How To Find… and What to Know About Your Stone Supplier
Originally Published in Dimensional Stone
Today, with the onslaught of suppliers entering the marketplace and the number of countries trying to sell stone in North America, it is imperative to know who your suppliers are. There are more than 35 countries selling stone in North America and more than 5,000 stones available; not to mention all of the suppliers already based in North America. China has more than 350 factories and hundreds of stones, while India has many factories, exporters, distributors, brokers and types of stones being made available to the marketplace. The continent of Africa is opening up new markets for the supply of stone. So the question is: How do you qualify suppliers and the stones they sell?
Source of Information
One way to qualify them is to have the supplier or their representatives visit you, and question them directly about their capabilities. Interviewing these companies can be a chore and, in some cases, the language barrier can make it a real challenge to understand and communicate with them. The supplier’s standards of quality control or packing may be at a different level than the buyer is accustomed to receiving.
The supplier will normally ask for a letter of credit if you are interested in purchasing stone. Immediately a warning flag may rise and you may think twice about buying or taking a risk: Can you really trust what a representative says about his or her product and company?
To investigate some of your concerns, you may want to visit a trade show or exhibition. However, this can be so hectic and limited that you really can’t get to know any more about them than you would have if they made a personal visit to your office. The thought still lingers in your mind that you do not really know this company.
Sometimes the supplier will entice you with open account terms: you do not have to pay for the goods until they are received. This can be a risk—who wants problem material in their warehouse they can’t sell? It is only natural to have problem materials in the warehouse already from suppliers you are currently doing business with. These materials may not be selling because of quality problems or because the market today does not demand that stone.
While you can travel and visit the trade shows in foreign countries and in the U.S., the best alternative is to visit the factories themselves. You can then inspect the facilities and the factory for quality controls, material and packing.
You may still question the ‘what if?’ syndrome. What if the material arrives and it is not good? What if there is breakage because the container is loaded poorly? What if the variation of the stone you bought is really wild? How is the supplier going to support your problems when materials arrive and there are problems?
Another idea is to pursue the foreign consulates and trade bureaus of the countries of interest to seek guidance when dealing with international stone companies. However, it is in their interest to promote everyone in their country equally and not tell you who is the best, as this would be prejudicial. It is a good way, however, of finding out who the suppliers are and gaining information about their country. If you are planning at trip, it is helpful to contact the agencies and plan accordingly.
Contacting the American agencies about stone suppliers is another option. The Mining Bureau has publications about mines in the U.S. and other countries.
Many times finding suppliers through references like other companies that already buy from the suppliers is a good idea. Ask the company’s representative by phone or in person who else they sell and then contact those buyers and find out about the suppliers reliability.
Another way to gather information is to go on the Internet and research stone and suppliers. An abundance of information is available on the Internet. Everyday new information is posted and it becomes and overwhelming chore to keep up with. It is difficult to do this in the office and may be easier to surf the net at night and weekends. Company homepages are a wonderful source of information and many times good quality suppliers have good quality homepages. Do not use this as a reference, however. You can e-mail the supplier and find out more information.
Books and magazines are also good sources of information. Many good, in-depth articles are written on countries or specific factories or regions. Advertising by companies gives you good leads to investigate. Even the publishers have leads of suppliers in many countries and states, as they are soliciting them through their agents for advertising. Many magazines publish an annual digest of companies in the stone business.
Stone trade associations offer good leads for factories. Most countries, and even some states, have associations with lists of suppliers or lists of stones produced, catalogs, color plates, posters with stones, books and periodicals, and information as to where to go to find suppliers.
Finally, you can send out mailers or faxes to suppliers and qualify them with forms asking many questions. Whether you are researching a particular stone and its capabilities, or whether you are researching the factory and its capabilities, there are many questions to ask. You can not take things for granted. Many factories are in financial difficulty or service a market share that is not conducive to the quality standards you may be expecting.
Many buyers for years have made up forms to give their suppliers to fill out and answer. All the above inquiries are a beginning. What you ask and find out are the important things. You can never know too much about a supplier. If you are going to invest time and money, do it wisely. Treat a supplier as if you were interviewing a potential new employee. Have them fill out the form and qualify them.
There are many questions to ask. This is why using this form can best serve your needs and allow you to set standards to judge the companies you talk to or visit. Having it in writing also serves to protect you and perhaps help you legally should you have any problems with the supplier. It also shows a seriousness on your part to know your supplier and not to accept just anyone who calls on you or your office.
Stone suppliers are usually specialists. They only produce tile, or slabs, or perhaps they specialize in certain stones. Finding a supplier who can supply all your needs is possible but not always a good idea. Suppliers who offer everything generally buy products you order from other suppliers who specialize. A competitive price for the product you buy is important and usually the best price will come from a specialist. Some factories are very large and are multifaceted companies with different divisions able to supply a variety of products and stones.
Whomever you choose, make sure they are competitive and financially strong. Some suppliers say their stones are originally from their country but in fact some stones may be from another country and the name of the stone has been changed. They prey on buyers who lack knowledge of stone—beware of these companies.
For the technically oriented knowledgeable buyer, ask what equipment the supplier is using and thus determine the supplier’s actual capabilities from the machinery owned. I once visited a factory claiming to produce all sorts of cut-to-size jobs only to find they did not own proper edge working machinery and thus could not do a lot of the work I required efficiently.
Take lots of pictures of the factories and people. After visiting hundreds of factories, it becomes difficult to remember everything you have seen. Take careful notes and establish files on companies with all the information you have gathered. Building an information database is very important. If you are in the cut-to-size business, ask for references of jobs the suppliers have done, along with pictures. Visit some of these jobs to see the quality of work your supplier performs.
Once you find a good-quality, reliable and honest supplier who you find to be competitive, build upon the relationship. Pay them fairly, well and on time. They too must make a profit. Most foreign suppliers work more closely with customers who like to have long-term relationships. With this relationship, and after numerous repetitive orders, you will be able to better negotiate with your supplier for faster deliveries, better terms, lower prices and other supportive needs you may require. Good suppliers also get hundreds of requests for quotes, but reply to customers who they know and have long-term relationships with first.