For over seven days, more than a dozen fabricators from all over the U.S. traveled to Italy to learn more about the stone industry. The Stone Fabricator’s Alliance (SFA) put together for the sixth year an educational tour to give fabricators insight to areas of the industry they may not know about. Checking in and out of hotels each night, traveling several hours a day on a bus, fabricators from shops big and small were able to visit quarries, slab processing plants and machine manufacturing shops.

Hosted by Tenax USA, located in Charlotte, NC, the trip started in Florence, Italy, with a day and a half to get into town and explore the city — taking in the sites and appreciating the stone that has been standing for more than 400 years.

“Tenax is committed to being a true friend to the stone worker,” said Josh Parker, marketing coordinator for Tenax. “That means that it is in our company values and DNA to promote stone and the stone industry worldwide, being a true source of knowledge for our customer, and to help them solve their problems. We want to spread culture in the U.S. by teaching to a relatively new industry how to develop and prosper by learning from the Italian culture where stone has been used for thousands of years in constructions and buildings. The SFA needs a true partner that can share its worldwide expertise, and we need the SFA to prosper in the U.S. market. It is a truly win-win situation that enriches both parties and helps the overall stone business.”

First day

The first day of vising companies started with Henraux’s factory and quarry, located in Querceta, Italy. Henraux, first started by Jean Baptiste Henraux, is located in the Carrara region of Italy and has been established since 1821. The tour started at the base of the mountain where Henraux processes its blocks and cuts them into slabs. Gianluca Buschi of Henraux walked the fabricators through the factory, giving them time to ask questions on how the plant worked and letting them examine every aspect of it to learn more about the process.

“We have five diamond wire saw machines to cut the blocks here,” said Buschi. “We have four polishing machines. We quarry here the Statuario Cevvaiole, Statuario Altissimo, Calacatta Altiissimo, Arabescato Cervaiole and the Arabescato Altissimo.”

After visiting the factory, the fabricators got back into the bus and went up the narrow, winding roads of Mount Altissimo. Squeezing past cars on the trek up the mountain, and driving right along the sharp drop of the mountain’s edge, the group of fabricators were excited to not only get off the bus, but to see the Henraux quarry in person.

While walking through the quarry and taking pictures, fabricators learned that the quarry produces 20,000 tons of material a year. During the December to February months, the quarry can’t produce nearly as much as it does in the summer months because it is located 1,000 feet above sea level, causing weather to drop below 0 degrees Celsius and having the water they need to cut the stone freezing.

Second day

Two company visits were slated for the second day, the first to Comandulli, a line polishing-machine company. First established by Ernesto Comandulli in 1972, the company is based in Castelleone, Italy, and was first started when Comandulli patented his own concept for an edge polishing machine, the first for processing marble and granite. The group of fabricators was greeted by Ernesto and his daughter Mara. “We want to give our clients the best possible machines for polishing,” said Mara. “We believe in giving out a good machine, but also it’s about giving good service.” Comandulli builds and ships 22 machines a month to the Americas, Europe and China.

The SFA tour group was able to walk around to examine how the machines are built, the process they went through and finally they had the opportunity to see the machines in action. Running different types of materials through their edge polishing machine, fabricators got to observe how the machine works, and what the result was. The group also got to see the Comandulli Storm bridge saw.

After exploring the Comandulli complex, the group went to visit Cereser, which is located in Verona, Italy. Greeted by Beau Usselman, the company’s North American sales manager and Mirco Biasio, sales manager, the group was shown the Cereser facility and showrooms. While walking through the factory, Usselman told the group, “Quartzites are where we see the trend going. We want to show you the resin line we use because as fabricators we feel it’s important for you to see the process of everything. We have 80 different resins because we know that every stone is different.”

The facility loads five containers every day and is able to cut everything into 2 or 3 cm slabs. While walking through the inventory of over 30,000 slabs, Usselman explained the company’s quality-control practices. “We are very careful in what we buy because you guys are the ones selling it,” said Usselman. “We want to make your lives easier, and we want you to sell our stone. To do that, we have to offer you the best possible stone options.”

On the way back to the hotel this started the conversation between fabricators of what materials they use, how hard some are to cut, and issues and solutions they have with each kind of product.

Third day

Bright and early on the third day, the group went to Vedelago, Italy, to see Lapitec’s state-of-the-art facility. Michele Ballarin, the director of sales and marketing, welcomed the group to the facility and told them the history of Lapitec. “Back in 1989, Lapitec started as an idea,” said Ballarin. “We wanted to make something that would complement quartz materials. Quartz took off really quickly and Lapitec took a bit longer. The first pieces of Lapitec were produced in 2001, after 12 years of R and D.

