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100 YEARS OF … LONELINESS?

We can seldom hear even quite optimistic assessment of the situation. What we can see is the general distrust. It is sometimes caused by anger. Any diagnosis? Profitability of extraction raises questions about the existence of smallest mines. Bigger players are placing their hopes in the new financial perspective (2014-2020).

fot 1 IMG 1317Forecasts for the coming 2-3 years are moderately optimistic. Gabion, hydro-technical, and, of course, building stones – the demand for these materials exceeds supply. It is interesting if we take into consideration that 2 years ago everyone could hear about over-production of mines. The (technological) gap is also getting bigger between large extraction plants and smallest ones, which often produce stone as a fully processed good only for their own use. All of them share one thing – irritation, because stone, which is historically recorded and seen in many architectural jewels, is not perceived in Poland as a national treasure at all. What is worse, every stone mine, even the smallest one, is a mining plant, which means a lot of administrative restrictions. The mining fee is still raising a lot of controversies in Poland. Can a mining plant be a venue of mass events and gain additional profits out of this? We were talking about this issue a few issues back.  

Seasonality, capital-intensive nature, energy intensity, lack of state assistance and interest from local governments – rock mining has no statesman. As regards seasonality, the change of mining fees in the mining law, which has been paid quarterly so far (recently every six months) makes estimating sales and profits even more difficult. The result? The risk of cash freeze or debt loop is bigger. 
 
Global trends and our stone

fot 2 A IMG 6977First, let us consider the condition of open-cast mines in a global perspective, taking into consideration block materials. According to the statistics, since 1980s global production of block rocks has been recording, on average, a 7 per cent growth rate. Natural stone is popular among architects and residents of the countries in which stone culture is rich. What about Poland? Average stone consumption per Italian and Polish person is like 4 to 1. It does not matter whether this is a construction or decorative material – Polish investors are not fans of  materials coming from their native country.  

What is more, national demand, to a great extent, is satisfied by cheap raw materials imported from Asian countries, mainly from China, which reduced the development of Polish stone branch even more. Let us take limestone from Świętokrzyskie stone centre as an example. Bolechowice mine is a great example of an excavation which, instead of offering block materials, has been competing for some time on aggregate market. I mean here a material known as “marmur chęciński” (chęciński marble), which has been laid on floors in many sacral buildings since 16th century.

- The output is going down year by tear. Last time it was just 100,000 tons, but it can’t be the other way round if, when talking to a potential investor, a young generation architect tries to convince him to choose imported stone. When I meet an older guy, I have arguments. I tell him to think twice before choosing a block of cheap stone from Asia – says Jan Kowalski, the director of Bolechowice Sp. z o.o. plant, who is complaining of architects’ attitude.    

- I have no other arguments if production of a block costs 1,500 zlotys (around 350 euro), and a ready (already cut) Chinese block within the port costs 700 PLN (around 180 euro)! We can see some hope in an innovative method of loss-free separating blocks from soil with the use of a gas producer. Right now block materials are marginal for us and I am concentrating on production of crushed-stone aggregate, for example grits, but can anyone tell me how to invest in a mine if a tonne of sand costs 12 PLN (around 3 euro) and I have to sell the material which requires buying cone crushers, screening units, for just a little more? A few years back I was considering buying such equipment, but today I know that I couldn’t afford to maintain it!
Extraction of block materials in Opole Province seems to bring no profits, either. There are mines here and they are even extracting materials for the needs of neighbouring provinces, but we can feel a serious lack of supplies.  

Mining in developed countries has no chance today against mining in developing countries. For sure not with rising transport costs and rocketing energy prices. Another thing is that Europe is not producing, for example, paving blocks in such amounts as Chinese do. And the population ratio, which is 1:4, is not the only reason. The reason is more simple: what was supposed to be built is already there – often just renovated, whilst China is at the stage of accelerated industrialisation, so needs related to building road infrastructure are a sufficient impulse and life-blood for rock branch. Therefore, the condition of the branch which should take advantage of modernisation of Poland is very saddening. And what is the reality? In 2011 we checked our potential – the demand for aggregate was then around 320 million tonnes, and the extraction of all rock raw materials amounted to over 400 million tonnes. Preparations for EURO 2012 aroused hopes in 2011.  

EURO 2012 fate

fot 2 B IMG 1629Early 2012 encouraged to do extraction in a shift system. Unfortunately, mines were flooded with aggregate and after a while customers, that is, most often, motorway subcontractors, started to dictate terms and prices. Insolvency, bankruptcy, arrangement proposals, and, finally, (out of fear against creditors) nervous moves – more and more mines started to get rid of their material for nothing. As a result of a bad system of tenders, aroused hopes in a short time made extraction companies fall into trouble and be close to bankruptcy. Recently (30 May 2014) the parliament has adopted the amendment to the so-called special road law. It widened the number of companies which may apply to the General Directorate for National Roads and Motorways asking for transferring means they have not received for their services and materials used for building motorways and express roads. Before, only micro-, small and medium enterprises could apply. According to the new regulations, this right has been also given to big companies, such as Kieleckie Kopalnie Surowców Mineralnych (Kielce Mineral Raw Materials Mines).

