GLEE 2006 - Page 2 of 4
This is the second page of the four-page Pavingexpert review of GLEE 2006. Use the panel above to navigate to other parts of the review. This section looks at the medium-sized companies dealing in paving and decorative aggregates.
StoneFlair and Border Stone
Considering StoneFlair , I had real difficulty in understanding the thinking with their display and that of their brand-cousin, Border Stone . The two brands 'shared' a single display area, but they were back-to-back, each facing away from the other, with a solid wall between the two, which was intended to emphasise their independence, but made them seem like Tweedledee and Tweedledum, resolutely determined not to acknowledge the existence of each other. I did spend the best part of an hour after the show closed on Tuesday evening discussing the strategy with head of marketing, Ian Wright, and that helped illuminate some of the difficulties he had faced in the build-up to the event. There's a conscious determination to show the two brands as stand-alone entities. StoneFlair will focus on their imported paving and walling, while Border Stone will concentrate on bagged decorative aggregates, each developing their own market, yet still co-operating when necessary.
Ian had wanted the two brands to be separated within the hall, each displaying independently, but was told there was no free space. Imagine his frustration when he later found out that a re-organisation at Hanson had resulted in a reasonably large display space becoming available, yet that space was then offered to Vauxhall Vans, who naturally snapped it up! So, Border Stone and StoneFlair were left sharing a stand that made it well nigh impossible to develop the separate identities. And to be honest, StoneFlair did not make the most of the one-third share of stand space allocated to them. A few flat display panels of nowt-special Indian sandstone and limestone flags, with their best seller (and best product) the Antique Cragside, plonked onto a display rack floating almost two metres up in the air, where it is impossible to reasonably assess colour, texture and quality.
I made four or five visits to the StoneFlair display. It was never overly busy, and I feel this resulted from its awkward, uncomfortable position within the hall and its uneasy relationship with the neighbouring displays, which I'll come to shortly. This was, by some way, the weakest, most forlorn StoneFlair display since the name first came to Glee. The woes and difficulties encountered in maintaining supply throughout the past few months can't have helped, and, as already mentioned, it was not the display that Ian wanted. We can but hope that 2007 will see a return to form.
On the other side of the wall, Border Stone were following the model of many of the Deco Aggs companies – pile it high and concentrate on Point of Sale marketing rather than the actual product. I'm sure this model works well for this particular sector of the trade, as the garden centres and retailers are, naturally, more concerned with logistics, handling and marketing than with the quality, colour, texture and versatility of the aggregates themselves, but as someone from outside that particular market, I find the pallets of neatly stacked polythene bags and the visually-demanding price promotions to be incredibly boring.
Border Stone were not the worst offender – they did have a few token touchy-feely displays were the products could be handled and assessed, but it did have the air of an aggregate supermarket.
Derbyshire Aggregates have a more relaxed approach that makes best use of their limited space while still managing to display their range. This year, they've a new line that they've named “Hollowliths”, impressively large (1200mm or so) monoliths of Welsh slate with one or more relatively large diameter cores drilled right through, and a central vertical shaft that is used to supply power or water to further enhance the effect. Sales director Terry was delighted with their reception – by lunchtime Monday, he'd sold every one they had with them and was taking orders to be followed up after the show.
And when you place these impressive Hollowliths with the gorgeous tumbled 40mm “Snowdonia” slate, it's a combination that delights the eye and creates an incredibly natural vista. The tumbled slate has been doing the rounds for years, but by having it tumbled and then partnering it with the chunky Hollowlith menhirs, there's a sense that it's at last found its ideal use.
Exhibitors such as Kelkay are purely and solely focused on marketing. They might as well be selling bags of flour or baskets of coconuts for all the interest there is in the actual product. I'm sure it's very effective and successful marketing, for they had a huge and incredibly busy stand, sub-divided into areas of aggregates, ornaments and a range of budget priced garden flagstones that I simply could hardly bring myself to photograph. I know Kelkay have had problems with their original flag manufacturer, and that production has been handed over to a different manufacturer with a better reputation, but when you can buy three flags for considerably less than a tenner, that tells you all you need to know about the quality. These are flags manufactured to a price, and not to a quality threshold.
