The construction industry was one of the hardest hit by the recession. Only businesses marked by resiliency and creativity survived – take, for instance, Oldcastle® Building Products, the premier provider of value-added innovations, materials and systems for a broad range of end users – from the “do it yourselfers” to industry professionals. Its brands rank among the best known (think Sakrete®). Innovation is a key word – for both products and business approach, reports Dan Harvey.
Oldcastle Building Products sits high upon a hill, a strong edifice with a commanding view. The Atlanta, Ga.-based operation rules several product categories – it’s the leading North American manufacturer of concrete masonry, lawn and garden, and paving products. Also, it’s a regional leader of clay brick.
The versatile enterprise – it targets the high-level professional and the “do it yourself ” consumer – boasts a product line that includes packaged cement mix, lightweight aggregates, bagged decorative stones and lime, concrete pavers and retaining walls, concrete masonry veneers, building block and concrete roof tiles. Indeed, it serves a broad spectrum that ranges from the homeowner up to architects, developers, builders, engineers and contractors.
Products include the most well-known brand names – SAKRETE®, for instance. Who hasn’t lifted a bag emblazoned with the familiar yellow-and-black logo from their trunk or truck when tackling a construction project?
There’s another Oldcastle brand that the company has aggressively and successfully pushed into American homes – thanks to the ever-growing media focus on outdoor living, promoted through cable channels such as the HGTY and DIY networks. That’s Belgard® Hardscapes, including concrete pavers and retaining walls, which has established new standards for manufactured hardscapes, capturing the kind of stone look that competitors have yet to equal. “It’s a very high end product,” says Ken O’Neill, vice president of marketing for Oldcastle Masonry and Hardscapes.
But in this case, “high end” doesn’t necessarily translate into expensive. “Rather, it means the level of aesthetics, and we’re more focused on looks than costs,” O’Neill clarifies.
No one could or should argue with his assessment. After all, he’s an insider with an insider’s perspective, and he knows where the industry is heading and how his company is growing. “For one thing, Belgard attaches itself to the burgeoning outdoor living environment category,” he observes. “We’ve grown beyond just a driveway or walkway. We’ve demonstrated how hardscapes can provide the foundation of the outdoor living experience.”
A SURE TOUCH
Oldcastle brands include Trenwyth (for structural masonry), Quik-Brik (which provides red-clay attractiveness with less than half of the attached problems), Glen-Gery Bricks (a leader in clay bricks), Dufferin Stone (the Cadillac product as far as stone veneers), among many others.
But look for another brand to achieve the same recognition level as Sakrete and Belgard, O’Neill prophesizes. It’s called Suretouch®, an easily installable exterior masonry veneer system. It’s another high-end product (in terms of aesthetics), and it’s highly adaptable – offering a variety of precast masonry unit shapes and sizes, including a Glen-Gery clay brick line. Carefully planned and tested through each stage of its development, the Suretouch system proves applicable to both new construction and renovation work.
Product gestation involved the efforts of researchers and developers. Ultimately, the Suretouch system emerged from the company’s fertile approach. This innovative cladding system, which uses pre-molded polystyrene, gave birth to insulation panels that are easily installed and part of the veneer system. The pre-formed panels screw right into a structure – wood, metal stud or concrete block – and provide a paint-by-numbers concept for unit placement, whether manufactured stone or brick. “It takes the guesswork out of the stone pattern and placement”, says O’Neill, “and the combined system provides an insulation factor of R-13.5.”
The Suretouch system is characterized by exterior aesthetic appeal – offering the timeless look of classic masonry. That’s a great selling point. A façade is the first thing that people see, and O’Neill describes how his company enriches an exterior look. “We provide a product of choice when it comes to replacing vinyl siding with a rich, deep-red brick or natural stone look,” he says.
