General Shale Brick: And Here’s To You Mr. Robinson

Austrians reach new mountains in the latest example of a strong, family-owned construction materials and products business heeding a big operator’s buyout


Austrians reach new mountains in the latest example of a strong, family-owned construction materials and products business heeding a big operator’s buyout offer. But instead of Sound of Music refrains, officials of Vienna-based Wienerberger AG are singing the praises of Robinson Brick Co. and enthusiatically assessing how the company positions their North American franchise, General Shale Brick, west of the Mississippi.

Wienerberger announced an agreement last month to acquire Denver-based Robinson Brick in an $88 million transaction through wholly owned subsidiary, General Shale Brick, Johnson City, Tenn. The acquisition represents an important expansion step, [as] our U.S. activities have concentrated entirely on markets east of the Mississippi. This transaction is a great opportunity for a market entry in the western part of the country, notes Wienerberger CEO Wolfgang Reithofer.

A savvy marketer with integrated production and distribution, Robinson Brick reported 2005 sales of $87 million from a 100 million brick/year headquarters operation; three Colorado and Wyoming block plants with annual shipments of 8 million CMU; and, 17 distribution outlets or sales centers in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Illinois and Oklahoma. Its businesses include the Robinson Brick flagship; Aucutt’s Building Materials, Montgomery, Ill.; Robinson Block, Denver; Robinson Brick – Billings, Mont.; and, Robinson Brick – Northern, Cheyenne, Wyo. Among its brands are Thinbrick, a clay veneer, and Robinson Rock, a veneer fabricated in Denver with limestone sourced from a company-owned Oklahoma quarry.

In addition to geographical and market development considerations, Robinson would appear to be a natural General Shale target when comparing company cultures. Robinson was the first North American brick operator to have its quality assurance methods certified under ISO 2001 standards. Mirroring ISO 2001-type continuous improvement measures is General Shale Quality. A regimented quality and safety initiative that in some instances emphasizes manual processes in favor of automation, GSQ has yielded productivity improvements and accident reduction throughout General Shale’s production and distribution businesses.

Wienerberger is acquiring Robinson Brick from company chairman F. George Robinson and members of his family, all with limited involvement in the business. Wienerberger officials underscore Robinson Brick CEO Robert Jaster’s growth strategy in recent years and the company’s significant development under his direction. He is a perfect match for our management team, notes Reithofer.

The Robinson announcement follows a host of General Shale expansion initiatives in concrete and clay products. In January, the company opened a Knoxville, Tenn., block plant to supplement its twin-machine Tri Cities Block operation (Concrete Products, June 2005) in Piney Flats, Tenn. The following month, it announced a $30 million capacity upgrade for its Mooresville, Ind., clay brick plant. Two weeks before the Robinson agreement, General Shale acquired Curley Building Material, a masonry supply distributor with locations in Carmel and Martinsville, Ind.

Acquisitions and plant upgrades reinforce General Shale’s strong number two position in U.S. clay brick production, behind Atlanta-based Boral Bricks, which recently announced a $55 million upgrade of its Terre Haute, Ind., plant. Both companies report annual shipments in excess of 1.5 billion brick, figures that will climb upon the Mooresville and Terre Haute plants’ scheduled openings in 2007.

Wienerberger cites a global top position in clay brick. The company entered North America in 1999, acquiring General Shale from the U.K.-based Marley Plc. The platform and bolt-on deals, and capital expansion in clay and concrete masonry have seen Wienerberger invest upward of $500 million in the U.S. prior to Robinson Brick. From the Alps to the Appalachians to the Rockies, the climb continues.

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