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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 June 2005, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
Stone masons carving out US niche
By Eddie O'Gorman
BBC Northern Ireland business correspondent

A County Down company specialising in monumental stonework has won its first contract in the United States.

McConnell and Sons of Kilkeel secured the contract for a monument in Richmond, Virginia, to commemorate the deaths of more than 70 people in a theatre fire in the early 19th century.

The monument is being made at McConnell's factory near Kilkeel at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. Mostly they work in Mourne granite.

Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain
Firm cut the stone for Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain

This particular monument is made of Thassos marble from northern Greece, and it replaces an existing monument of Carrara marble which has virtually disintegrated through atmospheric pollution.

The County Down firm cut the stone for a memorial to Princess Diana unveiled in Hyde Park in London in 2004.

The firm used state-of-the-art technology to cut 545 pieces of Cornish granite for the fountain.

Alfonso Narvaez is the senior project manager for John Milner Associates, and he has been at McConnell's to check on the progress of the Richmond contract.

He is in charge of the project, and he said they chose McConnell's because it was the only company with the technology and experience necessary to carry out the work.

"We had looked at a few companies in the US," he said.

"A lot of them had very sophisticated equipment, but they didn't have much experience in using it.

We need to expand beyond the UK and Irish markets, and this could give us an important foothold in the United States
Norman McKibben
McConnell and Sons

"McConnell's was the first firm we found which had been involved in similar projects, and who were confident that it was well within their capability."

Mr Narvaez said that the project was a combination of advanced technology and traditional craftsmanship.

"We are confident that in McConnell's we have a company which not only understands the technology, but also the materials, and can combine those two elements to produce the best possible result in the finished monument."

McConnell's managing director Norman McKibbin said that the significance of the contract was in the fact that it was their first on the American market, rather than in any technical difficulty.

"Compared to some of the work we've done, it's not technically demanding at all," he said.

"But we need to expand beyond the UK and Irish markets, and this could give us an important foothold in the United States."

Project

He has been given some encouragement by Alfonso Narvaez, who believes that this project could be the start of a longer term collaboration.

"We're always looking for partners, and the fact that McConnell's are based in Northern Ireland is incidental.

"Distance isn't really a factor, even when it comes to sending blocks of marble across the Atlantic.

"In fact, the shipping costs amount to less than 2% of the total cost of the project.

"What it really comes down to is who has the skills, and can work with us effectively?

"We've built a good relationship with the folks in McConnell's, and there's no reason to think that we can't work together equally well in the future," he said.




SEE ALSO:
Diana memory carved in stone
01 Jul 04 |  Northern Ireland
Queen commends NI stonemasons
06 Jul 04 |  Northern Ireland
Work starts on Diana's fountain
25 Jun 03 |  London



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