Although I am in contact with individual stone fabricators on an almost-daily basis, I don’t often get to sit in a room full of fabricators outside of the trade show circuit. And since the last major U.S. trade show was Coverings back in April, I was eager to gauge the collective viewpoint of the stone fabricators who gathered in my home state of New Jersey last month for a segment of the Marble Institute of America/Stone World Industry Education series.

To be completely honest, I was wondering how many fabricators would actually show up at the event, given the still-difficult situation out there. With so many fabrication shops working with lighter staffs and owners/managers spending more time just figuring out how to survive, would people be willing to sacrifice an entire day to attend a class? And for those that did come, what would be the vibe in the room?

I learned the answers to these questions rather quickly after I arrived at the site of the class. A decent-sized crowd of fabricators was on hand to take part in the program, with some coming from more than a 150 miles away to be there. Attendees included newcomers to the industry as well people who have been around for decades, and all of them seemed eager to learn. Audience participation and interest was at a high level - perhaps due to the fact that this particular program was geared toward the fabrication “business” and not about the nuts and bolts of stone fabrication.

In fact, when session presenter Duane Naquin asked the crowd if they were more interested in learning about equipment or operational costs, virtually everyone in the room said they were interested in figuring out their costs.

Attendees at the event reported that they were selling installed countertops at anywhere between a low of $55 and a high of $85 to $100 per square foot, and almost all of them said they were working hard to hold their profit margins.

On the down side, when the speaker asked the audience if they personally knew of any shops that went out of business, practically every person there raised their hand. So perhaps part of the eagerness to learn comes from the need to adjust to a very difficult marketplace.

Perhaps this is why it seems that the StonExpo seminar schedule has more business-related seminars than ever before (see page 94 for the complete show preview). As in the past, there are a number of “general business” seminars offered by consultants, including sessions with titles such as “Advanced Marketing Techniques for a Recession” and “Moving Up in a Downward Economy” as well as many others. Even when the economy was going strong, sessions like these have historically drawn very positive reviews from those in attendance, and they remain a mainstay of the program.

However, in addition to the “traditional” business-related seminars, it appears that even the seasoned stone industry speakers are tailoring some of their presentations to address the current economic climate. Brandon Maldonado of Maldonado Tile and Marble in California is presenting, “From Call to Collections,” and G.K. Naquin of Stone Interiors in Alabama is presenting, “ Are You Cheating Yourself? A Review of Cost vs. Price.”

I’ve seen both of these gentlemen speak on stoneworking methods and machinery on several occasions, so it is interesting to see that they are now speaking specifically on the business of running a stone fabrication shop. They both run successful operations, so I’d recommend either session to someone looking to hone their business skills.

Of course, there will be plenty of StonExpo sessions focusing on the craft of stoneworking, both at the conferences and in the form of the hands-on StoneLIVE! sessions that take place directly on the show floor. But it is interesting to see how many educational opportunities are out there for stone craftsmen who are continually being forced to transition into stone businessmen.