Digby Stone loads up for a UK shipment.

A select service

Published:  06 May, 2011

When you’re providing quality, ethically sourced natural stone products direct from the quarry straight to UK builders’ merchants, knowledge is king. Darren Digby talks to Lisa Arcangeli about how his business sources and delivers natural stone products from around the world right to the merchant’s doorstep.

Darren Digby, director of Digby Stone has worked in the merchant sector for many years. He started his career as a landscape gardener, before being offered a job as a branch manager at a Midlands merchant.

A couple of years later he was poached by Atlas Stone to be that company’s representative and even though it meant a drop in salary at first, he rose to become national sales manager. When Atlas was sold to Brett Landscaping. It was at the time when the big Kent-based company was committed to investing in a concrete factory at its site.

Natural stone products were starting to emerge as strong contenders to concrete and ever alert to the possibilities that this material could offer, Mr Digby made the move to start up Pavestone for a time before returning to Brett who by now was turning towards natural stone in order to meet the changing trends in demand.

Travelling the world and sourcing suppliers, Mr Digby says he loved his role at Brett and treated its business as if it were his own. “But I always made it clear to the company that one day I was going to run my own business,” he says.

His 40th birthday was a watershed. He decided it was time he started to work for himself. “With over six years of experience of importing sandstone, limestone, slate, granite and travertine, I felt we could improve the traditional supply chain and offer builders’ merchants competitively priced natural stone products from around the world,” he says.

The Stourbridge-based company currently has a projected turnover of £3m. “Not bad after only three years in business and in the middle of a recession,” he comments. The figure is also a testament to how well received the company’s carefully sourced natural stone has been.

Ever ambitious, Mr Digby says he wants his company to achieve a £5m turnover by 2012.

At the start, however, the fledgling company faced a crossroads: to sell on price alone or sell on the quality of the product. “I chose the latter, because I didn’t want to get involved in price wars,” Mr Digby explains.

And, with the demise of several of the larger independent paving companies, Digby Stone decided it would also follow the ethical trading route – paying a fair price for premium quality stone and for quality packaging.

“Our code incorporates the Ethical Trading Initiative. We pay all of our suppliers a fair price. After all, they have to make a living, too,” he acknowledges.

“We expect our suppliers to treat their workers fairly and we don’t want to buy from people who are sourcing unscrupulously.”

Digby Stone uses many of the same suppliers currently serving market leaders – albeit on a different level. “We’re not as big at these companies – yet,” he says.

Quality is of prime importance to the company, as is presentation. “It doesn’t matter how good the quality of the product is inside the crate,” Mr Digby says. “You have to apply that standard to the exterior of the crate, too.

“Even if the packaging is thrown away, the presentation is paramount. If the pallet looks second-hand or in a rough condition, people will second-guess the quality of the product inside,” he reasons.

“By putting an effort into presentation, the merchant can be proud to deliver the product to a site with their name on it, or ours – depending on how they choose to offer the product.”

Merchants have to make decisions, too, he maintains. Do they want to go down the cheap and cheerful route, buying from any source to get the price? If they choose this avenue, the stone will often be rough and of poor quality, with inferior blending.

Or, do they want to pay a bit more to the company supplying the stone to ensure that they will be provided with quality products?

“Times are tough and we recognise this,” he says. “Merchants want to maintain their margins. We understand their dilemma.”

That is why the company introduced ‘Value Stone’ to the UK and put its stamp of quality on it.

In the Value range, the stones are not calibrated, but hand cut and split. Colours are then separated, he says.

“We are probably one of the few larger independents that deals in the maximum amount of volume of this product,” Mr Digby says.

Chief colours offered are Forest (green-based), Bark (brown-based) and Mist (grey-based). New for 2011 is Ash.

Darren Digby with wife, Claire.

Quality and ethics combine at every level of the business. When Digby Stone visits its suppliers, “it isn’t about having a nice dinner and a drink and enjoying the sunshine,” says Mr Digby. “We know the prices we want to pay and what the market level is.

“We spend time at our suppliers’ yards and quarries and inspect their other sources and materials. That way, we can see first-hand how they operate and, when it’s necessary, we can explain to our suppliers why our company’s policy sets out the minimum labour standards that we expect our suppliers to comply with.”

Among these are that employment is freely chosen, working conditions are safe and hygienic, child labour is not used and wages and benefits meet the minimum standard.

This is easier said than done, he points out. “You have to remember that this is India and sometimes things are not always as straightforward as they first might appear!

“We encourage our suppliers to conform to the standards, to comply in order for them to achieve the goal of becoming a genuine ETI accredited supplier.

“In India there is a limited or no welfare or healthcare system. There are no mandatory state schools in certain regions. So, the average worker moves around, bringing their families along with them.

“When children are sometimes seen at a quarry it is because their parents are working there. There’s no nursery to go to.

“That is why we always make a point of monitoring all aspects of the supply chain including, quality, working conditions and general employment practices,” he says.

“We could pay twice the price for the suppliers’ stone,” he says. “But the suppliers would pocket it, not their workers and we won’t do that,” he states. “There’s a delicate balance of creating work, paying a fair price and enforcing on suppliers aspects of health and safety and making sure no families are let into the workplace.”

“Quarries can be dangerous places. But, education and explanation can be a lengthy process,” he adds.

As a direct result of these visits, one of Digby Stone’s suppliers has agreed to install CCTV. It will enable that company to check that no unauthorised people, children or families are wandering around the site. And, it will also mean the company can monitor how its containers are being loaded. Other suppliers will follow this lead, Mr Digby believes.

“Because we have set up a ‘digbystone’ standard, our suppliers know what to send, therefore we have a very good idea of what quality to expect when it turns up,” he points out.

“We stress upon our suppliers why we want certain colours for our palette and why the packaging needs to be top quality.

“That way, our UK merchant customers can be assured that we are competitively priced, have high quality products and can offer merchant own self-branding at no extra cost.”

A number of quarries in several different parts of India provide the different colours of stone. Because not every quarry has every colour of stone, a lot of trading goes on all the time between suppliers.

Back in the UK, business in 2011 will depend on the weather, Mr Digby says. “We plan to gain more market share and are in the process of developing a partnership with two major buying groups.

“Calibrated products are very popular,” he explains. Ninety-five per cent of the company’s customers demand it once they have tried it.

“All of our suppliers are gearing themselves up with more machinery to meet that demand.”

Granites and sandstones, which have sawn edges, polished tops and textured finishes, look to be year-on-year growth products.

Calibrated products, he points out, are also easier to handle and to despatch and more can be shipped in a container load. “The benefit to the merchant is that they also get more on their deliveries.

“Although 2011 looks set to be a flat year, if the weather is kind, stone products will flourish,”

Digby Stone at London’s Chelsea Flower Show.

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