Since March 2020, the COVID-19 global pandemic has changed the way people are interacting and running their businesses worldwide. Everything from providing a safe work environment for employees to how to handle customer visits to industry education had to be reconsidered. This includes the Stone Industry Education series that Stone World annually teams up with the Natural Stone Institute to provide interactive learning events for fabricators across the U.S. The solution was to offer a two-day virtual workshop, which took place at the end of July.
The virtual event was sponsored by MSI, a leading importer and distributor of natural stones, countertops, landscaping tiles and porcelain in North America, and included participants from around the world, including Brazil, Nigeria, Turkey and Oman, as well as North America. Additionally, many industry-leading manufacturers were sponsors of the event. They included: Baca, BB Industries, Breton, CMS, Dry Treat, Flexijet North America, GranQuartz, Integra Adhesives, Intermac, Laser Products Industries, Park Industries, Poseidon and Water Treatment Solutions. Each session ran for an hour and a half, with an hour-long virtual trade show following on the first day.
The virtual workshop was designed to permit participants to ask questions, view product introductions from the sponsors and answer several poll questions, which provided insight into how fabricators are weathering the pandemic. The sessions were moderated by GK Naquin, founder of Stone Interiors, Inc., with locations in South Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana. Panelists on the first day included:
- Geoffrey Gran, owner of The Countertop Factory Midwest in Addison, IL
- Laura Grandlienard, principal at ROCKin’teriors, Raleigh, NC
- Blake Christensen, owner, Valley View Granite, Tremonton, UT
Why apply for a PPP loan?
Not long into the first session the first poll question was asked: How many applied for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)? This is a loan designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll. The response was that 63% of participants applied.
“Looking at the financial challenges of the PPP, we had no idea how the business or our industry was going to react,” said Naquin. “Thankfully, our state and many others, qualified us as essential business. We filed for a PPP loan immediately, and therefore had very few to no layoffs up front.”
“Obviously this was a global crisis and brought on anxiety,” said Grandlienard. “Two banks came to me and encouraged us to apply. Once approved, we had money in our account within three days. The process was seamless.”
Gran shared similar sentiments. “We can all agree this business is difficult,” he said. “The government doesn’t usually help small businesses. I think this is a big life line for many companies. As Laura said, we aren’t sure what is going to happen in the next three, six or 12 months. We need to prepare.”
“I agree with Geoffrey,” said Christensen. “The more cash you have available, the more chances you will have. Mainly, the biggest thing moving forward is to be able to react as fast as you can so we can weather this and survive this.”
Naquin stressed that taking a PPP and building financial resources is extremely important – especially in a time like this. “One thing we all need to do is to be savvy with financial challenges coming up,” he said. “Our situation is that incoming orders dropped significantly in March and April. Since then, it has come back up to our target. I feel like that gives us a false feeling of security. We are in the middle of things right now.
“In 2009, we all were hit pretty quickly with a downfall and we lost thousands of companies [that year],” Naquin went on to say. “Hopefully, now we can prepare our fabricators to be cautious. We want to build some cash reserves in our company. One thing we did was to refinance our hard assets. We not only got a lower rate, but we got forgiven for our premium for a while.”
Grandlienard explained that dealing with the bank was a very positive experience. “Immediately when this was all going on, based on our standing, they offered a six-month minimum deferral,” she said. “There is a bank willing to work with you.”
“I agree with everything that has been said,” said Christensen. “Debt isn’t a bad thing, but the more you can reduce the amount of interest is better.”
The second poll question of the day was: What best describes your company? The results: 60% of the participants kept all of their employees; 23% furloughed workers; 17% brought some back; and 0% laid off any of their staff.
“Our Big Box business got hit,” said Gran. “We had to let go 25% of our staff, but I am happy to say we brought 60% back [already]. I’m a guy who looks at the glass half full. We are looking at things and making some changes. We might have people sitting in different roles when they come back. We always like to be cross-training for everyone.”
“You hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” said Christensen. “We really accelerated our team commission structure. We fine-tuned our strong parts.”
“Process improvement is a constant I think within every organization,” said Grandlienard. “We are a small group of 18. If someone is out ill, we really have to step it up. With the pandemic, we actually involved the whole company. We brought in our sales team to do the inventory of the equipment. What it did was create a positivity of momentum within the entire team. During this time, we also had some folks step up and say I would like to run the machine. It is just how you take your company and create a positive [environment].
“We did not lay anyone off,” Grandlienard continued. “For a personnel reason, I let one go but hired two. During this time, treat your people right. If you don’t give them the right tools, they can’t perform.”
“I spend 50% of my time creating culture,” said Gran. “Make sure your employees know what their job responsibilities are and have the resources to do them.”
Selling to customers during COVID-19
The final poll question of the day asked: How are you currently selling to customers? A total of 60% of participants responded that they are bringing customers into their showroom; 64% said they are working with their customers virtually; and 24% said they are using website visualizers.
“We always had by-appointment only, but we also had walk-ins,” explained Grandlienard. “For us, virtual hasn’t really taken off. I think it really goes with your geographical area and what your system is.”
Gran told participants that his company offers three options to its customers: virtual, at-home consultation and in-showroom consultation. “But only one at a time for the safety of our employees and customers,” he said. “Virtual is growing, but it takes some time. You have to get your sales staff comfortable with it and teach them how it works.”
In closing, Grandlienard offered inspiration to participants. “Stay passionate to what you are doing,” she said. “I would make myself available to any of you. Keep your heads up.”
