How do you confuse 15 fabricators from the Stone Fabricators Alliance (SFA)? It proved to be quite simple really: invite them on a 10-day tour of Italy and have them land in Munich, Germany. (Hint: Italy is not in Germany.)

It happened from March 14 to 24 of this year, as the fabricators began arriving at Munich airport assembling to pursue the most ambitious “Stone Resource Tour” schedule to date; the SFA Europe Tour 2013.

The group was comprised of a very diverse and eclectic collection of stone fabricators, representing big shops and small shops, automated shops and manual shops, Canadians and Americans, East Coast and West Coast, North and South.

While we departed the U.S. and Canada on Thursday evening, March 14, we all began arriving Friday morning through early afternoon. By mid-afternoon on March 15, we had our ensemble assembled with all present and accounted for.

Bavaria, Germany

Our odyssey officially began with wake-up calls and a visit with WEHA, which took us to see one of their good customers, Vereinigte Marmorwerke (V.M.) Kaldorf GmbH, operators of a Jura limestone quarry and processing plant in Kaldorf. It was an eye-opening experience right from the get-go. While there was little activity in the quarry — due to it being Saturday plus the below-freezing temperatures making the harvesting of limestone blocks somewhat risky — we nonetheless were given a very comprehensive tour of the company’s facility. It is interesting to note that the challenges involved in this type of work mirror many of those that we already experience as fabricators. One interesting fact we learned was that after depleting the usable material from a quarry, and before they are permitted to move on to a new location, they must completely refill the excavation and even top dress it with topsoil and then return the real estate to the adjacent farms.

“After seeing this first hand, I will never complain again about stone being too expensive,” said Ken Lago of The Granite Experts in Newport News, VA.

Our hosts then treated us to a Bavarian lunch in Titting, after which we again climbed aboard our motor coach and headed off to Königsbrunn to visit the WEHA facility.

„I know your company; you guys make slab transport racks,“ commented one of our attendees. He was quickly advised by our host, Andrea Lohse, Production Manager for WEHA, that the company offers over 7,000 different products to the stone industry. And so, the education began. While the WEHA name is synonymous with material handling, after a complete tour of their facility, we discovered that there is so much more to WEHA than slab racks. Our eyes were opened as we were made aware of numerous products and services offered by this company that would help us here stateside. One product of note was an interesting miter clamp system called „Push and Glue.“ This ingenious device, while very simple, would be a great help in addressing the new demand for mitered drops and is definitely worth checking out. The complete WEHA line of products are available and represented in North America by Tenax USA.

The Verona region and beyond

The following morning, our troupe again boarded our coach, and we made our way through the Alps to Verona, Italy. A long drive ahead, but the scenery was nothing short of spectacular. We had beautiful clear skies and sunshine up until we hit the border to Italy, when we encountered incessant rain. We checked into the Hotel Verona, right in the center of one of Italy’s most historic of cities, and the next day saw a 7 a.m. wake-up-call, and a return to the bus to visit Fraccaroli & Balzan. Water treatment systems have become a must-have for the fabricator, both large and small. Preconceived notions were dispelled here, with Andrea Giglioli’s presentation on the unique approach that Fraccaroli & Balzan has taken to dealing with this challenge in the fabrication of stone. A bonus on this visit was the opportunity to meet the company founders — Tiziano Fraccarolli and Carlo Balzan — both of who were on the shop floor during our visit.

Next on our agenda was a trip to our co-organizers and good friends at Tenax, S.p.A. Gino and Alberto Bombana and their team at Tenax have been organizing this tour with us for the past three years. They have become tremendous supporters of the SFA and fully understand what the SFA is all about and what we stand for. Our group of 15 split up into two — with half visiting the Chemical Research Facility and the other half visiting the Abrasives Department. We later switched to enable full exposure and education for all involved. It never ceases to amaze me how much passion the people at Tenax, especially Marcello Solito and his staff, have in dealing with our issues on a day-to-day basis. They deliberately poke, prod and grill us for issues that they can resolve. They are anxious to provide fabricators with the best possible products required to raise the bar in our industry. Visiting Tenax is awe-inspiring as this is a company that truly possesses a desire to serve its customers. “Ask and you shall receive.” If you want an adhesive that performs to a specific criteria, then all you need to do is request it. Tenax asks for productive feedback to help them develop more relevant products — whether they be adhesives, solvents or abrasives. This was an especially interesting visit with our group being able to see prototypes of products being prepared for production in the very near future.

