By Kevin Cole

Although it was originally founded by solid surface fabricators wanting to connect and share ideas and information to advance their businesses and the industry (read the article immediately preceding this one to find out more), it was the advent of quartz surfacing that became the driving factor to take ISFA to the next level.

When modern quartz surfacing, or engineered stone, came on the scene in the late ’80s, it was slow to be adopted by what was then a more fragmented countertop industry. Traditional stone fabricators preferred to work with natural granite even though they had the machinery and equipment to work with quartz, and solid surface fabricators did not have the equipment to fabricate the product, which required diamond tooling, wet cutting and specialized equipment used for stone. That disconnect may have slowed the entry of engineered stone into the market, but by the year 2000, the unique properties of quartz surfacing had made it a product that couldn’t be ignored.

Just around that same time, in the early 2000s, the trade show created by ISFA in its first year of operation was growing immensely, and managing it was quickly moving beyond the capability of the grassroots organization. The economy was booming and fabricators were operating at levels never before seen. The association teamed up with Cygnus Business Media, a magazine and trade show company, so the show could be managed by professionals who had the ability and the background to further develop it and keep up with its pace. About that same time, SOLIDSURFACE Magazine, which was owned and managed by Joanna and Mike Duggan (who were also the founding force behind ISFA), was also purchased by Cygnus and a formidable educational partnership was formed. The deal would slowly move ownership of the trade show to Cygnus, with a contractual relationship that would have the two organizations working to plan, populate and promote it. Joanna Duggan, by then an industry icon, would remain publisher of the magazine.

With the increasing sales and profitability of quartz surfacing, many solid surface fabricators, which were the membership base of then ISSFA (the International Solid Surface Fabricators Association), began to embrace the engineered stone and expand their shops to allow them to fabricate it. And because they were tooling up to handle quartz surfacing, by default they had the equipment to work with granite. At the same time, traditional stone fabricators took note of the profitability and growing popularity of this product they had formerly seen as competition, and so they too began to handle it.

As such, the gap between solid surface fabricators and stone fabricators began to close rapidly from both directions. And even those solid surface shops that were not buying into stoneworking equipment were developing relationships with stone shops so that they could sell, template and install the material. A new age of cooperation and materials crossover had begun in the countertop/surfacing industry, and businesses could hardly keep up with the demand because of a housing boom.

However, while there were various organizations for individual materials, such as stone, tile, cultured marble and solid surface, there was no association that was embracing this growing product category. This also made apparent the lack of resources available to those wishing to fabricate quartz, which had different tooling requirements and fabrication methodologies. ISFA’s partner, Cygnus, saw the opportunity and in 2006 expanded both the magazine, renamed to Surface Fabrication, and the trade show, rebranded as the Surface Fabrication & Design Expo to include quartz and other emerging materials. For the first time, ISFA began working hand-in-hand with the suppliers of engineered stone and the tools and equipment to fabricate it.

An Age of Development

It was during this period that the Million Dollar Mentor program was developed, in which upand-coming fabricators would be paired up with more experienced and highly successful business owners so they could share information directly on best practices through several seminars, personal visits to each other’s businesses, regularly scheduled conference calls and set assignments that required certain tasks to be performed and discussed. Many top fabricators today graduated from the program and still credit a lot of their success to their participation.

At this time, half of the members of ISSFA were working with the “hard and shiny” materials and were calling out for assistance. So, in 2008, just as the great recession was hitting hard, ISSFA made a decision to join its partner and embrace engineered stone and all of the other premium surfacing that was in the market, and became ISFA (the International Surface Fabricators Association) that allowed any fabricator of countertop/surfacing materials, regardless of what materials they worked with, to join the organization.

The change was made official, but in 2009, the worst economic downturn seen in decades was in full swing, and everyone was suffering under its weight. Fabricators were laying off employees, consolidating and closing their doors. With trade show attendance and magazine advertising two of the first expenditures to be cut from budgets, Cygnus, which specialized in those two areas, was unable to hold up. Within a year, Cygnus cancelled both the trade show and the magazine, forcing ISFA to make some tough choices. In 2009 the association created this publication before you, Countertops & Architectural Surfaces, by expanding and reformatting its quarterly member newsletter. The following year, the association attempted to revive the trade show. Where the magazine was successful, trade show attendance was an expenditure most in the industry couldn’t justify in the wake of their hard hit businesses, and ISFA instead embraced the formula of smaller regional events and programming, teaming up with other expositions where possible.

