One – on – One… With Gary Distelhorst
September 1st, 2005

September-October 2005

By Jeffrey Steele

“We’re Seeing a Pretty Healthy Environment, and Steady Growth”

As executive vice-president of the Cleveland-based Marble Institute of America, Gary Distelhorst has watched the use of residential stone skyrocket 30 to 35 percent annually over the last several years. In a recent wide-ranging interview with TileDealer, Distelhorst talked about that torrid growth pace, the technologies that have made natural stone more affordable for typical homeowners, and the prospects that lay ahead for marble, granite and other natural stone.

TileDealer: What is the Marble Institue of America? Distelhorst: The Marble Institute is the international trade association for all segments of the natural stone industry. Our members include quarriers, distributors, fabricators, installers, importers and exporters, and those who provide maintenance and restoration services. The great majority of our members are based in the United States.

TileDealer: What kinds of stone, marble and stone or marble tile are popular?

Distelhorst: The three most popular types of natural stone tile would be marble, travertine and granite. The most popular and fastest growing use of natural stone is for residential kitchen countertops. Stone tile, particularly marble, has been used as a flooring material for centuries, and more recently travertine and granite have become more popular as flooring materials.

TileDealer: In terms of the marketplace, what’s the difference between stone slab and stone tile?

Distelhorst: The material itself is identical. You can take a block of natural stone, which might weigh 30 to 50 tons, and cut that into slabs anywhere from ¾ to 1-¼ inch thick that could be used as kitchen countertops. Or the same material could be cut thinner, say 3/8 to 5/8 inch, then be recut into tile. But the original quarry where the stone was harvested would be identical.

There are some types of natural stone that don’t lend themselves to being cut in large slabs, by virtue of the way they come out of the earth. Because of cracks and other natural features, you can’t get a full slab out of it, and it’s best used as tile. It is perfectly usable for tile.

TileDealer: How fast is stone growing?

Distelhorst: Some of your own sources could give you better numbers on tile. But in terms of total use of natural stone, in the recent years, growth has been in the area of 30 to 35 percent a year. That growth has really been driven by the pace of new home construction and remodeling, and the use of natural stone in residential kitchen countertops, bathroom vanities, and the more traditional use as flooring material. But the real growth is in the kitchen.

TileDealer: Did your organization see the growth of stone coming?

Distelhorst: The popularity of stone in the kitchen I’m not sure many people predicted 20 years ago. Stone had been used as a surface material in bank lobbies, desks, tables, and in bars and restaurants. It’s not like it has never been used except for floors. It’s been used for food surfaces and desktop work surfaces for a long time. But while people admired the beauty of natural stone and its uniqueness and hardness, it was unaffordable for everyone except for the very rich. Only the very wealthy were capable of bringing it into their own homes.

That really began changing about 15 years ago. Technology allowed for stone to be extracted from the earth and processed into slabs or tile more affordably. Diamond saws and diamond polishing technology developed in the last 15 years brought the price down for the end user, because it was simply less expensive to process the stone and make it into products usable as kitchen countertops or floor tile. In the old days, it might take three days to cut a block of granite into slabs. And today that’s done in hours rather than days.

So what’s happened in the last 10 years is the popularity began growing and the use of stone— particularly in the kitchen—began moving down the price scale from the most elite mansions into expensive homes. And that’s continued. Now you see granite as an option in homes that cost between $150,000 and $200,000. Granite is an option [home buyers and homeowners] are taking because they want the beauty, the durability and the aura of having granite in their home. So it’s moved down from the $2 million houses to pretty typical homes.

The other issue is many people have chosen to remodel. And the most cost effective remodeling project is to upgrade your kitchen, with new appliances and of course stone countertops. That has been going on in the last five to seven years across the country.

The kitchen and bathroom are perfect for marble, granite and travertine. Marble is not the ideal material for a kitchen countertop, because it requires a little more care. Granite is so hard and durable it resists a lot of staining and scratching that marble might not be able to withstand. But in the bathroom, marble is perfect—and easy to maintain.

