Brief in counters: by David Coster

Sam Hotten of Stone Sense

Sam Hotten, who started his own business, called Stone Sense, last year.

David Coster, Director of Advanced Stone & Masonry Supplies, which sells Stain Proof and Tenax products, talks to Sam Hotten of Stone Sense, the business he started last year in Oldbury, West Midlands.

David: Congratulations on starting your own business last year. Tell us about it.

Sam: With my experience in the market for the past 15 years I thought it was probably about time that, rather than working for other people, I should set up my own business, looking at getting into the retail side to be more customer focussed, working with kitchen retailers... and online, which has become quite popular as a result of Covid.

We’re looking to focus on the Midlands, where I have worked for a long time, although online you have to think nationally, and if a particular project came up that was interesting, we would look at that. We will see where the enquiries come from and where we can find our niche.

David: Do you prefer quartz, ceramic (sintered / porcelain) or natural stone?

Sam: There’s three answers to that. Easiest is doing shed loads of white quartz. It’s all going to be the same so you can produce it quickly and make most money out of it. That’s what I would do if I was the only fabricator in the UK. But it’s also the most competitive, so from a Stone Sense perspective we’re aiming to focus on ceramic, porcelain and sintered stone. I think it offers a lot of opportunity as a new material in the market because many fabricators who are used to quartz say it’s not their preference.

I think a lot of fabricators out there would say if they’re going to work porcelain their preference would be to establish a separate factory, which would be the factory we have opened because we wanted to process porcelain. I think it’s going to form a large part of the market.

On the other hand, if you ask me what I’m going to have in my kitchen at home I’m probably going to say natural stone – quartzite or marble, something like that, which is coming back because you can’t recreate the beauty of it perfectly artificially. Having been in the industry for 15 years you just love the natural element of the product.

Do you take work straight off the machines or hand finish?

I’ll try to do as much as we can on the machines because you have that level of consistency, as long as you have the operators who understand what you can and can’t do – and that changes with the material because you can’t fabricate everything in the same way. We have a five axes waterjet so we can cut any material. But a key investment was the edge polisher. It’s not our most expensive machine but it is important to the business because it reduces the number of people you need for hand finishing.

Health & safety is an issue, so cutting down on employees makes sense.

Machines don’t have as many sick days and holidays. You don’t get the problem of something like Covid with machines. I suppose the thing I have learnt is to put the maximum effort into things you can control, and you can control machines. But don’t get me wrong, my company is built on having a team mentality.

You started your business during the pandemic and with Brexit still being completed. Did they change your plans?

The market got bigger! Everyone is busy. I have worked in the industry quite a long time and in that time technology has changed a lot. We can’t have price increases because we all do the same job and sell the same products. Prices have come down and you have to use the technology available to compete. But your product is not now seen as unaffordable by as many people and the market is bigger as a result, because people want a surface that lasts longer and looks better aesthetically. The benefit of a growing market is that if you have 1% of it, that 1% is getting bigger.

In one of the businesses I was with previously I sat down with an investment fund and they asked me about the size of the market we were in. I quoted stone sales, but they said surely everyone has a kitchen and every kitchen has a worktop. They said: ‘That’s your market, is it not?’

Do you have any more investments planned?

We have made a large investment in machines. From day one we wanted to be on a level with top end fabricators and you can’t be that without top end machines. We have set the business up to be sure we are not having to make any more investments immediately.

Climate change is a big issue. Do you have plans for Net Zero in 2050?

We don’t have a formal plan. Our suppliers are market leaders and they do have plans in place. One problem with this industry is that everything goes in the skip. At home we are very careful about separating out waste for recycling.

Are you finding it hard to recruit skilled people?

Templating and fitting. There’s an issue: kitchen companies want you to employ the fitters you use, and over time we plan to have our own fitters. One of the things we intend to do with our first fitting team is have them also working in the factory, so they make it and fit it. They need to understand the project.

The kitchen showroom is right in saying they know if I employ the fitters they will do a better job than if I sub-contract the work. But the problem we have as fabricators is that the best fitters are self-employed because they used to be employed, until they realised they could earn more on their own. There isn’t that level of expertise available because the market has got so much bigger.

We say fitting should not require a lot of expertise if the templating is carried out properly. To me, templating is so important its untrue. We outsource templaters and give them a tick sheet. You have to cover every item because the templates are going on to the machines. They have to be right. They use Prodim or laser digital templaters, whichever is right for the job. If the templating is accurate and the machining is accurate the job of the installers should be straight forward. Are we short of expertise? We need people who can follow a process. Is that what’s missing?

Have you invested a lot in computer programs for the office?

I use Moraware, which is fairly standard for fabricators. It’s crucial in terms of production, stock system, scheduling system. We put a lot of time into setting up the systems so we were ready to go.

How do you see the market developing?

It’s more competitive, but it’s got bigger, so there’s more opportunity.

You need more investment to get started these days but it’s got easier because you’re just buying machines. You can replace 20 years of skill and knowledge with a machine. When I first came into this industry the big thing was that we had a CNC router – and we would tell everyone we had one. Now everyone has a CNC and everyone needs work to put on the machines. I need my factory to be busy as well and we’re trying to think of where the areas are that we can make more money by being more proactive.

We’re trying to specialise in porcelain and sintered stone and are talking to other fabricators to see if we can be their supply-only company for porcelain worktops, charging them a price that gives them a margin.

Quartzite is also just as much of a pain to fabricate and I could do that as well. In fact, plenty of those who have only been in the industry for five years or so have probably never even worked granite. All they know is quartz. They think granite is stupidly heavy. You say: yes, that’s what we used to use. People will pick it up by the cut-out!

If the niche for us becomes sintered and natural stone, great. I don’t have 10 people in the office quoting to pick up the volume work, so I have to look for niches, and providing something special for the kitchen market that customers are prepared to pay for.