It was also around this time that ISFA voted to allow two associate member representatives to take shorter-length seats on the association’s board of directors, where they would serve in purely advisory roles. This opened the door for developing closer relationships between manufacturers, suppliers, distributors and fabricators in furtherment of educational opportunities and process refinement.

In 2010, Countertops & Architectural Surfaces magazine further expanded offering its first-ever Buyers’ Guide issue, in an effort to provide an annual reference guide for the industry, with listings of every manufacturer that supplies any of a variety of surfacing materials, tools, equipment and machinery to the industry. That same year, ISFA put on its first Countertop Symposium, a full day of education sessions, at the biannual International Woodworking Fair (IWF). That cooperative agreement was continued and expanded in 2012 with the creation of a “Countertops Pavilion” at the trade show that has continued through the present day.

Over the next few years, three popular programs were developed to assist members in various aspects of their businesses. Among them were the Gen2 Gatherings, that brought together second-generation fabrication business owners to meet and discuss the process of business succession and provided expert guidance.

Another popular program that is still being used by many members is the ISFA Continuing Education Program, in which members could work with each other to develop continuing education units (CEUs) for architects. Once these presentations were created, ISFA staff would work to get them certified by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and then they could be presented by any member participating in the program. This allowed fabricators, distributors or even manufacturers to bring in groups of architects and educate them on numerous aspects of the surfacing industry. Architects would get educational credits they needed to maintain their licensing, and presenters would have an opportunity to interact with these architects.

A third program that came about in this time frame was CEO/Upper Management Gatherings. These regional meetings would bring together small to medium groups of top management from fabrication firms to a central location where they would spend two to three days networking and learning from each other. The program includes guided forums, open discussion, shop tours and expert presentations. These gatherings remain popular to this day, with several being held each year.

Lastly, the ISFA On-Site Training Program was developed. This training is unlike the association’s other courses, in that an ISFA expert actually travels to a shop to assist them in setting up or improving their operations. Previously, training had all been done in a remote location to which individual fabricators would travel for classroom and hands-on training. While this type of training is still in the repertoire of the organization, the on-site training allows fabricators to learn by using their own equipment in the actual setting they will be working. In the past few years, dozens of businesses around the country have taken advantage of ISFA’s expertise, ranging from smaller organizations to large fabricators learning to refine their processes, and even a prison in California.

Now and in the Future

In 2015, ISFA upgraded its annual meeting to include a conference and made it into more of a retreat style event, held in Austin, Texas. In 2016, the ISFA Annual Meeting & Conference continued on this note, hosting the event in Cancun, Mexico. That same year, ISFA China was developed to assist Chinese fabricators in developing their operations to include processes already refined in the United States. ISFA China sent a delegation to the 2016 Annual Meeting & Conference, and a solid relationship was formed. ISFA is now working on potential expansion into several areas of the world where the surfacing industry is in rapid development mode and fabricators can benefit from tried-and-true methods modern fabrication businesses are using.

And this year, ISFA is once again holding its annual meeting and conference in Cancun. (Read more about it on Page 18.) The association is hoping for a good turnout of members to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

It is also continuing to ramp up its social media efforts, and this year began offering opportunities for members to submit various news items that ISFA would then share through its online presence. (See Page 43 for more details.)

Going forward, ISFA staff and board of directors hope to continue to build on the long history of cooperation amongst fabricators, manufacturers, suppliers and distributors of all premium surfacing materials. Additionally new cooperation opportunities, such as the one recently developed with the North American Building Materials Distributors Association, will be explored to further ISFA’s mission. Perhaps you can be part of the next 20 years in ISFA history by getting involved to the betterment of your business, yourself and the industry as a whole.

ISFA Communications Director Kevin Cole can be reached at [email protected]