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Mapping the Future

By Don Marsh

atlas-2When Laura Gordon Vaughan weighed the next step in an accounting and finance career tracking PricewaterhouseCoopers, then the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, her father suggested a move to a privately-held manufacturer—but not the one she had in mind.

Don Gordon challenged his daughter to join, for the first time, the family business he heads, Atlas Block Co. in Midland, Ontario, and lead veteran staff in replacing 1970s and 1980s concrete masonry capacity with a more versatile building and hardscape unit production line. By all measures, Vaughan transitioned from runways to paving stones with the books in order.

Atlas Block’s new operation rose on a 143-acre greenfield in Hillsdale, about 70 miles north of Toronto, during the height of an economic crisis against which the worst of 1970s and 1980s market conditions nearly pale. Opened in late 2009, the plant is equipped with a Tiger PS-100 running gray building product, full Allan Block segmental retaining wall program, pavers, and brick & stone veneer units on 1,400 x 1,100 boards.

Work leading to Hillsdale began shortly after the career-planning discussion. “The first project was to set up a committee with our general manager and plant manager to identify what kind of equipment we would need, how the line would be configured, and land requirements. We saw a lot of U.S. plants, then sites in Italy and Germany during a trip to Bauma,” says Vaughan, who is Atlas Block vice president of Sales & Marketing and Administration.

After a year of scouting equipment and plant layout options, and likely flow of building and hardscape units from molding to inventory, the committee turned to Michigan-based Pathfinder Systems for product machinery and guidance on unit handling and packaging systems, plus batch plant equipment.

“There wasn’t land available to expand on our two existing central Ontario sites, or surrounding communities where we are known. The plant footprint came before land was secured,” explains Atlas Vice President of Operations Mark Vaughan, who left the steel fabrication business to join his wife in molding and marketing concrete.

“We ended up with a prime parcel that had been set aside about 15 years ago and not actively marketed. It is well separated from residential areas and just off [main Ontario north-south thoroughfare] Highway 400. The direct route to Toronto and markets south improves delivery economy and benefits drivers who are happy not to have to navigate as many rural routes as they did with our old plant.

“Most producers looking at greenfield sites are moving out from major markets. The Hillsdale property allowed us to get a little closer to Toronto,” he says, adding that the site has good access to distribution and deposits from Ontario suppliers Holcim (Canada), Mississauga, cement; K.J. Beamish, Waverly, sand; and Lafarge Canada, Coldwater quarry, crushed stone.

Firm Future
Located about a quarter of the distance between Midland headquarters and Toronto, Hillsdale succeeds a plant and yard in nearby Orilla, where residential development was encroaching. Upon the new plant opening, the Orilla line was mothballed, with distribution maintained prior to a recent property sale. Most old plant staff elected to transition to the new facility.

Atlas Block covers central Ontario and Michigan from primarily the Midland and Hillsdale operations, and eastern Ontario, Quebec and upstate New York from a third province plant in Brockville. “The new facility is built for the next 30 years,” affirms Mark  Vaughan. “It’s about adding some products but mainly serving existing customers better.

“Our company has always been innovative with product development, but had reached the limits of 30- to 40-year-old equipment. We wanted something new for products, color and mix designs. Limited efficiency with the old equipment didn’t allow us to offer much beyond a [premium-priced] tumbled paver. Since opening Hillsdale, we have added an economy product, Harbour Stone, that helps dealers round out unit mix and full-load orders.”

“We work only with smaller, owner-managed dealers and distributors,” adds Laura Vaughan. “The Hillsdale plant offers them new products and better supply of certain other units we could not make profitably at Orilla.”

Atlas Block is eyeing units with recycled material content and other sustainable attributes for dealers’ increasingly green building-driven customers. New batch plant equipment and machinery enable faster development of building or hardscape products that qualify for LEED rating points under the Canadian Green Building Council, whose criteria mirrors its U.S. counterpart.

Initially, Atlas Block has set a minimum 1 percent recycled material content for all building and hardscape units. Under a PCR (Post-Consumer Recycled Content) Block banner, it has developed for LEED-minded architects and owners a family of gray product, Allan SRW, and machine-molded brick or stone veneer units formulated with 30 percent recycled material.

At the heart of their mix designs is 1- to 2-mm spherical aggregate from Poraver North America. The Innisville, Ontario, company recycles municipal agency-sourced glass into a concrete-grade aggregate by coating it with metakaolin, which curtails prospective, long-term alkali-silica reactivity. With the Poraver aggregate block and veneer stone an established product offering, Atlas Block is now testing supplementary cementitious materials for forthcoming green product line potential.

The Hillsdale plant’s sustainability attributes are external and internal. The old plant required pure steam in a single kiln for curing, while its successor deploys a Kraft Energy system across a nine-compartment kiln. Instead of the old kiln venting post-cured product steam to the environment, the new curing equipment directs latent heat and humidity from finished pallets to other compartments where product is still developing strength. Overall greater kiln capacity at Hillsdale, compared to Orilla, means product can cure on a longer cycle at a lower temperature—consuming less energy than a plant where space constraints drive shorter, higher temperature curing cycles.

Whether she is budgeting for lower energy consumption, comparing Hillsdale versus Orilla operating costs, or charging plant staff with crafting new building or hardscape units marketable to those seeking sound construction and LEED rating points, Laura Vaughan sees positive numbers and improving market conditions for much of Atlas Block’s customer base. Production figures and forecasts validate decisions she and her family made when the Hillsdale site was still in the permit phase.

“We had some serious and difficult conversations in fall 2008, knowing 2009 would be a tough year,” she recalls. “We took a hard look at what we had already invested in land, site preparation and early construction, along with equipment contracts. Tiger Machine was already testing the PS-100 in Japan, preparing for shipment to Ontario.

“Now that the worst of the economic downturn is behind us, we are glad the project was kept on schedule.” Her advice to those who have established business, a long-term market view and the capital to invest during in a weak economy: Do it.

That confidence especially helps father Don Gordon, who this year will spend a little less time in Ontario while circulating the industry as 2011 National Concrete Masonry Association chairman.