24 Jun 2011

Results from our members' 'State of the Trade' survey

Price has become the most important factor for architects and local authorities when awarding contracts involving the use of natural stone, often at the expense of the quality of work.

This claim is made in a survey carried out by Stone Federation Great Britain among its members, who completed an electronic questionnaire between late December 2010 and mid-February.

The suggestion is made in the survey that contracts are awarded on price, even if the lowest price seems unrealistic, and that not enough architects and authorities are insisting on the use of Stone Federation members with the skill and expertise they bring to a job.

Most of the companies responding to the survey were based in the South of England, followed by London and then the Midlands.

Turnover was greatest in London, followed by the South and then the North of England with the Midlands dropping to fourth place. There appears to have been a slight fall in turnover this year among some companies classified as "supply only" although the majority say they expect future business to be "steady".

Companies who describe themselves as "supply and fix" expect little change in turnover across the next three years, with larger companies most optimistic of growth.

The majority of companies report spare capacity although there are mixed messages about the future with an equal number forecasting a future increase or decrease.

One bright spot is that 42 per cent of companies report increased enquiries with a further 39 per cent stating "no change". Only 19 per cent reported a decrease in enquiries

This is tempered by the fact that 96 per cent report tender prices either decreasing or remaining constant.

Banks come under fire for their apparent lack of support for small to medium business. Members also complain that UK suppliers have to complete more paperwork than overseas companies - health and safety requirements being partly responsible - and claim this is "unfair competitive tendering."

There is an increase in competitive behaviour and members cite the intervention into the market of general builders "without CSCS or heritage qualification" as being one reason for this.

They also point to an increasing number of small companies "with little or no previous track record" competing for masonry based projects.

Profit margins are under pressure although there is an increase in the availability of labour - with a "very marginal" increase in labour costs. There is also an increase in the supply of stone.

There is little change in the generic stones requested by clients and that situation is expected to remain unchanged in the future, although price is identified as the key reason why change could happen.

Thirty per cent of respondents claimed payment terms had worsened with 50 per cent anticipating that they would continue to get worse in future.

Typically each of the companies who responded to the questionnaire employed around 20 masonry craftsmen, supported by an average of six office and administration staff.

In addition companies reported an average of six self-employed craftsmen and four sub-contractors working for them. Most employed two or three apprentices.

The vast majority of companies (95 per cent) anticipated no change in personnel numbers next year. Those who might recruit had mixed views on whether it would be more or less difficult although the majority ( 58 per cent) felt there would be no change.

Companies were unanimous in claiming that not all the necessary skills are in place in any employment category, with some level of training being required for all new recruits.

Not surprisingly apprentices are seen as being in greatest need of further training although office and administration staff are also seen as needing additional training.

Word of mouth is the most popular way of recruiting new staff, followed by advertising vacancies in the local press. Employment agencies and job centres are not popular sources of new recruits.

In total 92 per cent of respondents saw sustainability and ethical sourcing as medium to high priority issues.

Stone Federation Chief Executive Jane Buxey said "This survey is a current snapshot of the industry and provides an indication of its likely future development.

"The results will be used by the Federation in any representations we make to Government on behalf of members.

"We hope to produce a similar report on an annual basis with regular updates in between. We urge all members to take part in order to provide as complete a picture as possible.



Members' News

Stone Federation would like to congratulate former Stone Federation President, Peter Harrison for being the recipient of the stone industry's highest award, the Duke of Gloucester Gold Medal.

Peter was presented with his medal by the Duke of Gloucester himself at Worshipful Company of Masons' Master's Banquet in London's Mansion House.

The Medal, which was introduced in 2010, is awarded every two years, to honour an individual in the craft of stonemasonry or the natural stone industry whose work is of considerable merit and who is acknowledged by his or her peers for the excellence of their contribution.

The idea for recognition for those in stonemasonry was originally mooted in the 1980s when it was noted that stonemasonry did not have any kind of recognition or a supreme accolade.


His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester, who trained as an architect and has an affinity for stonemasonry, also felt that some form of recognition should be created and was instrumental in developing the concept of a recognition for stonemasonry befitting the millennia-old craft.

Stone Federation are a member of EuroRoc, an organisation made up of the various European Federations for the dimensional stone industry.  The aim of the group is to coordinate questions of common interest and find solutions while promoting the use of dimensional natural stone.


The Federation's EuroRoc representative, Michael Poultney of Albion Stone along with Peter Harrison of Harrison Goldman, attended the latest meeting held at the Verona Stone Show in October.


There were a range of topics discussed, but shown are four discussions points that will be of particular interest to members.


1. Ethical Sourcing - There are various different degrees of controls of ethical sourcing across Europe and some is at a very local level.  It was accepted that the EU should be encouraging stones from ethical sources but there was some scepticism that a system with a high degree of certainty could be found in the short term.  It was agreed that the starting point should be to pool all the experiences from the differing methods currently being used by different, Countries, companies and organisations.

2. Geographical Protection - There was considerable support from across the EU and the robust comments from the UK were considered positive.  It is back with the European Parliament on what could be a long journey to possible implementation.  

3. Reporting Figures - There was concerns that the code numbers used for reporting production, imports and exports are not recording the dimensional stone figure accurately.  It was suggested that these should be related to the harmonised Product Standards (BS EN). Michael Poultney has been in dialogue with BGS and Eric Bignell at the Natural Stone Specialist magazine about the topic earlier in the month. Euroroc will progress the matter with the relevant authorities.

4. Silica Dust - There was a mixed response about the danger of the implementation of the dust regulations and the prospects of reducing the code.  It was agreed that the experiences from the implementation from national authorities will be requested.


With the island of Portland, from which the famous Portland limestone comes, being just off the Dorset coast from Weymouth, there could not have been a more appropriate material to use for a sculpture of the Olympic rings that has now been installed in the town that is hosting the Olympic sailing events. 

Burlington Stone has acquired the rights to quarry at Petts Quarry on Kirkstone Pass and Brathay Quarry near Ambleside following the regrettable demise of Kirkstone Quarries Ltd.

This new monument, costing £5 million, will commemorate the 55, 573 crew members of the RAF's Bobmer Command who were killed between 1939 and 1945.  The average age of those who lost their lives was just 22.

Albion Stone has recently purchased a new ‘JCB Fantini’, tractor mounted stone saw which will be used to increase efficiency in the Quarry & Mine.  This is the first machine of its type to be imported into any UK stone extraction operation. 


TV presenter, journalist and former conservative politician and Cabinet Minister, Michael Portillo made a fascinating tour of local natural stone producer, Burlington Stone of Kirkby-in-Furness, shown on 26th January on BBC2 at 6.30pm, as part of series three of the BBC’s popular travel documentary, Great British Railway Journeys.


A £500,000 investment into an innovative new roof for Albion Stone’s Factory is set to save thousands of pounds a year on their electricity bills.

Albion Stone supplied over 3m³ of Jordans Basebed and Jordans Whitbed in the form of treads risers, paving and memorial stones.

Taking centre stage on The Marshalls Garden That Kids Really Want! at the 2008 RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May the company utilised its own indigenous natural Yorkstone block to create two striking central features in this amazing organic playground.