Monthly Archives: August 2009

You Got That WHERE?

Consider the origins of stone-care products at your local industry supplier – or the nearest Big Box home-furnishing stone – and you’ll get a quick tour of the worldwide stone industry. Mixed in with U.S. manufacturers are destinations as close as Canada and Mexico to more-exotic locations such as Turkey and China.

And, if there’s an incredibly enterprising importer out there, you can add one more country to the list: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) … or, as you’re going to likely know it, North Korea.

The country’s official news agency reported in June that scientists developed a stone cleaner/enhancer made from “natural materials;” the solution won’t harm the stone, and residue is non-polluting.) The agency also noted that, for those looking to dress up some concrete, there’s a new paint that provides the look of natural stone in five colors.)

Negotiating a business deal isn’t going to be an easy job, considering that exports from the DPRK come by fits and starts; on occasion, it doesn’t export directly to U.S. customers for a year at a time. (Don’t expect the DPRK’s official Website to offer a lot of help for starting up trade, although there is an official chamber of commerce.

However, as of last October, the country is off the “state supporters of terrorism” list, by order of former President George W. Bush. It’s OK to do business in Pyongyang, although you might be wary if anyone starts talking about payments through Office 39.

It’s unlikely that “Made in the DPRK” would appear on any of this stuff, as it might make a stone rejuvenator a bit of a tough sell at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Finding a different way to market by packaging the stuff somewhere else – Hong Kong, maybe – might do the trick. After all, it’s worked for the literally countless tons of stone with some genuinely strange import tags.

In the first six months of this year, for example, there’s been a regular flow of worked granite from the Dominican Republic. Admittedly, there are granite deposits in the country – the last mention I could find came from 1907 – but it’s a tougher sell to see major granite quarrying in Panama, Singapore or the United Arab Emirates, which all sent granite to U.S. ports-of-entry this year.

This is due to the Harmonized Tariff Schedule that determines the export “origin” by how much a product is worked, and it’s easy to believe that stone factories are running in Singapore or Dubai. (It’s a stretch to see major boulder-to-slab operations in the Cayman Islands, which sends along a few tons of granite every now and then.)

Then there’s the interesting case of Lebanon and the stone export category of other calcareous, which basically includes any calcareous stone that isn’t classified as marble or travertine. For years, the country sent, on average, less than 100 metric tons a month of other calcareous to the United States – until December 2006.

In October of that year, Lebanon exported 21 metric tons of the ol’ o.c. here. Two months later, it exported 28,224 metric tons to the United States. Since then, Lebanon has been the biggest volume exporter of other calcareous to us, often providing more than half the total shipments of the stone (although at a drastically reduced value when compare to other Mediterranean countries). It’s a great story, except that there are no strong clues as how it’s happened.

Most customers don’t particularly care where someone cuts stone from the ground; they want a nice-looking slab or tile. With more interest in the point of origin – on political or health issues – we may be in for some interesting IDs on products in the future, however.

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.

StatWatch: Stone Imports, June 2009

Dimensional-stone imports remain in the doldrums, lagging far behind last year’s totals. The road to recovery may still be a few intersections away.

The following is taken from data collected by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission. All figures give are for June 2009 (change from June 2008 amounts in parentheses). “Worked” stone is material that’s been shorn from boulders and blocks, and then cut in standard dimensional measures (such as slabs and tiles) and polished.

Worked Granite Volume
Total: 114,099 metric tons (-33.42%)
Sector leader: Spain @ 36,074 metric tons (2,210.95%)
Backfill: Wow! Maybe there’s resurgence here, especially with a massive upturn in Spanish shipments to offset some poor summertime number from others, including China’s 62.84% drop from last June. Then again ….

Worked Granite Value
Total: $65.7 million (-37.29%)
Sector leader: Brazil @ $22.8 million (-34.79%)
Backfill: …the numbers don’t add up, as Spain’s supposed bonanza in tonnage is way out of sorts with the $1.1 million in value (25% off last June’s pace, by the way) recorded at U.S. ports-of-entry. Either there are some misreported numbers, or Spanish slab granite is going for a less-than-roadbed-pebbles $31 per metric ton. We’ll bet on the former.

Worked Marble Value
Total: $16.9 million (-35.35%)
Sector leader: Italy @ $7.4 million (-41.19%)
Backfill: Italy continues to improve from its bottom-scraping February total of $4.9 million, but it’s still far behind last year’s figures. China’s $3.5 million in June again showed the smallest decline (14%) from last year.

