Fabricator Forum: Issues & Solutions
At this Fabricator Forum, which was conducted at Coverings 2014 in Las Vegas, NV, fabricators discussed various issues that they are dealing with today and ways they have developed to overcome them
A large group of fabricators came together to participate in a Fabricator Forum at Coverings in Las Vegas, NV, this past spring. The discussion covered everything from pricing to overtime for employees to fabricating some of the latest products such as porcelain slabs.
Panelists for the event included:
• Dave Syverson, Syverson Tile and Stone, Fargo, ND
• Brandon Maldonado, Maldonado Tile and Marble, La Habra, CA
• Marco Duran, Atlas Marble and Tile, Springfield, NJ
• Tony Malisani, Malisani, Inc., Great Falls, MT (moderator)
Moderator: Let’s start off with a little conversation with you guys of how you get business.
Duran: My business plan for the last two years, including this year, has been to go after design professionals and architects. My main tool I have been using is LinkedIn, you follow up, join with other members. Extend the work you do. I also use House to attract people in the custom home market and draw them in similarly like you would do architects and designers. I am trying to maintain my business to big customize stonework.
Maldonado: We have been in business for 30 years, and we have never done any advertising, or the little that we have done hasn’t paid off for us. All of our work has been referral business. What we do is offer incentives to our client base. We will send out letters periodically, if they refer us they get a gas card or a dinner. That’s actually worked pretty good. It’s amazing how people will remember your name when they have a financial incentive, and especially if you have done a good job and they are happy with you. That has been pretty successful for us, and I have spent a lot of time building a relationship with suppliers. Somebody comes into a slab yard or a tile store, and if they don’t have an installer, they will ask them for an installer. We always want our name to be the first name they think of and usually that’s by showing a presence, taking them out to lunch, whatever it takes. So we have three or four vendors that refer us a lot and that’s been very successful for us.
Syverson: We are a little bit different. We are a wholesale trades company. We don’t sell to any retailer whatsoever, so a lot of our marketing and advertising dollars are focused in some co-op programs with our big accounts and our big dealers. Most of you guys are probably retail, but there is some space to be gained going to the wholesale customers, cabinet shops, designers and home builders — getting set up with them. They are always interested with what we can bring to the table. A lot of times I’ll partner with someone who is doing an ad. In our market place, what we have tried to do, for lack of a better term, is to build our brand. This little logo we got right here, this simple brand in our market place; we like to follow Anderson windows. Everybody wants an Anderson window in their new house, but you don’t drive up to the Anderson plant and pick up a truck load of windows. We are trying to be the Anderson window of tile and stone in our marketplace. In doing that, we partner a lot with anybody that wants to promote their business. We ask them to show a project scene or something with our product in it, stick our logo in the corner, and we will put some money towards that ad too. One thing about advertising and marketing, and you touched on it a minute ago, a lot of you guys probably don’t advertise or maybe you do very little, one thing I would recommend, if you ever have anybody in front of you selling advertising and marketing services, make sure they are putting you where you want to be as far as the customer you want to be targeting. If you are going after the upper end, if you are going after the female demographic from ages 30 to 60 — the ones that will be in your showroom picking stuff out — you don’t want to have an ad on a Nascar race or the Super Bowl or something like that. You want to be where that customer is going to be, whether it TV, radio or social [media]. Make sure you are working your advertising reps to show you that demographic information before you pick up a check and begin a program.
Audience Member: What percentage would you guys think is retail as opposed to your wholesale clients, like tile shops and cabinet places?
Syverson: For us, the retailer is a very small percentage. We will sell some remnants and some close out stuff, cash and carry. Part of the thing that allowed us to build a wholesale business was we protected the accounts that were with us. With such a large area, if someone is 50 miles away, and they have a showroom, the reason we went to wholesale was, why would we show your product when my customer could drive there and buy from you directly? We turned that off about 11 to 12 years ago. At the time we were doing about a million or two in retail business. And that’s not just stone, but tile, stone and contracting as well, which is the three areas we are in. We had to say no to that, in hopes that we would partner up with some good people that would say, this is my tile and stone guy, it’s who we use and that recommendation is what drives us. Our percentage is probably 98% wholesale and 2% retailer.
