Don Lampus Sr. looks around his company’s showroom in Aliquippa, at scores of brick samples, and sees growth.
His 90-year-old company, R.I. Lampus Co. of Springdale, is expanding quickly in a business that some would describe as old and slow. But Lampus, his son and other executives of the third-generation construction supply company are refocusing on distributing brick and making products for landscaping, paving and outdoor living spaces.
“We’ve had exponential growth in brick this year,” said Lampus, contributing to an overall increase in sales for 2014 that’s expected to be 20 percent ahead of last year, and the company’s best in nearly two decades. He declined to provide sales revenue.
Brick sales this year will account for about 10 percent of sales, and next year that could double.
R.I. Lampus added 30 employees this year, bringing employment to 180, and it is looking for more, though executives couldn’t cite a specific target. More acquisitions are possible, they said.
Still, making and selling concrete blocks remains the largest single business at R.I. Lampus, which was founded in 1924 by Don Lampus Sr.’s father and uncle. They quit farming when they purchased T.C. Campbell Co. and began making concrete and cinder blocks. Blocks account for one-third of sales.
Last month, the company acquired A.A. Robbins Co. in Crawford County to add to its brick distribution business and last week agreed to buy Harmar Direct, the local sales arm of Redland Brick Co. of Williamsport, Md.
Lampus has hired two veteran brick salesmen in Erie, added three Pittsburgh-area sales professionals and purchased Pittsburgh Brick and Stone, a distributor in Sewickley.
Brick is Lampus’ latest move to diversify because of innovation and changing practices in the industry. Executives said they saw the potential in brick distribution and decided to move forward.
“Change is all you can count on,” said Lampus, 74, the company’s chairman and CEO. “You’ve got to reinvent yourself every five years. You have to adapt.”
Don Lampus Jr., 50, president, said the market for concrete blocks is “stagnating — they are not used like they were. And we’re finding alternatives to stay in business.”
The elder Lampus estimates that 30 million concrete blocks were sold in Western Pennsylvania in the 1980s, declining to 12 million to 15 million today. Lampus is the single remaining concrete block plant among 22 that were in Allegheny County, he said. His company acquired two and the rest went out of business.
Lampus controls 90 percent of the concrete block market in the county and shares about half the regional market with Bauer Co. Inc. in Armstrong County, Greensburg Concrete Block Co. and companies in Ohio.
But many builders are using less concrete block for homes and commercial buildings, experts said.
They pour concrete walls for basements, a practice that began in the mid-1990s to cut costs. Though custom home builders still use concrete block, more basement walls are poured these days, Lampus Jr. said. And a growing number of commercial projects use aluminum or wood studs in place of concrete blocks.
“There have been more than one technologies used to replace concrete blocks, primarily cost-driven,” said Jeff Burd, president of Tall Timber Group in Ross, who follows the construction industry. “The availability of masons also is an issue affecting the number of contractors that will do the work, which has gone down.”
Brick requires less maintenance. “We tend to value brick here as an architectural material,” Burd said.
Lampus began diversifying in the early 1970s. During a slowdown, the company took over a business that makes briquets used to add alloys in the steelmaking process. The division, which contributes about one-third of R.I. Lampus sales, combines silicon carbide and cement to make varying sizes of briquets. The division has about 20 customers, including AK Steel, Allegheny Ludlum and U.S. Steel.
The company’s landscaping division started in the late 1970s, with pavers, the brick-like concrete for exterior flooring. “We are the longest continuing maker of pavers in the U.S.,” Lampus Sr. said.
In 1985, R.I. Lampus licensed the use of Versa-Lok retaining wall blocks. Four years ago it developed its own big-block wall units cast from concrete for commercial walls. They are the fastest growing segment in the landscaping division, which contributes another third of the company’s revenue.
“We are gradually replacing our products with other products that can be installed mechanically, or with very light handling, to make it easier on the people who are doing it,” said Lampus Jr. A typical 8-by-16-inch concrete block weighs about 35 pounds.
R.I. Lampus started a division in 2006 to supply masons to custom home builders who didn’t have enough workers, promising a job to anyone who completes training programs at trade schools. “We’re doing what we need to be doing to keeping the business moving along,” Lampus Sr. said.
John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.