Innovation and strategies in the stone sector
How to break the mould and become competitive in a traditionalist sector like that of stone materials
Interview with Alberto Bartolomei, managing director of IL CASONE
In recent years, your company has greatly expanded, with new marketing and communication strategies, relationships with designers of international repute like Kengo Kuma and Claudio Silvestrin, participation in various events, projects and exhibitions. When did you begin this phase and what was the point of departure that led you to stand out on the market?
Around ten years ago, we found ourselves at a crossroads: it was necessary to make the company to break out of a rather rigid mould that has always characterised the stone sector, connected with a very traditional use of these materials. As a consequence of this need, the first collaborations with designers arose, whom we looked upon as an essential resource in order to carry out the change.
This openness towards the world of design was begun with difficulty because traditionally stone material was used and very well known only for certain types of applications; mostly flooring and cladding, in line with the historic Italian building tradition. Initially, convincing designers to adopt this material for innovative solutions therefore was not easy, but we wanted to put our faith in those who saw the product in an innovative way and wanted to experiment with its expressive possibilities in new areas. This journey went from there: each example and each creation began to reap prestige and awareness so that it became easier to consider new work that was more complex and interesting. Now, growth has become quite fast: the creations and collaborations also developed with designers of great fame has led to closer relationships with designers, giving rise to some remarkable results. So, we can say that the point of departure was really the choice to enter into close collaboration with the designers.
You’ve also staked a lot on communications in recent years. How important was its role in your journey?
Communication is fundamental for us. Today, we’re not selling a material any more, pietra serena, we’re selling a brand. Thanks to communication, we have succeeded in “rehabilitating” a product by identifying it with the trademark of a company.
The brand is such that it allows our products to stand out from the others not because it is in itself different but because it identifies the whole company and what we do, that is the overall service we offer, which makes us different from the others. Communication has made a decisive input into this process: all our initiatives, amongst other things, such as our website, participation in events or projects, are very dynamic and in continual development. On one hand, they tend to consolidate our image but on the other they continually enhance it. In all, these actions reflect the soul of our company and its philosophy of openness. This element of dynamism and openness is certainly perceived from outside, and sets the company apart.
Another strong point, not to mention distinguishing, feature is the choice to collaborate with other complementary companies in research projects aimed at examining and putting forward new and reliable applied solutions.
Exactly. We start from the assumption that stone is not an element that stands alone in a project. For its final use, it is necessary that there are elements of interaction, “technological” elements. For this reason we opened up a dialogue with companies on our wavelength, companies that make adhesives, rather than fasteners, or others with solutions for the maintenance of stone. Businesses that can give us advice and allow us to offer to the designer a complete package of solutions that go from the concept to the finished project, making them feasible. On the other hand, there are major companies with great technologies that sometimes find their completion in the union with stone, or technology, which sometimes is not visible or is not on its own of great appeal, is combined with the aesthetic and expressive element offered by stone. This is how synergy is born.
Moreover, in this way we give a guarantee to the designer and make him realise that behind him there is technological research, Fischer, Mapei and Fila are our partners, for example. At the moment, we have a project underway with these leaders in the building industry that is called “CASONE Engineering”, which was created to offer all the solutions in the installation, setting and treatment of stone. In addition, we have created a group of technicians called “STO HANG” who examine everything that is to be made to order; those parts of buildings that need to be planned and checked, those elements that conclusively enhance a building and which are assessed on each occasion with whomever is doing the design. This group of engineers and technicians is continually dedicated to developing this aspect from the point of view of supplying a complete service.
Your presence at Marmomacc is by now a given; you’ve even twice won the Best Communicator Award in the past. This event too has evolved in recent years, what is your opinion on that?
The initiatives that Marmomacc takes forward are reciprocally advantageous. In recent years, the exhibition has grown and become a key event, I would say globally, for the sector, thanks to the ever more active participation of companies which, stimulated by the new initiatives, have launched a sort of positive competition between each other, noticeably raising the level of the offerings. In this way, a virtuous circle has been created.