Maldonado: We are contractors, so either a homeowner, contractor or designer are our three markets. We don’t really do marketing. We probably have a handful of designers we use on a regular basis. The business I like is the homeowner. We can build relationships and through them that’s where our referral base grows. As far as materials, we don’t have a showroom. We just provide the materials with the installation. We take them to the supplier. We design it. We have a program to do all that kind of stuff and guys with a lot of experience. We will provide the product with the installation.
Duran: We also do mostly retail and residential. The reason is that, we are in a market that is a little bit more concentrated in population. There is an advantage to a lot of people being in the area and knowing where you are and coming in, so we don’t exclude that. Our pricing is retail. We do take care of professionals and also solicit them. That is done through means of networking events and tradeshows. My job is to search for top dollar, however I can get it. Having that relationship and dealing with that customer one on one is the best way to obtain that top dollar. We supplement our work with one Big Box account. I chose that account. It’s a very simple format that we do for them. It’s only quartz surfaces — the cabinet styles are very simple and linear.
Audience Member: What’s the difference in the pricing structure in the U.S. from trade to retail?
Duran: In my experience, the trade sort of dictates the terms to us. Either you go with it, or you don’t. You have to see if it fits your plan — your matrix of how you do pricing. If it’s a builder or a Big Box, you usually sit down and they say what they think they should pay for your services and for the goods. On the other hand, with retail and custom work and design work, you basically dictate what your pricing is and what your strategies are. For custom retail, we price it in two parts — labor per square foot net, and then we price out cost of materials and then tack on a percentage for handling and reselling that slab. And then that combined is a price for the total project. Then they can go home and break it down to see how many square feet you are charging them, but basically we don’t come out and say we are charging them $90 a square foot.
Maldonado: I would say that it’s about 15% different from a contractor to a homeowner, and it depends on what the project is. On average, I would say from a contractor to a homeowner is a 15 to 20% difference. That also gives the contractor an opportunity to mark it up.
Syverson: Part of our structure with the distribution we follow is kind of the same sort of pricing schedule you would see at a large tile distributor in one of your markets. We quote retail in our showroom, and we have kind of a tiered system that we utilize. We go 10% off for what we would call a newbie, or somebody that we don’t know and don’t have any credit information on. It’s a little bit of a clunky system for us because we have people in the showroom that will come in and say, “Hey, I am generating my own house and I want to buy stuff from you.” We try to protect the existing accounts we have as best we can. Usually we will refer them back to an existing account or we will just politely tell them, “Sorry, we are not going to work them under those circumstances.” We go all the way down to 30% off on stone, we go 40% off on tile — 40% is also our volume if you are quoting something huge like a hotel or something like that. But in our showroom, all you ever hear quoted to someone is just the retail price per square foot of the slab.
Maldonado: Just out of curiosity, is anybody here from Southern California? The only reason why I ask is because in at least Southern California the contractor hasn’t been protected a lot. So a homeowner can go into XYZ store and buy it at the same price as the contactor can, and I think that has really hurt our industry quite a bit. I only deal with certain vendors who do protect contractors, and unfortunately, there are not a lot of them out there anymore. If there are 50 different tile stores in this one 5-mile radius, they call it tile row, maybe five or six of them will protect the contractor. But for the most part, if you have got cash or you have money, you are going to get the same price as anybody else.
Syverson: In our model too, the deepest discount is obviously reserved for what we call “dealers” — people who have made investments with our displays in the showroom. They are people that are doing the volume that warrants it. When you get to those levels, you can tell if you got somebody who treats you like a true business partner. They will call you up and say, I want to do this ad, or they will say, “I am doing an event at my store; will you come over or bring some people over?” And if you do go down the wholesaler or trades road, if it’s a strong point for you to be that, selling your company as a partner to these builders or dealers or interior designers or cabinet shops, then you really have to make the time and the appearances. You can’t just set them up and forget about them. You have probably got to visit them once a quarter. Sometimes there are specific meets you have got to do, sometimes it’s just popping in to say, “Hey, how’s business? Is this moving? Is this not moving?” — and take them to lunch. It could be a full-time job, and we have people in our company and that’s all they do. And they will partner with you and once they know that you have their back and they are promoting your product, they will treat you like, “This is my tile guy or my stone guy. We don’t use anybody else.” And the nice part about that is they will usually have a story behind it as to why they show up, their quality, they take care of issues, all that good stuff, and when you have somebody in their showroom selling your company to the end user that way, it’s really powerful and that’s what keeps the business generating for us.
