With headquarters in Salisbury, North Carolina, Johnson Concrete is celebrating seventy years of spirit and innovation; of maintaining integrity in an industry dominated by behemoths and of developing unique solutions for issues facing concrete masonry. It is also celebrating by rebranding as Johnson Concrete Products to accurately reflect a diverse range that includes its new ProBlock Masonry Wall System.
“We’ve had the same logo since the company was founded in 1947, with a block and a pipe in it,” says Corporate Sales Manager Starling Johnson Kaklamanos. She is part of the fourth generation of the Johnson family to work for the company. The family-owned company has remained true to the values of founder Allen Starling Johnson, while its product line has expanded to encompass a full range of concrete products.
“We get calls all the time for ready mixed concrete because our name is Johnson Concrete Company. We sell ready mixed, but it’s not our core business,” Starling says. “We manufacture concrete products, and our scope of production is much larger than regular grey blocks and pipes. We love them because they’re the backbone of our business, but we’re about a lot more; so we’re rebranding. We’re not changing anything legally, but from a branding standpoint, we’ll be Johnson Concrete Products, and within that, we’ll have several subdivisions.” The company is relaunching its websites and developing marketing campaigns to represent the branded product lines.
It has a competitive edge with a management staff whose doors are always open to speak with employees and customers. “If they don’t like my answer or want to talk to someone else about a problem or concern, they can always call Charles,” Starling says, referring to Executive Vice President and General Manager Charles Newsome, who has been with the company for forty-nine years, since he was hired by Allen Starling Johnson in 1968. “We aim to be easy to do business with and to be accessible and responsive to the needs and wishes of our customers.”
Starling says she knew as far back as kindergarten that she wanted to be a businesswoman and even mimicked her mother’s work outfit for career day. Her mother managed Staclean, the family’s metal fabrication division.
After university, she moved to Chicago, but the passion she held for the business her grandfather founded drew her back to North Carolina. At a Thanksgiving dinner in 2009, she asked Charles if there was anything available. “We’ll find something,” he said, delighted to have the granddaughter of Allen Starling Johnson coming to work for the company.
Reflecting on his long career with the company, Charles says, “to have been a participant and a leader in the evolution of Johnson is gratifying, and to develop the management team we have in place is a major accomplishment. It’s a good place to work, and employees (approximately 140) stay because we care about them.”
A cornerstone of the company’s corporate culture is that “it doesn’t matter what you look like or what degrees you have; what matters is what you can do. I have always been thankful that the Johnson family allowed us to grow strong enough and big enough but still be a family owned company, and that’s been a real blessing in today’s environment,” says Charles.
The family-owned company could have ended in 1982, however, with the sudden death of Allen. But the Johnson women rose to the occasion and his widow Frances assumed the role of company president.
“My grandmother had been a stay-at-home mom with four children, one of whom had special needs, but when her husband died, she felt it was important his legacy be remembered and the employees retain their jobs,” Starling says. “So, the story I heard is that she buried him and came to work the next day. I can’t imagine what it would be like having spent so many years at home raising children, volunteering and focusing on domestic responsibilities and then overnight becoming head of a concrete products business and going out to work every day. She was involved until her early nineties, and when she was no longer physically able to do it, my Aunt Judy stepped up and assumed her role.” Following in Frances’ footsteps, today her three daughters and two granddaughters all have varying degrees of involvement with the company.
Frances passed last year at the age of ninety-six, but her memory still influences company operations. Starling recalls her saying there were two important things to remember: “One was to be a good citizen of your community, including being a good employer, and the other was to understand what’s important to your customers, and deliver on the promises you make. Do what you say you’ll do.”
At a time when weather patterns have become increasingly erratic, with flash floods happening more frequently, Johnson Storm Water Solutions lives up to its name. Johnson offers both reinforced concrete pipe and precast drainage structures to decrease installation times. Additionally, it has several varieties of permeable concrete pavers and Stalite water filtration media.