Worked Marble Volume
Total: 14,619 metric tons (-28.64%)
Sector leader: China @ 4,774 metric tons (-11.18%)
Backfill: Italy easily wins the race in value, but China is slugging it out, ton-by-ton, to be the leader in landing slabs and tiles on U.S. docks. Mid-year metric-ton totals show China (23,615) pulling away from Italia (21,564).

Travertine Value
Total: $21.7 million (-37.25%)
Sector leader: Turkey @ $13.6 million (-36.77%)
Backfill: China offered a bright spot with a small 4.9% gain from last June, but with less than $1 million of actual travertine. The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) small toehold in the market last year is giving way, with the $90,367 in travertine value showing a 61.64% decline from last year.

Travertine Volume
Total: 35,782 metric tons (-57.11%)
Sector leader: Turkey @ 25,481 metric tons (-62.26%)
Backfill: Turkey’s drastic drop in tonnage from 2008 levels is the main reason for the halving of travertine imports; Peru picked up its business by 17.84% from last June, but shipped only $2,015 tons. The UAE’s 163 metric tons registered a collapse of 94.26% from June 2008.

Other Calcereous Value
Total: $9.6 million (-45.10%)
Sector leader: Italy @ $1.7 million (-41.54%)
Backfill: The wild variances of the past 18 months seem to be flattening out; 2009 month-to-month declines are consistent, and Italy’s back in the top position. Lebanon’s mysterious big boom appears to be over; the $319,396 shipped to the United States this June shows a drop in value of 82.69% from the previous year.

Slate Value
Total: $5.0 million (-38.21%)
Sector leader: India @ $2.27 million (-25.86%)
Backfill: India turned up on top this month, beating China by close to $200,000 in import value. The difference between the two is larger than all of Canada’s $130,122 in slate shipped across the border, but good things come in smaller totals; that’s a 25.88% increase from June 2008 for our Neighbor to the North.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at Stone Business Online, 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 Good Man to Know

Early in Citzen Kane, Wall Street baron Walter Thatcher rolls his eyes when his financial ward, Charles Foster Kane, instructs him not to sell the New York Examiner, a struggling back-marker of a daily – because, in Kane’s work, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”

Mr. Kane, meet the world of 2009. It ain’t fun anymore.

The demise of the U.S. newspaper trade gets the most attention, but times are tough as well for business-to-business or (B2B) publications, which is the fancy term for trade magazines. The news hasn’t been bright, as exemplified by this. Or this. Or this. Or the lightened loads of postal-person delivery, as magazines – including Stone Business – cut pages as revenues fall.

Sometimes, those cuts aren’t enough. Instead, the mailbox gets emptier as magazines stop the presses. It happened in the stone trade last month, with the announcement that Stone Industry News would suspend publication. Suspension is one of those words that crop up more and more – such as retooling, co-locate or strategic redeployment – that often put a different spin on bad news.

In the case of Stone Industry News, I’d like to think that this is just a rough patch, and a new issue will appear on my desk before the year’s out. I also know that I’m probably whistling a merry tune to the tombstones, but I can still hope.

You think it’s odd that someone would be wishing a competitor back into the fray, competing for news and advertising? Obviously, you haven’t met Francis Heck.

Francis, the publisher of Stone Business News, wasn’t the first person I met in the trade. It didn’t take too long in the trouping of trade-show aisles before we started seeing each other and jawing about the current state of affairs in the industry. He didn’t lack for opinions, and many of them made me laugh. All of them, though were on the mark.

Stone Industry News mixed current news releases, tips of the trade and a fair amount of down-home humor. When a controversy brewed in the industry, he let all sides let fly and let readers separate the steam from the substance

It also featured a monthly Page 2 editorial that drew from Francis’ decades in the trade, his innate common sense and an unqualified love of his country and his spouse, Lola. In a word, it was honest, and I enjoyed reading it every month.

I also enjoyed meeting Francis at trade shows. Our booths always seemed to be in close proximity, and we swapped more than the latest tales of the industry. On occasion, you’d find Francis stocking the Stone Business stand with more magazines, and I’d make sure plenty of issues of Stone Industry News filled his display.

Francis also knew the importance of finding the closest lounge after show hours, where you’d relax with a drink. This bit of Old School trade-show behavior seems to be distained by a new generation of people scurrying to meetings and receptions and tense business dinners, but the old-timers like Francis (and, more and more, myself) knew that plenty of business goes down when people put up their feet. More importantly, you made good friends this way, and Francis had the knack to always make another one.