Audience Member: What’s the square footage of the production you are doing?
Syverson: We have two shops, one in Sioux Falls, SD, and we have one up in Fargo, ND, which is three hours north of us, which is where our other location is. We have three in total, two of them have shops. Our Fargo shop probably runs comfortably about 700 to 800 feet a week, and it can go up to about 1,000. Our Sioux Falls shop is about double that size.
Maldonado: Well, mine is hard to track because we do a lot of custom moldings, crown moldings, casings in some of our higher end homes. We work on some homes that are $25 to 30 million — only in Southern California would somebody pay that kind of money. We recently worked on a house that sold for $36 million. So as far as footage, that really wouldn’t impress anybody. I would say we probably on average do 400 to 500 square feet a week of fabrication. Then we also do tile and stone installation. We have six or seven crews that install some sort of stone or tile, mostly stone. It just seems like in Southern California, or at least my market, that ceramic isn’t very strong — 80% of what we do is stone.
Duran: In our shop, we try to run about 8 to 10 kitchens a day. The total square footage varies because we are kitchen countertop oriented, not as much square footage oriented, because there comes a day we are running two custom projects and it’s going to total 300 square feet, and it will run all day and sometimes we can just knock out quartz jobs and we can do 12 kitchens, which is also equivalent to 300 square feet a day. I would say our average is around 250 to 350 in total square footage that we are cutting and fabricating a day in an eight hour shift. So when you say a day, what is a day? You turn the key and close the door, that’s your day. Or are you talking in terms of your crew, your shift, your employees, starting, punching in, working and then what you do to supplement that afterwards or before that.
Audience Member: Do you pay overtime?
Maldonado: I try not to allow too much overtime. If we are really busy and need to get stuff done, then we do it. We try to get compensated for it. Recently, we finished a high-end restaurant in New Port Beach, CA. They were behind. They had a certain deadline and it wasn’t my fault. I could have started the job two months ago. So they were pushing and pushing so we charged them for overtime, and we were able to get compensated for it. It doesn’t happen on all projects. It certainly doesn’t happen very often on a homeowner. But whenever we can get compensated, we do. Of course that covers our costs, and I do a lot of incentive programs, bonuses, things for the guys. Overtime can be a very dangerous thing. It can cut into your profits and cause you to lose money if you’re not careful.
How many contractors do we have here? One of the big topics in construction and in the tile and stone industry is piece work versus hourly. Now I don’t know how you pay your people or if you have even ever encountered any of that. Tell me what you know.
Audience Member: I have both — depending on the project. If it’s a simple tile install, then I will pay by the job, by the foot. If it’s something more complicated, I pay by the hour.
Maldonado: What we are talking about is paying per job per piece versus paying them by the hour to do the same project. And there are a lot of legalities involved. You have to translate it into at least minimum wage, and you have to pay overtime, so you have to track everything. We have a format, and it has taken a lot of years to develop this program that pretty much does it for us very simply. In our slab division, we pay everybody by the hour. In our tile department, we pay everybody by piece work. Except for a few guys who are doing repairs or whatever, then we pay them by the hour. What that does for us, it allows us to control our costs. We go into a project with a fix cost. We know what it is going to cost us to do this job, and that way we can control our margins. If we want to be a little bit more competitive, we can drop our prices. We know we have fixed prices, and it’s going to cost us three dollars to do this job, and we want to get six or nine or 10, then that’s up to us. So that’s the good part of it. The bad part of it is, sometimes you leave money on the table. Quick example, I just recently did a job installation, a setter and a helper, they made $2,200 on this one particular job. If I had paid them by the hour, it would have cost me about $1,200.
Audience Member: We have guys that have smoke breaks, who go to the store for a pop break, who won’t start till nine, 10, 11 a.m. I put them on piece work, and I don’t have to worry about that.
Maldonado: You would be amazed, we sometimes feel like we are the only ones going through this and the more people I talk to, in any business really, we’re struggling with the same issues and we are having the same problems and the same challenges. It’s good to be able to share that.
Malisani: Does piece work not take them out of your per view, as far as you setting their hours and making them a sub-contractor, does it not?
Maldonado: It doesn’t make them a sub-contractor.
Malisani: It does not?
Malonado: That’s something you can get yourself into big trouble with, trust me I know.
