20 years on: A conversation with Jim Mann

The Stone Initiatives team in 2023 (back L–R): Thomas Baggs, Kate Tonkin, Emily Tonkin, Mark Milevski, Will Wesley, James Mann; (front L–R): Jim Mann, Cooper Lynn, Fiona van der Zwaag.

Principal and founder Jim Mann reflects on 20 years of Stone Initiatives, including the influence of fashion on testing regimes, and how the stone industry is becoming more sustainable.

Interview with Jim Mann

How does it feel to be celebrating 20 years of Stone Initiatives?

I’m proud of what Stone Initiatives has become and how the company has grown. Even though we’re a small team, I know our guidance and services are valuable to our clients, and it’s really rewarding to know we’ve been helping them for 20 years. On a personal level, I’ve liked the challenges along the way.

What was the company’s first job?

Our first job was in Sydney in 2003. The project was 126 Phillip, now called Deutsche Bank Place. We were the stone consultants, engaged by LendLease to perform stone testing to prove fitness for purpose of the stone finish, along with a quality control program to control the quality of the stone supplied.

One of the exciting things about that job was the bold use of the same stone and finish throughout the plaza, running through into the ground-floor lobby. The project features Austral Juparana Granite from Bruce Rock in Western Australia, with a flamed exfoliated finish. I remember talking to the architect about their vision and why they chose that stone, and they said it reminded them of flying over the golden wheat fields of WA. 

Part of the project included review of the stone selection and the granite blocks prior to processing, and also a review of the capability of the quarry to supply the stone. It was a good job to start out with, as it had quite a broad scope and exercised the skills we would use into the future.

Stone Initiatives’ first consultancy project, 126 Phillip Street, Sydney. Stone Initiatives performed stone testing to prove fitness for purpose of the stone finish, along with a quality control program to control the quality of the stone supplied.
What’s one of the most valuable things you’ve learnt in 20 years of working with stone?

One of the things I’ve learnt is that the stone industry is a fashion industry, and that the types, colours and textures of stone being used in projects are often reflected in national and global trends, just like clothes. Appearance plays a major part in the selection of stone, so how we test and what we test for isn’t just about strength and durability, but also about how it maintains its appearance. Maintenance is a key issue when it comes to fitness for purpose. If a stone is structurally sound and meets initial aesthetic requirements yet stains or scratches easily or loses gloss, then it may not be considered fit for purpose as it won’t hold up over time.

I often use an analogy about cars to explain this to clients. If you were to purchase a Ferrari, you wouldn’t treat it like runabout truck or drive it around the farm. You’d also wash it regularly using quality products and ensure servicing was done on schedule. Similarly, a unique high-end stone might look wonderful, but it isn’t suitable in every setting and won’t necessarily stand up to the knocks and stains of a surface with high traffic or other risk factors. When it is installed, it requires an appropriate maintenance schedule.

Stone testing needs to reflect how the stone will perform in situ. We assist the client in developing a testing regime that considers its intended use, and then target those specific, relevant tests, like stain resistance, loss of gloss and slip resistance.

How has the natural stone industry changed over the past 20 years?

This comes back to the fashion – we are starting to see new stone types that have been dormant are coming back to the fore.  After a decade of neutral tones, we are seeing colour and more figure, and people using stone to make more of a statement. 

The Australian stone industry has taken great leaps forward. Where 20 years ago it was struggling to compete with imports, now we are starting to be competitive not just in price, but also the range of stone types provided, such as marble, granite, sandstone. 

Where is the industry is heading?

The industry is becoming more sustainable. Standards like the GECA Standard for Hard Surfacing is gaining more attention now to help companies improve their green credentials.

Part of sustainability is ensuring an adequate service life, so more attention is being paid to correct stone selection, regarding its properties and the maintenance of its appearance. The clients of architects and developers are becoming a lot more knowledgeable and selective about the materials used on their projects, whether a commercial tower or a home.

What have been some of the company’s highlights over the past 20 years?

In 2008 we were chosen to participate in the China Trade Mission to the Beijing Olympics, sponsored by Austrade, Telstra and Business Club Australia. It was based on our business plan to develop a better market with China, and was a valuable experience just five years into the business.

Another highlight came very early in the life of the company, when we gained NATA accreditation for our laboratory. Today we remain Australia’s only NATA accredited lab that specialises in dimension stone. Even though the process of applying for and maintaining the accreditation is rather onerous, it is highly beneficial to the business. It ensures we produce the best quality service and any deviations from that are quickly picked up and corrected.

Personally, one of the most challenging and rewarding projects we’ve undertaken was an expert witness report that went to the Supreme Court of Singapore. This followed the inspection of granite cladding on a high-rise building in Singapore to determine the compliance of the cladding installation with the project specification. I spent three weeks dangling from a building maintenance unit inspecting the stone panels. At one stage I could see Malaysia over one shoulder and Sumatra over the other, which was pretty special.

Another personal highlight is mentoring generations of staff members. In 20 years we have had three generations of the same family working with us. Currently the daughter of one of our longest-standing staff members is working with us, along with her daughter, who is also training to be an interior designer. 

In 2008, when Stone Initiatives had been established for five years, the company was chosen to participate in the China Trade Mission to the Beijing Olympics, sponsored by Austrade, Telstra and Business Club Australia. Pictured is principal Jim Mann in Beijing with his wife Anne.
What has made the company successful?

Providing a service that your client wants is the most important thing. Working in retail while at school was a good starting point to understanding what clients want and helping them to build on that. And to deliver what your promise.

I also drill into all my team that our reports are about more than numbers. We work with our clients to ensure they understand what the test results mean and how they can use the results for the benefit of their product or project. It’s an important part of what we do.

And it’s important for your team to have synergy and work well together. Getting the right mix of people is always a key to success and I’m thankful to have a wonderfully dedicated team with complementary specialised skill sets.

Aside from completing testing and analysis, what does Stone Initiatives contribute to the natural stone industry, and to the built environment sector in general?

This comes back to sustainability. In all the fields that we work in, our aim is to help our clients use the right materials for the right projects, to help ensure their longevity. This means avoiding issues like stone failures and premature wear, problems that often result in complete replacement of the stone. 

We are also honoured to have contributed to the care and maintenance of some of the country’s most valued heritage items. When dealing with a heritage building, it is especially important to use appropriate remediation techniques and products so that the authenticity of the structure can be maintained.