But it’s more than just attractive; it’s practical. It provides great insulation value for energy savings and acoustical comfort as well as the durability of a masonry exterior. O’Neill describes how both aesthetics and practicality come into play: “Remove the vinyl siding, replace it with the insulated board and then apply either brick or concrete masonry stone. It provides a veneer that is both attractive and durable. And less weight, labor and time is involved.”
It’s one more innovation among many. “In our business group, we constantly seek to provide products that are both unique and inventive – that is, we want to produce something that no one else has,” says O’Neill.
IT’S AN ONGOING EFFORT.
“For instance, when it comes to hardscape products, we constantly strive to develop new products that attach themselves to new shapes, and we invest a lot of money each year into this effort, which is directed toward two channels: the professional and the DIY. Our research and development carry us through both channels.”
The approach also applies the masonry side, which has been around for thousands of years – think of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, suggests O’Neill. “Today’s masonry is just adapting and changing the product offering to enhance the benefits that traditional masonry has always had, creating better inherent properties and making it easier to design, install and enjoy.”
That somewhat simplifies the mission of a company that is a complex organization. Author Norman Mailer once said, “Don’t try to understand me too quickly,” and that quote could apply to the multifaceted Oldcastle. “We want to offer value-added products which are unique in the marketplace. This allows the business to grow, and it enables our customers to provide solutions to end users, whether they’re someone doing a weekend project or an architect that’s designing a new structure,” says O’Neill.
How did this vibrant and innovative company arise and flourish? Oldcastle Building Products (once known as Oldcastle APG – or Architectural Products Group) was established in the early 1990s as a subsidiary of Oldcastle Inc., which is, in turn, a holding company part of CRH plc., a Dublin, Ireland-headquartered corporation. A world leader when it comes to products and materials, CRH operates in more than 30 countries and established as many as 3,500 locations.
Oldcastle Inc. dates back to 1978, following a series of CRH acquisitions and investments. One of the most important acquisitions involved the Utah-based Amcor Masonry Products, which had a precast and block manufacturing facility. Oldcastle Inc. grew to include five business segments – precast concrete, architectural products, building envelope, distribution and construction accessories – but to enhance efficiencies, it recently consolidated businesses into three divisions, relates O’Neill. “Today, the three units are building products, materials and building envelope,” he adds.
CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY TRAVAILS
As it was born in the 1990s, Oldcastle Building Products, once known as Oldcastle APG, realized substantial growth with the housing boom, in terms of sales and profitability, relates O’Neill. “That led to expansion,” he says.
But in the latter part of the new millennium’s first decade, the company confronted the economic downturn, which put the brakes on the rapid growth it enjoyed. However, Oldcastle readily adapted to the new business environment. “We’ve been able to ride it out. We’ve been selling less but have been making a little bit more, so we have seen profitability start to increase in the past couple of quarters,” reports O’Neill.
At the same time, the company isn’t witnessing the level of growth it realized from about 2004 to 2006, when sales reached the $2 billion level, qualifies O’Neill. “Then we were riding with a tremendous retail, commercial construction, home building and remodeling environment. We were firing on all cylinders, and every part of our business was going gangbusters.”
Still, the company is optimistic about the future, and one of the reasons is the survival tactics it has deployed. O’Neill explains: “We listen to our customers and develop ways to solve their problems. Of course, that has always been one of our main goals, but it’s even more so now. Business is now more than just about product; it’s about better service. We’re now thinking about things that we maybe didn’t need to think so much about before. The economy has taught us that what once held true five or six years ago will no longer work. We’re operating in a completely different kind of marketplace.”
And the survivors will be those that will adapt.
But one thing about the company hasn’t changed: its focus on innovation. “Any company that focuses on innovation has reason to be optimistic,” comments O’Neill.
Why? Here O’Neill paraphrases that oft-quoted line from a famous movie: “If you build it, [they] will come.” If you work on building the innovation, O’Neill points out, “the market will be there when you get there.”
Welcome to the new “Field of Dreams,” whereupon Oldcastle will continue to build.
“We have a lot to look forward to,” concludes O’Neill.