In today’s Behind the Biz interview I’m chatting with Gary Walters, CEO of Stone Age about his business journey. Gary also shares the top flooring trends for 2019 with us.
Please tell us about your business.
Stone Age is a specialist supplier of stone and porcelain products for architectural and interior use, ranging from flooring to one-off bespoke elements.
Launched in 1988 by founders, Jo and Richard O’Grady, the company has grown organically, with our first showroom in Fulham, followed by a location in Bristol and then Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire.
Since launching 30 years ago Stone Age has continually diversified in order to cater for all of our clients’ requirements – from porcelain to ceramics and now wood floors – thanks to our partnership with Root London, specialists in bespoke wide plan and parquet engineered oak wood flooring.
The company currently sources and sells over 90 different stones from across the world for both internal and outdoor use. Working with many award-winning architects and designers, we are committed to providing a top-class service from design to concept to final installation. With a team of talented expert craftsmen with years of masonry experience, our company is able to create stunning bespoke pieces such as worktops, vanity tops and fire hearths in a matter of minutes.
Stone Age has built up a network of trusted suppliers which allows us to be confident of the quality of the stone that we supply; we know where to go to get something a little bit special. From black granites, to white marble, warm limestones to brown, blue and green-grey hues, Stone Age has an eclectic array of stone on offer to complement the palate in terms of variation and tonality. Several different finishes, from modern to antiqued, bush-hammered, flamed and honed, increases the choice available.
The company now employs over 35 members of staff in our three showrooms and state-of-the-art Hemel Hempstead workshop. It has a turnover of £4.5 million with big plans for further investment and we aim to make the company a market leader in the supply of natural stone.
I take pride in our very specialized, bespoke service, where I often accompany clients to Italy where they can visit the quarries where the stone is sourced to help the individuals make their decision.
What did you do before taking on your role at Stone Age?
To begin with I trained as a cabinet maker, surveyor and draftsman. I then took on the position of design technician for Feldmen Design Associates, working on projects for Café Rouge and the Amiri Court of Bahrain, leading to specializing in stone and the start of my own company.
I joined Stone Age in 1989, after Stone Age founders, Jo and Richard O’Grady asked me to join the business as Technical Director and in 1998 I took on the role of Managing Director.
In 2016, Jo and Richard retired from Stone Age and I then took over as CEO, and bringing in new partner James Diver, where we has since been instrumental in bringing the company into the modern age by investing over £750,000 into state-of-the-art technology and completely refurbishing the London showroom and creating a brand new workshop, offices and showroom in Hemel Hempstead.
Did you always plan to be self-employed?
When I finished my apprenticeship as a cabinet maker my boss told me that someone will always make money out of you unless you do it yourself. I never forgot that and I knew I wanted to do things myself.
Please share a business high and low with us.
A huge high has been completing the new Hemel Hampstead showroom and factory office, along with finalizing taking over the running of Stone Age. In terms of lows, the level of business has been hard due to Brexit which has caused people to be more hesitant to go through with projects.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Something I would definitely recommend and live by, as previously mentioned, is that if you are good at what you do, don’t let others take advantage of your skills and ability and do it for yourself. Secondly, to make sure you know your product and market place since that is key to any entrepreneur who wants to be successful.
What will be the most popular flooring trends for 2019?
Wood and Sustainability
We definitely anticipate wood floors to see a revival, as although a classic choice, doors are being painted white or shades of neutral to brighten up a dark space.
We’ve also noticed that people are going back to the bare wood look of a couple of decades ago and Root’s Natural Oak is what people are requesting a lot. Those who really want to hark back to nature, are opting for more natural options for flooring such as oak parquet or wide planks where you can really see the true colour of the tree coming through (making the space feel larger). Whilst wood has always been popular, the use of oils and varnishes has allowed wood to be more hard-wearing and thus is being used more often in kitchens and bathrooms, as well as lounges, dining rooms and studies and we only expect that to increase in 2019. Part of the reason wood is so popular is due to its sustainable attributes which has now become a mega-trend and we only rise next year.
Shades of Grey
The popularity of grey will continue in 2019, it works with everything so is a great safe option. I’d recommend our Portobello and Urban Oak and Colombe Grey Limestone. For kitchens and ground floors, grey and warm beige limestones are the go-to stones. People also want the inside outside look which can be achieved with limestones. However, white is also gathering pace as a option for those wanting a softer look for their home giving a more country feel perhaps – particularly when it comes to floors. Whilst on the other end of the spectrum, darks – chocolate and black -make a statement and form the basis for a heavier style that is set to take 2019 by storm.
The wide plank is the thing to have with wood flooring, but it is also becoming en vogue to couple it with a parquet. It adds a nice modern twist on a classic combination and gives a home an individual cosier feel, bringing an old classic into the 21st century. We’ve also noticed a rise in herringbone which we believe to continue in 2019.
We are seeing a big resurgence in marble, including in more unusual colours making a statement such as green and blue. Almost every bathroom is being planned with an element of marble in it. The reason being, marble is beautiful natural material which comes in an infinite range of colours, markings and veinings. No two pieces are the same, which no doubt adds to its appeal. Different options include ‘book-matching’, ‘vein-matching’ or ‘take it as it comes’ which also make marble unique to the home in the way it is installed. People are being more adventurous with marble than in the past.
The colour green seems to be enjoying a moment right now with lovely onyxes as well as light green marbling being very popular. For those looking for something even more unique, we’ve noticed home owners going for strong deeper emerald colours of marble to really make an impact in the bathroom. Hot favourites that we have seen rising in popularity are Green Onyx and Ledmore. Olive tones are still going strong with stones like limestone – Bourgos as a flooring option. The beauty of onyx is, it comes in a vast array of weird and wonderful colours and is exactly what people are looking for when trying to inject some drama into a room. It’s such a wild stone and varies so much from block to block, it’s our job to find the right block for the client.
Whatever people opt for, it’s clear that we like to make our home unique in order to create a space in which to relax and unwind and natural stone and wood help you do exactly that. More and more, we are choosing little quirks or colours that reflect this to make our houses an extension of our personality. Part of the reason we see this happening is due to all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit which is having a knock-on effect to house prices, we are finding an increase in clients refurbishing their properties.
Where do you hope to take your business in 2019?
This year is the fourth year of new ownership and team for Stone Age and we hope to bring the business to a new level thanks to our new showroom and factory. And we want to further promote Root London so people know that not only do we provide great quality and beautiful stone, but we can also provide gorgeous wood.
I want to say a huge thank you to Gary for getting involved with Behind the Biz. It’s a pleasure to have Gary and Stone Age as part of part of my interview series.
Gary’s passion for the business shines through in his answers. He offers solid advice for aspiring entrepreneurs (scroll back up and read it again) and I can’t wait to see their business grow in the year ahead.