I count myself among them. It makes me want to find another missive from Stone Industry News in the mail, so I can grumble over an ad we didn’t get and agree with another bit of Francis and his Page 2 wisdom. Hopefully, I’ll see another one and see Francis at more trade shows, as there’s more whiskey to be sipped and stories to be told.

And that would be fun.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at Stone Business Online, 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 any of them, either.

There’s a Story in Here Somewhere

One of the banes of the news business is coming across a bogey, where you turn over a bunch of stones … and end up with a bunch of upside-down rocks. Or – even worse – you end up with plenty of facts and documents, but nothing fits into a straight, cohesive article.

In other words, you find plenty of sulfur and wood, but nothing that looks like a match, let alone a fire. Last month shaped up like that when it came to another go-round with radiation and granite – this time concerning fabrication shops.

Let me illustrate what went on in the past 40 days or so. Then, I’ll let you sort it out.

For me, this started on July 6 when one of the many Web-search programs I use to troll the Internet popped up with an article by San Jose, Calf.-based industrial hygienist Linda Kincaid from the Examiner Website on June 26, noting that “nationwide warning was issued yesterday by the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD), cautioning granite fabricators about radiation exposure during granite fabrication.”

The article cited the problem with radioactive dust and possible levels in excess of that allowed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The result of research, the article stated, was the letter from the CRCPD, a Frankfort, Ky.-based independent non-profit association of state, federal and municipal regulators/officials.

A day later, as I started looking into this, a letter appeared from the Marble Institute of America to the CRCPD, disputing a report from Salt Lake City-based health physicist Dave Bernhardt (“Potential Occupational Exposure, Fabrication of Granite Counter Tops”) that the group sent to its members. The MIA offered its own report from Enviornmental Health & Engineering (EHE) of Needham, Mass. – the firm that produced the MIA-sponsored report earlier this year on radio and radiation with granite – questioning Bernhardt’s report.

The MIA requested, among other things, that the CRCPD contact MIA President Guido Gliori “to discuss the remedial steps” the MIA would request to correct the mistakes of Berhardt’s report, among other things. And, the July 10 deadline for a response passed without hearing from the CRCPD.

The story should shape up like one of those here-we-go-again bits concerning an overreaction on granite and radiation/radon fears. Unfortunately, it’s a bit more-complicated.

To begin with, the CRCPD didn’t send a health-advisory letter. What they sent, as an attachment to an email, was a draft of Bernhardt’s initial findings that he was going to use as part of a presentation of a work-in-progress at the annual meeting of the Health Physics Society (HPS) in Minneapolis last month. The email didn’t endorse any of the findings or associate it with a CRCPD position. (The MIA contends that the CRCPD didn’t include specific language noting the report wasn’t endorsed or sanctioned.)

The CRCPD email noted that Bernhardt’s findings were included as a “heads-up” that they’d be made public at the HPS meeting. At least two CRCPD members included their own comments discussing the findings in general, along with questions about the data in general.

Bernhardt had considered data provided by Kincaid as she measured dry fabrication by Oklahoma City fabricator Al Gerhart of three granites that his shop doesn’t routinely process. Bernhardt’s report noted the sampling was “performed primarily to assess the concern for silica exposure” but also included analysis on concerns of elevated concentration of uranium and thorium with some granite.

On July 13, Bernhardt, Gerhart and Kincaid presented their initial findings as “Implications of Granite Counter Top Construction and Uses” at the HPS event as one of 24 works in process. The presentation, done as a “poster paper” – the report is mounted on posterboards, a common practice for inspection and critiques, a common scholarly practice – concerned health risks for fabricators and consumers. (EHE also refuted these findings in a July 24 report provided to the CRCPD.)

Finally, on July 29, CRCPD Chairperson Adela Salame-Alfie sent an email update to her members, noting the Bernhardt review and the MIA contact. Salame-Alfie noted she contacted the MIA, explaining that the information went out to keep members informed and “make sure radiation programs were not blindsided by new information (potentially with high media interest).”  She also stated that new information would go out to members as it became available.

Now, try and fit all that together into a cohesive news article. Is it one of possibly dangers in granite fabrication, albeit based on working on selective stones with measurements refuted by the MIA’s scientific consultants, and solely with a method – dry – that is now far from everyday and universal in fabrication shops?

