Who does not know Bärbel Holländer in the German stone industry? With 33 years of experience in covering the industry, currently as chief editor and publisher of Naturstein Magazine in the Ebner Media Group, Ulm, she is the go-to person for just about anything related to the natural stone industry in Germany. In this interview, Bärbel gives her opinion on the current state of the German market, its structure, trends, the challenges it faces, and how they are being addressed.
Overall, is the German natural stone industry growing, declining, or is it stable?
The number of companies is declining, but the amount of work and the overall turnover is growing. Throughout the pandemic many people have invested in their homes and gardens, because it was difficult to spend or invest elsewhere. Stone masons and natural stone enterprises are very busy and content. Many have invested in CNC machinery or are planning to do so. Wholesalers of stone, machine companies, construction, chemical industry and tools are profiting also. Even the memorial market is doing well.
The restoration of homes during the pandemic has led to a big increase in work for stonemasons. How long do you think this phenomenon will last?
That depends partly on the pandemic, which is not over yet. But when it is, hopefully soon, this phenomenon is expected to last another five year or more. After all, we are on the right track.
When seen from outside the German industry structure looks to be very concentrated among a tiny group of wholesalers/importers, perhaps about 15-20 wholesalers, to whom one can sell slabs. Are there any other channels of entering the German market?
It is true, as a mature market we have become a market of dealers. The wholesalers have done their homework. They stock the materials for their clients and offer great service. Because of their well organised logistics they can deliver nationwide reliably and quickly. Weekly deliveries take the ordered slabs and tiles to the client, whether the client is big or small. Urgent needs can be met as well. One truck load will serve up to twelve clients. Therefore, very few companies, would consider purchasing containers of material. To enter the German market, one has to convince one of the big importers/wholesalers of the beauty, quality and pricing of ones materials.
All over the world, there seems to be a growing shortage of skilled labour and the natural stone industry is no exception. Germany has a strong tradition of technical training institutes for different professions, is anything be done with respect to addressing this problem?
Our stonemasons and the natural stone industry have the same problem. We are lacking apprentices and generally young people who are eager or at least willing to learn the trade. Ten years ago, we still had 2.000 apprentices a year, now there are barely 700. Stonemasons are trained in a dual system: work in the company and block schooling in a school. Due to the reduction of apprentices, two of four schools will have to close.
The institution for the education in our field have now started a campaign „Stone makes proud “, which will be carried out and spread mostly through social media. In the natural stone industry, everybody is advertising to get trained personnel. All hand working companies are aware of the problem, but it won’t be easy to solve.
Public works, paving’s etc use a lot of thickness stone, mostly granite. Do you see this segment of the market being dynamic for many more years?
Yes, there seems to be still a big demand, and there are some large players who specialise in this field and know what they are doing. Big public works, especially where facades are concerned, is in the hands of few companies.
In what way has the natural stones industry in Germany noted the greater emphasis on environmental concerns?
Due to the growing awareness for sustainability as well as to problems with deliveries from overseas there is a growing demand for German and European stones. Natural stone is a thoroughly sustainable material when not transported around half the planet. In the building and in the monument sector stonemasons are confronted with new rules due to the politician’s growing awareness for fair trade.
The funerary monument industry in Germany provides a big outlet for stone craftsmanship and supports many factories in other countries. With cremation growing is it not a declining industry?
The funeral culture has been changing for many years. It is declining, especially in regions where people have neither the tradition nor the money to choose bigger stones. Generally, gravestones have become smaller, and,yes, cremation is one reason for that. Most deceased are still buried in cemeteries, but there are other possibilities like „Friedwald“ and „Ruheforst“, where the ashes are buried under trees and the grieving family doesn’t have to look after the grave. Up to now most federal states demand burials in a cemetery or similar. One can’t simply take the ashes home to put them on a shelf or bury them in the private garden. With time, this might change, which would result in even less monuments. There is a great effort to strengthen the cemetery and the individual grave as the place, where people can grieve for their loss and, with time, overcome their grief. The initiative „Think cemetery anew – space to mourn“ has launched the website Trauer-now.de with activities on Facebook and Instagram. The experts of this initiative, among them futurist scientist Matthias Horx, are convinced that cemeteries and individual graves are vital for the emotional health of everyone who lost a loved one, as well as for society.
What kind of stones and colours are in fashion nowadays? Has there been any change in customer preference regarding colours and applications?
The German market is a very traditional one, especially, where kitchens are concerned. Favoured colours are still Black, White, Grey and Beige. But the surfaces mustn’t be all polished anymore. Most customers like „feelable“ surfaces, i.e. leather touch. For facades, architects like beige limestone, but also other types of stone in other colours, preferably from European quarries.
How do you see the equilibrium working out between natural stone, quartz and the new generation porcelain?
Natural stone will always be loved and preferred by some, but especially the new large format ceramic/porcelain is on the move, often with natural stone optics. In the last Living Kitchen Fair in Cologne natural stone was everywhere – but only look wise. The fair was dominated by ceramics looking like stone. The German stonemasons have adapted, they work both materials and quartz as well. Most tell us that ceramic is growing, quartz is dropping some, and natural stone holds its place. In the longer run, ceramic might be even more of a winner.
The natural stone industry has always been exceptionally inward looking. Is the German stone industry doing anything to reach the final consumer in a better way?
You know the problem: Other industries have brands whereas we have a natural product that can be named and bought by everyone. The ceramic industry can promote Neolith, Laminam, Dekton, to name a few brands, whereas we can promote natural stone, marble, granite or names as NERO ASSOLUTO, PICASSO, ANRÖCHTER GRÜNSTEIN and so on. But as a promoter one company is in competition with others. In my 33 years in the industry, I have seen different endeavours to promote our great natural material. They all failed, because one couldn’t get enough people in the boat, and the ones who came, argued about the pictures being used, the limestone people wanting limestone pictures and the granite people demanding granite pictures.
Nevertheless, the German industry has done wonders in arranging surveys. They had scientists define the ecological balance-sheet of natural stone and proved on facades it’s a more sustainable material than glass (https://www.natursteinverband.de/nachhaltigkeit/studie-fassade.html, Download in English available). They co-founded the natural stone prize, which has become one of the most renowned architectural awards in Germany. They created a lot of schooling materials for the proper use of the material and are carrying out a campaign „Zukunft naturstein“(Future natural stone) in the social media (https://zukunftnaturstein.de/). But all this is not enough to get the attention of final consumers, I am with you in that. The ceramic industry has a better chance because they have a lot of money to invest to promote their products to the end consumer.