“During the U.S. great recession, the company kept quiet and continued to invest in Lapitec, opening its facility in 2009,” Ballarin went on to say. “In 2011, the first slab of Lapitec was made and in December of 2012 was the first slab we sold. In 2013, we opened our market outside of Northern Italy.”

The 760-foot-long facility is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment that can produce Lapitec in 12 colors and seven different textures. It takes four and a half hours to manufacture one of the 240 slabs that the factory produces a day.

The SFA tour group was presented with a demonstration of how Lapitec can withstand graffiti, acids and oils, among other things. The group was able to see the different polishing and kiln lines that the Lapitec slabs go through.

The next stop after the tour of Lapitec was down the road at Breton’s facility to see how their machines were built. Gerry Van Der Bas, the national sales manager for the U.S. and Canada, was the first to welcome the group. “Breton was first established in 1963 by Marcello Toncelli,” said Van Der Bas. “From then to now, we hold 288 patents and have several facilities. There are 623 employees at this one, with more than 6,000 at all the facilities combined.”

After the presentation, the tour group went to see how the machines were built and to see the jumbo slabs that Breton makes. “We can make 3 meter, 65 cm by 2 meter, 10 cm super jumbo slabs,” said Van Der Bas. “The U.S. market continuously wants bigger slabs that can take up a whole countertop without making a seam. So we are trying to make bigger slabs to accommodate the market.” The group was able to learn about the machines, how they are produced and the time and care that goes into making each machine.

The last stop of the day was at Margraf’s facility in Chiampo, Italy. The group was welcomed by Export Manager Alberto Tezza. Tezza walked fabricators through the facility to show how their slabs are produced. “We try to keep as much stock as possible,” said Tezza. “Clients won’t call us. They just show up because they know we will have it in stock. We load 20 to 30 trucks a day that goes out to clients.”

Tezza showed fabricators the extensive process the company goes through to repair slabs and improve them. The 200 employees at the facility produce 110,000 square meters of slabs per month. “We have four gangsaws and eight multi-blade gangsaws,” said Tezza. “It will take us about six hours to get through those blocks with a multi blade saw.”

As the group went back to the bus to call it a day, they explained their appreciation for the detail that goes into making the slabs they buy.

Fourth day

Traveling to Sant’ Ambrogio, the group visited Tenax’s facility. Mierko Larko, who is in charge of production, walked the group through the process of how Tenax makes its different resins. “Everything here is automated for quality-control purposes,” said Larko. “The packaging machines here can pack 200,000 boxes a month.” After showing fabricators the processing lines and how the resin is made, they demonstrated several of their products. They let the fabricators preform hands on demonstrations with their ultra-fast glue and then their fast glue. Between two different testing tables, the fabricators were able to test out products such as the Titanium Acrylic glue, the Strong Edge 45 and the Strong Edge Express, among other products.

For Josh Parker of Tenax, this was his first SFA trip and it opened his eyes to how large the stone industry is. “It is a completely different experience to go and see the tools running and touch and feel the stones and see the facilities, versus sitting in an office and watching videos and seeing pictures of the tools and stone,” said Parker. “I never realized how involved Tenax is in the stone industry. Everywhere we went, we saw Tenax products, and we saw our resins being used, our glues, our sealers or our abrasives on almost every stop. For me it really helped to appreciate how large and knowledgeable the company is — and the company is much larger than the office and people I see every day at work.”

The second stop of the day was at Citco. A local design company that allowed fabricators to gather ideas and see what the machines of their next stop, Donatoni, could do. Citco features art pieces that had intricate designs and 3D aspects.

The last stop of the day was at Donatoni. Luca Donatoni met the group as they approached his facility. “Our goal is to give fabricators all the tools possible to do their job,” he said. “The software in our machines let fabricators do anything they want. Our CNC machines also feature a rubber surface for the slab to rest so that it doesn’t move during the cutting process.” The SFA group went around to see the different Donatoni machines being built and then Donatoni showed them the different ways to operate the machine and what it was capable of.

By the end of day four, the fabricators in the group were discussing every aspect of their business. Whether it came to pricing, what machines to use, what tooling to use, they divulged all their secrets. Some discussed how they deal with “tough” customers, others talked about how they deal with their employees.

Day five

The beginning of day five took the group back to Sant’Ambrogio to first visit Santa Margherita. For more than 50 years, Santa Margherita provides some of the top quartz and marble surfaces. Michele Caneva, the area manager of Santa Margherita, showed the group of fabricators around their 16-year-old factory. The fabricators viewed the slabbing process, as well as the company’s inventory.

“We have 30,000 slabs in our inventory,” said Caneva. “We have high polish lines that can produce around 750 slabs a day.”