Or it is that the CRCPD jumped the gun by sending out the report without full vetting and not pasting disclaimers of endorsement, as the MIA contends? Or is it the CRCPD letting its members – the people most likely to be bombarded by the media – know about a research work-in-progress that could spawn another line of granite/radiation stories?

And, there’s one other nagging little bit. That CRCPD email of June 25 didn’t declare a health advisory, but there’s an indication that there’ll be a request for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, and part of the federal Center for Disease Control) “to perform a Health Hazard Evaluation of the granite countertop processing industry, for exposure to respirable dust, total dust, silica and ionizing radiation.”

In my news judgment, all of them had that consistency of stucco-patch that doesn’t quite set enough to fill the gaps. There may be something here, but it’s not quite ready for prime time.

In essence, it’s a whole lot of background that may or may not develop into a cohesive story. I’ll keep my eye on it. And, in the meantime, you can, too.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at Stone Business Online, 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 any of them, either.

Orphans of the Stone

Think there’s anything worse than having a car without a company, such as a Pontiac or Plymouth, in your garage? Try dealing with a bridge saw or CNC or any other machine for fabricating stone when the manufacturer just … disappears.

The prolonged recession makes it tough on just about everyone in the stone trade, but machine manufacturers and representatives continue to get smacked from all sides. With tight credit and a drop in retail sales of stone jobs, there’s thin demand for new equipment. And, with failures of fabrication shops around the country, used equipment – some of it in next-to-new condition – gluts the market at outrageously cheap prices.

Most manufacturers will hold on until conditions brighten. Some machine builders, along with U.S.-based reps of foreign companies, won’t, leaving owners with that dreaded piece of equipment in the backshop … the orphan.

The recent forced bankruptcy liquidation action against Advanced Industrial Machinery Inc. (AIM) means yet another brand of equipment without an active manufacturer – and, of key importance to machine owners, direct means of support. And, right now, shops need to keep current equipment going in the attempt to hang on for better times.

Fortunately, some of these machines are finding a new network of support. It’s not a stretch to say that some of these orphans are finding some interesting godparents to fix problems and supply parts, but there’s service nonetheless.

Probably the biggest population of orphan machines in the United States resulted when Matrix Stone Products Inc. closed its doors late last year in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation. With no buyer for the company – in fact, there were no assets in bankruptcy, aside from some office equipment – support looked a bit grim.

However, at least two companies offer support with maintenance, repair and replacement parts. Brian Peterson, son of Matrix co-founder Dennis Peterson, opened Machine Techs last November in Orange, Calif., to support the former company’s saws, edgers and CNC machines. In January of this year, Joe Harari – the other Matrix co-founder – opened Apex Machinery in Rancho Cucamonga with former Matrix department manager Kevin West for servicing Matrix products.

The closing of Calypso Water Jet Systems Inc. also left an indeterminate number of orphan machines in the stone industry. Unlike Matrix, the owners of Dallas-based Calypso didn’t even file bankruptcy papers; sometime in January, phones went unanswered and machine owners received no notification whatsoever.

This put shops with Calypso machines in a particularly bad spot. The abrasive-waterjet company licensed its operating system from Winter City Software in Edmonton, Alberta; to inhibit piracy of the software, the system needed a new license code if the machine suffered a major disruption – such as a shutdown of its computer network.

In the past, Calypso owners called the manufacturer to generate a new code number. With the company closed and the phones off the hook, however ….

Luckily, Calypso owners don’t need to be facing the prospect of a multi-ton paperweight. Dallas-based MultiCam Inc., which hired some of Calypso’s staff announced that it will generate a new working code at no charge. And Hi-Line Industrial’s Bill Johnston worked a deal with Winter City, with guaranteed direct code support for a $50 annual fee.

Other individuals familiar with Calypso machines – such as Al Ansel, who worked on pump systems – are offering support on a per-job basis. MultiCam is offering a full line of parts and support. And other waterjet companies are focusing on MultiCam; TECHI Waterjet also hired former Calypso staff for support.

We’ll likely see other companies and individuals offer their services to deal with other equipment. In time, these machines will be less-cost-effective, and better market conditions will allow fabricators to replace the ol’ reliables with new and improved models.

For now, though, the orphans are still valuable members of the backshop family. And, hopefully, they’ll get the support they need.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at Stone Business Online, 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 any of them, either.