Some seven years ago, Hans Bullens led Stone Natural Class towards fully focusing on the high end market. The Eersel based company has been installing bespoke designs for yachts and mansions ever since. Stone Natural Class specializes in working with lightweight natural stone products.
Luxury Stone Solutions
The Stone Natural Class website’ states: ‘Luxury Stone Solutions’. The portfolio photos underline that tagline. Superyacht bathrooms made out of exclusive stone types, back-lighted walls made out of onyx on another superyacht, and several bespoke natural stone applications in mansions. Considering the international character of the company’s clientele, it makes total sense that the website of the Eersel based business is primarily in English. Until recently, Hans Bullens was Stone Natural Class’ public face. With his retirement upcoming, he has ensured the future of the company.
Part of a group of four businesses
“Stone Natural Class has a new owner. As of 2019, the company has become part of a group of four businesses, all owned by shareholders Willem-Jan Kuijpers and Rob Lauwen. Besides Stone Natural Class, this group also includes 4SeasonsSpa, specialized in wellness rooms and pools, Bloemen de Maas, specialized in teak decks and outdoor furniture, and DTG, a company focused on tenders and toys. I will wrap up my management responsibilities by the end of this year. Stone Natural Class will have to find a new public face”, Bullens chuckles.
When Bullens acquired ‘Maas Reusel’ in 2001, he brought a business background to the table. The stone company Maas Reusel mainly focused on construction. In 2008, the business altered its direction. “That year, we started our collaboration with Heidi Versteeg, who mainly focused on yacht construction. The new activities were brought together in a new operating company: Stone Natural Class.” 2010 was a rough year. Bullens: ”Heidi passed away that year, a huge blow. Besides that, a financial crisis caused an economic down time. During the following two to three years after, we mainly consolidated our client base.”
Knowledge and skills
“Material knowledge is an absolute necessity in the segment that Stone Natural Class operates in”, Bullens explains. “I have acquired that knowledge over the twenty years that I have been working in this industry. Mainly by traveling to Italy to visit quarries and suppliers. Where natural stone is concerned, I am learning every hour rather than everyday. Natural stone is not just an unimaginable resource, it is an unpredictable one at that.“ He adds another quality that he considers equally important. “You need to know the market well. So many stakeholders are involved: clients, shipyards, designers and oftentimes a client representative as well. We preselect the material at our suppliers in Verona and Carrara. Then, we present those, and subsequently we typically meet our client a week after in Italy to make a final selection. That means visiting the supplier with up to 10 people. Each with their own opinions and preferences. Go figure. You need to know how to play that game. And that is what I mean by having the skills”, he elaborates.
Watching our team members carrying out their specific and complicated duties with excitement always brings a smile to my face.
During the conversation, Bullens keeps emphasizing that the people who carry out the work are the most important. In the end, they are the ones to make sure that the project is completed to our clients’ satisfaction. “Our team consists of some twenty staff members and we hire some 25-30 externally when needed. Getting to watch the zeal of our people when they carry out those specific, complicated tasks never ceases to bring a smile to my face. Or even better: when a team suggests solutions that exceed the expectations of our clients. That makes me even more proud. I can’t really point towards a project that is my favorite. Simply impossible. Moreover, I usually enjoy the journey even more than the end result.”
Innovation is vital in the niche market Stone Natural Class operates in, Bullens emphasizes. “You need to keep developing. That includes creating innovative products. We’re currently working on a new product, called bended marble. Like the name suggests, this truly is bended marble. Additionally, we have collaborated with 4SeasonsSpa to conceive another innovation. A rain shower that is fully integrated into a marble construction.”
Sustainability is also important to the Eersel based businesses. “We are currently in the design phase of a new product. Since we tend to work with fragile marble products, we need to purchase a lot of spare material. That regularly leaves us with leftovers. Currently, we are researching on a small scale how to still make use of those materials.”
Bullens started thinking about his succession a few years ago. He planted some seeds and met Willem-Jan Kuijpers from 4SeasonsSpa. “We mostly work in the same segment, and work for the same principals. Which is why this strategic partnership works. Moreover, with Bloemen de Maas as an additional partner, we can give our clients total peace of mind. Clients get one-stop-shopping, from natural stone, spas, and jacuzzis to all external furniture on a yacht. A yacht is a complicated end product. For a shipyard, it is much easier to deal with just one party.”
Protecting distinctive culture
As of this summer, Bullens will step away from the steering wheel. “I will be focusing on marketing our innovative products and taking more of an ambassadors and consultative role. I would love to continue to be involved for another few years. We have started a few valuable improvement processes. We are working towards becoming a well-oiled machine. While protecting the distinctive culture, though: passion and drive, that is our mentality. Stone Natural Class may not be the largest business in the market, we are the most important player in this high-end segment.”
Bullens foresees that the business will continue to grow for the next few years. A 20% growth in the number of projects per year surely is realistic. Particularly now that we’ve opened our new manufacturing site in Eersel. We have increased our floor space by 40%. Because of the new machinery, our production capacity has doubled. Some 80-90% of the work is done by our machines. It’s the last 10% that determines 90% of the end result, though. Our craftsmanship determines our success. And that happens to be our specialty.”
It’s the craftsmanship that determines our success. And that happens to be our specialty!