Once the fabricators were able to see all the slabs Santa Margherita offers, they went right next door to Stocchero. The group of fabricators were able to tour another fabrication processing plant and see a wide variety of slabs that are out there. Stochello produces 3,000 square meters per day and has 30 workers at its facility.

The final stop of the day consisted of a transfer to Zogno, Italy, to Brembana – CMS’ facility. Area Manager Carlo Artina greeted the group and brought them into a room for a presentation and then went to the factory floor to show how the machines are put together. CMS was founded in 1969 by Pietro Aceti. “We specialize in the production of multi-axis machining centers and waterjet cutting systems,” said Artina. “Our facility here is over 25,000 meters large. We also have 650 employees at CMS.”

On the floor where they build the machines, fabricators got to see the highly customizable machines. Some of the machines included three and four axis CNC machines, five axis bridge saws and waterjet bridge saw hybrid machines. “In the U.S., we have a 30,000-square-foot building in Michigan,” said Artina. “We also have 50 employees, including 20 technicians for the 700 machines we have installed in the states.”

Day six

The final day had two last stops for the fabricators. The first was to Gravellona Toce to visit a local fabrication shop that uses GMM machinery. Fabricators were able to witness GMM’s newest machines in operation.

After visiting the fabrication shop, the SFA tour group went to GMM’s facility and was greeted by Taf Wharton, GMM U.S.A. president. Wharton walked the group around the facility, answering any questions the fabricators had about the machines and how to use them best.

After finishing up at GMM’s facility, the group spent their last bus ride together discussing not only what they learned, but the different opinions they had on the machines and materials. The group spoke openly and honestly to each other, trying to not only help each other out, but the industry as a whole.

“I would love to list everything I learned from the SFA trip to Italy,” said Justin Zacherl, owner of Creekside Granite. “I just can’t do it. It is a learning experience from the minute you land. I picked up a lot of knowledge during the travel part of the trip. We spoke openly about business and stone and everything in between. Once we hit our first stop we got to see all the inner workings. We had open access to all the manufacturers and could ask any questions we had.”

For Chris Evans, owner and president of Rock Solid Granite, he loved every aspect of Italy and the organization from the SFA. “A few things I gained from this trip are the 18 new lifelong friends and the memories that we will all cherish for a lifetime,” said Evans. “I also had no idea the amount of stonework and the quality in which it was done. It is mind blowing, and I still cannot fully comprehend the things I had the opportunity to see and do. I also learned, or have a better understanding, that there is so much more to the stone industry than just countertops. The Italian people we rubbed shoulders with have a love and passion for stone that I have never seen. This industry has been in there blood for centuries.

“I think the biggest thing I will take away from this trip is the increased passion and desire for the stone industry and to hold myself and my business to even higher standards,” Evans went on to say. “This trip has rekindled the passion I once had at the beginning before it became a job. To be invited on this trip was a blessing. It has given me a new outlook on my business and a better perspective on life.”

The future of the SFA tour

Dan Riccolo was one of the SFA members that helped organize the tour. “The trip went really well I think,” said Riccolo. “We had a pretty diverse group of fabricators, not only geographically, but also from different-sized shops. I think we were able to show a lot of different aspects of the industry from the quarries, to the machine manufacturers, to the slab manufacturers. I think it was informative and inspiring.”

The SFA is always looking for ways to improve the trip, and right now it is looking for ways to improve the experiences and the nuances of it. “As far as going to the host companies, we try to get a little bit smarter by grouping them together a bit better,” said Riccolo. “Most of the shops become a little bit redundant so we try to mix it up as much as possible. So what the SFA is trying to do in the future is enhance the whole experience. We used to stop at a hotel every night. Now we are staying in Verona for three or four nights. In the future, we may just extend that and have a southern trip, then a northern trip. It’s just some different options. But we are always looking for interesting places to go as well.”

For everyone on the trip, it was a huge learning experience and a great way to submerge themselves into Italy’s culture. Asking any member of the SFA about their experience and a recommendation if you should partake in it will yield the same response, “yes.” “If you are considering going on the trip, I would strongly recommend it,” said Zacherl. “It was a very well set up trip by all those involved. We stayed in great hotels, ate wonderful meals, drank a little wine and discussed more stone business. It is by far the best trip I have ever taken and I can’t thank the SFA enough for the opportunity.”

According to Evans, his advice to future attendees if they receive an invite from the SFA is to say “yes” and make time to attend. “We are all busy and all have hundreds of reasons not to go just like I did,” said Evans. “I absolutely promise you it will far exceed your expectations. As far as surviving the trip, others told me pace yourself, it is going to be far from a vacation. Long days visiting stone and chemical factories, equipment manufacturers and quarries, with long nights and early mornings was worth the grueling schedule. Sleep on the bus whenever you can — that’s how I survived, I’m sure.”