TileDealer: How has the growth impacted the association?

Distelhorst: It’s certainly one of the factors in the growth of the organization. Our membership has doubled in the last three years. There are more companies in the business today than there were five or eight years ago. Firms that used to deal only in tile are seeking to learn other aspects of dealing with stone.

That’s true not only in flooring, but also true of kitchen and bath dealers. They didn’t offer stone before, and now have to because it’s so popular. The kitchen and bath dealers are very important customers of our members. The other factor is the corresponding increase in the services offered by the Marble Institute to the industry.

TileDealer: How has stone impacted the show coming up in October?

Distelhorst: The StonExpo, to be held in Las Vegas from October 19 to 22, has been impacted over the years and continues to be by the growing popularity of natural stone. StonExpo was organized originally to be a machinery show, where fabricators of stone came to view and purchase equipment, such as machinery, tools and supplies. So originally it was not a show that displayed stone from various suppliers around the world. It really wasn’t a product show.

Over the years, the stone distributors gradually recognized the opportunity to see their own customers at the show. So the show was expanded to include stone material from around the world. And this year it’s a major emphasis. Attracting stone suppliers from around the world is a major initiative for 2005. They will join the machinery and equipment manufacturers on the show floor. It’s become the major industry show.

The number of people who come to the show has also increased. They come to see the equipment, tools and machinery, as well as new sources of granite and other material. New types of granite are being discovered weekly.

The other reason to come to the Expo is to take advantage of the finest education program in the world at a stone industry show. All other shows, both domestically and internationally, are almost exclusively exhibit oriented. At StonExpo, a very strong emphasis is also placed on educational seminars and workshops for the industry. This year there are a total of 30 to 35 seminars and workshops. We’re always adding new topics.

Another growing category of attendees is comprised of users of stone, including architects and other design professionals, who visit the show not only for education but to see the stone.

TileDealer: What’s new in the area of training?

Distelhorst: One of the major training initiatives of the Marble Institute was unveiled two years ago, when we introduced training videos on kitchen countertops, fabrication and installation. It’s a series of CD-ROM training videos that allows our members to train their employees in their own locations. They don’t have to send them to a seminar or workshop; they can use the tools provided by MIA. We’ve done a training video on safety. And we’re currently in production on two more in the area of safety, and another in the area of thin-set stone flooring.

The other educational initiative started late last year, when we introduced regional seminars and workshops around the country. This year, 2005, we’ll be offering one- and two-day seminars in 25 different locations around the United States and Canada .

The topics of these seminars include increasing your business in the residential market, stone shop operations, safety, OSHA compliance and restoration. Because StonExpo is in Las Vegas , we confined our one- and two-day seminars to the Upper Midwest , East Coast and Southeast.

TileDealer: What’s new in the area of standards?

Distelhorst: MIA has been the source of standards in natural stone for many years. Our bible of standards for the stone industry is the Dimension Stone Design Manual. The most recent version, Version 6, was introduced in 2003. It’s scheduled for another revision in 2006 or 2007. It covers all aspects of the application, installation and use of all types of natural stone.

What we’re working on this year is updating the residential countertops module in the Dimension Stone Design Manual, based on current improvements in stone processing technology and installation techniques.

TileDealer: What’s ahead for stone and marble?|

Distelhorst: The market is growing more competitive every year, with continued introductions of engineered stone and imitation stone. Everybody’s trying to get in on the bandwagon, and that provides competition in the marketplace. We see a pretty healthy environment, and steady growth for the next 8 to 10 years. Longer term than that, anyone would be going out on the limb.

But within that time frame, we’re hopeful that technological improvements can help reestablish natural stone as a leading material for commercial construction.

Marble and stone had really nice growth spurts in the 1960s and 1970s in hotels and offices. Some of that has waned, and fortunately the residential market has compensated for that decline. We’re hoping technology can bring the cost down to make natural stone a very competitively-priced material of choice.

The Marble Institute is very excited about future growth prospects for our industry, and certainly for the association. Just last week we introduced a new Web site that’s indicative of where we want to take the organization. That’s

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