“I have been a Tenax customer since I started in the stone business so this was a particular exciting stop for me,” said Lago. “I saw so many diamond brushes, glues, resins and sealers, shown how to properly use them, when to use them, and where to use them. By the time we sat down for lunch, my head was spinning with all the information I had been fed. This visit confirmed to me that I will be a Tenax customer for as long as they sell glue.”

“The people of Tenax are amazing,” added Joey Marcella of Mario & Son in Liberty Lake, WA. “You can tell that they are passionate about their products when you visit their facility. Everybody there is eager to show and explain their products. I was very impressed with all the research and testing that they conduct in their factory, and I learned more about sealers and glues from that one visit than in all of my years in the industry; useful knowledge that I’ve been able to apply since I’ve returned.”

Transitioning to stone producers, the next stop on the tour was a visit with Cereser Marmi, a slab processor devoted to high-quality granite and marble varieties. The company recently invested in a state-of-the-art “microwave” resin line, which is a proven testament to this business model. While this allows them to process slabs in a fraction of the traditional required timeline, the spin-off result in quality is nothing short of astonishing. President Dominico Cereser, Sales Manager Mirco Biasio and North American Sales Representative Beau Ussleman gave us a thorough tour and then hosted a lavish dinner at the Azienda Agricola Buglioni.

“Cereser’s facilty is world class,” said Marcella. “I must admit that I did not know much about them before this visit, but after seeing their immaculate facility, state-of-the-art processing and massive selection of beautiful materials, they are very much on my list of potential suppliers. Nice people as well; the dinner that they treated our group to in an Italian winery was perhaps the best meal and relaxing time that I’ve had in all of my travels.”

The following morning, we made our much-awaited visit to Antolini Luigi & C. Words cannot do justice to a visit to Antolini. Alberto, Francesco and Alessandra Antolini — along with their team — have taken the marketing of natural stone to heights never before explored. The passion and emotion with which their people speak of natural stone is incredibly inspiring. Their “out-of-the box” thinking pulls at your heart strings and generates an emotional attraction to natural stone. You cannot help but be in total awe when visiting Antolini Luigi. The expressions on the faces of my fellow travelers when moving from room to room, Slab Gallery to Slab Gallery, can only be described as “kids in a candy store.” Suddenly everyone speaks in whispers as though they have entered a sanctuary or library.

“I have been in the industry for 22 years, and even though I thought I knew what I would find at Antolini Luigi, the actual experience of visiting their ‘city of stone’ was absolutely incredible,” Marcella said. “Words simply cannot describe their facility. First-class everything — stone, technology, design, innovation, inspiration. Within the first few minutes of our visit, I could already see the wheels turning in my head — along with everyone else from our group. I’ve tried to explain the Lifestyles and Semi-Precious galleries to my employees since I’ve returned. Words fail.”

Just prior to departure, Antolini’s “always exuberant” Tiziana Bellantuoni boarded our bus and gave us all a spirited pep talk reminding us all how fortunate we are to be involved in an industry that possesses such history and passion. Bellantuoni is one of the most passionate, knowledgeable and experienced individuals I have ever met in the natural stone industry. Her words resonated after our departure. We exchanged farewells with the Antolinis and headed on to Tenax’s Nova Resine.

Nova Resine, a company recently acquired by Tenax, is responsible for the manufacturing of the resins used in their various adhesives. A completely automated chemical production facility, this plant is impressive in its clean, orderly and efficient operation. Nova Resine is a true example applied science and advanced technologically.

We again lunched with Tenax before heading over to visit Testi Group, with a tour led by Tomas Brolin. The company cuts granite and marble to size and exports finished goods all over the world. Testi also imports and processes marble and granite slabs, marketing these materials worldwide. Their marble artisans craft some of the finest three-dimensional stone products we had ever seen. Testi concluded our visit with a very generous offering of aperitives, after which we moved on to the Theine Region just north of Vicenza.

The next morning we were rolling again, this time we were headed to ADI. A well-known name in the industry, ADI manufactures diamond tooling for the stone fabrication business and, unbeknownst to us, we discovered that they offer numerous other products useful for the fabricator. Our host, Dino Zandonella Necca, proved to be extremely knowledgeable and passionate about his business. The ADI product line is available in North America through one of the SFA’s oldest partners, GranQuartz.

Another name synonymous with the Stone Industry is Tyrolit Vincent, part of the Tyrolit Group. Like their competitors across the street (literally), Tyrolit Vincent also manufactures diamond tooling for the stone fabrication industry. Claudio Cazzaor, Sales Manager for North and South America, and Jonathan Giles, Business Unit Manager, were our hosts and while very similar in many ways to their neighbors, these two companies are also very different in how they function. Both offer high-quality diamond tooling with very precise tolerances, yet both achieve this in very different ways. After a complete and delightful tour we were treated to a wonderful lunch featuring local fare.