Two years ago we could hear in Strzegom stone centre about destructive … competition in producing kerbs at cost. This material often lost in tenders against imported products – often of a doubtful quality. Can we see equally worrying signals this year?

- In the past we could get a tonne of paving stones for 250 PLN (ca. 60 euro). Today we can get it for 170 PLN (ca. 40 euro) or less. Nobody is gaining profits on paving stones now – the prices lowered the margin to the minimum. Gravel prices are also at a very low level. We can find it for 15 PLN (ca. 4 euro) per tonne, but beware! On the market we can find material which is not good for building road bases, because it does not conform to the standards. The situation with prestigious orders looks better. Stone in commercial projects – also in spa & wellness centres – is a very interesting and lucrative order for mines – informs Jacek Kiszkiel, one of the three partners at “Granimex” company, which has been exploiting deposits “Graniczna II” in Strzegom since 1986. The company also owns 3 mines abroad (quarries in Ukraine and in the RSA).

Stabilisation of prices is still a dream. The market hates a vacuum and it is not the first time that we could see nervous moves on the stone market at the beginning of the building season. Some say that this is a temporary situation, with no serious influence on the annual balance.

- I would treat much lower prices of granite pavers as an episode. Why an episode? Many mines have just got rid of their last year’s stock this way. Since April the prices have returned to the level of 210-220 PLN (ca. 52-55 euro) per tonne, which at the same time does not change the rule that “price makes miracles happen” and becomes the most important purchasing criterion on stone market – informs Ryszard Chęciński, the managing director of GRANIT STRZEGOM S.A. mine.

- If it comes to tightening demands in business relations, since last year mines have been forced to look at payments of invoices more carefully. It is about a situation which was brought into life by the decision of the minister of finance who imposed an obligation of derecognition of unpaid amount with 90-day payment deadline. The VAT from an invoice, not  from a transfer or money that has been actually transferred into a company account, is  a problem that is often raised. Payment enforcement is, as we know, a serious problem.

Basalt, marble, diabase and sandstone – over 70 per cent of these raw materials in Poland can be found in Lower Silesia, with a vibrant granite centre in Strzegom. Suffice to say that over 500 companies which deal with extraction and processing of rock raw materials were registered at the beginning of the century. Granite is the most common building stone in Poland – it is, we may say, almost the only material used for producing road pavers and other stone elements for road industry. But in the first half of this year nearly 60 building companies which were building motorways and stadiums (contracts worth billions zlotys) filed bankruptcy petitions.   

I’ve got a wire saw and what now?

fot 2  IMG 1305The representatives of mines who were asked by us say that there is a need for information exchange about companies which obtain materials by deception. The fact that there are such companies is a common knowledge. What is the result? Most mines have recently tightened demands on stone supply: 30% deposit and 70% when the material is being loaded on truck.

Another interesting phenomenon this year are effects of many stone companies investing in machines for sawing blocks – machines are relatively cheap, because they are made in Poland. What is the result?

- Many machines of this kind appeared in our Strzegom centre. They are, most often, single-wire ones. They are bought by many companies, which not always have their own stone mines. It has led to the situation when we have no block material for cutting! – informs Tomasz Solima from PIRAMIDA Sp. z o.o., which employs nearly 150 people, exploits its own granite quarry, where mostly big stone blocks are extracted.  

- The number of mines in Strzegom is not higher, it is even lower. I don’t think that problems with stone is a matter of winter, which was much milder than usual. Firstly: “single-wires” work on kerbs, which takes a lot of stone. Secondly, the whole region is making a lot of wall stone, which, to a great extent, is also made of block stone. Even investments related to river regulation or levees do not influence the deficit of block stone as much as the two reasons mentioned above.

Mine is a capital-intensive and energy intensive production plant. Meanwhile, the EU climate policy expressed the view that industrial production should be low-emission one. We can see the effects even today. Mining in developed countries has no chance when competing with mining in developing countries – and it is not only about transport costs. Another thing is that Europe has already built and renovated what they were supposed to do. The Chinese are still making their way and their efforts towards modernisation and industrialisation are justified. How can we compete with products if the domestic market is flooded with products with a comparable structure, properties, colour and surprisingly lower price?