Malisani: Well that’s why when he said, they don’t show up late and everything else, when we contract like that, it’s a sub contract.
Malonado: Even though you pay them piece work and technically treat them as a sub-contractor, in California — at least and I am sure in Ohio it is the same thing — unless they are licensed and insured they are not legitimate subcontractors, so you have to put them on payroll.
Malisani: So you’re using a piece work pricing structure, but they are still an employee?
Maldonado: Exactly. So if it’s a team of guys and they are going to make $2,000, the lead guy usually gets most of the money and the helper gets paid whatever he’s agreed to get paid by the lead guy. But it all runs through our payroll, and it has to be at least minimum wage, overtime has to get paid, they have to track their hours and in general just in case to protect ourselves.
Syverson: At my company, we pay hourly. We haven’t tried paying piece work yet. Partial estimating department are the people who run all the large commercial jobs and the plans for that. Then all of our residential stuff is estimated by the sales man. We have probably got a little more structure than a lot of companies do, our supervisors can go up to 5% for overtime without having to get anything approved and all of our guys know that, but we try to keep a lid on the overtime as much as we can, but like anybody else, when they need it or there is a “whoopsie,” you got to be prepared for that.
On our pricing, we have what is called an “express fab” and that’s for the guy that comes in and is like, “Hey, I need a curb by 3 p.m. today or I am not going to get paid. We add a multiplier onto our normal shop rate for that. Then again, it’s tricky. On the wholesale side of it what you are doing is spending a lot of time training your customers — you guys probably are doing that too. But instead of training a retail person, for a one time job, we are trying to work with the accounts to get multiple repeat business, so luckily a lot of our builders, when they know there is a last second top that didn’t come in or something, they know they are going to come in and we will get it done for them, but they are going to pay a multiplier on top of it to do that. So if you can put that into your pricing, I would recommend that, it has been successful for us.
Maldonado: What is that multiplier out of curiosity?
Audience Member: Have you notice that contractors are ok with that?
Syverson: You know, it’s got its own pressure point built in for them. I mean, they want to complete a job. We don’t really have to get into it with them as to the “whys,” “the how’s” and the “what’s up.” Are they okay with it, probably not. I think there are some conversations where we will have a builder tell Mrs. Smith, “Well, you should have picked us out a little earlier and we can get it done, but instead of $500, it’s going to be $600 or $625.
Maldonado: I think a lot of it depends on how much competition there is. In my area, within 10 square miles, there are 60 fabricators. So we are very cautious to gauge our clients, but we certainly do deserve an extra fee, and there really is no formula for us. It’s more of, “that guy was a pain in the neck, he did this to me last time, charge him 15% more, or whatever.” That’s kind of our formula. I think that most of the time when you can come through for a client and get them out of a predicament, they are going to remember that and they are going to come back. Sometimes you get the call that I need a little small 3-foot vanity done or I need a 10-square-foot floor done, and you think, “I can’t make any money on that.” But I try not to use that because many times those small countertops or those smaller jobs turn into larger jobs and even a consistent client. If he brings you 10 kitchens a year, you know that’s pretty good.
Audience Member: Just going back to the contracting element, if you do it on a piece rate, if something goes wrong with that job, who pays for that? If it was an hourly basis, if they still have to go back and there are issues, are you paying them for those corrections?
Syverson: If it’s our mistake, obviously we are all human and we all make mistakes, we go back and fix it on our own nickel. We also have a one-year warranty on both the commercial and residential side of both our fabrication and our labor products, and quite frankly, on warranty, in our business with such a critical relationship component with builders and those people, there are a lot of times when we are out of warranty and we will just go fix it anyway. Our fault or not, we don’t really get into the argument that much unless it is a clear issue that we can point to and say, “somebody did this.”
Maldonado: I think the question you are asking is if one of your installers screws something up, piece work versus salary, how does that work because piece work you can make them go back and fix it versus hourly? Either way, piece work or by the hour, they are employees of your company legally, so however you treat that, whatever your policy is — I don’t have a lot of tolerance for mistakes from professionals, I mean everybody makes mistakes and things happen and whatever, but we don’t have a lot of callbacks and that’s just from many years of going through guys and now we have a team, most of them have been with us for 10, 12 years. But when we do, what’s the old saying, “First time shame on you, second time shame on me.” So sometimes it has to hurt their pocket for them to be a little bit more cautious, but thankfully at this point we don’t have a lot of problems. But you know, legally, you have to pay them — at least in California. Where are you from?
