Members of the stone industry from across North America gathered at the start of Coverings 2024 for the State of the Stone Industry discussion, moderated by Jim Hieb, CEO of the Natural Stone Institute (NSI). The panel was comprised of NSI executive board officers, including:

  • Duane Naquin of Stone Interiors
  • Blake Christensen of Valley View Granite
  • Evan Cohen of Quality Marble & Granite
  • Jeff Erickson of Cutting Edge Countertops

The discussion was driven by audience participation and a wide range of topics were covered. Among them were economic climate, silica impact and resources, and sustainability. 

On the topic of economic climate, Hieb asked Christensen, based on his experience attending several training sessions across the U.S. the past six months, what he is hearing from fabricators during those discussions. “There are pockets of really busy and pockets of slow,” said Christensen. “For the West, it seems there was a couple of months of slow, and now it is coming back.”

Erickson shared similar sentiments. “Blake hit it right,” he said. “There are pockets. We are in the Midwest. We don’t have a lot of movement. We haven’t gone down a lot, but we haven’t gone up a lot either. Any area that is a mountain region -- an area where people are moving -- is gangbusters. You have to be careful who you compare with. If you are looking for an indicator of what is happening, pay attention to what you are selling.” 

Speaking on the distribution side, Cohen said 2024 is off to a positive start. “We track a lot of trends,” he said. “It was a massive year for Brazil. In the beginning of 2023, our imports were down, but coming into 2024 we were up. We talk to people all over the country so it’s interesting to hear what they have to say.” 

Naquin pointed out that while business is flat for him, overall, it is much better than a while back. 

“These are some of the best years we have had. You have to remember that.”

For fabricators experiencing slow times, Naquin said to consider how they are staffed. “If you are overstaffed, think about getting rid of your less skilled personnel, but keep your highly skilled ones because they are hard to find once business picks back up,” he said. Hieb added that it is time to think about cross-training employees.

The discussion turned to material and Cohen shared he is seeing a shift back to natural stone due to the silica issues. Naquin agreed natural stone remains a popular choice among consumers. “I don’t think natural stone is going down in terms of gross square footage,” he said. “The pie is getting larger, and the rates aren’t increasing as much as some of the other products.”

Cohen added fabricators seem hesitant to cut porcelain slabs. “It is being brought to us to carry and distribute it,” he said. “Fabricators have to learn new skills to cut it. It slows down the cutting. It’s getting some push back. I am seeing fabricators pushing customers to natural stone.”

According to Naquin, he often sees buyer’s remorse when purchasing a porcelain countertop after the fact. “I feel a lot of customer dissatisfaction once it is done – especially the countertop side – not for shower panels, etc.,” he said.

Silicosis remains an important subject. “We need to first train fabricators who aren’t training their employees,” said Hieb. He explained NSI has hired Yale University to conduct a survey among fabricators so they can obtain concrete data to present to those enforcing new regulations.

Hieb also explained the resources available to fabricators to make sure they are running a safe and silica-free shop. “If you have interest in doing air monitoring in your shop and never have done it before, we will get you instructions how to do it.,” he said. 

“[OSHA] is looking at that dusty shop and assuming that is all of us in our industry,” said Naquin. “As fabricators, we look at perspective -- how we have been doing things. We are cutting wet.” 

“We have to as an industry answer that question through science,” said Hieb. 

“I don’t know if a lot of fabricators understand the urgency,” said Christensen. “It is the ones who are dry cutting. The ones who are not here. We have an obligation to keep our employees safe and increase awareness.”

“How was it finding employees over the past few years?” asked Erickson. “How easy will it be to get them if we have to strap on respirators? I think most of us have a sense it can be done safely without that.” 

“Don’t fall into that trap saying we are okay because we cut wet,” said Christensen. “Make sure you scrub the floors, do the chest x-rays. Do what it takes to make it safe.”