With so many new fabricators in the marketplace, even well-established shops going after the high-end market - with larger, complex kitchens - are being challenged in terms of price. But most fabricators feel homeowners are still willing to pay for quality workmanship, and that conscientious shops will prosper over the long term.

Stone World: With increased competition in the marketplace, the square-foot price for countertops seems to be falling in many regions of the country. Even well-established shops going after the high-end market - with larger, complex kitchens - tell me they are lowering their prices. How is your shop reacting to over-saturation of competition in the marketplace? How are you competing against larger stone “plants” that are producing 100 kitchens per week? Does quality still matter? Are people willing to pay for quality?

Boyd McGuire, All Stone Granite and Marble, Tulsa, OK: “Does quality still matter?” Since we frequently use automotive analogies around here, if quality didn’t matter, we would be awash in a sea of Kias. We’re not, so quality obviously does matter.

When Henry Ford first started, you could have any color you wanted so long as it was black. Things evolved; they always do.

“Are people willing to pay for quality?” I would suggest the people who run Lexus and Mercedes think they will. I would also suggest they are correct.

Can I build Kias? Yes, but that is not my market. We’re targeted toward higher end exotics. We don’t sell a lot of Ubatuba to high-end consumers. They are looking for something unusual and unique, which is what we import. We have two CNCs, and we can do pretty much whatever you can imagine.

Is there a call for Kias? There is some. How about Pontiacs? Some. The fastest growing automotive company is Toyota, which also makes the Lexus. Quality, durability and value; that mix is tried and true.

Where the automotive analogy fails is that two Lexus dealers are selling identical cars. Two granite fabricators selling Ubatuba countertops for the same kitchen may have wildly varying results.

That is why God made showrooms and digital cameras. Experience and the proper machinery for your niche is what it is about. People understand that better quality and better service are more expensive. This is another area where the automotive analogy does work.

Donny Taylor, Albany, GA: In my opinion, the market in our area is somewhat controllable by us. We set a standard, and keep “raising the bar” for others to try and reach. Now, we all have the local hack shop constantly trying to undercut our jobs. However, it is my belief that quality does matter. Quality is what keeps me busy in a somewhat slow season. Quality service, stonework and product allow us to get a higher price than the low-end shops. We too, have two CNC machines and carry a lot of exotic stones to meet the demands of the discerning homeowner. There will always be a place in the market for the production-type shop, but it is also my belief that there will always be a place in the market for us - the high-end custom shop. Quality will always matter.

Scott Campbell, Tile Market of Delaware, Fabrication Division: I believe quality does matter - just as much as customer service. I agree with both Boyd and Donny. We are not the cheapest or the fastest shop in our market, but we are the busiest. This is directly related to our quality and customer service.

We have upgraded our shop as well - with a CNC saw, a dual-table CNC and an overhead crane - and we plan to add more to increase quality and efficiency. This enables us to compete in both the high-end exotic market and the “Ubatuba market.”

What retains customers most of all is doing what you say and offering excellent customer service. We’ve had customers switch over to the low-ball hacks and eventually come back for the piece of mind and customer service. They know we do what we say, and that we show up on time. If there is a problem, we will take care of it immediately. Most customers - contractors, designers, architects - will pay more for this service because ultimately it’s their name on the project, and the end user will hold them responsible for subcontrators.

I’m very confident that quality and customer service will always win in the long run. The low ballers cannot afford to offer the service we do.

Kent Potter, TK Custom Stone, Inc., St. Marys, GA: The market for dimensional stone products is going to change in large part due to its gaining popularity. Everywhere you look, you see stone - magazines, home improvement shows, even commercials for unrelated products. Now everyone has to have it.

Because of this, there are going to be the low-ball tailgaters that will undercut prices and in some cases take advantage of the uneducated customer. You can’t assume that all these guys are doing poor work, and that most of them won’t touch the big projects because they don’t have the resources. What most of these guy’s cannot provide is service after the install in the form of a warranty. This is still a major point with a lot of customers. This is in addition to dealing with an established, legitamate and fully insured company. Don’t try to compete with them, because they are here today but gone tomorrow, and another one just steps into the vacancy.

