Each year the Stone Fabricator’s Alliance (SFA), hosted by Tenax, plans a trip to Italy to give a small group of fabricators a new perspective on stone products, the business and what it means to be in the industry. It also provides the fabricators an opportunity to learn from each other’s business experiences and offers fresh ideas of how to improve their own shop. After every trip, the board of directors for the SFA sits down to plan out ways to improve the more than week-long excursion. This year, they outdid themselves with another hugely successful tour that not only inspired, but also educated this group of fabricators on a range of topics.

The 2017 group was led by Joey Marcella, president of Mario & Son in Liberty Lake, WA. “The way we have the tour set up is to provide the annual attendees with a good all-around experience,” he said. “This includes a good mix of vendors, whether it is bridge saws, edging machines, stone processors, quartz processors, abrasive companies, etc., along with a healthy dose of Italian culture. The access to the host’s facilities and behind the scenes activities is unprecedented. For example, being able to interact in the Henraux quarry with a 50-year-old industry veteran is priceless education.

“Beyond the factories, in addition to world-class cuisine provided by the generous hosts, this year we were also treated to a tour of Portovenere by yacht, courtesy of Nicolai Diamond, and an exclusive Amarone winery tour, courtesy of Santa Margherita,” Marcella went on to say. “In addition to being really fun and privileged activities, they also ‘infect’ the attendees with Italy’s beauty and charm. Many have already made plans to return in the near future with their spouses, and this is exactly what we want. It is the hope of the SFA that we will open new doors to fabricators, and they will continue to nurture the relationships made at the time for years to come.”

Building relationships

While last year’s trip started in Florence, Italy, and finished in Milan, the 2017 tour took the exact opposite approach. After spending a day getting used to the time change and exploring the marvelous stone architecture that is all over Milan, the group of 17 hopped on the bus to start the eight-day trip. First heading to Gravellona Toce, Italy, the group went to visit GMM and a local fabrication shop to observe how the machines are built, and see them in action. GMM has been a stop on the tour each and every year. “The relationship between GMM and the [SFA] organization has been a close one from the beginning,” said Taf Wharton, GMM North America general manager. “The ethos behind the organization of trying to better the industry reputation ‘hit a note’ with us — the machines we build have never been the least expensive, but quality speaks for itself – in all walks of life.”

At the GMM facility, Wharton illustrated to the group how GMM machines are assembled, explained why they believe they have quality machines and what they can do to help fabricators in their business. “We spend a great deal of time and effort all around the world at trade shows — not least in North America – but the tried and tested best way to ‘wow’ clients is for them to see what’s ‘behind’ the product that many of them know or know of, and we hope aspire to won and run,” said Wharton. “Our production facilities in Northern Italy are also our showrooms. When people come to the factory and take the tour, then they get an unparalleled insight into really what goes into the making of one of the machines. When they walk through the production area and see not only machines that they are familiar with, but also other machines, which they may never see in the North American market, and they see the lines of machines ready for loading to all corners of the globe, then many times you see a light go off with the fabricator as to what is behind the machine he has or may have in the future.”

One of the unique aspects of a trip such as this, is that immediately after a tour of a facility, the group of fabricators will sit on the bus and share their experiences with the products that they have just seen. They will give each other feedback and honest opinions about the machines or materials that is hard to get anywhere else. When asked, Wharton said that this trip has led to a number of fabricators who have visited them on the tour becoming new clients of theirs, some shortly after and some longer. “We have built relationships with many of the ‘tourists’ after the tour, and likewise, we have been able to welcome some old friends to ‘our house’ by virtue of them being on the tour,” he explained. “I know I speak for the owners of GMM, and I would imagine for many of the other Italian companies the tour visits the same would be true; the focus of any company is to consolidate and increase its business and market share, and we are most fortunate that we have the chance to do it in this way and with the atmosphere the tour fosters.”

Following GMM, the tour headed to another machine shop, CMS Brembana. CMS Industries works in a lot of different industries: stone cutting, plastic cutting, glass, composite material, aluminum and advanced material working systems, woodworking and so on. The group got a tour of the facility by Area Manager, Carlo Artina. Artina gave the fabricators a demonstration of their CNC and waterjet machines, including their optional 120HP green jet pump that uses no oil and water only for their waterjet system. The group was also shown the capabilities that CMS has with their machines, by taking them to their facility where CNC machines that are used to build rockets for space projects were being constructed.

The next day, the fabricators were on the road again, heading to Castelleone, Italy, where they visited Comandulli, a line polishing machine company. The group was met by Mara Comandulli, vice president of the company, and Ernesto Comandulli, founder of the company in 1972. “Our goal is to give you the best machine possible for polishing,” said Mara. “My father, Ernesto, built this company on the belief in giving a great quality machine and also giving great service. Those are things we still do today.” Mara went on to tell the group how Comandulli was the first company to come out with a polishing machine for a bullnose edge and how they produce 15 machines a month.

