Stone fabricators from around the country gathered for two open forums during Coverings 2008. The first of these sessions was geared towards fabricators with one to five years of experience in the trade.

In an effort to offer content that best fits specific attendees, the Fabricator Forums held during Coverings 2008 were divided according to the experience level of the fabricators present. The first of these sessions was geared for professionals with one to five years of experience, and panelists included:
  • Rafael Bernal of Great Lakes Granite & Marble, who has 11 years of experience
  • Rejeana Ellis of The Stone Resource, who has 20 years of experience
  • Aaron Crowley of Crowley’s Granite Concepts, who has 10 years of experience
  • Duane Naquin of Stone Interiors North America, who has 15 years of experience

Panelists at the forum included (from left): Aaron Crowley of Crowley’s Granite Concepts, Rejeana Ellis of The Stone Resource, Rafael Bernal of Great Lakes Granite & Marble and Duane Naquin of Stone Interiors North America (moderator).

The following is a summation of the topics that were addressed during this session:

What are some of the pros and cons of digital templating versus sticks?

Bernal:We are doing a little of both, and we are testing the waters [with regard to digital templating]. It’s not always easy.  Really, the person doing it is the key. Some of the information that you may have written on the template is lost [with digital templating], and there is nothing physical that relates to the piece.

Of course, digital templating is faster. With our commercial work, we are doing digital templating because there is no need to line anything [physical] up with the cabinets.

Ellis:We are also doing both.

Crowley:We are using digital templating. It actually became the impetus for us to buy a CNC machine, which we did a year later. Some people found that sequence odd, but the process of becoming familiar with digital technology made the transition to a CNC easier. At a certain point, it just made sense for us, and it is vastly more accurate than physical templating.

Naquin:Also, think of the vehicles in your fleet. When we went to digital templating, we changed over to all subcompact cars, and we get much better gas mileage.

What is the process for transitioning from a labor-intensive shop to an automated shop?

Crowley:Looking back, the growth came naturally. Some decisions were based on our situation at the time, but it’s also important to look at long-term goals. Growth does not always mean more profits.

Ellis: There are different levels of what type of shop you are going to run, and very often, that’s based on your volume. When your volume grows and an edging machine isn’t enough -- or even two edging machines -- then you naturally move on to the next level. Our volume has grown to the point where we now have four CNCs in our shop.

Naquin:When you’re talking about adding automation, you have to remember that the same equipment and same steps are not right for everyone. For shops where the main client base is simple kitchen remodel work, CNC and waterjet may not be necessary. That sort of equipment is more necessary for high-end work, so you need to understand “production equipment” versus “high-end equipment.” It’s difficult for one company to cover all markets because the machinery used for high-end work may not be the best when you’re doing work for $35/foot.

Bernal:It’s also important to know your per-foot profits, and to recognize where you are making money and target that area.

When things are tough, we look at how to reduce costs. Really, that’s what should be done in all cases. You have to look at investments that have the right ROI (Return on Investment) for your particular situation. We all started with a grinder or rail saw. Some still have those pieces in place, and some grew. It really depends on the market.

We have been having some problems with resin-treated slabs darkening after installation, particularly when the sun hits that area. What can be done about this?

Bernal:We haven’t had calls like that, but that’s not to say that it won’t happen. You’re really in uncharted territory when it comes to resin-treated slabs. With this in mind, you need to be proactive in letting the customer know exactly what they have. When you’re working with Dakota Mahogany, that’s one thing because it is a known, proven material. But with the exotics and other new materials, you need to show them what has been done to the surface. Some shops feel that it scares people away, but I’d rather they know what’s going on. Then we can talk about darkening the edges and things like that.

Naquin: It’s not necessarily only the “new” materials that are being treated with resin. Most of the Ubatuba and Baltic Brown that you find out there are treated as well.

It’s important to remember that with most products, less than 1% of the resin that is applied actually remains on the surface, so the stone shouldn’t darken. This is especially true for indoor applications, since most modern windows filter out the UV light.

What about outdoor slab storage? I’ve heard of the color changing on materials like Hawaiian Green granite.

Naquin:That could be an issue of the material oxidizing and not necessarily the resin. There are a lot of materials being sold as “granites” that aren’t geologically a granite; this is true about 95% of the time. So you should be aware that while “granite” may be used as a commercial name, the material may not geologically be a granite.

Bernal:We simply call our materials “natural stone,” and that has helped us out with that issue and potential lawsuits. It is part of proactively educating the customer. There are also resources such as the Marble Institute of America, which has information that you can share with your customers.

