StoneTalk Episode 37 – Aaron Dahnke

In StoneTalk Episode 37, Patrick digs into stone industry education opportunities with Aaron Dahnke of MIA+BSI.

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Patrick: Welcome to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. Brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software, and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I’m your host Patrick Foley. Today I’m chatting with Aaron Dahnke from MIA+BSI. Let’s give him a call.

Aaron: Good afternoon, MIA+BSI. Aaron Dahnke speaking.

Patrick: Hey Aaron, Patrick from Moraware. How are you doing?

Aaron: I’m doing great. How are you today?

Patrick: Pretty good. This still a good time?

Aaron: Yeah, absolutely.

Patrick: Thanks for joining me and talking with us here. Just for context, what’s your role with MIA+BSI?

Aaron: I am currently the Education Manager with the MIA+BSI. I work primarily with our partnership with Stone World, with the stone industry education to perform the Stone Summit. Our conference education, first stone expo, I’m covering our online university education which is the online portion of our Natural Stone University, and then, our chapter program.

Patrick: Cool. So, all about education it sounds like.

Aaron: Yes, primarily what I do is work with the education and some of the distribution then education.

Patrick: Cool. Before we dive into the specifics of that education, what’s your background? How did you get into this position? Did you come from the fabricator world? Or you more come from the educational world?

Aaron: Everything I’ve done is pretty much on the education side either through universities or associations. The last organization I was with was a Washington, DC-based nonprofit and I ran their education department. So, a lot of the things that we do at the MIA+BSI from an education front, you’ll have a university background or more of industry association type education background.

Patrick: Cool. Well, let’s unpack some of those things you just talked about. I heard Stone Summit and Stone Expo, let’s just go through some of those. So, what are the stone summits that you talked about?

Aaron: The stone summits are day one events that we hold for fabricators installers, we have a great partner, Stone World Magazine, and we produce 10 educational events a year. They’re really regional type events. We usually have fabricators from four to five states attend the events, and usually have about 40 or 50 fabricators in the room for each event. The goal of the event is to provide both business and technical education for fabricators attending that day.

Patrick: Cool, and how do I find out about these if I want to attend one? I think I have attended one or two of these in the past and when you said about 40, 50 fabricators in the room, I’m sure I’ve attended one of these events and I was very impressed because a big part of it is that crosstalk with fabricators, getting people talking with each other.

Aaron: Absolutely, and that’s really our big goal is to try to bring in fabricators from across the region and that’s why the goal of getting four or five states represented at each event is important because the crosstalk between fabricators or the interactions where fabricators really gain a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience, and can really take that experience and use it in their day-to-day activities. To learn more about the stone industry education series, go to the website That has a complete list of all the events and some of the past write-ups that we’ve done for each course.

Patrick: Awesome,, is that correct?

Aaron: Correct.

Patrick: Awesome. So, at those events, is it ever an issue where people are afraid about talking freely when you know, maybe their competitor or someone from their competitor who might be at their competitor is in the room, is that an issue?

Aaron: At times it is at the beginning of the day. So when people walk in, they might be a little bit quiet or a little bit concerned because they have seen competitors either across town or from around the state. However, some of our facilitators are really good at breaking down the doors and breaking down some of the walls they’ve put up. The daylong is very interactive and really, once we get into the discussion, everybody realizes that if you’re in the room and you want to better yourself and better the industry. And how we make a stronger industry is by talking to each other and learning how to best perform our duties inside the industry, and raise the bar for everybody involved.

Patrick: Cool. And are these facilitators, are these fabricators or are they also more from the educational world?

Aaron: All of our facilitators are fabricators who have been in the industry for many years. The four fabricators that we have this year feature GK Naquin from Stone Interiors in Louisiana, he’s a former MIA+BSI president. We have Tony Malisani from Malisani Incorporated. He’s from Montana and he’s a former MIA+BSI president and is a third generation owner of his company. Eric Tryon of Premier Surfaces in Atlanta, he’s been in the industry for over 10 years and really has built a great establishment in the Atlanta over to Alabama region. Also this year, we’re adding Marco Duran from Atlas Marble and Granite in New Jersey. He’s former Stonewall Magazine fabricator of the year and has a plethora of the experience in the industry.

