Volume 8 | Issue 5 | Year 2005

Europe is noted for its castles; North America for its log cabins. The reason is simple – both cultures erected their buildings using the materials readily available at hand. For Europeans in the Middle Ages, the rocky ground provided ample sturdy material, while trailblazing American settlers used the trees of the thick forests to fashion shelter.

Consequently, brick housing construction is typically associated with a European look, albeit one that is steadily becoming more popular here in the colonies. This is a popularity that one of the world’s top five building materials companies, CRH, PLC, an Irish company headquartered in an actual citadel – Belgard Castle in Dublin, Ireland – seeks to capitalize on through its aptly named North American subsidiary, Oldcastle Architectural Products Group. While the name reflects its heritage, there is nothing neither “old” nor “set in stone” about its business approach.

Oldcastle’s foundation dates back to 1978 when it was erected in the U.S. through a series of acquisitions and new plant investments by its parent company. Primary among these was the purchase of Amcor Masonry Products in North Salt Lake, Utah, The Oldcastle holding company comprises five divisions: Architectural Products Group (APG), Pre-Cast Concrete, Glass, Distribution, and Materials (which includes asphalt and quarrying operations). In 2003, Oldcastle raised industry ramparts with over $6.7 billion in sales.

Oldcastle APG, which is headquartered in Atlanta, Ga., has grown to become the leading North American producer of concrete masonry, lawn, garden and paving products, as well as a regional leader in clay brick; it also produces dry cementations, mixes, lightweight aggregates, bagged decorative stone, and lime and concrete roof tiles. Oldcastle APG owns the license for the popular Sakrete brand of bagged concrete mixes in the eastern U.S. as well as some select western states. In 2002, Oldcastle APG generated over $1.1 billion in revenues; it has enjoyed a compounded annual growth of 32 percent over the last five years.

Oldcastle APG operates four business units that reflect its geographic, product and customer breadth: APG Canada, Glen-Gery, APG Concrete Products and APG Retail. APG Canada is the largest producer of concrete pavers in that country, with 11 facilities in Ontario and Quebec. Glen-Gery joined APG in 1998 and is one of the largest brick producers with a strong position in the Midwest and northeast.

APG Concrete Products operates through five geographical regions and one independent company. It manages all of APG’s U.S. block and paver plants, concrete tile operations, decorative concrete and other specialty facilities.

“The APG Retail Group was formed in 2002 to provide a single point of contact for our national and regional retail customers and bring increased focus to this important growth sector,” explains John Kemp, marketing vice president. This group consolidates APG’s retail-specific manufacturing (bagged cement and decorative stone) with retail sales of concrete products (pavers and block). According to Kemp, “APG Retail is now a major player in both the building products and lawn and garden sections of the major homecenters and mass merchants.”

Oldcastle APG’s biggest building block is what it generally refers to as “hardscapes,” which encompasses both pavers used on the ground as well as segmental retaining walls, marketed under the Belgard(r) brand name that targets professional installers (another line of pavers and segmented garden walls is marketed to do-it-yourselfers via various national home center chains). Individual paver products include the highly popular Dublin Cobble, Holland and Bergerac lines, names that reflect their European origins and design.

Equally successful is Glen-Gery clay brick, sold in 43 states. Its diverse product line includes extruded, machine-molded and glazed-faced brick, brick pavers in a complete assortment of standard and custom shapes, available in over 1,000 different colors, sizes and shapes.

Another solid line comprises concrete products that look like natural stone, an increasingly used option in homebuilding to fortify a dressed-up appearance that is more formal and traditional. “Our Dufferin Stone replicates the beauty of natural stone, but is much easier to install and maintain,” Kemp notes.

Elegant Practicality
But old world style doesn’t mean inattention to new technologies and modern expectations. Belgard pavers are non-toxic and virtually maintenance free, Kemp points out. The interlocking concrete blocks that are increasingly fashionable among homeowners for patios, walkways decks and driveways have several advantages over poured concrete. Not only are they easier to install, and more flexible, they can also be more easily repaired. If there’s a crack or a discoloration in a walkway, you could have a major headache to fix poured concrete. With a paver system, you just yank up the defective blocks and replace them. Moreover, pavers don’t have the tendency to crack like poured concrete, which results in fewer repair problems in the first place. Also, pavers are available in a wider variety of colors, and provide more design and installation flexibility.

In addition to the product line itself, another significant factor for paving continual success is the utility of the interlocking configuration of independent companies that form the bedrock of Oldcastle APG. These comprise 180 locations in 34 states and two Canadian provinces. According to CEO Doug Black, this alliance of autonomous small- and mid-sized companies maintains local connections and knowledge backed by the financial and technical resources of the larger overarching Oldcastle APG organization. The advantage of separate fiefdoms, Black explains, is that it eliminates corporate bureaucracy while allowing each company to do what it does best: service and develop its own unique local customer base.

“We’re always looking for companies that offer a fit with our business model,” Black says. “We then support these companies with our corporate financial resources. An example is that we can make large raw materials purchases on a corporate level, and then pass the bulk discounts we receive as savings to the individual companies. In addition, the Oldcastle APG umbrella serves as a convenient conduit for our companies to share best practices and new ideas.”

He adds, “It’s the best of both worlds. Local management remains just that – local. At the same time, having a network of companies across the nation allows us to better serve the large national home center chains.”

Building Up
Overall, Oldcastle oversees 29 plants dedicated to paver manufacturing. It also operates 60 concrete block facilities, 12 specialty concrete and pre-cast plants, 10 clay brick and 25 concrete bagging facilities. Increasing demand for these products is keeping them busy. Black notes that the home improvement trend is continuing; Americans spend an increasing percentage of their disposable income on upgrading their domiciles. Nor is this necessarily a reflection of the improved economy. Black notes that Oldcastle APG saw one of its biggest increases in business follow the 9/11 attacks, which he attributes to a general decline in traveling abroad. “The money people would have spent on vacations instead was invested into their homes,” he points out. Similarly, rising gas prices may see a similar effect as people opt to “vacation at home” and look for a change of scenery via remodeling instead of motoring.

Future plans are to continue to build on the company’s firm footings – to form alliances or acquire new companies and, as Black explains, “continually invest in new plants, products and people to grow and expand markets. You know, concrete is the second most consumed product in the world. The first is water. The use of concrete and stone dates back to early Roman times, and it’s going to continue to be a vital element in both commercial and residential architecture. Consequently, we fully expect our business to grow even stronger as time goes on.

It’s the one business where being between a rock and a hard place is actually a good place to be.

Previous articleThe Good Earth
Next articleExpansion Plans