Consumers Concrete embraces Great Lakes markets of tomorrow

Bruce Blair

Attendees of the National Concrete Masonry Association’s Icon Expo 2018 – Machinery & Equipment Show were greeted with a display of pre-sold, blockmaking iron bearing the signature Besser Co. blue and yellow. Instead of a Texas, Southeast or other plant destination of high population growth, the Servopac Select machine bore the banner of a Michigan building bellwether.

Best known on its home turf for ready mixed concrete, with 22 plants across central and western Michigan, Consumers Concrete Corp. is also a key source of gray concrete masonry in the state, plus architectural block and segmental retaining wall units throughout the central Great Lakes region. It has building and hardscape production lines near its Kalamazoo headquarters and Wyoming, just south of Grand Rapids. Through investment in the Servopac Select—a next generation, three-at-a-time block machine engineered for rapid mold change, production flexibility, and ease of maintenance—Consumers shows Michigan’s rise from the depths of a trough pre-dating the recession and bottoming out in 2009-2011. Portland Cement Association figures underscore the starkness of a post-September 11 construction market curve: Cement consumption in the state dipped from a 2001 peak of 3.9 million tons to 1.5 million tons in 2009, turning the corner three years later with a slow climb toward 2.4 million tons last year.


PHOTO: Consumers Concrete

In lieu of large cams typical of V3-12 vintage, key Servopac Series functions are now controlled by hydraulic proportional valves and hydraulic cylinders equipped with electronic position sensing devices. They help machine users realize reduced mold changeover cycles compared to the V3-12 and older block & paver machines. Some V3-12 features that required manual adjustments can be set electronically at the Servopac Series operator control station. It stores adjustment “recipes” for each different product being run; they can be immediately recalled by the machine with a touch of a button when changing from one product mold to another.

PLANT PHOTOS: Concrete Products

Seamlessly placed in the existing V3-12 2000 footprint at Consumers Concrete’s Wyoming plant, the Servopac Select machine can run up to nine cycles per minute, depending on the product; yield three standard 8- x 8- x 16-in. block every 6.7 seconds; and, mold units from 1- to 12-in. high. Mold vibration uses electronic servo drives, which offer the capability to change the motor speed/frequency on the fly from the operator control station. That feature contributes to the Servopac Series’ extension of mold life by up to 50 percent compared to V3-12 machines.

Consumers’ Concrete Products team musters at Icon Expo 2018 for a briefing on the Wyoming plant-bound machine; from left: Brian Biscoff, Brody Flint, Randy Parsons, Fred Jacobs, Melissa Kline, Stephen Hernandez Gonzales, Bruce Blair, Tim Knipp, Gary Allen, Brett Pierce, James Mansfield, Josh Wooden, Paul Gayle, Mark Lewis and Morrey Haggar.
Grinding (below) and adjacent dimensioning equipment at the Wyoming plant support Consumers Concrete’s Perma Grind and other value-added unit masonry offerings, shipped to dealers and sites throughout the central Great Lakes region. Perma Grind is shown above at a recent school project, and BellaBrik at a current job of a longtime customer with wholesale and retail food operations. Most building block is run at Wyoming, while the Kalamazoo flagship operation produces hardscape lines, including Rockwood Retaining Walls, shown at a new Hilton Garden Inn, Grand Rapids, Mich.

“The Michigan market has strengthened notably in the past two to three years, although cement consumption is still around two-thirds of its peak. Everyone we talk to is comfortable with the market and for the next two to three years,” says President and CEO Bruce Blair, who joined Consumers in 2016 after 30-plus years at Lafarge North America, capped with the position of vice president, Product Performance and Marketing. Echoing producer and contractor sentiments on the labor market, he adds: “Greater Grand Rapids is down to 3.5 percent unemployment. From plant operators to truck drivers, it is hard to find employees. Some contractors are not bidding projects because they don’t have the crews.”

Blair assumed day-to-day management duties from Tom and Steve Thomas, who remain chairman and vice chairman, respectively, after steering the family business through the most challenging economic cycle of their long careers. Blair’s challenge is to continue history of growth and innovation of the company to meet increasing market demands. He has implemented a renewed focus on safety and teamwork with Home Safe and One Consumers initiatives. They stress the importance of individual and team safety as well the importance of communications and working together, as one.

