Through thick and thin The meshing of 21st-century technology and 1920s tradition has allowed Owensboro brick companies to prosper
By Keith Lawrence
Owensboro Brick & Tile is tucked away off the beaten path beside a sewage treatment plant off Ewing Road in the city's northwest corner.
But thanks to the Internet, the company's sister business, Thin Bricks by Owensboro, is on an international fast track.
You can find its trademarked Brickettes in buildings as far away as the Virgin Islands, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Japan and Russia.
Closer to home, Brickettes can be found in the walls of the Pittsburgh Pirates' PNC Park, Staples, Barnes & Noble, 84 Lumber, Tumbleweed Southwest Grill, Country Inn and Suites, Harley-Davidson, CVS and The Gap.
Brickettes - one-seventh the thickness of a regular brick - have been around since 1974.
But their popularity is growing rapidly these days - especially since they appeared on HGTV.
The half-inch thick bricks weigh 0.7 pounds, compared with 3.8 pounds for a full-size brick. And that makes them popular for interior designs.
The King William - named for the late Bill Richard, one of the company's founders - is the most popular line.
Other lines include the Old Lexington, Cooperstown, Homestead, Colonial and Plantation.
The company has made Brickettes even more popular by creating Panel Bricks - 16-inch by 48-inch sections of Brickettes attached to rigid insulation fiberboard.
"Panel Bricks are three times faster to install than full-size bricks," says Patrick Richard, vice president of sales. "And they can be installed by a carpenter, not a mason. There's a big savings in time and labor costs."
They're also popular with do-it-yourselfers.
"We're the largest thin-brick company in the world," Richard said. "Only about three other companies do this. But there are still hundreds who make full-size bricks."
Owensboro Brick is one of the last family-owned brickyards in Kentucky and one of a handful left in the United States.
Its roots go back to the late 1920s, when William N. Richard Sr. quit his job at a Tell City, Ind., brickyard to buy a brick company down the road in Rockport, Ind.
*** Founded in 1954 ***
In 1954, his sons - Bob, Jack and Bill - bought the old Owensboro Clay Products plant off Ewing Road and created ORBCO - which stood for the Owensboro Rockport Boonville Corp.
ORBCO is the parent company of both Thin Bricks by Owensboro and Owensboro Brick & Tile.
Today, it's run by all four of Bill Richard's children - third-generation brickmakers.
Nick Richard is president, Michael Richard is general manager, Debbie Richard Benedek is vice president of marketing and Patrick Richard is vice president of sales.
Together, they represent nearly 10 percent of the staff of 42.
Earlier this year, the company completed a $5 million overhaul of its 40,000-square-foot manufacturing plant, including an additional kiln and a new automated clay grinder and delivery system, as well as a new corporate headquarters.
The yearlong project more than doubled the plant's capacity, Patrick Richard said - from 15 million bricks a year to 40 million.
"We should reach full capacity in 2008," he said.
Already, the plant is making enough bricks each week to build five houses.
Archaeologists say bricks date back 9,500 years to the Middle East. And fired bricks, as opposed to sun-dried, have been around 5,000 years, they say.
In Daviess County, brickmaking is the second-oldest industry.
The county's first distillery opened about 1805. And a brickyard had opened on Allen Street between what is now Fifth and Seventh streets by 1817.
Billy Egeler, customer service manager, said he's heard that bricks have been made on the Owensboro Brick & Tile property since the late 1800s.
Antique bricks are popular with builders these days.
In St. Louis, the city expressed concern last month about "brick rustlers" burning down abandoned buildings to steal bricks.
There's no need to do that, Patrick Richard said.
*** New bricks can look old ***
"We can make new bricks that look old," he said. "Everything is standardized in brickmaking today. They're much better than old bricks. We refer to ours as the `Old World look.' "
Despite the growing popularity of Brickettes, full-size bricks still represent 60 percent of ORBCO's business, Egeler estimates.
Eighty percent of the company's bricks are used in residential construction, he said.
Full-size bricks, because of their weight, are only shipped within a six-state territory, Richard said. But that territory stretches to the Gulf Coast.
Most people think of bricks as red or brown.
But ORBCO makes more than 20 colors, Egeler said.
"We concentrate on 10," he said. "But we can make a lot more colors if the customer wants them. Right now, the business is leaning toward brown bricks, but it might be back to red next month."
White bricks with a blue-green cast are the most unusual Egeler has seen, he said.
It takes three pounds of clay to make one pound of brick, Richard said.
"We've been getting clay from the same Hancock County quarry since 1954, and there's enough left for several hundred years," he said. "We use the same clay, same natural gas and same coloring agents we've always used."
Natural gas is the biggest expense, Richard said. "It's more than 50 percent of the cost of a brick."
That's because of the tremendous heat necessary to fire the bricks.
The entire process from clay to finished bricks takes five days.
First, the bricks are dried at 400 degrees to remove all the moisture.
Then comes a slow ride through one of the two 200-foot-long kilns that resemble long boxcars.
The kilns have four heat zones - 1,400 degrees, 1,600 degrees, 1,800 degrees and 2,000 degrees.
Egeler said employment peaked several years ago at 75 to 80 people.
"With automation, it will continue to drop," he said.
Richard points to a fully automated cutting machine, which uses heavy wires to cut long blocks of clay into bricks.
"That does the work of 12 men, and it does three times as much work in a day as 12 men can," he said.
"The business is totally different today," says Mark Sexton, co-plant manager with J.R. Barnett. "The automated system is a lot less stressful. It reduces turnover. Mostly, what we do is push a lot of buttons now."
Sexton has been with the company 25 years. Barnett has been there 40 years.
"It was a lot more hands-on when I started," he said.
Larry Husk, Thin Brick general manager, has been with the company for 17 years. Egeler has been there 14 years.
The company works three shifts a day - one for manufacturing and two for packaging and shipping.
"We work with everybody from do-it-yourselfers to the largest construction companies," Richard said.
Keith Lawrence, 691-7301