130 Years Later: 20 Factors That Made Acme Brick into a Construction Powerhouse

For anyone who was around 130 years ago, 1891 was rough and rowdy.

The “Gilded Age” was coming to an end. Railroads were the major growth industry with the factory system, mining, and finance increasing in importance. Two years later, every industry got an economic “wake-up call” in the form of the “Panic of 1893” which led to serious social and political upheaval. 

1891 was to see many “firsts” in the United States.

  • The first concert at Carnegie Hall was led by Russian composer and conductor Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, who led the New York Music Society’s orchestra in performing his composition - Festival Coronation March.
  • Benjamin Harrison was President, but not for long. One year later, he was defeated by the man he had bested - Grover Cleveland - due to the growing unpopularity of high tariffs and high federal spending.
  • Wrigley chewing gum was founded on April 1, 1891, in Chicago by William Wrigley Jr. 
  • James, “Big Jim” Hogg became the first native Texas to become 20th governor of the state since the state joined the United States in 1845.
  • On April 17, 1891, businessman George E. Bennett chartered a company known as the Acme Pressed Brick Company and the company grew to become the largest American-owned brick manufacturer by the mid-20th century.

It’s time to take a trip down “memory lane” (made from Acme Brick pavers, of course) Click here to read a timeline of tenacity.

 

Nine People Who Built This House of Brick

Humans have used brick to build long-lasting structures for thousands of years. According to this source, “Brick dates back to 7000 B.C., which makes them the oldest known building materials. They were discovered in southern Turkey at the site of an ancient settlement around the city of Jericho. The greatest breakthrough came with the invention of fired brick, around 3500 B.C. From this moment on, brick could be made without the heat of the sun.”

Given this ancient history, advances in brick manufacturing that occurred only 130 years ago appear to be relatively recent. However, changes in the brick and construction industries have accelerated exponentially over the course of Acme Brick’s history. It started with a man who built the foundation of a company that is still flourishing and evolving.

George Bennett was a merchant in Dallas who founded Acme Brick in 1891. He was a classic entrepreneur. He recognized a growing demand for construction materials in his native state, where people were moving out of the frontier state and building new cities. Log cabins would no longer satisfy home and business owners! After finding and successfully testing raw material such as clay and shale, which were found near Weatherford in Parker County, and conceiving a business plan that took into account such factors as a labor force and railroad transportation for the finished product, Bennett chartered Acme Pressed Brick Company and began a journey that continues to this day.

No matter how great a product is, long-term success is only possible when someone has the temerity to get out there in the market and sell it! In 1910, after an international economic panic crippled construction and caused Acme Brick to curtail production and lay off workers, Ernest Fender (page 20) was the right man at the right time. He was a relentless salesman and when he heard that the city of Midland, Texas had been all but destroyed by a massive fire, he jumped on the next train smokin’ West. He managed to sell enough brick to save the company and was rightfully promoted to lead the company’s first sales department.

John Justin Jr. found a commonality between boots and brick. In the process, he became the president of Acme Brick. Based on his experience in his family’s boot manufacturing business he realized that brick - like boots - was purchased by customers based on color, texture, and in-person sales presentations. Over the three years of his role as president of the company, Justin learned valuable lessons about brick manufacturing and used these to help the company transition into even greater success.

Ed Stout (page 74) enjoyed the single-longest tenure of any president of Acme Brick (1973 - 1999) and he made several operational decisions that dramatically enhanced the company’s future growth. At the very beginning of his leadership, an oil embargo by OPEC caused chaos among manufacturing industries that relied on oil and natural gas to make products. Since brick is fired by natural gas, this was potentially a death knell for Acme Brick. Stout began investing in natural gas exploration which paid off handsomely when Congress began deregulation of natural gas exploration and drilling. Led by Stout, the company also reduced the gas consumption per brick by a whopping 40 percent.

Investors worldwide know who the “Oracle of Omaha” is. Warren Buffett’s decision to add Acme Brick Company to his Berkshire Hathaway portfolio was the typical acquisition strategy of this low-key investment savant. He has often said that his investment strategy is based on the philosophy of only investing in companies and products that the average person can understand. There’s an excellent possibility that these companies are a part of almost everyone’s day: Burlington Northern, Coke, GEICO, American Express, Gillette, Acme Brick, and many others.

Harold Melton (Ph.D.) (page 102) could have easily been a tenured professor at any university, except for one fact. He loved brick. He originally joined Acme Brick in 1958, and it was obvious to company leaders and colleagues that he was a brilliant salesman. After leading sales efforts in several Acme districts, he returned to college and earned his doctorate. However, remembering the sound of brick being stacked and shipped and an offer to become the Acme Brick vice president of sales lured him back to the company. He established the Acme marketing department and it helped Acme gain powerful name recognition. After being named president of the company in 1999 he helped establish the relationship with Berkshire Hathaway.

