Image showing heavy plant equipment at the Portland stone mines
The Portland stone mines where Albion Stone extract Portland limestone © Albion Stone
The Portland stone mines where Albion Stone extract Portland limestone © Albion Stone

The Impacts of Coronavirus on the Natural Stone Industry

By Marcus Paine, Stone Federation Quarry Forum Chairman and Managing Director of Hutton Stone Company Limited

The natural stone sector, along with the nation as a whole, has found itself trying to chart a course through unprecedented waters. British stone includes a wide range of types from quarries across the UK.

The Covid-19 situation has proven the natural stone sector to be agile and innovative, but it has not been without some very real challenges.

When the initial lockdown came into effect, many companies found themselves faced with a dilemma. The message from the Government was to work from home where possible. But where this was not possible, and where two-metre social distancing could be maintained, construction and stone companies could continue to operate.

Nevertheless, some dimension stone companies were subject to abuse from members of the public who perceived any operation, even those in line with government guidance, as irresponsible.

The initial response from the construction sector was to shut down sites and see how the situation developed. This put an immediate pause on the demand for natural stone, so many companies reduced operations to skeleton teams, furloughing their remaining staff.

There were also concerns about the availability of parts for machinery, many of which come from mainland Europe, as these countries were also in lockdown.

Some companies in the natural stone sector, found themselves in a ‘catch 22’ situation. As material suppliers, they could not return to full operational capacity or bring 100% of workers off furlough until the demand for material became sufficient. Similarly, contractors were reticent to start reopening sites if there was the potential for a shortage of materials.

Fast forward a few weeks and the message from the Government appeared to be more focused on getting the economy moving again. They encouraged the construction sector to look at their operations, and where possible, return sites to operation, albeit in a reduced capacity.

The challenge at this point was trying to balance staff being taken off furlough with incoming work. While many contractors were efficient in communicating with the sector, others moved from ‘radio silence’ to demanding materials in a matter of days.

Finding a ‘new normal’ for production schedules was a test for all companies in the industry. Staggered start and finish times, combined with a need to ensure social distancing, changed the way that quarries and factories could operate.

As it stands today, the industry has done an incredible job of navigating through seemingly never-ending challenges, shifting circumstances and guidance. The most pressing challenge for companies now is to secure a healthy pipeline of future projects.

There is a feeling of cautious optimism among many natural stone companies. Following the easing of workplace lockdown, there has been a relatively healthy flow of orders, which in some cases surpass 2019 figures.

As the furlough scheme is slowly phased out, companies are determining how quickly to ‘turn on the tap’ of costs as they look to balance staff numbers with the order books.

Companies that didn’t close, and were able to trade through the lockdown are unlikely to face this challenge. But for firms that paired operations down to a skeleton team, putting flesh back on the bones will require careful and considered management.

Stone Federation members such as Albion Stone Plc and Hutton Stone Company. are working with returning staff to ensure that employees feel comfortable and confident. For many, this has involved clear and consistent communication throughout lockdown, which will be continued with honest conversations about the road ahead.

The natural stone sector has weathered many a storm and proven itself to be as durable as the materials it supplies. Stone Federation is confident that with the right support from the Government, the construction sector can emerge from this more agile, more collaborative, and with a fresh drive to deliver excellence in the face of challenge.

We would emphasise to main contractors and clients that, like many other construction materials, natural stone has lead times due to the nature of its extraction. By bearing this in mind and maintaining good communication with your natural stone suppliers, the journey from lockdown to site operations should be relatively free from complication.

For a full guide of the steps to take to ensure correct stone selection, you can access Stone Federation’s ‘Selecting the Correct Stone’ document. This covers everything from geology and suitable finishes through to range samples and lead times. To request your free copy, email [email protected].

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