Author Archives: Colby

WG Weathers the Great Recession

In 2007, we began the ‘Leap Ahead’ project. The purpose was to look at the longer term future to see what we would like to do. The goal was to develop a blueprint of the ‘Plant of Tomorrow.’ We tried to involve as many people in this process as possible and the results were very positive.

The year 2008 began slowly as usual in our seasonable product lines. By April, it became apparent that our sales were definitely going to be lower and we would have to respond with cost reduction. At this point, the brick industry volume had decreased 50 percent from two years before. our bank was requiring that we discontinue the music festival and the Chicago joint venture to improve our cash situation. They also required that we show a profit for 2008 to avoid being asked to leave. We had already voluntarily lowered our capacity to improve quality; however, it became apparent that our sales would be well below this new threshold. We focused a lot of attention on cost-cutting to get through this period.

Overall, during the recession, we had a sales dollar decrease of 15 percent in our worst sales year, 2009. This compared favorably to the brick industry decrease of more than 60 percent. We successfully cut our costs by 18 percent of the same period, allowing us to show a profit from our operations throughout the period. The coinciding decrease from the market conditions and our self-imposed capacity decrease to improve the quality were good for us in many ways. We became a leaner company due to the cost-cutting and explored some innovative ways to operate, many of which have helped us for the long term. The general market decrease also helped in our culture-changing efforts, as it was not our of the realm of possibility for the company to go out of business. All people saw companies go out of business and people lose their homes constantly. Everyone seemed grateful for some stability.

River Street, Batavia, IL

River Street, Batavia, IL

WG Stands Behind Product Deficiencies

In 2006, we implemented the first large capital project to improve the quality in many years – a mixing system for the pavers. Consistent color had been difficult in the past as we were measuring all ingredients by hand. The new system ensured that each color batch had the exact same ingredients, ensuring consistent color. This was our first big step forward and was immediately successful.

Also in 2006, we had a paver job at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park in New York City, where the pavers all fell apart immediately. The color was never one that we could make very well, so we discontinued the production of this item. The replacement of this job cost us over $100,000 and was a reinforcement of our new policy to fix any job problems that were caused by the product being of poor quality. This was an eye-opener for all employees, as well as our customers. We could not have made a clearer statement concerning our intentions. We planned to make a better quality product and stand by it.

In 2006, we celebrated our 90th year as Whitacre Greer by inviting customers to our last music festival. The customers gave us very good feedback and encouraged us to continue to improve.

Also in 2006, Whitacre Greer Equestrian Park opened its first trail for equestrian use. We signed the first of several three-year leases with the Stark County Parks Department for park use of our land near Waynesburg. Dad and John III were responsible for the success of this venture.

Most of 2006 and 2007 were spent trying to make these changes in quality and culture. We spent a great deal of capital money to try and repair most important items, while also adding long overdue improvements. The required cash was a balancing act and luckily for us, our bank, Chase Bank, had been with WG for many years and was supportive of our efforts with numerous term loans for these projects.


Bethesda Terrace, New York


Bethesda Terrace, New York

2005 Lynn Morrison and Mike Longo Retire from Whitacre Greer

At the meeting of the Board of Directors in July 2005, Lynn Morrison retired and I was elected president and CEO. Steve Fellows became the vice president of production. Other personnel changes included Mike Longo retiring in December 2005.

To replace Mike Longo, I approached Colby DeHoff, who had been with WG for several years as a salesman. Colby thought about my offer and agreed on the condition that we focus our efforts on improving the quality of the product. I agreed as I felt that improved quality needed to be our main focal point. Colby became our vice president of sales and Mic McAfee was hired to replace Rick Sherer in our sales area.

The goal of the new management team was to produce a high quality product. At this point, we were beginning to lose customers and the product quality was the number one reason. Our sales group had to focus on convincing our customers that we were improving and they should give us another try. At the same time, the cost of natural gas was ever increasing, up to $15 per Mcf at this point, which had a huge impact on our production costs. Our scrap was high and we were beginning to see the effects of not having our own employees.

Our focus turned to these areas, as we began to try to improve. We all agreed that we needed to begin hiring people, especially those temporary workers that had been with us for many years. We began by writing some of the hiring guidelines, as well as an employee handbook. We gradually hired employees, however, it took several years to get to full strength.

We began to slow down the manufacturing process. Previously, we had been so focused on speed that quality was an afterthought. We slowed down the presses, and began to constantly emphasize the need to do it right the first time. We tried to push down the decision making to the lowest level possible, although we encountered resistance to this change in our culture.

2003 Sterling Abbey Retires After 27 Years of Service

In 2003, Sterling Abbey retired as a director after 27 years of service. To this day, we still have the Abbey motion at the end of the meeting, as Uncle Sterling was always the first one to say the meeting was over and it was time for lunch. Uncle Sterling was married to Ann Whitacre Abbey, Dad’s sister. He always had good advice for the board and Whitacre Greer.

