Brief Encounters: David Coster talks to Andy Phillips of Affordable Granite
David Coster, Director of Advanced Stone & Masonry Supplies, which sells Stain Proof and Tenax products, talks to Andy Phillips, Managing Director of Affordable Granite and a founding Director of the Worktop Fabricators Federation.
David: Natural Stone, quartz, porcelain / sintered stone?
Andy: In my house I’ve got natural stone. I prefer it all day long. It’s look more interesting; there’s more to it. And I know the energy costs are much better in terms of producing it, so I feel comfortable with it at an eco level.
However, what we are selling at the moment is mainly quartz because that’s what seems to be in demand in the marketplace.
We are starting to see an increase in porcelain and sintered stone and I think they’re going to be the future if the manufacturers can just get the levels and the longevity right on them. We have seen people moving away from quartz into natural stone more recently as well.
Straight off the CNC or hand finished?
Most of our work is straight off the CNC. We do hand finish, but mostly only if it wouldn’t be economical to put it on the CNC – short edges and that kind of thing. Also if we’re doing non-standard profiling.
Have you made any particular investments in the business lately?
I have made a lot of investments this past year. We’ve had an inspection by a Health & Safety Executive (HSE) Inspector, so the investment was quite timely. I have invested in a Primus waterjet from Intermac, which has allowed me to take away a load of the hand finishing that we have been doing up to now. I have also invested in wet grinding technology and up-graded our air lines so we can use it properly. It’s been about dust control primarily, and also being able to handle softer marbles that are becoming more popular as well as ceramics.
The Worktop Fabricators Federation (WFF) has been very involved in dust matters. Did being one of the founder Directors of WFF influence your action on dust control?
I don’t think I would have done it without the WFF. The reason is that I have been speaking to a number of other business owners… We had a meeting at Brachot. There was a big discussion about how people have got their respirable crystalline silica (RCS) dust under control and below the legal limits. I realised from this discussion what was actually best. I then spoke to a couple of other fabricators who had bought waterjets about the machines they had chosen and how they were finding them. I was able to say: OK, four or five other companies have bought this exact same machine and they are saying it is good and does everything they want it to do.
So the WFF has been the lever that made me make the investment and I wass glad I had when we had the visit by the HSE Inspector. They were delighted to see I had proactively been taking action already.
How has it been, forming the WFF?
It’s been interesting. We have brought a new Director in to the WFF recently to strengthen the Board – Jamie Dowdall, the Managing Director of Mayflower Stone in Plymouth. He’s a very welcome addition.
The membership or the organisation is growing steadily now. WE are definitely well known out in the market place. I think everyone has heard of us and more people are now starting to come on board. They are saying: OK. How can I get some benefit out of this. Being a member is not onerous and the communication going on between members is so well valued. We help each other in all sorts of ways. We want members with the right attitude towards sharing information and making the right investments in their companies to bring in best practice.
Absolutely. The WFF is a sponsoring partner of the Hard Surfaces side. The WFF has bought a Trolex Air XS unit that uses lasers to measure the levels of RCS in the air specifically in real time. The units are quite expensive, so by buying one all our members can benefit from it. We will also be talking about training. And there will be some social events going on for members and prospective members. If any fabricators have been thinking about joining the WFF and would like to come along they would be most welcome. It’s an open door really if you’re a fabricator.
We also have sponsors from the major manufacturers. Well, you know: Tenax sponsors us. But we’re not there to support anyone’s particular product. We’re all about what issues fabricators are facing at the moment and how we can support each other.
So fabricators going to the Stone Show can pop along and see you guys?
Absolutely. We’re on stand I 50. Please come and see us.
Moving on from the WFF, what trends do you expect to see in the market? What do you anticipate a year down the line?
I’m optimistic that we’re going to a decrease in white marbly quartz. It’s been around a long time. It does work in kitchens, so I think it’s always going to be there, but there are so many variations on the theme that, personally, I don’t think they add much. I just hope we are going to see a move towards warmer colours, although you would have to ask the manufacturers what they are planning. I would very much like to see people trying something a bit more interesting – including natural stone.
This time of year we see an increase in the outdoor barbecue market – and it’s great! We are starting to see a lot more natural stone going into these outdoor areas. And we are seeing the advent of ceramics. There’s some great new colours coming from the sintered stone suppliers. Our customers are learning how to construct with them properly so they can use these materials successfully.
I think marble is on the increase as well. There’s been some interesting communications out there from the marble importers and people are starting to notice it.
The main thing I have noticed this year is it’s a lot more hand-to-mouth. We’ve had a lot of enquiries coming in but they are staying on the shelf longer. They are not converting at the same pace as they were. Projects have been delayed because of manpower as well, and the question is: are people going to run out of cash before their project reaches the top of the pile.
Is this a left over from Covid and Brexit?
Yes, I think it is. People have got into the habit of putting things off. It’s just been one thing after another, with the latest being the fall in Sterling, the cost of living crisis and the interest rate hikes. We just haven’t had any good news for a long time. I don’t think it’s politically based, but I certainly notice from my staff’s point of view – and I imagine everyone I speak to is in the same boat – that everyone has had enough. Everyone is really stressed.
The HSE has been talking about workplace stress being of concern and we are seeing it in all of our customers, suppliers and employees. Everyone has had enough and if they don’t have to do something right now they’re not doing it.
Do you think the next year or two are going to be worse, the same or better?
It’s really difficult to say. Margins for a fabricator are wafer thin and the material prices are pushing up and up and up and up.
The margins on porcelain and quartzite seem better, but lower down the market it’s harder on quartz?
Quartz is just becoming a race to the bottom. We all know the quality of quartz is variable, depending on what you’re buying, but many customers are just saying they want the cheapest because they can get something that looks similar for half the price. The margins on marble and porcelain are better, which is why I bought the waterjet.
It’s future-proofing you. Both in terms of manufacturing and health & safety.
Exactly. It meant we were able to cut a very high end job for a customer in Mayfair the other day using a fragile marble that I wouldn’t have touched without the waterjet. Let’s hope specifiers, architects and customers actually start to see the value in this rather than just going for the cheapest option.