We consider the initiatives of Marmomacc, the prizes, the meetings with designers, the seminars or conventions, the training, as fundamental. This exhibition is the most important in the sector at the international level as well, the others not having been able to make this qualitative leap.
In our communication strategy, however, there isn’t just Marmomacc - we seek to try our hand in exhibitions that have nothing to do with the sector. I refer to those exhibitions that cover furnishing, design, such as the furniture or outdoor shows, the design of outer areas, and exhibitions in general that feature quality of life and homes. All are areas in which stone, as a natural, expressive, aesthetically pleasing and comfortable material, can play a part. Our strength after all is also in conveying and proposing ideas, and we can do this in different spheres. The stimulus also comes from the collaborations that we engage in with the design world: we stimulate one another. There are developers and designers who have the desire to experiment and try out materials in different contexts: we make ourselves available for this. A mechanism is created that each time leads us to explore different themes. Our appearances in recent years have been diversified and in different situations, and we intend to carry on in this direction, although Marmomacc remains an unmissable date for us.
Let’s come to the current situation: how has this year been - such a critical one for the building sector - and what are your key markets?
There’s no doubt that this year the crisis has been hard. In the past, the market was cyclical but even if there were crises in some countries, it was possible to focus on other markets. This time, however, the crisis is global and has involved countries that had an economic structure also very much based on the building industry, such as Spain for example. So it is obvious that this crisis has a knock-on effect of a financial nature, payment times have stretched, guarantees are more complex, just as it is more difficult to access credit; all in all an complex scenario that has itself slowed the possibility of doing business.
As far as IL CASONE is concerned, I can say that we are a company that works very much in a niche market; certainly, we’ve had a slight downswing but I’d say “physiological,” not significant.
Signs of recovery, however, are already out there. We see them in the USA, for example. Currently, at the international level, our key market is Europe for 50% of our turnover. We now also have commercial relations with USA, Australia and Japan. The South American market is opening up. All countries which greatly prize the ’Made in Italy’ brand.
Let’s close with a reflection on an important issue: sustainability. The stand presented this year at Marmomacc was created with stone elements deriving from the off-cuts from the processing in the workshop. Do you want to give an incentive, therefore, to the designer to make a different use of stone in the direction of sustainability?
Before answering, I’d like to make an observation. It’s common knowledge that our operation, as an extractive activity, strongly impacts on the territory. However, recent studies carried out by the Tuscan Region have shown the fact that the extractive activity and the processing of stone materials has less impact than other industries in the building sector such as, for example, ceramics or others, even though this is not always recognised outside. In addition, the impact of activities like ours is temporary because we are obliged to restore the site of the quarry and return it close to its original state, while we are not responsible for any CO2 emissions.
To follow on from that, in our processing cycle we have an entire series of activities where we create a situation of waste. The waste that comes directly from the quarry is already destined for recycle and reuse operations, for example as inert or material to be broken up for other uses in building.
However, “waste” also exists that comes from the cutting and sawing phases: why, we asked ourselves, don’t we give value to this too? We realised that these pieces of stone could be given value in the creation of something new, even though it was a substantially “poor” product since it was raw material. So, already starting with the last Salone del Mobile event, we began to use, always together with architects and designers, these very waste slabs to compose and offer textures for new cladding, which was extremely material and expressive. The stand presented this year at Marmomacc went in the same direction, created precisely with this processing waste. This is a challenge that all companies must confront, not only for financial reasons but also for sustainability. It is definitely a theme we want to explore further, and as always, together with the designers. We often let the designers visit the relevant quarries and workshops so that they can see these products, even in their raw form and as “waste.” But I’d like to move beyond this definition, I’d like to speak not of “WASTE” but of “REMAINDER”: that which REMAINS outside the normal processing/production cycle is what must be kept and used and above all put to good use, in as many ways as possible. This can only be determined by creativity and knowledge, including technological, of the material.
So then, summarising in a few words, what does innovation mean to IL CASONE?
I could sum it up like this: painstaking research of new ideas and proposals in close connection with the world of design and great technical-managerial capacity in order to be able to carry it out. Making demands of oneself, not imposing limits… and not necessarily looking for the solutions in our own sector!
by Laura della Badia and Valentina Valente