Courtesy of the Times Argus
BARRE — Jeff Martell’s company, the Granite Industries of Vermont, recently completed a Sept. 11 memorial that was sent off to Jericho, New York.
The multipart monument includes a main piece that weighs six tons and, like the Pentagon, has five sides. Each side features a relief of a scene from 9/11 or the names of firefighters killed in the aftermath of the attacks. On top, a piece of twisted steel from the building wreckage has been mounted. In total, the monument, made of black granite from Pennsylvania, probably weighs 10 tons.
Martell is proud of the monument, especially when he considers it will be around long after the rest of us are gone. It’s one of the satisfactions of the industry.
“My favorite part is working on a project that has national significance,” he said.
Martell, who in 1988 became co-owner of one of the largest and oldest monument companies in Barre, also sees these large public installations as a small way to combat some of the erosion that has occurred in the area’s traditional stone industry in the past decades. While a significant slice of the monument work has gradually moved over to India and China since the 1980s, he believes that few overseas companies can match the quality of the granite or the craftsmanship of an industry that defined central Vermont for many decades.
He’s not alone. People close to the industry say they have met overseas challenges effectively, and remain guardedly optimistic about the future.
“I have to think the future looks pretty good,” said Ed Larson, executive director of the Barre Granite Association, a trade group representing 21 companies. “Generally it has been a stable industry that has served the Barre area well.”
Clement Vaillencourt, the association’s president and co-owner of Spruce Mountain Granite in Barre, said there is every reason to be optimistic. Companies have found ways to address foreign competition, are investing in technology for the future, and the Barre granite brand continues to hold up in their markets.
“We’re gearing up for the next generation of business,” he said.
One of the big difficulties right now, Larson and Martell acknowledged, is a movement away from traditional burial in favor of cremation. The Cremation Association of North America has reported a general trend that about half of people in North America and Canada now favor cremation; that’s up from 25 percent about 20 years ago.
Of the people who choose cremation, only about a third purchase monuments, Larson said. And often these are significantly smaller.
This is a big deal, as much of the demand for granite and its processing comes from memorialization. When Martell and partners bought the company, many of its orders came from contractors seeking materials for building construction. He began shifting to memorials, and now only 2 or 3 percent of their products go to building contractors.
“We found that the building industry’s need for granite was really cyclical … it was boom or bust,” said Martell, adding that many companies went bust in the 1990s.
Other markets exist— countertops, signs, curbing, posts, etc. — and most companies at least dabble in these areas, but memorialization makes up around 80 percent of business, according to Larson. And all manufacturers have grown beyond Barre Gray. There are a range of stone types, often imported from other granite hubs in Georgia and North Dakota.
Martell said they are putting increasing focus on large civic memorials such as the 911 piece. Due to transportation costs and the availability of stone, it’s a market that foreign competitors won’t approach.
“We’re very fortunate that the Rock of Ages, at their quarry, can quarry huge blocks,” said Martell, who feels the granite business will remain steady in the future, though it probably won’t see much growth.
Many in the industry say the hardness of the stone and quality of workmanship have been their best hedge against competition. Vaillencourt, whose 17-employee company stays pretty busy concentrating on monuments alone, believes customers see the value in buying local granite. Some foreign products may cost less, but age at a significantly more rapid rate. A great advertisement for the Barre granite, he said, are 100-year-old monuments that look new.
“They just don’t stand up the way our granite does,” he said.
Larson agreed, saying customers are also interested in the improved carbon footprint fostered by buying local with a diminished need for transportation. Many also buy domestic simply to support U.S. companies.
“Consumer demand is really serving us well,” he said.
Martell, whose 62-employee company works with the U.S. Veterans Administration on contracts of up to 35,000 headstones per year, added that customers and monument dealers understand the region’s history is reflected in the quality of workmanship. The tradition of skilled carvers creating three-dimensional artwork and better, crisper lettering endures today, and improves with the addition of automated diamond saw, grinding and polishing technology.
“Our quality of product far exceeds some of the imports out there,” he said.
He and other owners have been investing in technology to stay competitive. This usually means buying machines costing half a million dollars or more. They pay for themselves, Martell said, but he admits the price tag is often a bitter pill.
But companies need to make the investment, Larson said, and he believes owners understand that.
“A lot of it is survival, but for a lot of them it is taking it a step further,” he said, citing increased productivity and faster turnaround times as factors that serve customers well.
The industry faces other challenges. With wages that start at about $21 per hour with good benefits, payroll is high. Employer mandates from the Legislature, such as the recent discussion of required sick leave, make the cost of doing business very high, Larson said, and also limits options for contract negotiations with unions. Part of his job is to let lawmakers know the effects of changes in labor law.
It’s also an aging industry. With the average workers in his or her 50s, there is much work to be done to hire and train a new generation of stonecutters and carvers. The Granite Association has established an apprentice program to bring new workers in on a probationary trial to find out if they have talent and a willingness to learn the trade.
“These are good jobs,” said Larson. “But they’re not easy jobs.”
With 21 companies each tracking their own growth and success in different ways, Larson said the association has ceased to try to gather data, and relies on a more anecdotal approach to measuring the health of the industry.
There have certainly been changes, he said. There are a lot fewer companies than decades ago due to consolidation and companies going out of business. The industry is certainly not as large as it was in its 1950s and 1960s heyday, when it’s thought to have had some 5,000 workers. Larson estimates the industry now has about 1,000 granite workers and support staff, with an additional 300 to 400 workers in industries that rely on the stone trade. He’s hearing, however, that most companies are anticipating modest, steady growth that should keep pace with the rest of the economy.
Vaillencourt, who has been working in the industry pretty much his whole life, said it’s always been a bit of a struggle. Technology, while speeding production up, has also brought a seasonal quality to the process. The orders tend to dry up around Christmas, and pick up again in the spring. He is optimistic, however, and feels like his company is seeing steady work that will keep increasing.
“Once we get going, it’s a vibrant industry,” he said.