Audience Member: England
Malisani: Do you have to pay them at all?
Audience Member: We do piece work in both the shop and in the field, so what we do to answer your question, all of our installers are paid per square foot and we evaluate it every 90 days and if they are doing good we bump them up in a percentage, and if they do bad we do have a tolerance where we call each return trip $150 dollars. You get two shots, $300 anything excessive of that your pay can either go up or down. And it’s all systematic and is an administrative nightmare, but there is process in the system behind it. It encourages them to do good work and encourages efficiency as well. From a shop perspective, we do a square foot by man hour so the target is 5.5 square foot per man hour and above. If they have rework their bonus based on a certain amount of rework, they have reworked above that and then they don’t get the square foot by man hour bonus at all. I know it’s always one of those topics people talk about. It works, but it is an administrative nightmare.
Malisani: They’re your employees but they are a piecework installation.
Maldonado: When we are doing more production stuff, years ago we had a piecework system in our shop. But the way we run our shop and the type of work we do today, it would be very difficult to do a piecework system. So we pay by the hour. But that sounds like you really thought this whole process out quite a bit, piecework versus hourly. It has its challenges, but if at the end of the day you can have a fixed cost and you know what a job is going to cost you, then that’s the way to go.
Malisani:I want to shift gears here really quick. I would like to give anybody the opportunity to ask any fabrication oriented questions that you have.
Audience Member: I am a high-end fabricator that has a high-end builder that deviated from what he normally does and is putting up almost a 250-unit apartment complex that is high end. He came to me and I said that is way beyond my ability to produce all those kitchens — all those vanities — but what about cut-to-size from overseas? I said, “Here is an idea,” and this is where you might laugh, “I just need to know whether I am crazy or if this is a viable option?” He had very detailed prints. I thought we could do CAD of all the prints, but the countertops need to be produced on Masonite templates to hand to his drywallers and his cabinet people and his framers. And say the countertops are coming and you need to make sure those walls fit that Masonite. Is that crazy?
Duran: It could be done, depends on the relationship you have. He may ask for some type of discount for having to conform to you versus the opposite of what most of us do. And conform to what there is to work with, so I think it’s a great idea if you can get them to agree.
Malisani: My advice would be that you include that in your contract. We call it the “Blue Sky” price, which is what they always want, so you give them the Blue Sky price and then you attach a schedule of what it costs for you to drill extra holes. And maybe you haven’t thought about it, but the number that get broken.
Audience Member: It’s all quartz.
Malisani: Okay, it’s construction. I am telling you something is going to get broken whether it is your guys or his guys or whoever — you’re going to have some breakage. In our case, in our commercial situation you just over order a certain percentage, order a few extra vanity tops, if none of them get broken, great, you’re out a few dollars. It’s in your price anyway. It gives you the opportunity to quickly fill that back in. Your situation, the argument is going to be at the end, either the space they left was too big; your people put the wrong piece of Masonite in the wrong room. There will be issues, but certainly it is doable. I would just include a schedule for your prices to cut the size, it depends on what fit they want, not knowing what your configuration is. But it’s how it’s done. It really is.
Duran: It’s a great idea, but you also have to deal with reality. You can do everything you said, but you are going to end up with field cut because you can’t monitor every sheet rocker or framer to make sure they conform to those templates. It’s a great concept, but you have to accept that maybe 10% of it has to be touched up. I completed a project in Manhattan recently where there were vanity tops, they were custom vanity tops and the millwork company provided me these prototype forms and it really helped but still, when we got to the jobsite the tillers were there first and they got all their trade work done before us and the walls weren’t perfect so we still had to touch up the work. Sometimes these ideas are great, realty is, sometimes it’s something you have to deal with.
Malisani: The more detailed you are in your estimate, how you figure out how you’re going to do it, the better off you are. Part of our terms in our contract that we were in after the drywallers and before the tiller went in. It’s a negotiation when you get to that point with the contract. The biggest thing I would say that you may be surprised is how long it takes to get some cut-to-size material. That could be by far your biggest issue. If they tell you it’s going to be a month, or two months. If it’s a month late, you got to be thinking, okay, four months, what if it comes in five? How bad of a situation are you in?
Audience Member: We would be ordering all 250 units at one time.