- A question about a good price means how not to lead to price war, but at the same time not to be accused of price fixing? It is surprising if one needs to bring materials to the site and has the same price as stone extracted in a mine. I’d have to give up my margin and maybe even add a little to compete with a stone from China – says Jacek Kiszkiel.

- Another thing is that in this branch each mine has at least half a million zlotys (ca. 125,000 euro) that it hasn’t received so far (unpaid payments) and for which mine’s attorneys are still fighting. Pre-payment and a bank transfer as soon as stone transport leaves the company’s gate – that is the way mines have to deal with unreliable payers.

Solidarity or …?

fot 3 IMG 1212We can hear everywhere that work at open-cast mines is no longer lucrative. Lack of workers may be the biggest problem this year. Demands, pay ones, for example, is a natural phenomenon, especially in countries where investment boom is visible.  Pay rise is rather slow, and it might be the only field of competition with economies of non-EU countries! Grants – a way of financing and promoting national products on foreign markets – take various shapes and here we can see at its best how poor EU economy in mining branch is. Why? Rise of energy costs, related directly to the temptation of fighting for CO2 reduction, may be a nail in the coffin for many rock mining companies in Europe. Mines in Poland are in the worst situation. Rock mining has never been subsidised in any way whereas taxes and administrative fees imposed on it are higher and higher.

Let us imagine a small stone centre on the map of Poland. Six mines – all of them, except for one, belong to the local stone companies. A few years ago small mines (with the output from a few hundred to a few thousand tonnes per year) provided a stable profit for stone companies. Today there are only three of them. Profitability of two pits is secured by the fact that their owners upgraded their machinery parks. They do not extract more stone than they can use on an ongoing basis. Only the case of Głębiec mine is different. It is different although just a decade ago a few dozens of quarrymen used to work there. Today only five, because the yearly extraction of block material dropped to 3,000-5,000 tons of sandstone.  

- If our state administration does not protect us against the flood of block material subsidised by other countries which, unloaded in port, can be still bought 20-30% cheaper than mine, how can I still look into future with optimism? – complains Roman Rutkowski, the representative of  PMC SP. Z O.O. and the director of  “Głębiec” mining plant in Brenna.

- It’s obvious. We have to follow rules, but what can we do in the situation when they become another burden which slowly leads us to quit extraction? Two years ago I had the last conversation with foreign investors – it was about the renovation of stone buildings in Germany and Switzerland with sandstone which is extracted in the south of Poland. We can’t afford to promote our raw material and nobody actually wants to change it.

Now we have got an equilibrium. The spectre of destructive competition would appear if a bigger player switched to the production of highly processed products.

Summary

An attempt to protect domestic deposits is still a dream. It is true that the EU consultations on geographical indications for products outside agri-food sector have started (and will finish on 28 October 2014 – editor’s note), but will it be possible to force through the idea to make a raw material a regional product? If it is so, manufacturers will be able to use a uniform EU-level protection which is going beyond national rules. It would be surely easier to present business partners with one coherent system than with 28 different ones. A coherent system would be important both for producers – as a better marketing tool, and for consumers because of better information. If this project is adopted, maybe also granite from Strzegom, sandstones from Brenna as well as Kielce marbles will be under protection as regional products.

For now, however, a new financial perspective is a sign of recovery in our country. If it comes to the whole road network, we are now slightly above the EU average, but our biggest problem is lack of express roads and motorways. There is still much to do to complete the network of express roads in Poland and, also, port- and water-related (mainly river-) construction. Poland is going to receive 73 billion euro support under cohesion policy in the years 2014-2020. According to specialists, better economic situation should be visible in early 2015.

Rafał Dobrowolski

MARMOMACC 2014 AND POLISH EXHIBITORS

Werona 49. International Exhibition of Stone Design and Technology is going to start on 24 September and last for three days. Obviously, the fair in Verona cannot be complete without branch magazines. Our magazine will have its stand among several most important stone industry magazines.

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ARTISTIC PICTURES MADE OF STONE

obrazyZenon Budziszewski, by using simple pebbles, created huge mosaics which cover walls of his house and not only his. The pebbles come from the Baltic Sea (from Łeba, among others) or from Polish mountains. There are, however, also those which were brought from Hungary, France or Spain.

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1,300 TONS OF PORTUGUESE GRANITE TO PLAC EUROPEJSKI

portugalskiPlac Europejski (the European square) is a square-to-be in Warsaw, which is going to be built just by the Warsaw Spire. The Portuguese stone will cover the square in Wola district at the corner of Grzybowska and Towarowa streets.

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CUTTING-EDGE POLISHING LINE FOR GRANITE SLABS

kiszkielKAMIENIARSTWO ZENON KISZKIEL is the first Polish company which bought a machine made by Simec for automatic splitting of granite slabs. This is another example of investing in machinery park, which will shorten order completion time and provide high quality of stone product supplies.

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