each other reach common goals.

To sum it up in a nutshell, we, as fabricators, are here to help each other - to better the industry as a whole and teach our skills to the many that want to learn the craft of fabricating a true piece of art.

Steven Hauser, CIRCA, Inc., Greenville, SC:It takes a lot of experience, for even a well-intentioned craftsman, to work with stone. We collectively provide that experience. Whatever needs to be done, we will make sure it gets done well. We guide our brotherhood in the multiple directions a stone countertop business can take.

We answer any question regarding chemistry, petrography and other factors when it comes to stone and making it into countertops.

We guide each other in what products and methods work best, and we commiserate with one another when we get too busy and need an outlet. We help make expansion and contraction decisions. Lastly, we proudly extol the differences and eclectic voices our organization has, and we keep it from being chaotic or childish.

Ronald Hannah, Charlotte, NC:The biggest problem that we see this industry facing is the declining margins for our products - as our product is being transformed from a luxury item to a commodity to the construction industry.

This transformation is happening due to many reasons some of which are:
  • Consumers, especially builders, have become price-driven without regard to quality or customer service.
  • Low-ballers or "hacks" without any knowledge or experience are entering the business on the assumption that it is an easy way to make money and, upon discovering it is not, lower their prices to "buy" jobs to make the monthly equipment and rent payments.
  • Most importantly, the public lacks the knowledge and/or education required to discern the difference between quality material and workmanship from the vulgar chaff so often produced by the “hacks.”
While the SFA certainly does provide a great arena for brotherhood, communication, training etc., we also aim to educate the masses in an effort to get our product, natural stone, back where it needs to be; a coveted luxury item.

With this thought in mind we intend to show fabricators how high the bar has been raised by those with a passion for the industry. We intend to teach the public what to look for, what to watch out for and show them the amazing work that is out there so that they will ask for it. Consumers cannot be expected to ask for polished seams, resined slabs, lifetime sealers and warranties, etc., if they are not made aware that they exist.

Let's not forget the questions we receive from “Joe Consumer,” who has become the recipient of a sub-par product only to receive an unacceptable explanation from the fabricator or installer. We, the SFA, have become a sounding board for these folks, who traditionally had nowhere to go. They now come here, ask and learn from the experts and then return to their “situation” with an educated response. We are, directly and indirectly, improving the quality of the industry and bringing the “hacks” to task.

Mark Meriaux, The Granite Shop, Smyrna, GA:The SFA started from a group of fabricators across the nation that participated in the online trade forum, www.stoneadvice.com, which was created by Mark Lauzon.

I personally regard the SFA as a kind of “grass roots” movement within our industry. As many newer “hack-in-a-box” stone shops continue to open up and drive down both price and the quality, we at the SFA have banded together and share/help each other to try and improve the industry from within. We share various information with each other such as:
  • Fabrication/Installation Tips and Techniques - Face polishing, polished seams, chip repairs, trick edges, sink mounting, etc. We offer each other help in all of these areas and more. The MIA Design Manual is the best available "reference standard" for the stone industry, but many installations are far from "standard." Some fabricators nationwide (and worldwide) have developed tried-and-true techniques that may be known only by that individual or company. We openly share (and evaluate) these different techniques to determine their value to the industry on a much wider basis.
  • Business Tips & Practices - Pricing strategies, dealing with employees, planning and managing growth, dealing with customers, etc. We discuss and share information ranging from contracts to customer service. Unfortunately, talented craftsmen may not always be the best salesmen or business managers. We discuss topics like this and try to offer help through advice.
  • Product Evaluation - Hand tools, large equipment, diamond tools and more are discussed and evaluated by members of the SFA. If a particular product or service proves to be of significant value, it is publicly endorsed and shared with other members. Likewise, if a particular tool or company fails to perform as advertised, we call them on it and offer suggestions for improvement whenever possible. On tried-and-true tools, many manufacturers are now offering discounts to SFA members on their endorsed products.
  • Training - Hands-on in actual operating shops of our members - not purely classroom-based "best practices." Attendees can expect to see the successes (and pitfalls) that might be encountered by a typical shop. Our first official training was in May/June for fellow members. Unofficial training is going on all the time, as most SFA members have open "invites" to visit each other's facilities to learn specific skills and techniques. We are currently working on more formal training that would be useful to fabricators of all skill levels.
We endorse other trade organizations like the Marble Institute of America. We feel that our efforts are complementary to the services available from the MIA. Both organizations are working towards one common goal - improve the quality and consumer understanding of the natural stone industry.

