Brief in counters : by David Coster

Theo Constanti (right) with business partner Michael Nicholas. Theo talks to David Coster in 'Brief in counters' in Natural Stone Specialist magazine this month.

David Coster, the plain speaking Director of Advanced Stone & Masonry Supplies, which sells Stain Proof and Tenax sealers and glues, talks to Theo Constanti of The Marble Group in Hatfield, Hertfordshire.

David: Quartz, ceramic/sintered or natural stone?

Theo: Natural Stone. I have had quartz for 10 years and my new worktop will be a granite one.

David: Straight off the CNC or hand finished?

Theo: Off the CNC. It has a better finish – robots do not make mistakes.

David: On-site, physical templates or digital?

Theo: Laser. It’s quicker, cleaner, better quality, more accurate. It’s easy for the customer to see, easy to edit and it talks straight to the machines in the factory.

Customers: love them or hate them?

Love them. I do not pay the wages, the customers do.

Your next investment?

A new factory. We have already made an offer on another unit. The only machine we don’t have is the Robo SawJet, but we’re pretty happy with what we’ve got. We have invested £1million in machines in the past year.

Net zero in 2050. Do you have a plan in place?

I’ll follow the industry advice. I’ll do what the Worktop Fabricators Federation (WFF) recommends.

Ethical sourcing (modern slavery): have you done anything to address this?

It’s a really hard one. We all know the biggest stone suppliers in the UK and Europe source from China. But it’s not worse quality, that’s for sure. The word ‘ethical’ is very opinionated. There are some companies in the UK that pay their staff below the minimum wage; you do not need to visit China, people in the UK live in poverty. There are people who visit food banks daily here in London. I would position it like this: if you’re resourceful when you buy and you make a profit, what do you do with that profit? If you’re donating to Great Ormand Street hospital and help a sick child lead a better life is that more or less ethical than not buying from China? It depends what you do with the money you make.

It’s a really hard one to talk about, ethics, because your truth is your truth to own and yours only.

Yeah, we can talk about what everyone else thinks is ethical and unethical but nine times out of 10 there is hypocrisy in a person’s words and actions. We probably do more than most fabricators do for their staff and I like to believe we are generous when it comes to charitable causes. Rarely do our staff leave us. If you want to talk about ethics we should start by addressing the fact that due to starvation a child dies every seven seconds somewhere in the world – while we stuff our faces, wear designer clothes and drive nice cars.

How do you support the community and your staff?

At The Marble Group we talk to schools regularly, free of charge, teaching children about business and life. We have just introduced coaching and counselling for our staff. They can have six sessions per issue. Mental health with Covid is at an all time high. No matter the issue – getting a divorce, losing a loved one – you can get help for anything. We have organised gym membership, cheaper holidays, and discounts for Apple and Samsung phones. We get mortgage brokers and financial advisers in to help our staff and have lent them money to buy their houses.

We have a story here about building a metaphorical cathedral. Our stonemasons are no less important than the architect, nor more important than the guy making the stained-glass windows or the guys laying the floor. Our team has a sense of purpose; they feel like they belong. It makes us more productive and certainly more loyal. We are all working together to build the cathedral. It is this bond that creates camaraderie. And that camaraderie and trust is what brings success – people working together for a common cause. Every man and woman who works here we want to own their own cathedral and we try and help them do that.

Brexit: noticed any difference?

The pound’s stronger, which is good for us, but it’s been offset by the price of containers. Also some of our staff originally from various places in Europe have left the UK.

Covid 19: All over bar the booster jabs or an on-going threat?

The general consensus is that it’s almost over, although people going out and spending their money on holidays rather than buying kitchen worktops isn’t the best thing for our industry.

The future: Better, worse, the same?

I’m an optimist. Life is only going to get better. From a business point of view it will evolve and those that don’t evolve will fall behind. Those that do evolve will thrive. It’s been the same since the beginning of time and it will be the same in the future. 50% of businesses rely on Google and Facebook for their marketing, so we’re working for them, whether we like it or not. Companies like ours are going to have to play to their tune. We work hard to make sure no customer accounts for more than 5% of our turnover.

Is there an end game for the Marble Group?

The first step is to become the biggest in the UK. Growth is one of our main values. To me it’s a sign of success. It’s a label; a statement; an achievement. It’s like winning Olympic Gold. We employ 75 staff on PAYE so we’re one of the biggest stone employers in the South East. We need that second factory, then we will be able to take our turnover to about £25million. We are at the beginning still. The company is only 14 years old – we’re still in our teenage years! I believe some of the biggest companies that will lead this industry in 2030 haven’t been formed yet. Someone will leverage technology to scale worldwide (similar to Uber).