ADEL, Iowa — A humid 95 degrees outside, it's even steamier inside the brick plant here, where workers are hustling to transform a raw material supplied from a nearby clay pit into the ceramic used to create some the nation's strongest structures, and perhaps some curb appeal for a home in your neighborhood.
“Once you put that brick on the outside of the building, it's there for 100 years — just like we are,” said CEO Mark Mahoney.
For Sioux City Brick and Tile, a century in brickmaking has meant seeing the process evolve from brick fired in beehive kilns and loaded by hand onto horse-drawn wagons to a massive, high-efficiency tunnel kiln that reaches a fiery peak of 2,000 degrees and a product touched more by robots than the human hand before installation.
Even with advances in technology, the company that has plants in Iowa at Adel and Sergeant Bluff and sales locations in Omaha, Sioux City, Des Moines, Bloomington, Minn., and Greenville, S.C., hasn't been immune to hard times.
“You'd have to go before the Second World War to find construction demand as low as it is for our product,” said Mahoney.
He noted that the company, which employs 200 people, is operating at a little more than half capacity and firing only one of its two kilns at Adel, about 120 miles east of Omaha.
He blames the recession, but also a shift away from constructing buildings with several layers of brick. Most brick buildings now are built with a thin layer of brick surrounding a structural steel frame.
Still, Mahoney considers the company fortunate. At the turn of the 20th century, Iowa was home to some 300 brick plants. Today, there are that many in the entire U.S. and only some are operating.
“We have always prided ourselves in making a very high quality product, and so we have found that high quality product is still in demand,” Mahoney said, noting the company makes about 100 million bricks annually.
All the while, one thing's remained constant: The company is still family owned.
While the Sergeant Bluff plant dates to the 1850s and the Adel plant to the early 1900s, Sioux City Brick and Tile came about after Mahoney's maternal great-grandfather L.J. Haskins moved in 1890 to Iowa and, with his brother, created the Haskins Brothers and Co. soap factory.
In 1910, Haskins bought the Sergeant Bluff brick plant. Three years later, Sioux City Brick and Tile was established as part of a seven-company merger. Haskins' daughter married D.P. Mahoney, who was hired as a salesman and later named president.
D.P. Mahoney's sons Parnell and Loren joined the company and saw through events such as the acquisition in 1958 of United Brick and Tile manufacturing and sales offices at Adel and Des Moines.
In the 1960s, the company began major updates to the kilns, switching from the old-fashioned beehive-shaped ones that fired brick like a standard oven in one's home kitchen to tunnel kilns that, like a conveyor-belt-style pizza oven, slowly transport brick and allow it to cook gradually.
Mark Mahoney, son of Loren Mahoney, joined the company in 1978 after practicing law. He's seen through expansions in automation that have included a $15 million modern upgrade in 1997 at the Sergeant Bluff plant, a $20 million upgrade in 2001 at the Adel plant and a $25 million upgrade in 2007 again at the Adel plant.
The company calls the Adel plant — where since the early 1980s a brick school has taught how to market brick and what it takes to make a brick — the oldest, but most modern, brick plant in the upper Midwest.
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With 225,000 square feet of building space, workers at the Adel plant make brick by extrusion, a process that starts after clay is extracted from the clay pit about a half mile down the road. The clay is stockpiled from the pit once a year during the summer months and brought into the plant as needed.
There, the clay is ground into a fine dust comparable to loose face powder. Water is added and the mixture is rolled around a container with an auger that churns until the clay becomes a formable material, almost like cookie dough.
The mixture is then thrust through an extruder, squeezing the clay into a long strip. The smooth strip of clay moves along a conveyor belt and is sprinkled with sand, like how dough is doused with flour to make it easier to handle. Then, the strip is sliced into individual brick. Robots move the pieces to a rail system and they're carried to a holding place to dry.
After that, the bricks are moved to the massive tunnel kiln where they're fired for a couple of days. In the kiln, the bricks go through a chemical transformation in which the minerals in the clay fuse together.
They're then carried to quality control where workers like Yvette Pettry toss broken bricks that are later recycled for other value-added products and arrange good ones for packaging. The entire process takes less than a week, said chief operating officer Kurt Hansen.
Sioux City Brick and Tile's niche market is architectural, or making special shapes and color combinations to meet the specifications of a particular product for churches, schools and buildings. The bricks can come in dozens of colors and a variety of sizes and are also sold outside their stores by 130 distributors.
Among the company's notable projects is the Capitol at Chelsea apartments and the Carnegie Hall Tower, both in New York City. Locally, they've supplied the custom blend seen on Creighton University's Ryan Athletic Center, the deep red almond accent on Saddle Creek Records and an elk creek and ponderosa blend on Shadow Lake Towne Center.
The bricks that break or don't have quite the right form or color are used, too, around shrubs, along sidewalks and among flower beds in landscaping. Some are even ground up and used for what looks like dirt, but is really a crushed brick along the perimeter of the infield of ballfields like Fenway Park, where the Boston Red Sox play.
Mahoney said although the industry is facing tough times reflective of the U.S. economy, his company has grown in countries such as Canada that have been less affected by the recession. Ten years ago, the company didn't have a single Canadian customer among its top 25 and now customers there serve as “a bright spot.”
While he's seen some growth indicators — going into the recession, the company held about a percent and a half of the U.S. brick market and today that figure is doubled — Mahoney is looking for improvement. And while he'd like to see the second Adel kiln in operation, for now he's celebrating the company's centennial and aiming for another 100 years.
“Four generations is a long time to run a company,” he said. “You just don't see that anymore.”