We make our own pamphlet telling the customer exactly what to expect prior to measuring and throughout the process. When our measuring guys get there, hopefully the customer has already read about what to expect. Something as simple as sharing information on what the customer can expect in terms of dust, seams and things like that has helped us tremendously.

For shops carrying both engineered and natural stone, what are the customer preferences?

Ellis:About 90 to 95% of our production is natural stone. Our engineered stone costs more money, so when a customer makes that request, it’s basically a color issue. Maybe they want a bright blue or something like that.

Crowley:There is a demand that is fueled by the marketing of quartz manufacturers. We basically stock [quartz surfacing] to satisfy customer requests, and we try to generically educate the customers on both materials. Our profits are basically the same whether we are working with one or the other.

Some of my competitors are offering a 30-year warranty. Is anyone out here offering a warranty like that?

Bernal:We have seen companies offering warranties of 10, 15 or 30 years. We also offer a warranty, but we have to explain to the customer exactly what it covers; it’s not “anything and everything.”

For the past year, we have offered a “lifetime warranty,” and no one has even called us in. Even if someone did, it might be an opportunity for us to get some additional work.

Crowley:We don’t inventory material, and our distributors don’t warranty the material, so we don’t. If a countertop failed because it was improperly installed, though, we would replace it with no questions asked.

Ellis: We import directly, and we warranty our work. As long as it is maintained by the customer, it can have a lifetime warranty. But the key is making sure it is maintained.

Naquin: Large companies like DuPont and Innovative Stone are offering warranties on their work, so this trend will grow. Offering a warranty gains attention; the engineered stone industry offers this, and DuPont is offering this with their granite line. When it comes to warranties, customers aren’t necessarily savvy enough to read the fine print. All they hear is “warranty.”

How can you combat this? Well, think about how often you get calls about stains. Almost never. So a lifetime warranty really isn’t that big a deal, and it is what the customer now wants and expects.

What about a yearly service plan?

Naquin:We had been offering that - an annual staining warranty based on inspection and service by our maintenance company. But now other fabricators in the area are offering a stain warranty [without the service requirement,] so that doesn’t work.

What are some of the practices a fabricator can do to demonstrate that they are “going green?”

Bernal: I’m not sure if this counts, but our shop is only working wet now, so there is no airborne dust. We are also recycling our water. As our industry continues to mature, it will be all that more visible in OSHA’s eyes, so these steps will become more and more necessary.

Crowley:In terms of marketing ourselves as green, we haven’t seen any customers who have made buying decisions based on our “green-ness.”

Ellis:I agree. That’s something you would see more in the commercial sector.

Bernal: We are also seeing that in our spec home work, where we are being asked for products that are green.

Are you seeing a trend where larger shops or Big Box retailers are putting the smaller shops out of business?

Bernal:There is always a concern when a Big Box steps into a market. We’ve seen a reduction in the “mom and pop” operations, but it’s not because the work isn’t out there. Usually, they’re not watching their books well.

There will always be a price-driven market, where volume is everything, and that’s often where you will see the larger operations. But there is still room for the small, high-end “mom and pop” shops out there. Wal-Mart is everywhere, but some of the little guys last as well.

Ellis:Personal service will make the difference. Customers will pay a small premium for personal attention.

Crowley:There is a tendency to blame the failure of a small company due to the presence of a new big company, but that’s not necessarily the case. For all shops, but especially a small shop, it is important not to try and be all things to all people. You need to seek the customer type where you can best meet their needs.

Naquin:Looking at the market over the next 15 to 20 years, we may get into a situation where the middle-sized shop is squeezed out, but the large volume shops and small customer shops are okay. Maybe some of the smaller shops end up working through a consolidated structure where it is a component of a large group.

A certain percentage of people will definitely pay more money to avoid the “Wal-Mart experience.”

What are the benefits to stocking slabs as opposed to ordering as needed from a distributor?

Ellis:Well, when you’re buying complete bundles of slabs, the exact color and veining of all of the material is going to match. So that means that all of your remnants will match. We did 10 units in a gold exotic material, and we were able to mix and match pieces as needed.

But when you’re stocking materials, you must know your market. For example, red materials don’t work in our location.

Bernal:When we introduce a new material, we usually bring in one or two bundles to test the water. But even before that, we request photos from our supplier, which we forward to our kitchen/bath clients for their feedback. We want to see what they think will be popular.

Crowley: It really is a numbers game. There is an enormous cost associated with inventorying material. At our level, we cannot [import directly] and make the numbers work. The importers we work with offer 250 to 300 colors, and this allows us to give options to our customers. If people ask to see our inventory, we simply tell them that we don’t stock material because we don’t want to limit the options that are available.