Patrick: Awesome. Again, I’ve been to at least a couple of these, haven’t been in a few months, but excellent events. So, I agree, I definitely encourage people to go there. You also mentioned Stone Expo. What is your responsibility in regards to Stone Expo or how does MIA+BSI focus on Stone Expo?

Aaron: Both Jim Hieb and myself work with the educational committee to come up with some of the curriculum for the overall education program. Also the MIA+BSI provide five educational sessions. You can find out more about those specific sessions if you go to the bonus education section of the Tise website which is You can also go to the MIA+BSI website and we have a list of all the free education that we provide at those conferences.

Patrick: Nice, and the Stone Expo, is that…I know there’s one in Vegas in January, is that the one that’s also…is it just the one in Vegas or is there another one in a different part of the area?

Aaron: In the past, they’ve done both the Stone Expo West and the Stone Expo East. This year, there is only a Stone Expo West.

Patrick: Got it.

Aaron: Or Tise West. So, the best chance to go to that specific event will be in Las Vegas in late January.

Patrick: Got it. And that’s

Aaron: Correct.

Patrick: Great. And in fact, at this upcoming one, we’re going to be joining you in your big booth on the trade floor at some point.

Aaron: Oh, great.

Patrick: Yeah. So, in fact, let me announce that real quick. Look in the program, there’s…on the next show I’ll make sure I get the exact time, but we’re gonna be hosting and posting ice cream. So, when there’s ice cream at the MIA+BSI booth area, then myself and Harry and Ted, the two founders of Moraware will be there and just talking with old friends and meeting new ones. So, we’re really looking forward to seeing you there.

Aaron: Yeah, and we really appreciate Moraware’s support and we look forward to seeing you at the booth. I know during the week, we have a lot different things going on in addition to the ice cream. We actually planned to do a number of facilitated discussions and discussions on how to you use the new online portion of the Natural Stone Institute.

Patrick: I think that’s great because one of the challenges of a big conference is that, in some ways it’s harder to get that crosstalk that you get at a smaller event in my opinion. Because you know, classes are great, but they tend to be one too many people are you know, facing front and then they get up and leave and talk to the people they already know. So, having…and then the trade show floor is…you know, a lot of times you’re talking with salespeople for a good reason. You want to see the latest about this new saw or that new blade or whatever. All those are good things, but by adding those structured conversation events, then a lot of happy accidents happen where you can talk with someone in a similar situation or someone who has a different perspective, and learn from your peers which I’m just personally really big on. So, thank you for being a resource for accomplishing that because it’s actually quite hard at a big event.

Aaron: Yeah, and one of our big goals is to try to get our members and people in the industry interacting. Like you said, the best way to learn is to talk through challenges or talk through different things that you’ve seen. And by going to a stone summit or going to a conference, a lot of times you’ll meet somebody who’s come up with similar issues or some more challenges and you can learn a lot about how they dealt with those challenges as you’re facing a challenge that you’re trying to overcome.

Patrick: Absolutely. Well, let’s talk about a particular issue and one that I think MIA+BSI touches on and particularly in your role, I hear a lot of fabricators say that their hardest issue is finding good employees so it’s one of the biggest challenges they always face. How does education fit into addressing that challenge? You know, at some point, all good employees didn’t know anything about the stone industry is…what role does education have in making good employees versus finding good employees? Does that make sense?

Aaron: Absolutely, and that is a great thing that you brought up because I’ve heard a lot of employers tell us that they like to hire somebody who’s new to the industry, who hasn’t been through a lot of challenges in the industry so they can train them. Our goal as an association is to provide resources for employers to train their employees, provide standards, and provide a good educational base so that their employees can grow in the industry. We do this a number of ways, we set the standards for the industry and a lot of those standards are on our Natural Stone resource library which you can find on our website. And this is a list of articles on everything from natural stone into how to install different natural stones.