Jeff Leun, The Stone Haus Inc., Chattanooga, TN:We're different in that everyone that is a member is in the fabrication business on a daily basis. We're fabricators first and foremost, with a passion for stone and looking to infect anyone who will listen. If you need help with anything, the alliance has your back. Whether it's a customer issue, machine malfunction, supplier problem or a simple fabrication issue, most certainly someone can and will help. We are not a political organization; we're people helping people.

Michael Shane, Stockbridge, GA:I'm at a point in my life where I have realized there's a lot that I don't know. I have a burning desire to better myself and my company. I can do this by learning, sharing and growing.

I stumbled across www.stoneadvice.com in my search to better myself. When I got there, I was amazed at the wealth and depth of knowledge being given. Eventually I saw I could help others with my experience.

The SFA is the place where people that want to better themselves in the stone industry can go to learn. There is no other place where I could have learned so much, in so many areas and been more successful in such a short amount of time. We at the SFA feel that education - both ours and our customers' - is the key to success.

I now want to give back to the industry that has done so much for me. People that want to better the industry have come together to create the SFA. If you would like to know more, feel free to read our charter at www.SFArocks.com. You can participate in the forum at www.stoneadvice.com.

Being part of the SFA, you are going to receive many benefits that are industry specific for slab fabricators. The most important one of which is being a part of a network of people that fabricate. Nothing is better than a feeling of knowing if you have a question or a problem, you can ask and not be judged. The best way to learn about your industry is to surround yourself with the best in the industry.

Kevin Padden, AZ Stone Consulting, Pinal County, AZ:I like being a part of the SFA because I enjoy sharing knowledge with like minded people. I don't know the exact numbers, but I'll guess that there are probably 20,000 “fabricators” in the U.S. - from companies that have equipment “bolted down” to the floor and overhead like a building, employees and inventory - all the way down to the other end of the spectrum, where you'll find folks that just have enough money to afford a Skilsaw and an A-frame. Then you have everybody that fits somewhere in between.

SFA people have a common thread, and that's trying to make our stone industry better through tactical events such as networking, training and lobbying. I think that both Mark Meriaux and Mark Lauzon said it best when they described MIA as “Strategic” and SFA as “Tactical.”

Matt Lansing, Stone Innovations, Inc., Plover, WI:The SFA started out as a collection of fabricators that wanted to get together and have an area where we could discuss the innermost workings of a fabrication shop without the prying eyes of customers, equipment manufacturers, tooling companies and other stoneworking professionals that apparently just liked to hear themselves talk with out actually accomplishing something. We wanted an area where we could openly discuss how we arrive at our pricing, what we are paying our employees, where we are getting the best stone from, what stones to avoid, what our Workmen's Compensation ratings were, labor troubles, who makes a good polishing pad and the everyday things that “Joe Public” doesn't need to see.

From this group of like-minded fabricators, an idea was born to form an alliance - a stoneworking brotherhood where maybe we could accomplish some things that were bugging us or things that we think the countertop industry should represent. We would make some friends along the way, have a good time talking to people that were going through the exact same things we were, and maybe help some people get past a stage in the development of their company that gave us trouble too.

It is nice to come home at the end of the day - where you were being told by “Joe Public” that you obviously don't know anything because your installers showed up one hour late for an install three hours away in a driving rainstorm - that someone really appreciated your advice and you really helped them out of a jam. When you're an owner of a company, you don't get many pats on the back, and when that paycheck doesn't make you feel all warm and fuzzy anymore, it is good to help people that truly appreciate it.

Along the same lines, when I have a problem I ask the question or make a general statement, and someone else will have an idea to try, someone else to talk to, or has been there themselves and gives me a good solution to the situation. It has turned out to be a wonderful resource for myself and my company.

Once we started putting all of this advice together, we started comparing notes about what equipment we had, what tools we were using - air or electric polishers, dry sanding marble or wet polishing, stones for grinding or vacuum-brazed cupwheels, etc - and we found out that a lot of us had the same experiences. We also found that we had similar experiences with equipment manufacturers - some had excellent equipment but lousy service and some manufacturers just had lousy equipment. We were able to talk to other fabricators and warn them not to look at this certain CNC anymore because you were required to change the spindle receiver every 1,000 hours because it wasn't heat treated; that this other saw blade company makes blades that cut like wet noodles; that this polishing pad that came out lasts longer than anything we have ever tried before and polishes beautifully; etc.

