Once a preferred decorative material, natural stone is making a big come back and MármolesEl Paso is ready to take the challenge. Susana Baumann tells the story of a company that believes its future is written in stone.
The increase of man-made materials for decorative purposes has pervaded in the interior design market for decades but now natural elements such as stone and wood are making a big come back. As residences in the United States keep increasing in size and opulence by way of ample reception areas, “live-in” kitchens and luxurious bathrooms, stone has made it back through the big door. Floors, slabs, tiles, moldings, countertops, veneers, mosaics, columns, balustrades, cabochons as well as sinks and accessories are part of the lineup from which designers can chose.
Until 2000, the United States market was in great need for natural stone imports and competition was not so clear. “When we started M rmoles El Paso in 1982, we had two competitors in Mexico. Now, there are around 50 plants, some producing for the local distributors but 75 percent for the international markets,” said Jorge Cohn, general director of M rmoles El Paso S.A. de C.V. “In addition, we compete with countries such as Turkey and in a lesser degree, China, which have government support to acquire technology and infrastructure while in Mexico, the private industry is practically on its own,” he explained.
According to Cohn, China has developed over 100 important plants in the Southern part of the country, with very competitive prices due to cheap labor. However, competition does not have a great impact for his company in the United States because China produces for internal consumption and for countries in the European Commonwealth. “The Chinese middle-class is increasingly burgeoning with a higher acquisitive power and a more international lifestyle. Europe, India and Russia are excellent providers of quality materials China can buy to process and resale,” Cohn explained.
While geographical proximity to the United States benefits Mexican companies because of the short turnaround time, freight does not. Maritime freight is lower in cost than truck transportation due to the high gasoline price in addition to custom taxes. However, distance is still a problem for countries outside the Americas. M rmoles El Paso “just-in-time” system allows the company to offer excellent delivery schedules on short notice and short orders, a competitive advantage that distant countries do not have.
A SOLID FOUNDATION
The company was founded by Arnoldo Cohn, Jorge’s father, and partners, but in 1990, Cohn bought the total stock package and M rmoles El Paso became a family business with the inclusion of his sons. Located in Torre¢n, state of Coahuila, where 95 percent of Mexico’s mineral reserve can be found, the company acquired its own pink salmon quarry, the most popular in the United States, and only 50 kilometers from its processing plant. Additional marble quarries closely located are rented on 10- to 15-year base contracts to obtain additional colors and materials.
Presently, the company exports 95 percent of its production to the United States and did since its beginning. “The American market has different preferences and trends than Mexico. While Mexicans prefer dark and vivid colors, Americans prefer the pale creamy colors such as pastels and earthy tones,” said Cohn.
What has facilitated the natural stone boom is the market launch of excellent sealers in the last decade. These new products allow the surfaces to be better equipped for supporting stains and water, which were a problem due to the materials’ porosity. “Mexico has been a little delayed in trends and new products. We gather all novelties and preferences at fairs in which we participate in Europe and the United States such as the International Tile and Stone Show in Las Vegas and the Natural Stone Show in Spain,” Cohn explained. The company has also participated at the Stone+tec fair in Nuremberg, Germany, the international natural stone trade fair at the heart of the European market activity. Around 1,200 exhibitors participate every two years in three large exhibition segments: natural stone, technology, and gravestones and accessories. “In Nuremberg, visitors can find a comprehensive range of products, and we found our way to potentially export our line of borders to Italy, considered the benchmark market in the industry,” he added.
CLASSIC AND IN STYLE
Even though man-made materials usually cost half of natural stone price – and there are some interesting looking materials out there – it is difficult to replace the impact of natural stone in its different finishes. What is so unique about stone, which is so hard to reproduce, is the unlimited combination of looks, shades, veins and colors.
Travertine, a unique type of stone in white, beige, cream and pink, is a growing trend for appealing floors, while small pieces of marble, limestone and granites mosaics are climbing walls and covering hallways. Granite, a hard surface that can be used for countertops and other work surfaces, is also found in matt finish for bathrooms and kitchens, basins and baths. Color varies from black to gray, green to blue and white to pink.
Sandstone is a sedimentary rock composed of quartz, feldspar and other common minerals. As sand, sandstone may be of any color, being most common in tan, brown, yellow, red, gray, and white, and is ideal for flooring and pavers. Limestone needs sealing, and tends to be pale in yellow, beige or bluish gray while slate includes gray and pink. Marble is hardened limestone that is usually polished and it is used in bathrooms floors and walls.
M rmoles El Paso delivers finished products covering six lines: borders, mosaics, moldings, floors and slabs, rustics and tumbled stones, and accessories. Tumbled stones undergo a “tumbling” process in which stones are rolled, smoothed and worn out to bring uneven and rounded edges and aged-looking surfaces. This procedure imitates materials used in ancient times that were finished by hand, giving the product a luscious, primitive quality. Every line of product has its selection of tumbled stones to be used on inside and outside floors, fireplaces mantles, bathroom and kitchen floors, walls and accessories. Products are available in several sizes and a broad color palette.
The company also produces oval and oblong sinks for use in bathrooms and kitchens. Oval vessels and sinks are offered in honed and chiseled finishes with standard or drop-in borders, while the oblong sinks are honed and chiseled finished. This Old World look, in addition to 14 types of moldings and 10 different sorts of borders available, allow a number of combinations that achieve outstanding results in any bathroom or kitchen.
Natural stone lasts a long time so the overall requirement for maintenance and replacement gets greatly reduced when it is a quality product. Quality is defined according to the stone’s characteristic, color, its composition, the age of the quarry and the technology used to extract the materials. “Knowing where materials come from, and trusting the supplier are key to the product’s final quality, because clients can have more control over the process and travel to find exactly what they are looking for,” said Cohn. The company has aquired advanced Italian technology, which guarantees a superior quality to any American product, said Cohn. Some equipment also comes from Spain and Germany, while diamond-cutting tools are of Korean origin.
Monthly, the company produces 80,000 square feet of borders and mosaic, 60,000 units of moldings, 150,000 square feet of flooring, 160,000 square feet of rustics and tumbled products, and delivers two containers of accessories to the United States. The plant covers 10,000 square meters and houses over 450 employees distributed in the different activities. “Some production stages require intensive labor because part of the process is made by hand. Although most of our production lines are automated, heavy pieces also require to be moved by hand,” Cohn explained.
BUSINESS IS GOOD
During the last 40 years, M rmoles El Paso has developed credibility in the American market to the point that is currently oversold, said Cohn. Seventy percent of its clients are in the U.S. The company can offer a great variation of products to be delivered within 30 to 60 days. “We usually work with distributors, not with builders and contractors. Although the pricing is lower, we ensure continuity,” said Cohn.
The company’s future strategy is to grow in the area of decorative items such as molding, borders and accessories to serve a massive market for the hotel industry and commercial construction. The idea is to encourage its distributors to develop those markets with technical and marketing support. Growth has been steady at 20 percent in the last two years, and it is projected to continue at a 10 percent rate in the next triennium.
“We started as a small family business, but we became a trusted supplier for many clients in the United States because of our product quality and our concern for matching American market trends. We grew with the boom of natural stone decorative products as we did with other products in the past because we know how to climb the industry’s wagon right on time. Architects, interior designers and contractors find a number of options from our highly aesthetic materials, which allow multiple combinations and various applications. Our goal is to satisfy our clients,” Cohn concluded.