A few weeks ago, I attended a session of the Marble Institute of America/Stone World education series in Boston, MA, where I also moderated a Fabricator Forum. We have been doing these educational sessions in various formats since 2005, which means we have seen them take place in a broad spectrum of climates — from the glory days of 2006 to the depths of 2009 — and, it seems, everything in between.

In the weeks leading up to this particular event, I had been hearing some very positive feedback from fabricators in the New England region as well as other parts of North America. Notably, two fabricators actually postponed my visits to their shops because they were “slammed” with work at the moment. Realistically, I know that many shops are still seeing plenty of ups and downs at the moment, but I definitely wasn’t hearing this sort of thing two years ago.

With this in mind, I had some definite topics on my agenda as I approached the Fabricator Forum that I would be moderating in Boston. While many of them addressed the “state of the industry,” others focused on the day-to-day operations of running a stone business in today’s economic climate. A full recap of the forum will be appearing in future print and online editions of Stone World, but here’s a quick rundown of some of the topics that were discussed.

Would you say that business conditions now are better than they were at this time 12 months ago?

Of the 40+ fabricators in attendance at the event, more than 90% said that they were doing better this year than they were last year. More specifically, one fabricator said his business has grown 12% this year and another cited growth of 20%.

Fabricators gave a variety of reasons for their relative success in 2011. Several said that holding the line on pricing and not trying to compete with lowballers was key in maintaining their profit margin. “We examined each job, and we saw that far too many were not making any money,” explained one fabricator.

The fabricators in attendance agreed that defining their “core customers” was a key to offsetting low-cost competitors. Companies that had expanded their client base to include more “middle-end” customers shifted their focus back to the high-end market, where exotic materials and value-added options such as advanced edgework were valued more than saving a few dollars per square foot.

Are you tracking your costs in a formal way?

The vast majority of fabricators in attendance said that they maintain spreadsheets of their fabrication costs, with some tracking the production rates of costs of each step of the process — sawing, edging, installing, etc. According to the fabricators involved in the discussion, this is a significant change from five years ago, when the high volume of business forced shops to focus solely on production as opposed to cost analysis.

In addition to tracking costs in the shop, some fabricators said they have even conducted specific analyses of their use of electricity, cell phone service, water consumption and waste removal, which resulted in changes to the way they conduct their day-to-day business.

How are you addressing safety in your shop?

Most of the fabricators on hand said they have developed formal safety standards in their shop — which include monthly safety meetings, detailed training programs for new employees, specific procedures and processes for slab handling and more.

Surprisingly, less than half of the attendees said they have undergone an OSHA inspection, but virtually all of them expect to be visited by OSHA in the near future. A few of the fabricators in attendance said they underwent the voluntary “consultation” inspection, and it gave them valuable insight on the steps they needed to take before the mandatory inspection took place.

Of course, this is only a sampling of the topics we discussed in Boston. Look for a full report on the Marble Institute of America/Stone World event in our future online and print editions. For more information on our Stone Industry Education series, which will continue to take place across the country, visit www.stoneindustryeducation.com.