Quality still matters - from the simplest galley kitchen or furniture top to the ornate triple-stacked edge projects. Regardless of the difficulty involved in a project, you need to provide quality and then price. There is now such a diverse range of projects out there for the fabrication. The choice of which markets to pursue is up to the fabricator.

Most of the plants that are pushing out 100 units a week have severe limitations on project layout and options. They are not producing custom work, but rather pumping out the decks, a lot of time for the big box stores. They have their target market, which is vastly different from the custom market, and they are typically centered in large metropolitan areas.

Ron Lambert, Feather River Tile & Granite, Paradise, CA: There are plenty of people out there that are willing to pay for peace of mind. A considerable percentage of our jobs come through word of mouth, from people we have done quality work for. We encourage potential customers to call our list of references and talk to and go see prior jobs. If we make an effort on all of our jobs to do the best possible work that we can, and treat our customers and their property with respect, it has a rippling effect.

A very large stone outfit recently moved into our area, and their pricing is significantly lower than ours. I believe it is making it hard on some of the shops in the area to maintain the volume they are accustomed to. I recently spoke with the estimator of a mid-size shop in the area (they do nice work) and he told me they are feeling the crunch. The prices are being driven down on high-volume jobs and on some of the custom work, too.

It’s easier for a small outfit like mine to maintain our workload because we do not depend on high volume. But for larger shops, I think the pie is looking smaller.

One of the ways we can compete is to provide a higher quality product to a more discerning client. Oh, and wipe your feet.

Adam Siler, The Granite Concept Co., Fort Walton Beach, FL: As a new member of the stone fabrication world, I have found that prices vary so much depending on the area. You have the guys that are doing the work in their backyard in a shed using $500 worth of tools and their friend as a helper. Then you go to the other extreme where you have the company putting out 50 to 70 kitchens a week. The things that I am seeing is that these two groups of guys are quite similar in pricing. You may find that one is only $4 to $5 a square foot higher than the other.

The thing that disturbs me is there is a growing number of these guys coming around. I know that more volume brings down the price, but why does it have to be so much? Do these guys not realize how much they are affecting the market? Those of us who do five to nine kitchens per week find ourselves in a feast or famine situation. We can feast if those companies are doing a terrible job in quality or service after the sale, but if they are doing a good job with so-so service, we find ourselves beginning to starve.

As I began my company, I couldn’t get a job because no one knew who we were. As the year has progressed, I find myself getting a little more. Customers have begun to see what a quality company really does to give them their dream kitchen. As the MIA describes in their pamphlet, “From Quarry to Kitchen,” they understand how a basic item such as stone can turn to such a beautiful finished product. Of course, the “beautiful finished product” seems to be going by the wayside. Too many companies are cutting materials to save dollars and time. When you go into a kitchen, and you see four or five seams on a 60- to 70-square-foot job, it makes me understand why we are not getting a lot of the jobs. But those of us who love what we do - and who offer quality and service for our customers - find ourselves having to do more to save the industry and our companies.

Dale Southmayd, Southmayd Stoneworks, Medford, OR: This is an interesting question that keeps me up at night.

We have a different take on the question than has been expressed. We work only with pre-fab products. We live in the lower-than-custom-shop price range area. Our goal is to live in this area, but bring quality (seam polishing, etc.) and customer service to it.

In our geographic area, there are multiple companies that do a really poor job. They seem to pop up out of nowhere, and they think there is a quick buck to be made. Of course, these companies are very frustrating to compete against. We recently lost an 88-unit condominium project to one of these guys. It hurt, but I had a pretty good idea of what he priced it at, and there was no way we could go that low. I recently went to that condominium’s open house, and the architect/designer was pointing out to ME how bad the job was. I looked; I agreed; I told him, “You get what you pay for,” and left. That construction firm has now sent me two new project layouts in the last week.

I really think the granite market is following the path that cabinets have previously gone through. At first, cabinets were only made by craftsmen. My grandfather was one of those, and he loved his work. Then the pre-made cabinets came along, and everyone (including my grandfather) made fun of them. The pre-made cabinets then got a lot better, and they became a viable alternative. The public was in love with this new idea and flocked to them. The craftsmen lost a lot of work, and many of them went out of business. Then the chain stores got involved, and the quality went way down as price became king. To prove this, just take a look at the garbage that some stores are selling. It sure is fun trying to put granite on cabinets made from particle board.