Also in 2003, we signed a stock purchase agreement with Lynn Morrison. Lynn was looking to his retirement and wanted a stock repurchase agreement to be fully paid before he retired. We had a stock valuation performed and purchased his stock over the next two years. Lynn wanted to sell the plant and looked hard for a purchaser. Dad had agreed to a sale if the price of $10 million could be achieved. The best offer received was for $4 million, so no sale was completed.

In 2004, we began a short-lived venture, a single concert event on the land in Waynesburg. We felt having a concert on part of the land that formed a natural amphitheater would be a good way to begin to capitalize on our land assets. We financed the venture through a mortgage on the land with the Bank of Magnolia. We held the outdoor festival concert for three years; however, we could never get enough people to attend for the event to come close to breaking even. When the economy went into recession in 2008, the bank required us to discontinue the event.

Janet’s Story Continues, Steve Fellows Joins Whitacre Greer

In 2002, our Alliance plant manager, Larry Johnson, was to retire. There was discussion between Lynn and Dad about who would succeed him. Dad felt that I should have the final say in the replacement as he had convinced me to take over for Lynn upon his retirement. Dad suggested I speak with Steve Fellows, the son and son-in-law of longtime friends of his and also a frequent golf partner. Steve had designed and build the most modern titanium plant in the world. He was a graduate of Texas A&M with a degree in aerospace engineering (our own rocket scientist!) and had served in the U.S. Marines.

Lynn, John III and I had discussions through the years concerning our goal as future owners for the company. We may not always have agreed on the pathway, but we all firmly want the plant to be successful, as well as be a good place to work. My background is from the financial end, not the manufacturing end, and I was looking for ways to improve our facility. For me, this included looking at totally new ways of how to manufacture our product to increase our flexibility.

When I met with Steve, we had a long discussion concerning exploration of other ways to manufacture pavers. As Steve was not from the industry, he did not have any long-held convictions concerning what was possible and what was not possible. I felt he would be a good person to learn our industry and apply his creativity to our situation. Steve was hired in 2002 to work with Lynn until he retired, to learn about our manufacturing process. In 2004, Steve began to look at the use of a firing system that would use microwave as well as natural gas. The experimentation would last through the end of the decade and the first good brick fired from this experimental kiln was completed in January 2010.

WG President Janet Kaboth Continues John’s Story

In 2015, WG President and CEO Janet Kaboth continued her father’s story. This is Janet’s story:

I will endeavor to continue the Whitacre Greer story from the point where Dad finished in 1999.

The years from 2000 to 2010 found Whitacre Greer solidifying its market in the paver market as well as internal management transitions and philosophy changes.

Whitacre Greer and a marketing group based in Chicago formed a joint venture in Chicago. The two people who formed the marketing group were very experienced salesmen for concrete pavers. They established an inventory yard and very quickly increased the paver sales volume.

For a few years, this increased volume was very beneficial to WG, however, quality problems with the pavers caused the joint venture to lose most of the customers each year. The marketing guys were very reluctant to continue selling more products that they were unsure would hold up. At about the same time, Mike Longo’s marketing efforts were beginning to pay off and our other paver business was increasing. We developed a new paver size, boardwalk, which was very successful. The joint venture began to be less important to our sales overall as the price was lower and the complaints were increasing. WG had about $1 million invested in short-term receivables and inventory connected with the joint venture. The joint venture “hung around” and finally closed in 2008 when the cash flow issues were no longer possible to sustain.

The development of the boardwalk paver marked a turning point for WG pavers. We began to be seen in the marketplace as a specialty, custom manufacturer. Thanks to the extensive brick industry network belonging to Mike Longo, we were able to return to a network of distributors that included many brick manufacturers. This was the beginning of a network that has been very successful for the pavers.


John Jr’s Story Concludes

WG has a promising, profitable operation now, however, many challenges remain. Will clean air act amendments eliminate the market for fireplaces and firebrick? Will clean air act regulations make the control of hydrogen fluoride kiln emissions prohibitively expensive? Will silica dust be ruled a probable carcinogen and in-plant dust control regulations be prohibitively expensive? Will development work result in a colorfast, dry press paver?

Historically, man has be notoriously poor in predicting the future. the mentioned problems may be solvable but others, now unexpected, will surely surface. The critical focus must be that with every major problem, a major opportunity exists.

Many commentators cry about the decline of the U.S. as a moral world leader. The decline began in the 1960s and 1970s and has been marked by huge increases in crime and unmarried parenthood. These are problems, but my sense is that during the 21st century, there will be plenty of U.S. citizens ready to step up and perform with distinction in the time of crisis, as many Americans have in the past century.

This is where John Whitacre Jr. concluded in 1999.

John Jr at Whitacre Park

Epilogue to John Jr.’s History of WG

During the 20th century, the Whitacre company fortunes climbed to four peaks, hopefully we are just starting up No. 5, and descended sharply into three valleys. It is improbable that the company could have survived the losses brought on by falls into the valleys without the substantial land assets purchased in the first years of the century by the Whitacre and Greer-Beatty Companies. Much of the land was purchased for $15 per acre. Coal reserves, oil and gas discoveries, landfill regulation and appreciation of the land itself provided substantial infusions of cash when assets were sold.

