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August 1, 2005 9:15 AM CDT

Manufacturers Push for Better Quality and Service

By

It doesn't matter how good your masons' craftsmanship is if the material they're working with isn't up to snuff or doesn't show up to the job site on time. Although this scenario is the exception rather than the rule, we spoke with a brick manufacturer and a masonry patent licensee who are doing what it takes to get quality, quickness and their products in the right place at the right time.

Building upon Excellence

Photo courtesy of Haener Block
The founder of Bilco Brick, Bill Colen, built his business by hand - almost literally. Beginning production on March 1, 1955, three employees produced 3,000 brick per day by hand. Four years later and in a larger facility in Dallas, the company increased its hand production to 20,000 brick per day. While they were busy building masonry materials, they also built their business in the southwest United States by forming solid relationships with the construction industry and delivering a consistent high-quality, cost-effective product.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, Bilco Brick has long ago done away with making brick by hand and has now increased its production to 100 million brick per year - and it's not stopping there.

"In the last few years, we've had a rather large expansion," says Bill's son, Randy Colen, President of Bilco Brick. "We've increased our output - basically doubled it - and we're in the process of almost doubling it again."

Colen says that this capacity of production has helped to not only keep the materials coming, but also assists them in keeping a yard full of brick - a month to a month-and-a-half worth of inventory stock - so they're prepared for customer orders. With this extra inventory on hand, Bilco can turn orders around in one or two days.

Photo courtesy of Haener Block
"Before this expansion, it used to be eight, 10 or 12 weeks out in selling to these builders, and they needed the product a whole lot faster," he explains. "So now we're able to produce a lot more per day, plus we have a tremendous inventory in the yard that keeps it going so they can have it immediately."

Bilco Brick has tailored itself to high-volume business, sticking to a set of 25 colors that change from time to time.

Colen adds, "With the expansion that should be finished in the next three to four months, we will be able to have that capacity to custom match colors for builders. Residential housing really doesn't do that; it's really more for the commercial sector where they want to mix and match for strip malls and other businesses of that nature."

Other than using expansions to its - and its customers' - advantage, Bilco is also unique in the masonry manufacturing world in that it has its own dedicated engineering department. This has given it the ability to design, manufacturer, customize and repair its own equipment rather than having to buy outside the company, thereby keeping costs down and equipment up and running.

"A lot of companies that buy equipment don't have back-up spare parts. If that equipment goes out on them, they could be down for days," explains Colen. "Nothing like that will ever shut us down. We design it all. We have a tremendous purchasing system, where we have spare parts for everything we need. We're never down longer than 30 minutes or so, which has been a big help."

From quickness to quality, Bilco has taken the steps necessary within the company to make sure that the brick units it produces not only come out quickly but also correctly.

Photo courtesy of Bilco Brick
"Our plant manager is very well-versed on quality control, and our line supervisors all know how we want the product," says Colen. "We have weekly meetings to talk about our quality and our service. That's been engrained in our company for quite a while. Quality, safety and all of these issues are talked about on a weekly basis."

Lastly, Colen feels that the company's strength lies in its ability to listen.

"We keep our ears open, we see what's going on, and we do what the consumer needs. We hear what their problems are, and we try to eliminate them. By having the inventory of brick on the yard, we're able to get it to them quickly. Price is a big issue, so by having our own engineering department build our equipment it keeps our costs down. In the scheme of things, we want to be the Southwest Airlines of the brick industry by keeping our costs down, giving good customer service, and making a good product. By listening to them, we're able to do that."

When a Middleman is a Good Thing
Typically, the thought of having to deal with a middleman is not necessarily to the best advantage for the customer. However, Haener Block, the San Diego patent holder of the Haener Block mortarless interlocking system, has turned the tables to make this once-negative connotation into a perfect situation for its customers.

Photo courtesy of Haener Block
Larry Bouchard, V.P. of Business Development for Haener Block, says, "One of the directions we've taken to really change the model of the company in a good way and overcome a lot of the past limitations that we've experienced - and I'm sure a lot of others in our particular industry have - is by going to the Haener Block Direct Program."

The Haener Block Direct Program brings an innovative customer service touch to a rare relationship - the one between invention licensee and the mason contractor.

With this program, mason contractors purchasing 10,000 block or more will order the unit through Haener Block, the licensee, rather than the block manufacturer. Haener Block then ships the molds to the closest reputable block manufacturer with precise instructions on how exactly to make the block required. If the manufacturer has never produced Haener Block before, a quality control inspector from Haener will be present on site to make sure everything goes smoothly and the product lives up to Haener's expectations. By having Haener Block oversee the order, mason contractors will be assured that every necessary step is taken to produce the block correctly and get the units to the job site on time - guaranteed. Haener will also provide the ultimate source of education and information for the mason contractors and their crews on the proper installation techniques of their product.

"So we'll be hands-on in the quality control process and hands-on in educating the mason contractor," says Bouchard. "If a mason contractor hasn't used our system, we'll send them to the work site to train the trainers and the masonry staff so they can use the product and they can train others to use it if they like to. So our quality control not only goes over the manufacturing but to the building of the project itself."

Photo courtesy of Haener Block
But the advantages don't stop there...

"The most exciting thing is now we have the means to deliver block almost anywhere in the country," Bouchard explains. "Haener Block started out with four locations in California and Arizona, and we've got one manufacturer in the Midwest, on the East Coast, in Hawaii and Alaska, and we're about to pick up two more on the East Coast. But that leaves a lot of people out, particularly for people who are doing large projects that are looking to build in various localities. They want a product that they can rely on to be available wherever they want to do their project. So that means the larger masonry contractors that have jobs in various cities, even various states, can all depend on their supply of Haener Block from us."

Bouchard feels that this is the ultimate step to providing the best service possible for mason contractors looking to use Haener Block in their projects.

"The quality control is a huge thing for us. We all know there can be big variations in quality control from block manufacturer to block manufacturer. So changing our status to essentially being the customer of the block maker, we can demand a certain quality of the product, whereas before - as the licensee of the product - that wasn't necessarily true. There's a huge difference in how manufacturers respond to that, and the mason contractors will ultimately benefit from it."


About the Author

Jennie Farnsworth is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and editor. She is a former editor of Masonry magazine.

 

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