In contrast, Living Stone , who look to attract the same type of customers as Kelkay, had managed to offer a reasonable selection of mid-priced flagstones and edgings, and combine this with the “pile-'em-high” bags of decorative aggregates. Maybe this difference reflects the different origins of the two companies. Living Stone started as concrete flagstone manufacturers that have branched out into supplying deco aggs, whereas Kelkay are aggregate suppliers that have decided to add a range of externally-manufactured garden flagstones to their range.
Living Stone retain a degree of innovation with their concrete products. This year, MD Phil Moss was able to offer a rather attractive Travertine-style circle kit that will retail at just under 250 quid. I've never liked travertine, either in its natural form or as a concrete copy, but this offering is saved from mediocrity by having the skewed radial spokes that prevent it being just another circle kit. They also have a new range of bronze-coloured riven-effect flagstones named after their home town of Lincoln. They're nothing exceptional, but they are a reasonably-priced, reasonable quality product that will definitely appeal to the DIYers. However, their best new product was tucked away at one side of the strand – EasyLoc sectional walling is one of a growing band of interlocking walling products that enable simple, non-load-bearing dwarf walls to be built in next to no time and at a fraction of the cost of traditional masonry. What makes this product different is that there is no 'batter': the blocks stack vertically, giving a perfectly plumb face. Coping or top-course blocks are also available to give a neat and presentable finish to the completed wall.
Continuing the theme of “agg-and-flag” suppliers, Huddersfield's DecoPak have also decided to dip their little Yorkshire toes into the supply of precast paving, but rather than settle on the usual patio paving, they've plumped for a radically different idea – incredibly slim flagstones.
When I was serving my time, we were told that anything less than 30mm (inch-and-a-quarter) was a tile. This rule-of-thumb has been challenged over recent years by the introduction of 25mm imported stone flags, but DecoPak have pushed the boundary even further back with "Ultrapave" a precast concrete flagstone that is a mere 20mm thick. And that's not all, using a new concrete process that is dripping with all sorts of patents and copyright protection, they are even offering a 10mm thin (I can't bring myself to say “10mm thick”) concrete flagstone by the name of "Cladpave"that they claim is as strong as a “normal” flagstone that is three or four times as thick!
Hard to believe, I know, but sales manager David Trueman is adamant that he has the lab reports to back up these claims, and has promised to send copies to me. David sees a number of markets for these worryingly-thin flags. They can be laid as 'normal' flags, or they could be laid as an 'overlay', using a thinset adhesive to fix them in position over existing residential paving without excessively compromising the damp proof course.
I had a long chat with David and the product developer. Even if these flags are incredibly strong, the big problem will be in overcoming the perception that, at just 20mm or 10mm depth, they will be prone to breaking. I suggested a few ways in which it might be possible to visually demonstrate the strength, but it's up to David and the rest of the DecoPak team to develop this market. The flags themselves are exceptionally well moulded, with sharp, crisp edges and above average colouring. Special edge flags feature a 'lip' that gives the impression of a 60mm thick unit, and I think this is a shrewd move to help overcome the inevitable preconception of a thin, gimmicky product. I'll be watching its progress with great interest over the coming months. If it does develop a market, I fully expect some of the bigger manufacturers to be poring over those patents to see how they can take advantage of the not-inconsiderable weight and handling advantages, not to mention the savings in materials, energy and haulage.
Lonstone , the trading name for Moreton-in-Marsh's Longborough Concrete, are a much more traditional wet-cast manufacturer. These are no-nonsense, good quality garden paving and walling products that reveal a thorough understanding of their customer base, which is, in essence, the competent DIYer and small contractor looking for a sympathetically coloured good quality flagstone at a sensible price. Lonstone has the comfortable feel of a family business that can offer a more personal relationship than is normally on offer from a larger manufacturer.