We also do it through distribution processes like the online portion of the Natural Stone Institute where we have over 60 safety training programs already set up. So, employer can send their employee to the online university where they can pick a class, watch a video, and take a test and receive a certificate for taking that class.

Patrick: Let’s unpack that a little bit. When you say that you have standards online, can you give me an example? I don’t know what you mean by a standard that I would want people to know about. A standard in the way of doing something?

Aaron: Yeah, absolutely. So, it would be standards for…for instance, a granite. Say you have somebody who wants to install a granite countertop, how do you do the installation process? How much lippage can you have over the edge of a counter? How large can a crease or seam be in two pieces of cut stone? We have those standards already placed online and we also have them in the stone dimension design manual. So, if you’re working on a project or a fabricator is working on a project, he’s planning to install a granite in a home and he wants to look at the standards for the lippage, he can go to our online resource library, typing granite and countertop and every article and every standard that has been written through the MIA+BSI will come up and then he or she will be able to review that standard. And then if the issue comes up, they can speak with the homeowner or the client about that standard.

Patrick: Interesting. And, I’m thinking you know, what if I got a job as a fabricator, when we get to the point of talking about how much lippage I can have for a countertop, that assumes I already know how to cut, I have basic hands-on skills if you will, in wanting to understand more. Do you address going backward further than that? You know, how I might get more baseline skills like making a CAD drawing or programming CNC, not necessarily specific CNC, but at least developing the foundational skills that I would need to succeed at that activity. Do you address any of those types of foundational skills or is that not currently part of the goal of your education?

Aaron: We are working our way towards building some curriculum for some of the baseline stuff that you’ve brought up. One of the best ways to gain some of that knowledge though is like you said earlier, if you come to a stone summit or come to a stone expo or Tise, you will take classes and we’ll work to add that discussion into the overall curriculum so you can learn from other people who are dealing with or learning about the same programs.

Patrick: Got it. And let’s talk…you mentioned the Natural Stone Institute, I believe that’s What can I learn at that site? You said that you have this university site on that website. In addition to safety, what other kinds of things can I learn?

Aaron: Right now…and we just launched the online portion of the Natural Stone Institute. So, we currently have 60 educational courses that are based on safety. Each course includes description, learning objectives, a video if it’s a video-based program. If it’s another type of program like a toolbox talk, we have handouts that you can download. We have a reading section for every educational program because some people learn from watching videos, some people learn from reading. Then every class will also have a test that tests your competency. So, a fabricator will be able go in, take a 10-question test. If they complete the test and pass it which would be 8 out of 10 questions correct, they’ll receive a certificate. They’ll also have a transcript of all the classes that that fabricator has taken so he or she can download it and give it to their employer or use it as their personal record.

Patrick: And are these really all free?

Aaron: The safety courses are underwritten by our safety committee. We have a great safety committee whose goal is to make sure that the industry has as much information as possible about safety. So, one of the goals of the safety committee was to make sure that our safety courses are free to the industry so anybody can come in, take the course. All a person has to do is log on to the MIA+BSI system at the online university. If you do not have a password, you can build an account and you’ll be able to log into the website.

Patrick: And then again, if I’m an employer, if I’m a fabricator, I’m gonna want all my employees to take this. What’s the best way to find out that they’ve gone through this training? Is that the transcript of those tests, is that what you we’re saying, print that out and have the employee print it out and give it to me. Is that the best way to check that they’ve done it?

Aaron: We also have an opportunity for every member company to create an education manager. So, this will be a person who can go in, download all the information, and then turn around and administer the course to their employees. So, an education manager has access to every employee in their company, all of the classes that they’ve taken. So, they can see if a person has taken basic slab handling and passed the course. The employer can also look to see what other classes or tests have been taken by that employee. If the education manager wants to download information and administer a class to say 10 employees, they can download the video and will not need the internet to show the video.

So, if they want to go to a job site that does not have internet, it will still show a video to their whole team. They’ll also have all the handouts and tests and a test key so they can administer the course, their employees can take the test, that education manager can then grade each test and go back into the system and log on and upload every employee that has passed a certain education test. And that goes back to your point, an employer can use this as a transcript where they can download each of their employee’s transcripts to see what employees have passed what test and then also use that for reporting purposes or their purposes and their safety files.

