Masons : stoneCIRCLE are engineers in stone

stoneCIRCLE think of themselves as engineers in stone rather than dust-covered masons and the new showroom they have opened in Newbury, Berkshire, reiterates that customer-centric image

With stone that can be more than £1,000 a square metre, stoneCIRCLE have always taken the view that presentation is important. And they have put a lot of effort into presentation in the new showroom they opened in Newbury, Berkshire, this summer.

The most expensive product on show consists of Malachite on a Carrara marble background, supplied by McMarmilloyd, the wholesalers in Marlborough, Wiltshire, who specialise in exotic and rare stones. It is on sale for £5,000/m2.

There is a light box displaying back-lit white onyx. The reception desk has a ripple front cut from 50mm Antalya on stoneCIRCLE’s Omag CNC workcentre at their headquarters on the outskirts of Basingstoke. The aim is to show what can be achieved in stone.

There are panels of Onice Fantastico and various other highly figured shower and wall linings. But Director Steve Vanhinsbergh says: “We haven’t gone over the top.”

And they haven’t. The 2,500m2 building has showrooms on two floors and they don’t look cramped or cluttered. It is all well laid out, tasteful and stylish – just what interior designers, architects and clients like to see.

There is even a working kitchen in the first floor showroom with appliances from premier brands Wolf, Sub-Zero and Gaggenau (typically the kind of brands chosen by stoneCIRCLE’s retail customers) where cookery demonstrations are held.

The company’s motto is “bringing stone to life”, which sums up the new showroom.

In fact, it is so stylish that it overshadows stoneCIRCLE’s original showroom in Basingstoke. That is impressive itself, but will get a makeover at the same time as a workshop extension is built now they have finally received planning permission to expand on to an extra 21/2acres they bought for the purpose five years ago.

They bought that land shortly before they re-branded as stoneCIRCLE. Before that they were B&V Masonry, the company Steve and Jeff’s father, Bernie, set up in 1968 as a memorial masons, which it remains as a separate business today. The re-branding of the architectural masonry and interiors side of the business followed consultation with design and image company Wood’n’Stock.

When they re-branded they said they had no plans to expand geographically, and had the planning permission been more forthcoming at Basingstoke they still might not have opened another showroom, but they were getting desperate for space.

Steve saw the premises in Newbury one day as he was driving by. “It was one of those eureka moments,” he says.

The premises, built in the 1960s, had been empty for about 18 months after the transport company that leased them went into receivership. They were looking dated and tired but had the space stoneCIRCLE so badly needed. It would enable them to move some of their stock of stone, engineered quartz and tiles into the new premises and free space at Basingstoke.

Most of their stock is bought from a long-standing supplier in Italy, supplemented by some from English wholesalers. They buy their quartz directly from a low-price supplier – they decline to say who – that enables them to undercut most competitors’ prices.

Given the opposition stoneCIRCLE had faced to their proposals for expansion in Basingstoke, they were pleasantly surprised by the favourable response they received to their proposals for the premises in Newbury, although the circumstances are different. The Newbury site is on an edge-of-town trading estate, whereas in Basingstoke they are in the countryside surrounded by farmland. They believed the Basingstoke planners’ attitude was: if you want to expand, move.

In Newbury, stoneCIRCLE’s neighbours include builders merchants Travis Perkins and fastener company ScrewFix, both of which had the potential to attract trade customers to stoneCIRCLE – and most of their business is with builders, developers, architects / designers, and other masons, although the domestic market, especially in worktops and more recently bathrooms, has grown significantly since the re-branding, as was the intention.

Having got the Newbury site and had the enthusiastic response from the planners to their proposals to modernise it, they set about creating the showrooms and making them highly visible through a new glass front.

Behind the showrooms is the warehouse, part of which is also open to customers. It is daylight lit by skylights, weather permitting, so customers can see the true colours of the slabs and tiles. Information panels on the slabs describe the stones in the same sort of language as supermarkets describe their wines.

The stock they moved to Newbury included crates of tiles they had had stored for years at Basingstoke and had almost given up any hope of selling. They marked them up as special offers and they have proved so popular they are now considering permanently offering tiles in this way.

Now they have opened in Newbury, stoneCIRCLE have finally, in Steve’s words, “battered the Basingstoke planners into submission”.

They have not got quite what they wanted, having to scale down plans for a 60m long workshop to 45m by 20m, although that still doubles the size of their existing workshop. They want to install a new five-axes CNC workcentre and a waterjet cutter for inlay work. But they are not going to do it just yet because they are waiting to see what the market will do.

Part of the reason for re-branding was to gain more local work so they could withdraw from the London market. They did that, but with the downturn they have returned to London because it still has a high proportion of the wealthy people who continue to spend large sums of money on their homes. And they have been successful.

At the beginning of the year they cut production at the Basingstoke factory, coming down from two shifts to one. There were five redundancies among their 35 employees. “It was the first time we have ever had to slim down since I joined the company in 1991,” says Steve.

Since then, however, six more people have been recruited, including, for the first time, a salesman, and stoneCIRCLE are now back up to two shifts in the factory.

Steve says: “I have taken on three more guys this week. If a mason walked in today I would take him on. There’s still work out there. Making sure customers come back to you: that’s the key. You have to make sure you keep them happy.

“One of the reasons we’re still busy is because we do such a range of work for such a range of customers, including stone contractors and fitters. I think we have built up a fair reputation of being engineers in stone rather than just dust-ridden stonemasons.”