Now the cabinet market is segmented pretty firmly. In our area, the “custom” cabinet shops are swamped with work from clients that are tired of the low-quality stuff. On the other hand, the local big box stores are also swamped with work; different markets, different expectations from customers. Occasionally, I hear of a customer that expects champagne on a beer budget, so to speak, but by and large, the market is pretty well defined. There is a middle ground between the pre-made, “price is king” stuff and the custom cabinets. A few businesses in our area work this niche, and they are pretty effective.

So that is the transition that I see the granite countertop industry going through right now. It is painful, but it is inevitable.

I believe the industry will settle into three areas: 1. The low-cost segment where price is everything, quality is so-so and service only gets talked about. 2. The high-end custom work where quality is everything, customer service is a company’s way of life and price is not an issue. 3. A few companies that try to live in the middle and take the best of both worlds - offering a lower cost than the custom shops and higher quality than the low-cost shops - with service that is good. Our company is focused on that middle ground.

The struggle I have is to educate the public on the different levels of granite countertop suppliers. For us, we are not a custom shop. We routinely turn down jobs that are really best done in a custom shop. Also, we are not offering the lowest price, so we try not to worry too much as we watch this market segment go away from us.

Brian Briggs, Granite Guys, Inc., Ft. Pierce, FL: Here in South Florida (and many other areas I am sure), we have been going through the price wars for years. For many areas, the new granite boom has exploded their market. That’s nothing new here, and let me tell you, the good builders will get tired of the low ballers. They cannot offer the service or the quality that a custom shop can.

Is there a need for high production plants? You bet! Let them take the price shoppers that are impossible to deal with. Let them cater to the tract homebuilder that will drop you for someone that comes in the door for 25 cents less per foot. Frankly, I would rather flip hamburgers than to cater to that market.

Our firm has marketed toward the high-end builder/consumer. My advertising consists of a Web site and a small ad in the Yellow Pages. Having said that, even though construction is down 53% in our area, we are booked five weeks out. Even though many of the larger shops are dropping employees, we are hiring.

With that said, we are to blame. We (fabrication shops) set the bar. If builders are used to seeing garbage work and low prices, that is what they will expect to get. If they see good work, fair prices and excellent service, then that is what they will expect to get.

For the shops that are used to getting $70 per foot for Ubatuba with a half bullnose because no one else is in your market, the ride is over. This is when you have to streamline your company and become as efficient as your operation will allow.

TJ Sherwood, Vintage Granite, Gilbert, AZ: I’ve struggled with having enough work, and I’ve vented about this before. A lot of shops I know are slowing down a bit now, but we’re not. This is actually the busiest I’ve ever been. I have a Web site, but I don’t have any signs or cards that have my domain name. In fact, I don’t even have any real business cards. I’ve always gone by word of mouth.

After putting into practice all the things I’ve learned here at the SFA, and giving quality work, it’s finally paying off.

It’s not hard to be above the game when other people are putting seams that are 3/8-inch thick and neon green in the Ubatuba at the builder’s personal house. Needless to say, quality counts; I’m not the best, but at least I try.

SW: Over the past few years, there seems to have been an increase in accidents (including fatalities) during slab handling. How dangerous is it to work in a slab shop? What sort of programs are in place regarding material handling and safety?

Ben Butler, Mark I Granite Marble & Tile, Morristown, TN: We focus on new employee training, where we explain the dangers associated with handling slabs and other dangers in the shop - dust, water, electricity, etc.

We also have weekly safety meetings that cover one or two specific topics.

Scott Campbell, Tile Market of Delaware, Fabrication Division: We have a very elaborate training program for any new material handlers. This is in addition to the standard safety training program that all employees are required to take prior to working. Safety procedures and training programs are written according to OSHA requirements, and all certification and training is documented.

The first couple of days is spent with the safety coordinator going over procedures and watching training videos. Next comes the forklift certification program, and then comes the actual field training with the supervisor and an experienced material handler. This entails observation of proper slab-handling techniques by the experienced workers. Then a series of test moves with smaller pieces. Once the new hire has successfully completed several moves without incident, his training record is signed by his supervisor, and he is allowed to move material - only with an experienced partner.