We moved on to Treviso, where Breton S.p.A. and Michele Padovan, Area Sales Manager, met our group at the entrance of this most energy-efficient of facilities. With solar panels atop the parking garages, skylights throughout the offices and manufacturing facility and innovative use of task lighting, the advances Breton has made in reducing energy costs is an example we should all live by. Padovan led our troupe through the massive Breton facility, where huge CNCs are in fact “tools making the tools.” We ended our tour in the Breton showroom, where we encountered larger-than-jumbo slabs of engineered stone, which will soon pose new challenges for us fabricators.

The Carrara region

We boarded our bus and began the long drive from Treviso to Marina di Pietrasanta. We checked into the Hotel Mondiale, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, seeking much-needed rest in preparation for Thursday, our next and most ambitious day yet.

It was a challenging day for our driver, Fiori Morganti, as he maneuvered our motor coach through twists and turns obviously not designed for motor coaches. We arrived at our first destination on this bright sunny day (the first of the week) and descended upon a company specializing in marbles and onyx, Fratelli Paolini. Typical of all the companies we visited, the owners here take tremendous pride in showing you what they do. They showed us some of the most exquisite marbles and onyx materials we had ever set eyes upon. We watched as they staged a marble floor for one particular customer — numbering the location of each tile to ensure a consistent even pattern was achieved throughout the expanse of the entire floor area.

Just about every company visited had “the other shop.” By this, I am referring to an area — usually secret and not allowing photographs — where the pet projects and prototype work is carried out. Paolini was no exception, as they took us “around back” and beamed as we watched his team apply gold leaf to three-dimensional marble relief work. The specialty craftsmanship here was definitely thinking outside of the box.

Just up the road in a town called Querceta is a company named Henraux, an operation that can make a stoneworking professional humble. Henraux has been in the marble business since 1821, and a visit to their facility makes you realize just how little you know about the stone industry. You watch the endless row of gangsaws carrying out their tedious task of slicing blocks, a task that, due to the hardness of some stones, can take up to five days to complete. You think to yourself, “Maybe we aren’t charging enough money for what we do.” We saw five-axis wire saws cutting wafer thin slices of potato chip-shaped marble.

At Henraux, we saw a firm commitment to embracing technology, while also not letting go of centuries-old craftsmanship. You now mutter to yourself, “If the end user had a better understanding and appreciation of the efforts that go into this industry at the front end, I doubt that price would be an issue at the back end.” It comes down to education. Educating our fellow fabricators, designers, architects and salespeople to help them better convey to the end user the value they are receiving when they purchase natural stone. Henraux embraces the most technologically advanced equipment in the stone industry and yet, at the same time, it employs incredibly skilled artisans to complete the most detailed of carving and polishing work.

Among the highlights of our visit with Henraux, we traveled 7,500 meters up the winding road to the Cervaiole quarry, where we watched blocks of marble being extracted from this centuries-old quarry located high above the Mediterranean Sea. We saw these blocks being loaded onto trucks, as they begin the treacherous task of driving down the same winding mountain road we just climbed. This gave us a greater appreciation of the risks as we just drove the very road these men would now be travelling. You could hear in loud tones, “We are definitely not charging enough for this.” Henraux is a great example of the collaboration of new and old with the results being nothing short of astonishing.

“To understand the work required to bring this material to market and appreciate the significance of this quarry in historical terms is humbling,” said Paul Rand of Classic Granite Countertops in Bridgewater, NS, Canada.

We again move on to visit Franco Caruso, another processor of natural stone. Franco Caruso operates out of two facilities in Italy; the one we visited in Massa, just outside of Carrara, and another larger operation in Comiso, southern Sicily. The North American headquarters is located in Toronto, Canada, with distribution in the U.S. being handled by its affiliate, American Granite.

Renzo Tini, Managing Director of Mondial Marmi, welcomed us next with opened arms as we met yet another impressive company in this great industry. Mondial Marmi imports and processes natural stones like many others. And also, like so many others we have met on this trip, Tini sells the emotional attachment to what we do. Despite exhaustion setting in from this most ambitious of days, we could not help but hang on every word as Tini described what they do, how they do it, and — most importantly — why they do it. Mondial Marmi deals in very selective and exclusive materials, and this is done with a passion for all things natural stone.