In a way, we have become an advocacy group for the countertop fabricators. If an equipment company is treating one of our alliance members poorly, the rest of us that own the equipment or feel like voicing our opinion all let that manufacturer know that we are unhappy about it.

We have also started to become an advocacy group for the fabricator that doesn't want to produce a high-end product; the fabricator that wants to sell at the cheapest price possible so they get the job and turn out a garbage product. We have consumers that post with problems or concerns on their installations. We look at the pictures that they post, analyze what they are saying and offer recommendations on how they deal with this situation. We also invite them to give this Web site to their fabricator and let them know that we will help and guide them to putting out a better product. In order for them to put out a better product, they will have to spend more time and possibly more money, thereby necessitating them to charge more for their countertops. When we get another fabricator into the organization, where we can help them learn, we remove another “hack” that is giving this industry a bad name; and we have another person who has experience that we may not have, so we can learn something from them as well.

We are now reaching a point that we need an administrator to run the Web site and the forum. We want to conduct demonstrations at various trade shows; put out videos for other fabricators to learn from; conduct classes at various locations around the U.S. in actual fabrication shops, doing actual fabrication along side highly trained fabricators; travel with templating and installation crews to actual jobsites, where people can see how it is actually done.

All of these things take time and money. We have kicked the idea around of charging a membership fee to the members of the SFA, but how much? How many people would that take? What about if we take on corporate sponsors; allow advertising on the Web site, banners at the trade shows and logos on our shirts. We could raise the money that we need to continue what we have started, pay for our booths at the trade shows and not have to charge much of a fee for membership so that the fabricator that needs us the most can still reach us. These are the guys sitting there at 12:00 at night, staring at a piece of stone with a scratch in it, trying to figure out how to save this job that is going to be installed tomorrow morning by 8:00 am or they are going to be eating $4,000 worth of stone - not to mention all the lost hours.

Brian Briggs, Granite Guys, Inc., Ft. Pierce, FL:Two weeks ago, another SFA member called me up and said they were having problems with their saw and were wondering if I had the same problems (we have the same make and model). We brainstormed the problem and found a fix. On another occasion, another member called me up at 8:00 p.m. on a Sunday and was stumped with some onyx they were working. We walked through the problem and found a solution. These are just a few examples of what we are about.

We are a brotherhood of sorts (I know, it sounds a bit melodramatic; it is just the best way to describe it). Where else can you post a question in reference to how much to charge per lineal foot for an ogee edge or how do you calculate manufacturer's tax without having to worry about who is reading it? Where else can you get a fellow fabricator on the phone or through e-mail to help you out of a bind?

Then, when you consider our open door policy, how can you beat that? Want to learn how to do a ground in place radiused tub skirt, come to my shop and I will show you - no charge. Want to learn top polished seams, go to Mark's shop, he'll show you at no charge. Many people will see what we are doing and will try to figure our angle. What is their agenda? Simply, we love what we do, and we want to share the knowledge.

Let's face it, if the low-ballers were taking actual pride in their work - paying proper wages, paying the insurances that legitimate shops do, etc. - they would have to raise their prices. So why not show them how to do a better job so that they can get more money for their work? That is one of the many things the SFA is about.

Mark Lauzon, Stoneworks, Hubbard, OR:Everyone has hit the main points. This bottom line is helping one another, for no other reason than the simple fact that we can. The SFA is a strong, dynamic and progressive community. We have no paid administrators or employees of any sort. All the work and workshops are hosted by volunteers and are free to members.

We just wrapped up a three-day workshop at my facility, and it went great. We taught top polishing, rock pitch edgework, laminating, layout, templating, etc. We had the folks from AGM, Etemplate System and Laser Products stop by and do product demonstrations. About 20 shop owners showed up, and I was pleased to make many new friends and share ideas with other shop owners. Everyone brings something; everyone takes something away. This was down and dirty fabrication, in the trenches. Real fabricators working on real kitchens in a real shop. It simply does not get any better than that.

The guys all pitched in and collected enough cash to give every one of my employees a $100 “tip,” and I look forward to hosting another workshop.

Additionally, we are a networked online community that provides assistance in the real world when you need it - from fellow fabricators who understand your situation. A new section of our Web site -www.sfarocks.com- will feature a page where you can download MSDS sheets, DXF files, sample contracts, checklists, training handbooks, tips and tricks, etc., at no charge.

This is all being done by volunteers, so join us and contribute. To learn more, visitwww.stoneadvice.com. Also, be sure to visit our booth at StonExpo this year in Las Vegas, NV.