Monthly Archives: January 2009

Your Turn, Mr. President

SOMEWHERE OVER NEW MEXICO – On Tuesday, like tens of millions of others, I watched on television as Barack Obama took the presidential oath of office.

And, after that, I switched off the screen and went back to my office and a full plate of work. And I hoped, before too long, the new President would do the same.

As in the next morning, if not sooner.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the historical moment, and the sea change we’re likely to face in government. I also don’t deny that Mr. Obama is someone with a keen mind and isn’t afraid to use it.

And maybe one final day to revel in his taking office was warranted. However, as I trudged on an airliner to head to a business meeting the day after the inauguration, I didn’t want to hear anymore about the parade, the car, the outfits, the food or the dancing, or the literal millions of human-interest bits about people in attendance.

I was going to work. And, by the time I sat in a coach seat in California for a pre-dawn flight, I wanted my new president already at the desk.

We’re all part of a country facing tough times. I heard it in stories during the past few days about fabricators and vendors running operations with big numbers on the wrong side of the ledger. The words fat and gravy disappeared in favor of lean and hungry, and nobody was talking about food.

I also walked through a Dallas office park where the new symbol of the times is the chained-up entrance to parking lots, which means the accompanying office building is utterly vacant. I looked out a hotel-room window at a barely-lighted building across the way, with 88,000 ft² spread through six empty floors.

The plane on the homeward leg Friday didn’t have many empty seats, although flights were fewer and some 15 people used frequent-flyer miles to get last-minute standby tickets from Dallas to Las Vegas. It’s not like riding the rails to look for fruit-picking work in California, like my father some seven decades ago, but it’s a different time.

That’s why I wanted my new president to hit the ground and keep running hard. I’ll freely admit that I didn’t vote for him, and I know I’ll see things he’ll do that I won’t agree with. Whether any of the federal economic stimuli, whenever it gets here, will help the stone trade is uncertain, if not doubtful.

But, for the sake of all of us, he’s got to get to work and keep at it. And I wish him a lot of luck. Meanwhile, whether its at the office, on the road or even on a jetliner head westward and homeward, I’ll keep working, because it’s what I can do to help out.

 

Emerson Schwartzkopf

 

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at www.stonebusiness.net, where you can also find this blog at the Main Menu under the clever title of “Editor’s Blog.”

The advertisements that appear on this page are placed by wordpress.com, and constitute no endorsement of the products or services. And I don’t get a dime from them, either.

The R-word, again

Is there anything that could get worse for a stone-countertop fabricator, now that the economy is still heading downward and one large multi-state competitor – Rock Tops Inc.closed its doors and left hundreds of people on the hook?

Well, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it’s time for hats and horns again to celebrate January as National Radon Action Month.

As we all learned in the trade last year, radon’s not anything to get happy about. Nobody denies that it’s a serious health hazard, but the risk of homeowners getting cancer from the presence of granite kitchen countertops was – to put it mildly – played to the hilt with some questionable claims.

The Marble Institute of America got an early jump (Jan. 2) on National Radon Action Month by announcing its Home-Approved Stone testing program. While it’s still in the preliminary stages – details are still being fine-tuned – it’s a good step in providing some kind of standard system to check radon/radiation safety with surfaces.

It’s also something that needs, in the terms of today, full follow-through and transparency. The MIA notes that the science of the process will be peer-reviewed, which is vital. However, the information on all testing needs to be freely available; consumers need to know a stone is tested and safe, but they also need to know when slabs aren’t meeting the standards.

And – even it it’s a rare occasion – what’s going to happen to stone that doesn’t pass the test? Consumers also need to be reassured that a substandard slab that doesn’t get a Home Approved sticker isn’t fobbed off down the line to another use where there’s still a public hazard.

The self-policing by the dimensional-stone industry isn’t likely to make some critics happy. But short of government intervention – something that the EPA and a large number of state heath agencies are loathe to do – industry action is likely to be the main source of consumer protection.

It can’t be a halfway measure, though, and Home Approved Stone will be watched closely in some quarters.

You can count BuildClean™ in that crowd, although – to give credit when it’s due – there’s far less of the one-note granite griping that permeated its early run. National Radon Action Month gets big play right now on the group’s Website, but it’s also tackling other important issues, including safe practices in rebuilding after Hurricanes Katrina and Ike.

One of BuildClean’s major benefactors – Cambria – also continues to promote its “Radon Free” quartz surfaces. But, if you follow this link on the increasing number of Google Ads from the company on how its quartz surfaces “outperform” granite, there’s nary a mention of the R-word.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at www.stonebusiness.net, where you can also find this blog at the Main Menu under the clever title of “Editor’s Blog.”

The advertisements that appear on this page are placed by wordpress.com, and constitute no endorsement of the products or services. And I don’t get a dime from them, either.

A Workless Advance

As if stone shops didn’t have enough to worry about with radon, now there’s the Case of the Disappearing Shop.

Or shops, to be accurate, as when 15 locations of one company – Rock Tops Inc. – suddenly closed up tight last month. Employees, consumers and suppliers end up with a tough holiday season … but the whole stone-countertop trade may end up taking a whack from this one.

The details are still unfolding, as all parties involved with the Macomb, Mich.-based company try to sort out their options. Employees still aren’t sure when and how much they’ll get paid, as termination dates don’t seem to match up with the last days of work. Stone and machine suppliers may also find on-the-books sales in 2008 may end up as returned goods on the 2009 ledgers.

The biggest concern, however, may be with customers in at least seven states waiting for countertops that aren’t coming. Sure, with shop failures, clients may need to push to get back deposits on stone purchases, but there’s a big kicker here.

Rock Tops routinely came in as the low bid for jobs; local offices processed orders and did the installs, while the company centralized fabrication in Michigan. In return for getting those low prices, customers paid upfront – to the tune of 100 percent of the cost.

Those pre-paid and now-unfilled orders, according to one ex-employee, could easily amount to $2 million. Since the company hasn’t filed for bankruptcy, the full tally of consumer liability isn’t known.

Those customers aren’t getting much help from their local authorities, where the prevailing attitude is that it’s a civil, not criminal, matter that’ll be mired in courts for years. It’s also confusing on where those countertopless customers need to seek redress; is it in their home state or county, or somewhere in the Michigan judicial system?

It’s a sure thing some of them will end up at the same place as radon-minded homeowners: the local TV consumer reporter. Reports in Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis already feature upset customers, including one with no working kitchen when it came time to cook Christmas dinner.

This is where the problem slops onto all of us in the stone trade, as customers get another reason to go gun-shy when it comes to granite. Never mind that the number of no-show shops likely rank at a fraction of one percent of all stone companies in the country; honest people don’t get on the local newscast.

Nobody needs to tell fabricators to be honest. You may need to reassure your customers … especially the ones hearing about the bargains that went bust.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at www.stonebusiness.net, where you can also find this blog at the top of the home page under the clever title of “Editor’s Blog.

The advertisements that appear on this page are placed by wordpress.com, and constitute no endorsement of the products or services. And I don’t get a dime from them, either.