COLUMBUS — A four-generation brick company that has been a cornerstone in Columbus for more than a century will wrap up a $25-million expansion by the end of May.
The 180,000-square-foot addition will allow Columbus Brick Company to more than double its production capacity, from 70 million bricks to 150 million bricks per year.
“This generation is taking the ball and running,” said Charleigh Ford, executive director of the Columbus Lowndes County Economic Development Association (CLEDA), the local economic development agency that named Columbus Brick Industry of the Year in 1998. “It’s changed the whole landscape of the area.”
By the time production gears up in the new facility June 1, 22 employees will be hired, bringing the company roster to 92.
“A lot of credit for this expansion should go to our people,” said president Al Puckett. “Having a good management team and a committed and loyal group of employees has allowed us to expand and to get excited about growing the company.”
Defying industry trends
The expansion of the family-owned brick-making business comes at a time when the industry trend continues toward consolidation and concentration. In the 1940s, several thousand brick manufacturers represented nearly 3,000 brick plants in the U.S.
Today, only 83 manufacturers operate 204 plants in the U.S., with nearly half owned by foreign investments in Australia, Austria, England, Germany, Ireland and Turkey.
“Because we have been willing to reinvest in our business and put together a wonderful group of folks who are committed to achieving excellence, it has allowed us to remain progressively independent,” said Puckett. “While larger companies have accumulated large blocks of capacity through consolidation, it’s allowed smaller ones like us to find niches in the market. We still have good relationships that go back many years with distributors, who are our main customers, and we see this expansion as a good investment.”
A brief history
Puckett’s great-grandfather, Willis N. Puckett, an Aberdeen native who, at an early age, found a niche building chimneys, founded Columbus Brick Company after he and W.L. Lindamood partnered to build Columbus Hall on the campus of what is now the Mississippi University for Women and couldn’t find a reliable source of brick. The four-story red brick building, built for $12,500 in the late 1800s, was their first project.
At that time, bricks were sold for $6 per thousand and delivered by horse and wagon, or, when necessary, by steamboat. The brick-making process included a pick and shovel, clay and a mule, a wooden mold and the sun.
Production remained steady until the Great Depression hit. From the 1930s through World War II, business was “quite poor,” Puckett said.
“We were diversified at that time, so we were able to continue to run the plant and inventory brick,” he said. “After the war, the economy started to boom, plus innovations in the 1960s and 1970s boosted production levels and decreased costs.”
The previous three generations of Pucketts have since died. Al Puckett, 50, the only son — he has several sisters — has been in charge since 1980, and the plant has been in a “constant state of upgrade since then,” said Ed Thebaud, general manager and vice president of Columbus Brick.
The new deal
In contrast to the two existing 250-foot tunnel kilns, which reach temperatures as high as 2,150 degrees Fahrenheit, clay and water will go in one end of the new 590-foot tunnel kiln, and brick pallets will roll out the other end as robots and employees work side by side.
“In the new plant, the brick will be packaged with programmable robots, and we can control the color and blend quite well,” Puckett said. “We won’t be giving up any of the advantages of hand-packaging and grading.”
Many practices at the brick company will remain the same, including an age-old process in which most of Columbus Brick’s production has been devoted to genuine “papercut” brick. By using paper in the cutting process, the resulting texture and appearance is comparable to hand-molded brick but obtained at a much more economical price. With “papercut” brick, an occasional wedge shape, rounded end and soft edge are characteristic, and Columbus Brick remains one of few manufacturers who offer this process.
Until the expansion is complete, workers will continue to produce approximately 190,000 bricks per day at the plant, with production capabilities of 30 different combinations of colors, textures and sizes, all from clay primarily mined within 60 miles of the plant.
“Even though this is quite an investment, we are still considered a small company, and the state and local economic development groups have been more than willing to assist us in the continuing expansion process,” Puckett said. “If people are willing to investigate, they’ll find creative financing packages available through programs like rural economic development and small business enterprise. Although we have not tapped into those programs this time, it’s noteworthy to say that the state is making a good effort to help folks like us.”
“When a company…that’s been here through thick and thin does an expansion like this, it shows confidence in the community,” Ford said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.