The current president of Acme Brick, Dennis Knautz has first-hand experience of just how hot one of the company’s kilns can feel! His “trial by fire” occurred three years after assuming his new role in 2008. It was the “Great Recession” and was fueled by lax subprime mortgage standards and escalating energy prices that pushed the United States into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The ensuing housing collapse forced Acme Brick Company to reduce production at almost all its plants, lay off workers, and lose money for the first time in the company’s history. This continued for five, tough years. Through the chaos, Knautz guided the company with a steady hand, and when it came out on the other side, it was stronger and ready to take on new challenges.

After playing college football for UCLA, Troy Aikman was selected first overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1989 NFL Draft. He was named to six Pro Bowls during his career while helping lead Dallas to a period of dominance in the 1990s. The longest-tenured quarterback in Cowboys franchise history, Aikman won three Super Bowls titles with the team and he was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. During the 1990s, Aikman was featured as the primary spokesman for Acme Brick and is given credit for dramatically increasing the name recognition of the company throughout the United States.

Runners on base soon learned that catcher Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez had one of the best arms in the league. This makes him an excellent pitchman for Acme Brick! Pudge played for the Texas Rangers in two separate stints, comprising the majority of his career (Florida Marlins, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankee, Houston Astros, and Washington Nationals). He now works in the front office for the Rangers full-time and extolling the benefits of Acme Brick in his spare time. 

 

Four Technical and Business Advances That Fired Acme Success

Through good times and tough times, Acme Brick has used technical and business innovations to drive success. Here are four that have made the biggest impact on the company’s longevity.

The Boyd Press (page 12) 

Whether they had two, four, or six molds, these presses took the raw material (clay and shale) and gave the brick its shape. These bricks were then transported to the kiln where they were heated at a remarkably high temperature. In the early days of Acme Brick, the Boyd Press was responsible for substantially increasing productivity.

The Tunnel Kiln 

“Tunnel kiln is a continuous moving ware kiln in which the clay products to be fired are passed (on cars) through a long horizontal tunnel. The firing of products occurs at the central part of the tunnel. The primary advantages of tunnel kiln technology lie in its ability to fire a wide variety of clay products, more efficiently. The tunnel kiln technology was developed around the mid-19th century.” 

Natural Gas Fired Kiln 

“Fuels can be divided into solid, liquid, or gaseous. Until the late 19th century, only solid fuels were available, such as wood and coal. In kilns fired with solid fuels the unburned ash residue must constantly be removed.” Now, most fuel-burning kilns (including the Acme Brick plants) are fueled with a liquid such as oil, or a gaseous fuel such as natural gas or propane.

Joining the Berkshire Hathaway Portfolio 

The stock price for a share of Berkshire Hathaway is about $392,000 and it had revenues of $254.6 billion in 2019. It is a multinational conglomerate based in Omaha, Nebraska and led by Warren Buffett, one of the most successful investors in history. When Acme Brick joined this portfolio, it gained access to equity capital and access to some of the smartest minds in business today.

 

Iconic Structures Built with Acme Brick

Over the past 130 years, hundreds of thousands of homes have been constructed of brick made in Acme Brick plants. Each is the most important “building” for the families who live there. In addition to these homes, there are many other structures that have a timeless look and permanence. Here are some of them.

College Campuses

Acme Brick can be found on college campuses - in the form of sports stadia, classrooms, and other buildings - around the country. These include:

  • Texas A&M
  • The University of Texas at Austin
  • Texas Christian University
  • Baylor University
  • Oklahoma University
  • Oklahoma State University
  • Texas Tech University
  • Southern Methodist University
  • Florida State University

The Burk Burnett Building in Fort Worth, Texas- Built in 1914 (page 127)

Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, Texas- Built in 1936

The Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, Texas- Built in 1912

Globe Life Field -Texas Rangers Stadium in Arlington, Texas- Built in 2019 

Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas- Built in 2014

The Gulf Building in Houston, Texas- Built in 1929

 

A Glorious Past and an Exciting Future

It’s true what former President Teddy Roosevelt said about the past: 

The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.

The “first” 130 years of the Acme Brick story has been a wild ride for everyone who jumped on! With new products being added, a group of associates who build value for the company every working day, and a business strategy that has been fired at 2000 degrees, Acme Brick is prepared for the future because it knows its past.

For more information about the history of Acme Brick, click here.