Assisting him with these initiatives is a seasoned management team, most of whose members have 20-plus years with Consumers. Across the payroll this year, 18 managers and team members are reaching the 25-year of service threshold.


Consumers Concrete produces primarily hardscape units at its Kalamazoo plant and architectural and standard building block in Wyoming, where the Servopac Select arrived in April after its Indiana Convention Center unveiling and brief return to Besser headquarters in Alpena, Mich. The machine is the producer’s largest investment in concrete products capacity in more than 10 years. It replaces a Besser V3-12 2000 Series installed in 2008 after the Wyoming plant was first acquired by Consumers from Modern Kent Block in 1999.

As Consumers Concrete recovered from the recession, ideas for increasing operational efficiency and new capital investments became possible. Products Operation Manager Randy Parsons and Production Supervisor Fred Jacobs made the case for the Servopac Select outlay by running numbers for an upgrade to their current machine, which had logged over 7 million molding cycles. “The new machine operates at a similar speed but with better features and at a 50 percent reduction in mold wear. Instead of four or five 8-in. mold replacements per year, we’re now looking at two,” Jacobs explains. “The Servopac Select has reduced our mold change times from 15 minutes or more to under four minutes, and cut height change times to under a minute, especially due to operators not having to remove and replace lift spacers. The V3-12 2000 required more than 20 minutes for mold and height changes.”

“The Servopac Select is easier to use and maintain than our previous machine,” adds Parsons. “This allows us to grow and adapt to our customers’ needs quickly while continuing the quality and service level they have come to expect. It’s a great feeling to be able to upgrade our equipment with a machine like this, but we never forget it is the work of our people and their dedication to Consumers Concrete’s success that makes everything possible.”

Changeover time savings are no small factor at Wyoming, whose new workhorse might run 10 to 12 different products per day. “We have over 3,500 items we manufacture and sell. Our new machine takes us to a whole different level of production capability,” observes Concrete Products Sales Manager Melissa Kline. “We want to accommodate design professionals, who come to us for ideas and possibilities. We don’t shy away from a request for an unusual unit shape, color or finish. If there is a challenge for production, we get revved up.”

Consumers sells its architectural, standard block and segmental retaining wall units direct and through dealers and masonry yards in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. In addition to masonry sample displays at the concrete products locations and some ready mixed plants, it has block and brick showrooms in Kalamazoo, Wyoming, Battle Creek, Benton Harbor and Lansing. All promote internal offerings such as Perma Grind ground face units and a brick-emulating CMU product, BellaBrik; licensed dry cast brands, Allan Block and Rockwood Retaining Walls; plus, wet cast Redi-Rock structural retaining walls. They also represent Rosetta Hardscapes elements; Boulder Creek, Cultured Stone and ProVia manufactured stone veneer; natural Halquist Stone and Buechel Stone veneer; and eight clay brick lines, led by Bowerston, Forterra and General Shale.

Building and hardscape units are offered in 40 to 45 standard colors, but can be matched for more than 500 custom shades. Consumers is uniquely situated and equipped to offer an evolving concrete masonry unit inventory; its location at the heart of the Great Lakes enables economical delivery and stocking of premium aggregates from a wide swath of U.S. and Canadian reserves. The Wyoming plant alone has more than 15 aggregates on hand, and counts among recent special orders block bearing obsidian fine aggregate—the black granite sourced from an Ontario deposit so far north that spring 2018 deliveries were delayed due to an extended seasonal freeze.

Colored mix production capabilities across the 24 concrete masonry and ready mixed plants enable Consumers to match flatwork, building or hardscape block, precast retaining wall, and mortar as projects warrant. Marketing Manager Thomas Richeal credits the enhanced focus on the One Consumers initiative with more opportunities for cross-selling manufactured products and ready mixed concrete.

As Richeal and his colleagues note, Consumers is positioned for success as they look beyond the pre-recession Michigan market and recognize the truly different times ahead. “The rules for success and customer engagement have changed. That’s the reality of the construction world,” he affirms. “But when customers need something right, whether it’s a typical or atypical product, Consumers Concrete is still the one they count on and trust.”