Another building block in the original foundation was the people, mostly Italian and blacks, who came to the Waynesburg/Magnolia area, lived in and bought the many homes build by JJ, and did the work in the plants. In the second half of the century, the children and grandchildren, often two or three children from every original family, were employed at WG. Many of these folks, in both hourly and salaried positions, brought a positive attitude of determination and spirit to the work force. I am sure the efforts of the families Costello, Cheek, Cascioli, Henderson, Longo, Allen, Trilli, McNeal, DiDente, Biggums, Marino, Massey and more were vital to WG living out the century. When the Waynesburg/Magnolia factories finally closed, many of these people had to move to other work.

The End of the 20th Century at WG

Five years ago, Robert Hunker purchased the Whitacre mansion, restored it impressively and reintroduced the sport of fox hunting to the area. After a 50-year layoff, I resumed my riding activities, part of a second childhood, I suspect. My equestrian ability may be rusty as I am writing this history while mending some bones after “coming off my horse” while jumping.

Lynn Cart is a ceramic engineer, worked for WG at Magnolia, Waynesburg and Alliance as a supervisor and in the laboratory. After the death of her husband in 1997, she left WG to spend full time with her daughter Lila, who was 3 at the time. Since then, Lila has been very successfully involved in the Head Start program and Lynn has served with some distinction on a three-county Head Start policy board.

Janet Kaboth came with WG after graduating from Miami University of Ohio, teaching and working with insurance claims. She has raised Chris and Stephen, worked at the main office, Middle, obtained a night school degree in accounting, an MBA from Baldwin Wallace and became financial manager after the 1990 retrenchment. Janet’s MBA and accounting school records were outstanding. After the 1997 annual meeting, she left WG to work as a consultant. She was quickly hired, part-time, by TRC, a specialty silicone products formulator in Akron. Recently, to meet a need at WG she returned, part-time, as financial manager. In 1999, she was considering an offer to return to TRC as president.

John III graduated from Kiski Prep School, attended Mount Union for a short time, graduated from Ohio Diesel School, worked at Waynesburg and the Morges Gas System, was maintenance supervisor at Midvale and in 1999, works at Alliance in sales service and manages our property in Waynesburg. John is a volunteer paramedic and recently distinguished himself by helping rescue a girl from a 40-foot well. Scuba diving is his hobby.

1997 John Jr. Steps Down, Lynn Morrison Takes Reins

At the annual meeting in 1997, Lynn Morrison succeeded John Jr. as CEO. In 1996, although paver sales continued to increase, the growth of earnings was interrupted by sales and operating decisions that just didn’t work out. Some problems may have come from “growing pains.” Regardless, I was 70 years old, very unhappy with 1996 and determined that change at the top was in order. I considered only my daughter Janet and Lynn Morrison. Lynn was my choice, feeling that his intimate knowledge of the customers and operations could lead to the quickest fix. In addition, Janet wanted part-time work so she could spend more time with her sons while they completed high school. After I made my choice, Janet recommended that she leave and I get out of the day-to-day operations. Lynn could now manage without interference and excuses. This we did. Janet left and I retired in 1997.

In the 1990s decade, dry pressed paver sales have grown from zip to $2.5 million, more than replacing the lost ladle brick volume. The Alliance plant profits have been quite strong in 1998 and 1999 and with continuing improvement of the product, the prospect of continuing growth in this business is excellent.

At that time, Larry Johnson, a ceramic engineer, was plant manager at Alliance following long service with WG at the Waynesburg plant and as a manager of the Morges Gas System. He is now retired. Ralph Foster was manager of maintenance at Alliance and has since retired. Previously, Ralph was pug mill operator at Waynesburg and also manager of the Morges Gas System. Dennis DiDente supervised the yard and loading at Alliance, after doing the same work at Waynesburg and Middle. Denny excelled at good housekeeping in his area and is now also retired. Marc Saylor was plant superintendent at Alliance until he left the company. Marc came with us to work in the lab and became head fireman at Middle before coming to Alliance. Brian Finley was office manager when we acquired Alliance and has since died.

Mike Longo came back to WG as sales manager for paving brick. Going back in time, Mike had been a sales executive for Ludowici Roof Tile Company, sales manager for WG at Middle, sales executive for Glen-Gery Brick Company and supervisor of non-clay refractory production at WG.

John Jr. is happy and proud that WG survived the disaster of the 1980s and expects to be looking good as the 20th century closes. During this period, I gifted my preferred stock to my children, Lynn Cart, Janet Kaboth and John III, and have transferred my common stock in WG to a Family Limited Partnership. My children are the limited partners. Since April 1997, I have adapted well to this weekly program, three days of golf, two days riding my horse and two days for a short visit to the office.

John III, Bill an dKatie CuricSCAN_20_1cUniv of Tennesee Stadium USe 2nd