As I walked around two of the major international trade fairs earlier this year - Coverings in the U.S. and the Vitória Stone Fair in Brazil - major exporters were telling me that sales to the American market had decidedly increased for the first quarter of 2010. They told me that some of the major U.S. distributors were finally replenishing their inventories, and in particular, the Brazilian suppliers told me that while their factories were not operating at full capacity, they were certainly more busy than last year. When I personally visited these Brazilian factories earlier this year, they certainly seemed busier than they did 12 months earlier.

The stone import statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce certainly seem to confirm this positive trend. During the last month recorded - March of 2010 - granite imports increased nearly 40% to a total of $60.18 million. Looking at individual stone-producing nations, there was definitely a reason that the Brazilian suppliers were smiling. Their exports to the U.S. increased by around 67% for the month, reaching a total of $24.34 million. Major granite-producing nations such as Italy, China and India also saw notable increases for the month, ranging from 10 to 20%.

These are some serious numbers, so why doesn’t it seem like the recovery for our industry is in full swing? From my vantage point, it seems that while most fabricators agree that the market is much more lively than it was a year ago, there are still “dead periods” in between the busy weeks.

“We had a pretty good January, February and March, but then April was dead,” said Mike Martinez of Stone Concepts of Colorado in Brighton, CO. “Now it has picked up again, but it is hard to say if it has improved.”

These thoughts were echoed by Mitch Hires of Construction Resources, which has multiple stone-fabrication branches located in the Southeastern U.S. “Our Atlanta facility is capable of producing 2,000 feet per day by itself, and right now we are working at 1,300 to 1,500 square feet per day,” he said. “We had a spike in business that started in March, and a lot was related to the tax credit. Our January and February was not good. January was due to the weather, as we’re not used to snow and rain here in the south. I am cautiously optimistic because production builder business and single-family business has increased, but we have also seen residential remodel and commercial increases.”

The bottom line is that while the stone industry in the U.S. market is improving, inconsistencies will remain - particularly in the short term. The critical element for stone fabricators and other industry members is to remember that the industry, as a whole, is on the rise. With this in mind, it is important to make sure that at least some portion of your business plan is to consider the long-term success of your operation - which was not always an option for everyone last year. The difficulties of 2009 were summed up admirably by Ron Hannah of Cadenza Granite & Marble, Inc. in Concord, NC, at a recent Stone Fabricators Alliance Workshop (covered on page 70 in this issue). “Our business plan was simply to stay in business,” he said. “We wanted to keep the shop busy, and we even started doing big-box work.”

Fortunately, most fabricators doing business this year are seeing increased sales, and even if the growth is inconsistent, they are able to implement some long-range strategies into their business model. Moreover, a number of shops are finally beginning to bring in new large-scale stoneworking equipment. This was true on the show floor at Coverings, and it remains the case today as we speak with fabricators across the country. As always, we will be covering these investments - and the gradual rebound of our industry - here on the pages of Stone World.