At dinner, we were joined by Paolo Carli, Henraux’s visionary, and the conversation surrounded the natural stone industry yesterday, today and where Henraux sees it going in the future. We talked quarries, human resources, pricing, technology and especially robotics. It was a most delightful evening with some of the world’s most interesting people in the marble industry.

There is this interesting “old boys club” in the Italian stone industry. Everybody seems to know everybody and their business. What one company would claim to be an exclusive trade secret, the rest of the club already knew about, adopted or cast aside. Another early morning bus ride brought us to a visit with Ernesto Comandulli, who is definitely one of the original members of this elite club. The Comandulli name is synonymous with high-quality multi-head line polishers. And Ernesto, with his daughter Mara alongside, have built a dynamic company focused on quality that has deservedly earned worldwide respect throughout the stone industry. Ivano Tirapelli has recently joined Comandulli, handling North American sales and providing Comandulli customer service and support stateside. The Comandulli company came on board as Guardian Sponsors of the SFA during our visit, and we thank them for that support.

“The Comandulli tour served as the gold standard,” said Rand. “Ernesto Comandulli and his daughter Mara were plainly delighted to show us their factory, to talk about their products and seemed genuinely interested in us as fabricators.”

A relatively short hop north to Bergamo brought us to CMS Brembana. The epitome of organization, this facility is first rate — producing the most intricate of machines for the stone, glass and aerospace industries. What first catches your eye is the cleanliness. It is a very bright, clean — almost surgical — work environment where nothing seems to be out of place. CMS Brembana is the proverbial sleeping giant. You cannot fully appreciate the magnitude of this company until you visit this world-class manufacturing facility. Carlo Propersi conducted a comprehensive tour of the entire facility before sending each attendee off with beautiful waterjet carving of the SFA logo.

Lago Maggiore and Milan

With fuel reserves dangerously low, we chugged our way across to Lago Maggiore, where we checked into the magnificent Hotel Splendido in Baveno as guests of GMM. For the first time in nine days, we actually had a few hours to relax, and enjoy the breathtaking view of the lake while reflecting on the past week’s activities. We then dined at the wonderful Hotel Serenella with the “who’s who” of GMM — Corrado Franzi, Gian Paolo Margheriti, Simone Guazzoni and Taf Wharton.

At 6 a.m. the next day, most of our team was already up and wandering the grounds of the lakeside hotel. As I heard complaints of “a too ambitious schedule with too many lavish meals” I realized that we achieved our goal. On this day, under the guidance Wharton, we visited a fabrication shop named Godi Marmi e Granito — a GMM customer that agreed to open its doors on a Saturday to accommodate our visit. In this facility, we viewed GMM machines of various ages and technologies in action. Godi served as an extremely gracious host — tolerating our simple questions and queries while showing off the abilities of his talented crew.

We continued on to the GMM plant, where CEO Franzi and his team assembled some of their newest models for our viewing. Again, Margheriti and Guazzoni offered patient explanations for each and every piece of GMM gear as we were in awe of the size of the facility and its orderly content. The number of machines GMM have in production — destined for all over the world — is an indication of the true success of this company. In typical GMM style, we were served a wonderful lunch of wines, cheeses, meats and pasta, after which we said good bye to these great friends of the SFA.

We were then off to our final destination, Milan, where we spent a leisurely day before reconvening at our hotel by the Malpensa Airport and biding each other farewell.

The trip was exhausting, the content overwhelming and the scenery breathtaking. (The food and wine wasn’t so bad, either). The most impressive component of what this trip achieves is the cultivating of relationships and the networking between the attendees after 10 days of travelling together. Those bonds never die.

“This trip to Germany and Italy with the SFA was truly a magical experience,” Marcella said. “I have been to Italy many times, but never with a group of some of the country’s finest craftsmen, and never with the kind of access that we were allowed in our host’s facilities. It was a surreal experience to be treated to elegant dinners in beautiful settings sitting with our industry’s leaders. True celebrities of the stone world. Tenax and the SFA have created a powerful and enlightening tradition that I hope will continue to fuel economic and creative growth for all of the fabricators and future hosts who choose to participate.”   

I want to offer a special “thank you” to two individuals who work tirelessly all year helping to put this amazing event together — Tatiana Savoia and Daniele Scasserle, both from Tenax. You can imagine the logistical challenges involved with moving such a large group over vast countryside to visit 20 companies in 10 days and all with split-second timing and precision. Nothing is left to chance. Without their impressive management and organizational skills, this would simply not be possible. Grazie mille. — Ron Hannah