Naquin also shared encouragement. “I have been through so many catastrophic events,” he said. “Every time I think our industry is getting ready to explode again, something major happens. Being flexible is critical. What we are going through today, we will get to the other side of it if we plan.”
On the second day of the virtual stone summit, Naquin returned as the moderator with a new lineup of panelists. They were:
- Jonathan Mitnick, co-owner, CCS Stone, Moonachie, NJ
- Jeff Courtright, Planet Granite, Colorado Springs, CO
- Jeff Erickson, owner, Cutting Edge Countertops, with locations in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio
The first poll question of the day was: What safety procedures do you currently use for employees who report to work? The responses were as follows: Temperature checks: 44%; symptom checks: 72%; employee sanitization procedures: 89%; and staggering workflow: 11%.
“Early on, we started a response team for COVID,” said Erickson. “We have a really good management staff here. I can’t take credit for most of the stuff they came up with. It was phenomenal. It is important to keep the business operating and it requires trust. It’s impossible to over communicate. Employees need to know you have their back. Sending installers out in this environment, they need to know you care.
“On top of that, we created a written plan,” Erickson went on to say. “I would challenge you to do this. What do you do if a team member is exposed? What do you do when a team member presents symptoms at home or work? What if a team member requests time off due to COVID? Employees need to be home with their children? You need to know FMLA rules. Have a written plan and know how you will respond.”
Erickson also said that his company’s installers tried to not cross-contaminate the crew. “We have showrooms by appointment. Masks. We clean common areas and surfaces regularly. Show your employees you are doing the most you can to keep them safe. I recommend doing some legwork in advance.”
Courtright told participants that Planet Granite has 130 employees. “That’s a lot of people to look after,” he said. “We split our installers to load trucks into two different shifts. Never thought about it before COVID, but it works out well. It avoids the chaos sometimes with loading A-frames. We also eliminated the time clock where people would congregate. Some are using a phone app. There is a distance stick in the smoking area. It gets the message across that they need to stay six feet away. There is also a lot of disinfecting. We have been doing this since November. We always do it at the start of flu season. We do it three times a day.
“Our showroom used to be open all of the time to the public,” Courtright went on to say. “We shut it down and now it is by appointment only. We used to have a lot of “looky-loos” that used a lot of our time, but never bought anything. Now we are getting just as many sales as we ever have and don’t have our doors open. Stagger customer appointments and keep people apart. We had to modify what we normally do, but it has helped us out a bit.”
“We were hit pretty hard in this area,” said Mitnick. “New Jersey was a hot spot. It spooked a lot of people. We had to decide if we were considered an essential business or not. We do basic protocols. We’re a smaller operation so it is fairly easy to communicate policy and procedures. We use masks, hand sanitizers and gloves. We had a lot of concern by employees, customers and visitors. Being in the metropolitan area, which includes New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, we had three sets of rules to apply to. We had to find out specifics about each. Working in buildings in New York had its own set of rules. With limitations on the number of trades, sometimes it was one worker. It was a little challenging. It opened our eyes to a few things and we made adjustments.”
The second poll question focused on: What new production installation procedures have you employed? The results were as follows:
- Implement physical barriers at fabrication facility; 11%
- New sanitation procedures in breakroom and high-traffic areas: 78%
- Create consistent work teams in the field: 11%
- Update post installation sanitation procedures: 0%
“In our shop our workers are naturally spread out,” said Mitnick. “There is 10 feet between workers. They work very comfortably in there. Even before COVID some employees would wear mask. We have no dry grinding. If they decide not to wear masks, they are in compliance. I find it much safer to be here than when shopping.
“The important thing is with the installers,” Mitnick went on to say. “Do as much work in the shop and eliminate any field cutting. We used to do this, but now it is emphasized. Everything is dry fit in the shop. Everything is staged.”
Mitnick offered some guidelines to follow. “It is important that when your crew goes to a jobsite other trades aren’t hovering or shadowing them,” he said. “It is important in the shop that we don’t let COVID overshadow regular safety procedures in regards to being OSHA compliant. We want people to be clear about slab handling and airborne silica.”
“It’s interesting if you think about it that if we were not talking about COVID on this webinar, we would be talking about silica,” said Courtright. “Some people are putting up Plexiglass partitions between people. We found there is a shortage of that now. We added four extra ventilation fans. We were in the process of doing that to regulate silica.
“Our biggest concern is here in Colorado the winter is coming and those windows in the truck are going to get closed,” Courtright went on to say. “If this continues through the winter, we are all going to be sitting here putting our heads together. I’m very concerned what is going to happen this winter.”
“Business fell off like a cliff,” said Mitnick. “It was shocking, but I didn’t feel alone. It happened to everyone in the area. It has drastically changed now. We didn’t want to impose anything on our employees. It gave us a lot of quality time to take webinars and check our inventory.”
Courtright explained business continued despite the pandemic. “Here, we haven’t missed a lick,” he said. "We are doing 25% more than last year. They say there is a recession, but we are doing well. We can’t afford to lose anyone. We did lose a crew for a week, but others stepped up. There is some rewarding we are doing. If guys are doing more than their 40 hours, they get an extra bonus. Today a food truck is out there and everyone got a food ticket. It’s the boss’s way of saying ‘thank you’ for doing all of this.”
Erickson said they proceeded with measures that were best for the company’s workers. “We throttled back for our employees,” he said. “When we went back in early May, we were very cautious. “It has come back in a big way. It’s a problem, but a good problem. We have more work than we can get done.”