Malisani: It can show up in Customs, and they could sit on it for a month. Do you have a contingency plan for that?
Audience Member: They are finishing two apartments in a month. So it takes a year and a half. So we were going to have it sitting waiting to go
Syverson: If it’s on the ground, you can bill stored materials too.
Malisani: Just put it in the contract. If you don’t, you can just sit on it.
Duran: Do you have somewhere in your contract where you have all these pieces sitting in storage and now they don’t conform to what you agreed to? What is your contingency plan on that?
Malisani: Or if they don’t pay you. Stored material is a huge deal as well as storage play and storage fees. So if you are going to start on the jobsite, and they are going to charge you for it, it can get expensive.
Audience Member: I had it structured that everything was paid for when it hit our place.
Malisani: So you are selling them the vanity tops and then contracting them for the installation — that’s how I would structure it.
Audience Member: What do you guys think about the new porcelain material?
Duran: I was introduced to porcelain slabs about six months ago. I did attend a workshop on fabricating porcelain. I am going to attempt fabricating it and trying to create a display utilizing it. I think it’s 12 mm thickness, just about a little bit more than a quarter of an inch. I am just going to create a simple laminate looking countertop, and I am going to see what the results are and what the opinions are on that. My own opinion is, if you’re looking for a solution and you’re tired of sealing new countertops or worrying about sealing new countertops, if you’re worried about acid edging on marble, the Italian market is creating very lifelike prints that look like Calacatta or Crema Marfil — you know, things that give you a lot of trouble and make these issues. It really solves a problem; to me porcelain is taking the approach of being a solution product and not really trying to replace it. It has its applications for commercial work, now as far as a fabricator, we can exchange cards and we can talk about how you do it. I just received the slab about a week ago, so when I get back I am going to work on it.
Syverson: I think it is the wave of the future in a lot of ways. We did some of the first porcelain slabs that Mirage had produced. They were just simple little vanity sized. But they were basically a big piece of porcelain tile and that was 10 or 12 years ago when we first saw those. In the tile business, they have again, tons of new machinery and technologies, I mean it’s inkjet, rotocolor, taking pictures of the actual rocks or slabs and superimposing them onto the tile. I can sell a porcelain tile to you at the end of the day that looks like Calacatta, and out of a 1,000 pieces there isn’t a same pattern in all of them. I think at some point these manufacturers like Cosentino will eventually move them into larger and larger formats, and the other side of that is they are going to start making them thinner. We are in the middle of a job right now where we are using 20 x 40 x 3 mm porcelain tile, and it is going up onto a 105 radius wall, and we are bending it in place and putting it on the wall, don’t have to mess around with the thermal forming or anything like that. We are using the clip system, and when you see this wall, it’s going to be a big curved radius that looks like blocks of stone. So I think as the industry matures and all the dollars that the Italians have invested in their machinery and technology, I think you’re going to see larger and larger formats come along and a lot of them are going to look just like stone. I think everybody saw the laminates and stuff like that took the first pictures, and we all kind of had a nice laugh about that, but that’s the first shot across the bow.
Maldonado: Two weeks ago was the first time somebody asked me to put a porcelain slab onto a wall. Next year’s Forum, I will have an answer for you.
Malisani: The anchoring system, things like that, are still being developed. It’s a very young system.
Maldonado: I would say it is a lot less weight than marble or slab 3 cm or 2 cm.
Audience: I own an interior design firm and we do a lot of commercial and residence work, so with the topic of today’s session, I have two questions. First, what new products are you really excited about and what do you see the future of those being, and second, what do you recommend for maintaining slabs, kind of the major slab materials that we can recommend to homeowners?
Syverson: I will start. For the maintenance products, one brand we like is Miracle [Sealants]. We just picked them up as a distributor for our region, and we like their product line and how they manufacture and how they bring their stuff to market. As far as new products out in our region a lot of the whites in both the marbles and the granites are selling quite a bit. In our part of the country, a lot of the design trends that are on the coasts don’t get to us for a couple of years. So we try to be ahead of that a little bit, but those are things we are selling a lot of right now.
