Brief in counters: David Coster talks with Salvatore Caruso

Salvatore Caruso

Salvatore Caruso of Stone Automation.

David Coster, Director of Advanced Stone & Masonry Supplies, which sells Stain Proof and Tenax products, talks to Salvatore Caruso, MD of new company Stone Automation, formed to sell Italian company Donatoni Macchine saws (and other machines and tools) in the UK and Ireland.

David Coster: Tell us about setting up Stone Automation.

Salv Caruso: My history is a fabricator and that’s something still very close to my heart with my company Classico Marble. I started to work with Stone Italiana about 28 years ago, so when they were looking for a partner in the UK, naturally we started to supply Stone Italiana quartz to the trade as well as natural stone.

We then started to sell Wodium tooling from Belgium. When I first saw their tooling on videos I thought the videos had been speeded up. But about nine years ago I decided to try them and they have changed our production completely. Some materials we were able to cut four times faster than we had been cutting them before.

They then said they were looking for someone to sell the tools in the UK and asked us if we could do it. I said I sort of could, but that there were other companies that were established tool sellers in the UK. They said they were not looking just for someone to sell the tools, but someone who could hold customers’ hands a bit to show them how the tools can be used to solve their problems and give customers that bit of support. So we agreed to do that and that business has evolved.

Then, earlier this year, we started to have some conversations with Donatoni. Again, I use Donatoni machines in my business – I have four Jets and I have had a wonderful experience with them – so I thought, yes; sure; I like the machines. So I formed the new company, Stone Automation, to supply these products to other fabricators. The other product we sell is Slabsmith. Again, it has helped my business.

They’re all products I know and that have helped me in my business, so now I’m going to help other people’s businesses with these products – as long as I think they are right for those businesses.

David: You work in various materials, but from a personal and business perspective, which do you prefer?

Salv: Funny enough, I had to make some choices last year when we moved home. I went with a ceramic floor, because I think ceramic is fantastic, although personally I think it’s best used when only the surface is exposed. I went for Stone Italiana around the kitchen – I have a coffee machine that sits on it and I never have any worries about it staining or marking. I know it’s going to look the same 30 years down the line. And for the island I wanted something nobody else has, so I went for Wakanda quartzite from Brazil. It is striking with the vein running down the leg. It’s kind of cool because I know no-one else in the world has got that same piece of stone.

Dave: I think that’s where the industry sits. If you need a one-off piece you still can’t beat natural stone, but then there’s the practicality of quartz and the durability of ceramics.

On to the next question: you’re selling machines and tools, do you think the workpieces still need to be hand finished?

Salv: My background, before I joined my Dad’s business in 2002, was in automation consultancy for a German company, so I’m a massive believer in automation. I believe machinery should do everything it can do. There’s no point taking a piece of stone off a machine if that machine hasn’t been fully utilised.

However, we do put everything through a final check by hand and I can’t see that changing in the near future for us.

Dave: You have obviously expanded with your new company, but do you have any more investments planned?

Salv: In the UK we want to change things a little bit because I don’t think companies have been getting exceptional service on machinery. In my experience, if you want to contact someone about your machines you have to wait until nine-o-clock. You call. Someone calls you back. They take some details. Then an engineer talks to you. Before you know it you have lost four hours’ production. Only a fabricator can understand how painful that is. That’s why we put two people on the Stone Automation help desk straight away. You can phone them between 7.30am and 4pm. It doesn’t mean we can solve every problem but a lot of problems are quite small and can be solved quickly.

We believe service is the biggest investment we should be making and we have made that investment. When spares are needed, we have a small margin on parts. We are not taking advantage of people when they need spare parts.

Dave: Some people might think there’s a conflict of interest in you being a fabricator yourself?

Salv: I’m really open with everyone. The first thing I tell them is that I can understand their needs, their requirements, and their pressures because I’m a fabricator too and we’re all facing the same challenges.

We want reliable machinery that it’s easy to train people to use, because in this industry there’s a relatively high turnover of staff. We want machinery that’s going to be well supported when there’s an issue and we don’t want to pay through the nose for spare parts.

There could be a conflict in some people’s eyes, but usually people who are straight forward understand I’m a straightforward guy myself. Sometimes people think the worst of people because that’s how they behave.

Dave: With your different businesses you see the industry from various perspectives. What do you think will be the trends to look out for 2023?

Salv: I think the Italian market has been more accepting of sintered materials than the UK, so that might increase in the UK where we are still seeing a large percentage of quartz used. We are definitely seeing natural stone coming back quite strongly, especially at the luxury end of the market. I think that’s going to continue.

Dave: What are the main challenges you are facing now?

Salv: The biggest challenge for fabricators is increasing costs. People’s personal lives are taking a hammering so there’s pressure on employers to increase salaries. There’s a lot of fabricators who complain about not having enough people and a skilled workforce, but some of them only have themselves to blame because instead of bringing people into the trade and training them up, like we all have to do, they simply took people from other companies.

I think we all have to take responsibility for training a certain number of people and bringing them into the industry.

We just have to face increasing costs and pass them on to the customer up the line if we can. But we have got to be as efficient on our production as possible.

Dave: Have you employed more people?

Salv: Yes. But you need to have a bit of luck finding the right people.