Next comes the overhead crane and vacuum lifter training program and certification. It’s handled the same way as the forklift training.

This process could take several days before a new hire is allowed to move material. All material handlers are required to wear the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) - hard hat, steel toe shoes, gloves, etc. We take safety violations very seriously. All it takes is not following the procedures once to create a disaster. An employee who shows any disregard to the safety procedures or a lack of judgment is usually terminated, as this is not a risk that we as a company wish to take.

Continuing education is also very important. Regular safety meetings are held with all employees, and they are documented. Material handling in this industry can be a very dangerous job. We make sure every employee is aware of this every day. Respect the stone, and it will respect you.

Kent Potter, TK Custom Stone, Inc., St. Marys, GA: Handling slabs is the most dangerous thing we do each day. While many other operations are considered dangerous, very few will kill you. With few exceptions, almost all fabrication shop fatalities involve a new employee and a slab or two of granite. Obviously, the problem here is training.

We developed our program from OSHA and MIA resources, and it is quite involved. Our basic procedure when we handle slabs is that we require two people on the ground. The fork truck driver will not leave the truck unless for emergency. The practice of tossing 2 x 4 blocks behind a slab is expressly forbidden. We use the commercially available wedges, which cannot slide down to wedge the slab out past vertical. We stress, “No distractions and stay clear of the Fall Zone at all times.”

New hires are started out on the dock and QA. They must be material-handling certified by me (as president) personally. This generally occurs two to three weeks following hire. They may be the second man on a handling team only if the other is certified. You have to be a certified material handler before you are allowed to be a licensed fork truck driver. This applies even if you come to us with the license.

It’s serious business and as an employer you never want to experience the grief that comes with having one of your own killed!

Brian Briggs, Granite Guys, Inc., Ft. Pierce, FL: As a shop owner, we are more likely to put the newbie on the end of a slab helping out the sawyer than we are to stop a fabricator from doing Mrs. Jones’ bowl hole that should have been loaded hours ago. The key is to let the newbie know what they are doing, that they are doing the most dangerous aspect of our industry. If you see a guy on a cell phone or eating a donut while on the business end of a slab or on a forklift, send them home for the day - no questions asked. When they get back, show them the MIA video that was put out about the young child that was killed, or the many articles showing where a fabricator was killed while moving slabs. The key is to make sure you drive home to your employees the importance of safety.

Two years ago, I hired Compsolve, an independent OSHA-compliancy company. They came in, wrote an MSDS sheet for everything at my shop. They set us up with a forklift safety program, hazard communication program, lockout/tagout program, respirator safety, PPE, training, etc. Everything is documented and logged. They now come out once per year for recertifications and compliancy check-ups. Did you know that if you use respirators instead of dust masks that you have to train your employees on the use and care of respirators? (I did not either.)

Now, if OSHA does come to our door, they will first see all of our necessary written programs and training. I am not telling you that my shop is perfect; we have work to do to finish becoming fully compliant. But, if we are visited, OSHA will see that we are making strides in becoming compliant and that we care about the safety of our employees.

We are about to start holding weekly shop safety meetings. We have been doing them on occasion, but not as regimented as they should be.

Todd Luster, Tile Marble and Stone LLC, Shawnee, OK: With all of the tools in our business, there are many opportunities to invite injury to yourself, but none like that of handling slabs. In 14 years of fabricating full time, there is nothing that still makes me as uneasy as it does to handle slabs. When I am in the office and I hear the forklift running to get a slab from the yard, if someone opens the shop door before I know the task is done, I always feel uneasy and hope they are not coming up to tell me someone is hurt. Of all the kidding we do, it’s not allowed while moving slabs. If you’re not nervous a little when moving slabs, you should be.

SW: While many fabrication shops in operation today are OSHA/EPA compliant, many others are not. How is your shop dealing with OSHA? Should OSHA-compliant shops report fabricators that they know are breaking the rules?

Ben Butler, Mark I Granite Marble & Tile, Morristown, TN: The shops that are not compliant are competing against the compliant shops at an unfair advantage. All of the safety equipment, training and oversight by the compliant shops has to be paid for somehow, and that cost is passed onto the consumer. The non-compliant shops don’t have those expenses. EPA is an even bigger issue, with the cost of dust and water filtration equipment. And, again, that cost is passed onto the end consumer.