Prestige Masonry, Johnson’s brand of decorative concrete masonry, caters to architects with a variety of colors and patterns. It is created with state-of-the-art equipment that combines Portland cement, mineral oxide pigments and colorful aggregates to make a product that is ideal as a veneer exterior or structural masonry wall. It is what Starling calls “our pretty block” and follows architectural trends similar to other cladding materials.
“Presently, the trend is toward black and stark white, along with muted earth tone colors. Because oversize units are increasingly popular, we’ve developed our PrestigeCast collection – a cast stone product line available in pieces up to sixteen inches high and twenty-four inches long. It gives the look of natural stone but at a fraction of the cost,” she says. “We also see demand for long, linear four-by-twenty-four-inch pieces with modern burnished or smooth face finishes.” Prestige Masonry is a regional product, shipped throughout the eastern and central United States and specified on several national chains.
The Distinctive Hardscapes division involves retaining walls, pavers and outdoor living spaces, including outdoor kitchens and fireplaces. “We represent Eagle Bay and NewLine concrete pavers, and we manufacture and sell three different brands of segmental retaining walls in over a dozen colors.” To stay ahead of hardscape trends, Johnson has recently begun importing oversize porcelain pavers in quartz, travertine and wood plank finishes.
Finally, Johnson has established stores at each of its block plant locations and stocks materials necessary for complete masonry construction. Johnson Masonry Supply distributes a full range of brick, veneer stone, reinforcing wire, anchors, mortar, flashing materials, cleaners and other masonry accessories and is in the process of expanding and renovating warehouse space to accommodate a growing list of products associated with structural concrete blocks and masonry veneer materials.
Deserving of a section all to itself is Johnson’s new product, the patented ProBlock Masonry Wall System which is revolutionizing single wythe masonry, allowing it to compete with other wall systems such as tilt up and steel stud. Single wythe masonry means that the wall system is only one layer thick, so the block is structural as well as decorative – unlike, for example, a standard residential cavity wall that is wood framed with brick veneer.
Concrete blocks provide a good structure and design flexibility, but it has become increasingly difficult to meet energy codes with them. Some producers have developed proprietary concrete block systems that will meet energy compliance requirements, but these are more expensive and require multiple steps, which slows down the construction schedule and increases project costs.
Now, following six years of research and development, Johnson is offering a full line of concrete masonry units (CMUs) that are a patented redesign of an A-shaped, open-ended CMU. They meet stringent energy codes and are faster and cheaper to install than traditional concrete masonry.
The twelve-inch ProBlock weighs as little as twenty-four pounds and can achieve R values of eighteen when used with aminoplast foam insulation. Since traditional twelve-inch CMUs weigh upwards of fifty pounds, ProBlock cuts the unit weight in half, while its shape allows the mason to lay the block around rebar. Not having to lift the block up and over rebar, combined with a lighter weight, significantly reduces repetitive strain injuries and saves time and money through improved productivity. Unlike prior iterations of open ended blocks, the patented ProBlock is balanced for easier handling and has thinner face shells and webs to reduce weight. “By using ProBlock, designers and engineers can build highly energy efficient buildings and still benefit from the cost savings of single wythe concrete masonry construction,” Charles says.
Johnson has been providing ProBlock to construction companies in North Carolina since 2012. It has now licensed its production to thirty-three other concrete block producers in nineteen states, from Delaware to Wisconsin and from New York to Florida and Texas. There is also the potential to spread the masonry revolution north to Canada, where the patent application has been approved.
Meanwhile, the ProBlock suite of products continues to grow. The original “A” shape unit is available in 8”, 10” and 12” deep units. There’s now an “H” shape knockout that’s ideal for 8” on center rebar applications and Johnson Concrete Products produces the ProBlock shape in decorative integrally colored ground, shotblast, and split face finishes. As for Johnson Concrete, the company is looking forward to what the next seventy years will bring.