Maldonado: We provide a care kit with care instructions for our clients, which help them maintain countertops. But as far as sealers and maintenance products, we like to use Stain Proof. They have maintenance products, they have cleaners, plus they have a 15-year warranty, which is a good selling point for clients. It’s a little pricey, so we offer that. It’s a little bit more of an advantage in a sales point because it’s expensive but throw an extra $50 in the job and you’ve covered your product and everybody likes to hear 15 years. We don’t have to worry about it. As far as products, we really have been doing a lot of exotic stones, a lot of backlit onyx, semi-precious stones — that is really getting hot and it’s getting a lot more affordable.
Duran: In addition to what he said, in our area what is trending are quartzites. Quartzites are a blend, or sort of a hybrid of marble and granite. They have the functionality of granite, but the movement and warmth or marble. By definition, it is its own category. It’s typically a silica material. It’s harder than marble, as hard as granite and as hard as quartz surfaces. For me, it’s exciting because every time you work with a client they say, I love marble but it doesn’t perform well, I like granite because it does perform well but the movement is too cold for me or it’s just not warm enough. There are a lot of quartzites out in the market. They perform well, as a fabricator you do have to be equipped to work with quartzites. It is very hard on your machinery and hard on your tooling. You do have to buy blades that are modified with the right matrix of diamonds that is going to cut it. I prefer to use a waterjet when I am cutting quartzite and then profiling it with a CNC. To me, quartzites are truly a blessing right now because it takes care of everything, in my opinion. The trends today are lights — grays, taupe — in my market anyway, and for the most part, that’s what quartzites come in. From the earthy red browns, all the way through taupe and light gray, that’s a sweet spot for me, working with quartzites. I am getting great feedback, very little etching. It’s a very dense material. It’s extremely dense. It doesn’t really absorb. So that whole issue with what sealer to use, yes you are going to use a sealer, you can use StoneTech from DuPont. It’s all going to work fine. But it’s so dense it is going to take care of itself.
Malisani: The issue with quartzite is that it can vary in quality extensively. So it can almost break apart in the structure of the material as it’s put together. It’s not necessarily a crystal structure, but it has phosphate lines, so it can be very difficult to work with too. I am just saying. Where we are, we have seen marble trending. It has gone from the whites to other ones, and a part of it is probably that we are all a little prejudice towards some materials or another. I am prejudice towards marbles, I like them. The care I think needs more explanation. We use waxes on marbles. We tell the customer, honestly if you have this perception you have to keep this in a polished state, you are going to have more maintenance, you are going to have to almost use a wax and in commercial applications too, just because you are going to have to protect it. You can have a sealed marble and still etch it without staining it. I think the biggest issue with maintenance with customers is explaining to them ahead of time what can happen. The Marble Institute of America (MIA) has a whole section on care and maintenance. There is a brochure that we give to our dealers. We have dealers like Dave [Syverson] does, and that goes into the customers packet so they have something to refer to. Trying to explain everything to everybody, like how what is a dolomitic limestone as opposed to a marble, or a quartzite as opposed to quartz, and your average person tends to get lost in the conversation. I think it’s a consensus that the customers expect a sealer even though it’s not necessarily required.
Duran: I think that stone has been mainstreaming for about a generation now, 25 years or so, it’s been really a mainstream for countertop products. I think that folks that are on their second kitchen, or third possibility, they are looking for solutions and they are looking to go beyond what they had. I think the trends you are going to see at this show and the shows I have been experiencing are products that sort of touch on every note: solutions, beauty and practicality. There are certain granites that still present problems with fill and crevasses and cleavage, so I think people have experienced that over the past 10 to 15 years, and they want something simpler, something natural. So I think quartzite, although it’s brittle, you can sort of funnel them to what they kind of like and what’s going to work for them. Quartz surfaces are also very popular today, as far as trending.
Malisani: I would say that more than sealing is maintenance. The real important thing that doesn’t always get done is maintenance. In other times, depending on what is being used for a sealer. If they get 15 years is one thing, but it may be a sealer reapplied.
Maldonado: With some of our higher end clients, or really anyone that wants to sign up for it, we do a maintenance program with them, so we will come out every couple of years. But a lot of people don’t really need to sign up for that — especially with all the new sealers that are claiming 15 years, 10 years.
Malisani: And I think that is really what the customer is looking for. “What do I need to do? How often do I need to wash it?” Oh gee, I don’t know, it’s your kitchen, a couple of years? It seems common sense to us, but who knows what people are thinking. I think maintenance programs, and you have got a whole plethora here, are good. So there is information out there for people. But one stone is not the same as the next.