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NSI's Jim Hieb Discusses Challenges & Opportunities in the Stone Industry

By Kate Tyndall

July 11, 2020

As the pandemic continues to threaten peoples’ lives and livelihoods across America, companies in essential industries struggle to keep workers safe. During a recent interview, Natural Stone Institute CEO Jim Hieb summarized the challenges posed by the situation, how the stone industry has responded, opportunities that have arisen, and how the future of trade shows might look. He also announced a major NSI initiative.

"The Stone Institute has long put worker safety as a top priority, whether that’s insuring best practices in handling heavy slabs of stone or dealing with the threat of silicosis," says Hieb. “So Covid-19 is just another layer of [safety concerns]."

To meet the challenge posed by the pandemic, “we created a Covid-9 page front and center on our website and we have a lot of resources.” Those resources include guides for returning to business with all the moving parts that entails; guidance on cleaning and disinfecting work spaces; information on financial programs available through the SBA, plus resources for Canadian businesses; and a comprehensive range of resources for employee safety and human resources.

Assessing the situation five months into the pandemic, Hieb says the vast majority of the stone industry, particularly those companies with showrooms, have learned how to manage their operations by appointment only, and he believes that will continue. “You are going to see Covid-19 protocols stay in place. Businesses need to be prepared for a resurgence.”

This is a global pandemic, and one area of the world that is not impacted today may be impacted tomorrow, Hieb says. “This spring it was the northern hemisphere. What about the southern hemisphere? There is stone coming out of the southern hemisphere too.”

On the upside, he says he’s hearing from industry members that there is a surge in people fixing up their residential work spaces. “There is a pent-up demand. People are bringing salesmen back earlier than they thought.

“Everybody has been cooped up at home, and people are seeing those indoor and outdoor spaces in a way they normally don’t,” Hieb says. People are saying that since they can’t take a vacation, they are going to put their money into fixing up what they see every day.

Hieb says the institute recognized that there would be fewer face-to-face interactions because of the pandemic and moved quickly to increase the number of virtual events it put on. He believes the industry will come out of the pandemic with a greater knowledge of and ability to harness technology to further its businesses, and suggests that this is the moment when businesses should diversify. “A lot of us old [guys] have learned how to do Webex and Zoom and that will continue.”

To his point, stone industry veteran G.K. Naquin, owner of Stone Interiors, took to Zoom like a duck to water when the pandemic made face-to-face selling risky. “With Zoom we can get great pictures and show customers what the slab looks like,” Naquin says. “So less than 20% of customers want to see it for themselves. We firmly believe Zoom is a pathway to the future for buying in the world.”

Adds Hieb: “Hopefully we are going to emerge in a post-Covid-19 environment utilizing the best technology to connect virtually, and choose wisely those times when we come together face-to-face. “It is difficult to picture our industry without that face-to-face contact. We are an industry that loves coming together at an event or conference, and there is a tremendous longing to do that. My hope is we will be coming together in January at TISE. I think it will be a testing ground for what face-to-face engagement looks like in the future."

While Covid-19 has taken up much of the industry’s bandwidth in 2020, the institute has been quietly pursuing a major goal over the past year to get the International Standards Organization (ISO) to form separate committees to create standards for natural stone and engineered stone, not combined as ISO originally envisioned. Along with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the NSI will lead the effort to create a global standard for natural stone, says Hieb.

“We have just signed the paper to be the Secretariat for the initiative,” he says. “Now our work begins to create uniform standards for natural stone with members of ISO in over 150 countries. We will be taking the standards we have created to the table to bring the best standards to the world.”