Patrick: That’s great. And so, how does that part relate then to OSHA? There’re certain OSHA requirements that make sure that I’ve done certain kinds of training, this training will help me meet some of those requirements. Is that…

Aaron: Absolutely. One of the things that OSHA pushes is continued safety training, so, to give toolbox talks your employees to make sure that they’re taking classes. And this gives you a third party record that employee A, B, and C have taken these classes, they have comprehended what the classes have stated and now you have a record that they have already gone through the training and should be in a position to do a job safely.

Patrick: Awesome. So, I’m looking at right now and I see one of the menu items says course catalog and then I click on course bundles. What are these course bundles? I see you have four of them currently.

Aaron: Yeah, the course bundles are grouping of courses that are connected. So, currently we have MIA+BSI safe slab handling course bundle. These are eight courses that are based on safe slab handling. So, it would be moving slabs, taking slabs off of a truck, working with a forklift, working with clamps. All the things that really are dedicated to slab handling .We also have a safety installation course bundle and that deals with the installation process. So, if you’re in a commercial or residential situation and you’re doing installation, what are the safety programs that we should concern ourselves with or we’re the safety policies? Every course bundle has a tie to it, so it’s a grouping of courses that are alike enough that you should take each course in that bundle to get a full proficiency.

Patrick: Nice. And then I see you’re adding CNC tool operator and continuing education for the architect and design community as additional bundles. I see there’s not as many courses there, the CNC tool operator, is that kind of the basics of what I was talking about like if I were…now someone who knew how to use a bridge saw that I’ve never used CNC before, is that gonna help me understand as I start making the jump, is that the goal of that or something else?

Aaron: We are actually working with Terminator right now…

Patrick: I don’t know what a Terminator is. What does Terminator mean?

Aaron: Terminator is a company inside the stone industry and they’re one of the sponsors of our online university and they also have classes that are set up that they do onsite training, and some of the courses that they are using our platform for our prerequisites to that online training. From the architect and design community bundle, we are putting together a number of courses for the architect and design community. So, those members of the industry can gain CEU credit. So, an architect can go back to the AIA and say we’ve taken this course and received continuing education credits towards their proficiency.

Patrick: So, this suggests that you’ve opened up this platform to include partners to have useful training. Am I interpreting that correctly?

Aaron: Correct. And we’re right at the beginning of the education program and building out the online portion of the Natural Stone Institute. So, as we grow, I’m sure we will work with more partners to produce education in different sections of the industry.

Patrick: Very cool. You’ll have to follow up with us after the interview at the appropriate time because I have had people…I remember speaking with a fabricator more than a year ago saying he wanted a basic set of certifications for his employees to know that they understand the basics of a bunch of things, and one of the ones he mentioned was our software. I want basics of understanding JobTracker and CounterGo. We have that information on our website, but we don’t have the tests and showing that you’ve watched it, that sort of things. So, including something like that on your website might bring more value to some of our customers. So, we may definitely be…

Aaron: Absolutely. And this is one of the things that we’re trying to do with the online university or the online portion of the university is to provide a third party validation that you’ve taken classes, that you’ve passed a certification or a test and that you are progressing in your career.

Patrick: That’s really cool. Sohow often are you gonna be adding new courses? I mean, I know that adding good material is not trivial, if I’ve looked at everything on your site already, how often could I expect something new that I would wanna watch to show up?

Aaron: Right now, we’re adding information on a rolling basis. So, we started out with the first 60 safety education courses because we knew that this was one of the most important aspects of our industry: making sure that employees and professionals in our industry are safe. Now, we plan to start adding a number of additional courses, we are currently working on 60 Spanish safety training courses that should be up before the end of the year. A lot of it is a translation of what is already up online. We are also starting to add some of our past webinars, we have had a number of webinar programs that we’ve already produced around the ideas of geology of natural stone sales in the stone industry.

