Barre granite industry continues to battle economic issuesJeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Leon Darling of Groton carves a ledger stone at Granite Industries of Vermont in Barre on Friday.
Facing a variety of economic issues from cremations to cheap imports and overall economic weakness, the Barre granite industry is in a holding pattern with stagnant or little growth in sales and employment.
A major issue facing the industry is the growth of cremations. Many are interred in a cremation unit. “Instead of buying a three foot monument they go in a one foot box in a building,” said Jeff Martell, with Granite Industries of Vermont. This can mean a loss of $1,200 to $1,400 wholesale for a monument and much more at the retail level.
This trend is expected to continue, as cremations, according to the Cremation Association of North America, will rise from 34 percent in 2007 to 44 percent in 2015.
To counter this trend and the loss of memorial sales, Martell and others in the industry are marketing granite-fabricated units to hold remains.
“We could use a bench in a cemetery in concrete foundation or a pilaster with cored holes to hold remains so people have a place to go to mourn the loss of loved ones,” he said.
Granite Industries of Vermont does have a contract with the Veterans Administration and the national cemetery system for 30,000 marble headstones a year. Most memorialize World War Two veterans.
Ed Larson with the Barre Granite Association, the industry group representing 22 of the 30 local manufacturers, says general demand for memorials is off and cremation “has impacted our demand.” The BGA works with memorial dealers to educate consumers about memorialization even if there is a cremation.
“We spend a considerable amount of money on marketing and promotions at the BGA,” he said. Still, “It’s expensive for a family to get a cemetery plot and a funeral, which is a lot more expensive then the cremation process.”
Imported granite from China, India and Brazil, as well as competition from other North American granite producers, has plagued the local industry for over a decade.
The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. uses Chinese grey granite and was fabricated in China. This was a hard bone to swallow here.
“The local granite industry, to put it mildly, was disappointed,” said Larson.
Martell says Barre granite faces costs from Chinese competition that is hard to match, especially when stone polishing here will cost $40 per hour with wages and benefits, while a Chinese stone industry employee gets $100 per month and no benefits.
However, the differential is lessened, says Martell, because “the Chinese can’t fit large monuments or memorials in a box.” The more value added to the stone, the more competitive Barre is with the Chinese, notes Martell. He sees local technology in stone cutting “far exceeding them.”
On the upside, Rock of Ages, which quarries stone at a number of quarries here and in Quebec, exports stone to China, Italy and elsewhere primarily for building, according to company CEO Robert Pope.
Another import issue favoring the local manufacturers, according to Martell, is that China and India, which has also been a competitor, “have saturated the market share they will get.” Quality control issues have retailers in the Midwest “starting to shy away and come back to domestic manufacturers.” He believes imports have peaked.
The cost of doing business here is an issue, said Larson. While impacted by local and state government policies and taxes, he says “our product is determined in a global marketplace. It’s a squeeze play going on and it’s tough.”
Barre producers, notes Larson, are paying twice as much as domestic competitors and three to four times as much with overseas producers when costs are figured in.
“Labor costs in Vermont are higher than other domestic producers,” he asserts. Workers in the Elberton, Ga. granite industry are not unionized.
VOSHA standards and general work conditions in Vermont are “more regulated.” Also property taxes, transportation fuel costs, and high electricity costs in Vermont are hurting Barre granite competitiveness. “We don’t have any competitive advantage except for the best stone and best people in the industry,” he said.
Matthew Peake at the Granite Cutters Association, the larger of the two local unions along with the United Steel Workers, agrees with Larson’s assessment.
“It’s expensive to do business in the state of Vermont in general,” he said. He sees health care as a “huge issue,” affecting the bottom line. While the granite industry may have trepidations about the Affordable Health Care Act and Vermont’s own health care reform program that Peake dubbed “Shumlincare,” he says a trust fund, the Granite Group Insurance Trust, covers workers. The benefits are managed with granite workers paying 20 percent of the premium. Still, a family plan is “approaching $2,000 a month.”
“We, and the employers, are fearful about what Obamacare will tax employers,” said Peake.
Stagnation in the granite industry can be seen in its labor force numbers, down from around 1,000 workers in various jobs in the 1990s to about 550 today.
The Granite Cutters Association represents 350 including retirees. In the early 1990s there were 550 union members. In the past few years, notes Peake, there has been no major decline. “We are seeing some sort of stabilization.” The biggest job loss was in the early 2000s when 80 to 100 workers lost jobs at International Stone Products when it closed, said Peake.
The industry no longer has a stone trades apprentice program at Spaulding High School to draw new workers from.
“If someone leaves or retires, they hire. I do perhaps 10 new hires per year,” said Peake.
The United Steel Workers Union currently represents 120 members in the Barre area and, according to union president Ron Christie, “is holding its own.” He assessed employment as “not growing but at a level pace.”
The industry is trying to counter the loss of memorials with a variety of products from pavers and posts to counter tops and landscaping products.
“We have diversified a lot with building stones, fences, decorative items, war memorials, and upgrading community monuments,” says Larson. “The shoe that is about to drop is that municipalities don’t have the funding for memorials and the demand for that will curtail. The monuments we are doing have been in the pipeline a couple of years.”
While recent years have not been expansionary for the industry, there is optimism of sorts.
“They are strong willed people, they want to be here,” said Peake.
Larson describes the future as “cautious optimism but very cautious. There is pent up demand.” Martell sees stability, but “no growth.”
Pope assesses the future this way: “We have skills and a workforce fully capable of competing. The damage has been done, the major shakeout has occurred.”
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