Next, the group went to Verona to visit Cereser and was greeted by Mirco Biasio, company sales manager, and Beau Usselman, North American sales manager. Usselman led the group around their 400,000-square-foot facility describing the process of how Cereser’s resin and polishing make the products some of the most unique that you will find. Cereser has hosted the SFA since 2013, and according to Biasio, they believe it is very important to bring the client to their factory so they can see with their own eyes what Cereser is all about — how they do things. “I am a sales manager, but it is very difficult to give them all this information when you are with them in their office for a 30- or 60-minute meeting,” said Biasio. “They can’t see the difference between me and my competitors based on samples or pictures, but when they come here, my life becomes much easier. They become clients right away.

“Again, for us, this trip is important that clients/fabricators can see with their eyes and touch with their hands the difference in quality,” Biasio went on to say. “Price is always important, but most of the time the money you save purchasing material that have a lower quality is not a good thing. It costs more money to fix the problem in their facility in the U.S.”

For the third day, the group started with a tour of the Scoula Del Marmo Istituto Brenzoni, a technical school for the Italian stone trade in Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella. After the group’s visit in 2016, the SFA initiated a student exchange program with the school, bringing two of the school’s students overseas to experience U.S. fabrication shops and the American way of life. This year, the SFA donated money to the school, once again, and looks to continue the exchange program, strengthening the bonds between the two programs. (To learn more about the program, read the Industry Spotlight on p. 122 of the March 2017 issue of Stone World.)

The next stop was to Tenax, the hosts of the tour, to see their new products and have hands-on demonstrations. After a tour through the Tenax plant to see how many products of theirs such as glues, restorers, agers, etc., are made, the fabricators were split into four groups to test glues, surface treatments, abrasives/brushes and cartridge adhesives, and each were able to speak to a technical specialist that explained and could answer questions about their products and allowed fabricators to demo them. According to Tenax USA CEO, Filippo Emanuel, it is important for Tenax to host fabricators annually because each year there is so many different members on the trip. “Everybody in this business deserves to understand what this business is and means at its core,” said Emanuel. “Our intention is to not stop this tour until every member has had a chance to participate and experience firsthand our resources and capabilities.

“Tenax has always been known in the stone industry as the marble worker’s friend,” Emanuel went on to say. “Our mission is to promote and increase the knowledge and use of natural stone all over the world by helping every stone professional — providing a wide array of solutions. The idea of this trip came along by realizing that the SFA was an up-and-coming young organization that needed our support to be known in the industry and find the right support overseas. It was the typical win-win situation and that’s why we decided to start.”

The last stop of the day was to Santa Margherita where the group was met by Michele Caneva, the area manager for Santa Margherita. The company had recently moved their polishing line to the other side of their facility to build a new production line. For more than 50 years, Santa Margherita provides some of the top quartz and marble surfaces on the market. The group was able to view the slabbing process, as well as the company’s inventory.

 On the second to last day, the tour started by visiting machine manufacturer, Donatoni. The group was met by area manager Luca Donatoni. Donatoni showed different machines that were being built at their main facility and also the assembly line at another. “Our partnership with Intermac allows us to give fabricators the tools to do their job the best way,” said Donatoni. “What we believe makes us unique is the software in our machines. The software lets fabricators do virtually whatever they want on the machine.” Donatoni then lead the group to a fabrication shop that uses their machines and were able to see how their machines worked in a real world situation, including a machine that could cut a slab into six sections in 90 seconds.

The next stop was to the line polishing machine company, Montresor. The company showed off its new Vela 216 machine, a new vertical edge polisher, designed to polish on straight edges of granite, engineered stone, ceramics and marble from 10 to 60 mm of thickness. The fabricators also got to see the assembly of a few different polishing machines.

On the final day of the tour, the fabricators headed toward Carrara and were greeted by Miller Ganapini, sales director of Nicolai Diamant. The company was started in 1980 and moved to its new facility in 2001. The company manufactures CNC tools and provides custom tools for clients, as well as, redressing services. Ganapini lead the group through the facility to show the exact process the company uses to make its tools. Group participants were able to get up close to the workers of the facility and see the tools in different production states. The company has opened a facility in Grand Rapids, MI, to establish a better service for customers in the U.S. and Canada.

“Our goal with the facility is to establish a network for fabricators that they can exchange their experience between each other,” said Ganapini. “We also hope to be able to bring Italian fabricators there to work with the American fabricators so they can learn from each other. We want to be an educational resource for the fabricators.”

The final stop of the trip was to the Henraux quarry and factory. To get to the factory, the fabricators had to take the bus up the winding and narrow roads of Mount Altissimo, edging past cars and driving up against the sharp drop of the mountainside. The trek was worth it though as fabricators went all throughout the mountainside to see different parts of the stone being quarried. Fabricators learned that the quarry produces more than 20,000 tons of material a year. Although, during the winter, December to February, the quarry can’t produce nearly as much as it does during the summer because of its 1,000-foot elevation above sea level, causing weather to drop below zero degrees Celsius. After seeing the quarrying process, participants toured the factory where the group could see the five diamond wire saws used to cut the blocks, then the polishing lines for the marble.

According to Marcella, the trip was once again a success and went extremely well. “It was a great, professional and diverse group,” said Marcella. “Now in its seventh year, we have it really dialed in. It’s always fun to see how fabricators react when it’s their first time in Italy. Without exception, all agree that it is one of the most rewarding things they’ve done in their career, and also for their career.”