So, if you go to the webinar tab, you’ll start to see additional education come up whether it’s geology of natural stone, whether it’s sales in the stone industry. So, we’re adding on a rolling basis, we don’t have a program set up where once a week, we’re adding a course. However, we will be adding continually, so definitely keep coming back to the online university section of the Natural Stone Institute or look at our weekly member email and that will give you updates too.

Patrick: Very cool. Little off topic, but related to what you’re talking about. Do you have a Facebook page yet or no?

Aaron: Yes, the MIA+BSI does have a Facebook page.

Patrick: Actually I can see it, it’s Marble Institute. It’s linked on your website at the bottom there. The reason I mentioned that is, I think Facebook Live is just so cool. I think it brings up so many new opportunities. You aim your cell phone at something and when you go to create a post, there’s that little Facebook Live link and you can just go live and start filming in real time. I know it’s different from what’s been done in the past, but especially at all your smaller events, it’s such a marketing benefit. In different industries, people have been telling me that it seems counterintuitive. “Oh, if we put on Facebook live, then they’re not gonna wanna come.” No, they turns out they do or you know, it doesn’t replace coming in person, it just helps people see that they wanna be there and try hard to get there. So, I hope that…I mean, your events seem like they would be great for Facebook Live if you can make it happen. The only real obstacle is just making sure you have a strong enough Internet that it looks halfway decent, but something to play with perhaps.

Aaron: That’s a great suggestion because we’ve looked at a lot of opportunities especially for regional education, whether it be our stone summits with Stone World Magazine or our chapter programs. A way to get more people involved, we have a lot of great interaction at both of those types of events that it would be very important for people like for instance, if we have a New York Metro chapter event that’s discussing a fabricator round table, a lot of the concepts or things that the people are talking about at that event are also important to people in the Midwest. Midwest chapter or in California. So, I agree with you and that was a great tip that you brought up and something that we wanna look at adding to our education distribution.

Patrick: Something to think about. One of the things I like…the reason I like Facebook Live specifically is that, it’s intentionally low rent so that as consumers of Facebook Live, we’ve been trained that, “Oh, this isn’t gonna look like NBC, this is going look like your wildly cellphone that your brother-in-law did” you know, that you’re watching something and that’s a good thing. It means, we don’t have to overthink the production. The expectations are low on the production side. So, it’s really just about, “Hey, you’re off in California, I’m in New York. We’re bringing you closer together by…” it might not work well for the more discussion-oriented things, but certainly for the classroom, the one-to-many type things and when people are summarizing the results of their roundtables, it’s a great way just to share it in real time.

Aaron: Absolutely, and like I said, I’m glad that you brought that up because we’ve been thinking about how to become more interactive or how to open up some of our great programming to additional people and I think that would be a great way. So, that’s something that we will start looking into right away.

Patrick: Awesome. Yeah, we’re looking at it. We do some webinars as well, and we typically use GoToMeeting for that, but people have to go to GoToMeeting. With Facebook, often they’re right there anyway so, they’re just killing time and then they come on it. The problem with webinars specifically where you wanna share your screen is that, the tools are still quite fiddly, it’s not…and so that’s a different barrier. But you know, next year or the year after that, that’s the direction these things are going I’m sure.

Aaron: Absolutely.

Patrick: So, one of the things that I’ve always found interesting is the M part of MIA and the marble and your focus on natural stone. What are some of the…you know, again I’m a fabricator, what do I want my team whether that’s my fabrication team or my installation team or my sales team, what do I want them to learn about natural stone and specifically as it might relate to courts which is you know engineered stone is pretty big deal as well. What don’t people know about natural stone that they need to learn and how do your resources help with that?

Aaron: Well, natural stone is a natural product. So, it’s porous, it interacts with the environment that it’s placed in, so there are a lot of different aspects to each natural stone. Since a lot of natural stone has a different chemical makeups, you really have to train the customer on what they’re buying and let them know that marble is gonna react different to cleaners, to different situations than a granite or limestone. So, how do you really educate people on that? What we really want people in the industry or fabricators in the industry to do, is to go use the online resources or the in-person resources.