Should they be turned in? That is a question that you will have to answer for yourself. It may come down to a moral issue, or it could be whether I have enough money to eat with this non-compliant shop operating down the street from me. If you do report them, with all of the possible fines and the cost of compliance, it may shut them down.

I can’t fault some one for trying to make a living, but we all need to play by the same rules.

Scott Campbell, Tile Market of Delaware, Fabrication Division: I agree with Ben. The cost to be compliant is passed to the consumer. It’s a cost of doing business. But turning in the non-compliant shops should be handled by the local Department of Labor, EPA or OSHA. These agencies constantly monitor large manufacturing facilities. Stone shops are much smaller in comparison, but as more and more appear, I think we will see them popping in eventually.

Kent Potter, TK Custom Stone, Inc., St. Marys, GA: Obviously, both OSHA and the EPA are large organizations that are also stretched to their operating limit. Even if a non-compliant company was reported, the resources to investigate are not there for at least six to nine months. It’s everything they can do to police the major issues facing them each day.

We have found OSHA and the EPA to be easy to work with. I truly believe that they would rather help you out before a major accident forces them to investigate. When you really think about it, it all comes down to protecting the guys that work for us, as well as the environment.

Greg Mazzarella, StoneCutters Guild, Inc., Huntsville, AL: I once worked at a place (non-granite shop) that had some really bad environmental practices such as improper disposal of toxic chemicals. The company ignored the issue because they didn’t want to commit the money to proper disposal, and did not give a rip about employee health. I quit there and debated calling OSHA on them; however, at the time I thought I would feel like a rat, so I did not.

Now I regret not calling. Hit them where it hurts the most - their wallet. This company made plenty of money, and it was no mom-and-pop shop. I’d say 90% of non-compliant shops are that way because they are too cheap and don’t care about the people that work for them. I say sock it to them.

Wayne Pignolet, Idaho Stone Artisans, Inc. (dba Surfaces in Stone), Post Falls, ID: I am in Idaho, and just this past week, I was shown a letter that the regional OSHA office sent to the local OSHA offices. In the letter, they state the local offices must specifically target stone fabrication facilities for material handling safety and silica dust. This letter will also be sent to all the granite fabrication shops in Idaho.

We had the voluntary OSHA inspection done, and we did okay on those two issues. However, it costs money to comply, and I know of lots of little guys not even trying to comply. They do undercut us on price (quality, too; but that is another story). I will not fink them out unless they go after our regular customers. However, I am not sure this is right. It is not just that they undercut; people can and do get hurt. I do hope they are forced to play by the same rules.

By the way, OSHA has stated that it will begin these inspections after March 1 (so they are currently ongoing).

M. Reenock, Allentown, PA: I’ve worked at two shops; one was OSHA compliant and one was not. My feelings on the issue is that everyone should be on the same field. It might be difficult right now, but the companies that know what is right for the protection of their employees and the environment will be the ones in business in the future. The ones that don’t want to comply are only in it for the money or the short term and don’t see the bigger picture.

SW: The level of technology in the stone industry has been growing at unprecedented levels. CNC technology seems more prevalent than ever. Combination bridge saw/waterjets are making inroads. Digital templating systems are increasing in popularity. My question is: What’s the next “jump” in technology? What labor-intensive processes are not currently being addressed by the current lineup of technology in today’s marketplace?

Kent Potter, TK Custom Stone, Inc., St. Marys, GA: I don’t see a lot of the CNC equipment changing significantly. The machinery itself is already there without any significant changes in technology. Most improvements will most likely be in tooling for both CNC and hand-held equipment, with a push toward consistent quality in edge polishing.

Miles Crowe, Crowe Custom Countertops, Inc., Atlanta, GA: How far can we be from putting a slab on a machine and then pulling off a completed kitchen? I don’t think it’s that much of a leap. The technology is there to be able to do everything from layout, cutting, routing and polishing. It could easily be done on one machine. The only issue that needs to be addressed is part holding. Somebody should be able to figure that out.

Think about that. Put a slab on the table, use your digital template and camera system to lay out the cuts and program tool passes, push “go,” take off the scrap pieces when needed, and then remove the finished pieces.