For next year, they've introduced a simple yet attractive walling range that blends wonderfully well with their flagstones. Cottage Walling is a good reproduction, in both colour and texture, of the ever-popular Cotswold wallings stone. Its modular size will greatly simplify construction of walls and features such as the barbecue that decorated their stand, and make them much more affordable.
The not-inconsiderable costs of exhibiting at Glee make it a real challenge for smaller manufacturers, such as Lonstone, but their presence enriches the event, showing that there are still good quality, well-run regional and local manufacturers plying their craft in an increasingly difficult market. Westminster Stone dropped out a couple of years ago, and Bowland Stone failed to show this year, so real credit should go to Lonstone for continuing to (pun alert!) fly the flag for the independent producers.
Only two more wet-cast producers to consider and both hail from continental Europe. You wouldn't think there could be money in hauling concrete across the North Sea, but there must be because hardly a year goes past without one or more continental manufacturers coming to display their wares in Birmingham.
This year, Stonita Patio Products were prominently placed adjacent to the Bradstone stand, but, sad to say, their range of insipid, unadventurous, uninspiring wet-cast served only to emphasise the quality of product offered by Bradstone, Stonemarket and the others. Three or four times I tried to find something positive about the lacklustre flags that had been laid directly onto carpet, but each time I came away blank. Their display was as lifeless as their products; the stand was never, ever busy, and I'd be very surprised if we see them again.
Just a few metres away, Bruk-Bet were showing just what is possible from continental manufacturers. Last year, Robert Zlotnicki was here under the name of “Marketstone”, but this was an uneasy relationship with a British promoter that, for reasons that needn't be detailed, has foundered.
However, Robert has a new advisor in the form of the very experienced Geoff Roberts of Town & Country and AI fame, and more importantly, he has some very, very good products. It really is no exaggeration to say that you would not believe that some of the paving on show here was not real stone – it's that good! I even dragged over senior figures from Marshalls, Tobermore and AggInds to take a closer look at the superb moulding and exquisite colouring.
In my opinion, and I did discuss this with both Robert and Geoff, they have too wide a product range at this stage of their development. A whole section of products are what we'd class as 'specification' and they're out of place at this event: they'd be better shown at Civils in the winter or at External Works next year. And then there's a selection of patio flagstones that, while they're good, they don't offer anything we've not already got on the overcrowded British market. Similarly with a clever wall dressing product that is too synonymous with the unloved cladding products of the 1970s, even though it's in a completely different league. However, there are some products, such as the textured and moulded block pavers, that deserve a wider audience, and, with the right marketing, could be relatively successful for the company. Their travertine reproduction is, without any shadow of a doubt, the best travertine copy I have ever seen, and by quite some way. It almost made me like travertine for a few seconds!
Robert's not finding it easy to break into the market, and his masters back in Poland are expecting results, but I do hope he heeds my advice and perseveres. Bruk-Bet is an uncomfortable, unwieldy name, but the product is good enough to overcome that. It may be that a distribution deal via a more established name is the best route to market for what are some of the best concrete products I've seen for many a year.
The also rans...
Before moving on to the natural stone suppliers, a very few words about two of the BIG names that were, in all honesty, wasting their time in attending this event.
Hanson : why? An uninviting stand, with no product and no sense of purpose. Last year, Hanson were showing a range of paving that has since fallen beyond their reach, but in recent months they've acquired a controlling stake in a highly-respected and innovative English CBP and stone paving manufacturer. You'd never have learned this from their stand.
And Tarmac : Laminate flooring? Is that what you sell now that you've sold off the TopPave business to Brett? I can understand the need to persist with the TruPak brand of Deco Aggs, but this was the same high-tech, high-level stand used for the last few years, with the area that is normally dressed with the paving now replaced by what looked like 3.99 per square metre laminate flooring from Homebase. Will we see Tarmac here next year?