So, if you have a new job that just came up, you have to install marble in a wet area, what are the standards? What’s gonna allow you to be assured that when you install a marble in a wet area, there’s not gonna be any bleeding or any problems come up? So, if you go to our online resource library, you can read all the different problems that may arise. You can read how to install that stone properly to assure that you will not have those problems. If you’re a member, you can call us, we have free technical assistance to MIA members. So, you can call in, ask a question, and we have people from the industry on-hand who can help you make sure that the installation is correct. So, our goal is to really help put industry professionals in the right place to succeed and allow them to learn about natural stone so they can inform customers and make sure that it’s the customer’s best choice when they pick stone.

Patrick: That makes sense and I get the impression that if anyone in our industry fails, it kind of affects the whole industry. So, if I’m a fabricator and I install granite in a situation where it maybe wasn’t the best fit or I don’t meet the standards and the customer has a negative experience, there’s a good chance they’re gonna say, “Ah, granite’s not a good fit.” Instead of…and it affects the whole industry that way.

Aaron: Yeah. Absolutely and it’s really trying to pair the correct product with the customer. So, and that’s what we tell a lot of people who come to sales training or different trainings is listen to the customer and learn what they want to do with the stone. After you figure out what their plans and their goals are, then you can start working with them to pick out what natural stone best fits their lifestyle.

Patrick: That makes a lot of sense. Finally, at the beginning of our conversation, you mention something about chapters. What are those?

Aaron: Yeah, the MIA+BSI started a chapter program in 2013. And right now, we have five chapters throughout the country and Canada. So, we have chapters in New York, New England area, Toronto, the Midwest which would be Minneapolis, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and then Texas the Dallas region. What we do with those programs is provide four educational programs a year in each market. We work with a steering committee of MIA+BSI members in each region, we work to develop content, and then we host events in locations throughout that area.

Patrick: So, if you have that many chapters, that means it sounds to me, correct me if I’m wrong, that you would need some more experienced fabricators to take the next step of getting involved by not just attending these events, but being a part of determining what goes on at them. Is that one of the things you do with these chapters?

Aaron: Absolutely, we’re always looking to get more people involved, people who have experience, who’ve been in the industry and want to help grow the industry in your region. We have a steering committee that meets once every other month to talk about topics that we want to present to the industry in that region, where to hold the event, and how to make it a better industry, and how to really inform people and help that segment or that market grow. If somebody wants to become involved in one of the chapters, they can absolutely contact me at aarondahnke@mia+bsi. I can get them involved with the chapter, I can help them find the events that we’re holding in the region, but also get them involved with the steering committee and so they can have a voice on what topics we’re discussing or what type of events we plan to hold in the coming future.

Patrick: That’s great, that’s a great message. So again, especially if you’ve been doing this awhile and gotten something out of these kinds of resources, this would be a great way to give back a little bit, start getting involved in that direction.

Aaron: Absolutely, and one of the main goals is to get people together. And as we had discussed over and over again today, how important it is to talk with other people in the industry and build relationships. And that’s what the chapters really do, it allows people to get in the room together, there’s a topic that we are discussing at the event, but those side discussions or side interactions is where people really learn a lot.

Patrick: That makes a ton of sense. Any final thoughts you wanna share?

Aaron: Well, I really appreciate all the work that Moraware and you do and so, the MIA+BSI really appreciate your support and everything that you do for the industry. So, thank you very much.

Patick: Thank you as well and I look forward to talking to you again very soon.

Aaron: Yeah, absolutely.

Patrick: Take care, Aaron.

Aaron: Okay, thanks. Have a great day.

Patrick: You too. Bye-bye.

Aaron: Bye.

Patrick: Thanks for listening to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. If you like this episode, be sure to visit or subscribe to StoneTalk in iTunes for more. Visit the StoneTalk Show Facebook page to join in the conversation and follow @stonetalkshow on Twitter. StoneTalk is brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I’m your host Patrick Foley, and I look forward to spending time with you again on the next episode of StoneTalk.