With a system like that, two people could output two or more kitchens a day. I’d pay maybe $500,000 for that. It would be something that would work in a megashop or a small shop.

Rick George, Lonnie’s StoneCrafters, Rockford, IL: I agree with Kent Potter that the advances need to be in tooling. As technology is helping produce kitchens faster, it is not always with the quality that is expected. Better tooling for these incredible CNC machines would improve overall quality for this industry, as I know some fabricators that do not touch up edges after CNC. Therefore, the customers are not always getting the best quality possible.

Dustin Braudway, SFA, Cape Fear Marble and Tile, Inc., Wilmington, NC: Tooling for our CNCs will need to continue to evolve. We polish only a couple of profiles on our CNC and still touch up by hand. Most of the time we only take it through metals, so I trust that the tooling guys will continue to work on that aspect.

Templating has gotten so much easier. We have incorporated the Laser Products LT 55 into our production, and it has been a blessing. Now we can take the DXF files and program them into the CNC. This is naturally a little bit of clean-up on them, and off they go. We are looking forward to purchasing a saw/waterjet combo. This will open more creative doors.

I believe this may already exist, but what if you could digitize an entire slab, place it on your computer and do the layout of the pieces electronically? You could then e-mail the final photo to the customer so they can look at the layout. Then you have much less time spent holding up templates on a slab and holding the customers hand.

Even with all these cool new toys, the “investors” in our business (i.e. the car salesman who came across $200,000 and decided that easy money is in the granite business) will still need to know how to get out there and polish an edge by hand. Technology will still break down, so you have to know how to get the job done, and done right.

Aaron J. Crowley, Crowley’s Granite Concepts, Inc., Portland, OR: I don’t know if anyone can predict what’s next, but I’d sure like to see a piece of equipment that could safely get counters up stairs and into the kitchens with out killing the installers’ backs.

Mark Scheibelhut, Custom Stone Interiors, St. Cloud MN: Consider the state or our industry relative to cabinet shops. We service similar clients with products based on both natural and man-made materials, but cabinetmakers have been around in significant quantities a lot longer.

CNC was adopted big time by cabinetmakers well over 15 years ago. Despite that, you still have a broad spectrum of companies - from two-man shops to “factory” operations. All can be profitable and all have their place. The point of this is that our industry is still maturing, but we can look at what the cabinetmaking industry has done for some insight into where our industry might be going.

Material handling technology offers a lot of opportunity for mid-sized and larger stone shops but it’ll take some truly innovative thinking to come up with anything that’s cost effective for anything less than a “factory”-sized operation.

Most fabricators cite the difficulty of finding competent labor as a top challenge, which helps the justification for the automation. Even if the ROI is marginal, at least the machine shows up for work every day.

Scott Campbell, Tile Market of Delaware, Fabrication Division: The biggest need for R&D should be CNC tooling. When it comes down to it, the quality of the finished product is a result of the tooling. All CNC machines perform the same basic tasks - moving multiple axes from one point to another. The only difference is the ease of programming, size, reliability, etc. It’s the tooling that makes the most difference. Tooling dictates the feed rates, rpms, quality etc. Thus, tooling is the bottleneck in improving current CNC technology.

We only polish 35% of our jobs on the machine and still touch up by hand to remove the lines. If tooling could be developed to run faster, leave no lines and a brilliant shine, then hand labor would be drastically reduced - saving both time and money.

Steven Hauser, CIRCA, Inc., Greenville, SC: Many machines are based on decades-old technology that has been adapted for this industry. Depending on the economies of scale, development in the inner workings of the machines themselves will be the next logical area of improvement.

The next area will be standardization of the digital process. CAD/CAM software will be consistent across manufacturers. Then I believe workplace safety will be reviewed. Installation will be included in this.

James Jones, JEST Graphics Engineering, Shalimar, FL: I have been in machining for a long time. Some CNC’s have adapted more technology than others, but many are adaptations using a controller, linear bearing rails, ball and screw, etc. These are obvious technologies, and they are relatively easy for an engineer to use. When I go to an aircraft machine shop, I see CNC machines very well suited to make airplane parts; same for power generation, furniture, PC boards, etc. This is probably because these technologies grew up complementing each together.

CNC technology will dominate when it develops tooling, motion, and software that emulates the stone craftsman, instead of other CNCs.