When you learn that Summitville Tiles Inc. is a 107-year-old family business that is welcoming its fourth generation into the enterprise, you know its leaders have done something right.
A conversation with David Johnson, CEO of Summitville Tiles, reveals that the company that started producing shale bricks in 1912 as Summit Brick Company is not just a family business, it’s a business that views its employees, suppliers and customers as part of the family, and they cherish every relationship.
“We recognize the enduring value of all the people who are critical to making us who we are,” David says.
Today, Summitville Tiles is a leader in the American ceramic tile industry. When David’s grandfather, F. H. Johnson, founded the business as a small producer of highway paving bricks, he probably didn’t realize the progression ahead. Summitville became a regional producer of commercial and residential face brick in the 1930’s and 1940’s and then a diversified producer of premium grade quarry tiles, heavy-duty industrial floor brick, precision sized thin brick, plus a full line of cementitious and epoxy resin installation and tile care products that are shipped all over the world.
David’s father and uncle, Peter and Fred Johnson, not only grew the business to its greatest heights from the 1960’s through the 1980’s, they taught David and his brother Bruce some simple but important lessons that are so important to running a complicated business. David explains that every job in their process connects to the next job. His dad and uncle always stressed that if you don’t do it right in the mine and so on through the production process, you won’t have a high quality end product.
“We believe in the dignity of our employees,” David says. “Our culture recognizes the importance of every person in our process.”
Clearly, the family culture works. “It is not uncommon to have three generations of one family still working here—brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, and now grandchildren. This is one of our secret weapons,” David notes. “This past year our employees had a combined 2,723 years of seniority in our workforce.”
The average length of employment at Summitville Tiles is 20 years. In fact, one employee has been with the company for 51 years. David also notes that Mark Webb, the company’s chief financial officer, has been with them for 36 years, serving in the same position his father held before him. And David recently hired an engineer whose great-grandfather had worked here. “These family relationships have been an important part of the fabric and culture that binds us together working for a common cause,” David says.
David’s father and uncle served as “incredible” mentors. His father had the following letters on his business card: DWYSYWD. It’s a palindrome (reads the same backwards and forwards) that stands for--Do What You Say You Will Do. “My dad repeated this simple wisdom very often. He applied it to our business every day. My brother and I have been guided by it,” David says. It isn’t surprising that a framed photograph of David’s father and uncle is on display in his office, the same office that was used by his grandfather. He calls it his “sanctuary” because whenever he has a tough decision to make, David gazes at the photo and asks, “What would they say?” They would certainly be pleased that Summitville Tiles has weathered many ups and downs. “We have persevered through good and bad times," David says. He is proud that Summitville Tiles is the only charter member of the tile industry’s national trade association to still be in business today. That’s because the industry has faced stiff global competition which has continued to accelerate. China is now the largest producer of tile in the world.
How has Summitville Tiles survived while their competitors perished? “We reinvented ourselves,” David explains. Although the company started out by producing highway paving brick, when it was time to reinvent, they did. The business expanded to include face brick, quarry tile and a myriad of different floor and wall applications and products. “Today we are one of the major producers of industrial floor brick, especially in the food processing business,” David points out. “Ninety five percent of this product goes to the who’s who of food processing companies.” In addition, Summitville Tiles now makes thin brick, which is a fast growing part of the business. Thin brick is used in the construction sites for schools and large commercial and institutional facilities. Another niche is fast food restaurants. David says that Summitville Tiles sells millions of quarry tile across the world to countries like China because of the “uniqueness” of the product.
The next time you visit the White House in Washington, D.C. you might want to look up at the roof. Summitville’s thick shale roof tiles are on its rooftop. And while you are in D.C. take a ride on the subway system. Summitville Tiles has been the sole supplier of hexagonal tiles since the city’s subway was built. “Ninety nine percent of our customer orders are for “architecturally specified products that go to name brand companies you know in America,” David says.
David is proud that his company initiated land reclamation long before it was required of them. “If I take you to one of our former quarries you would never know there was ever a mine there. Early on, we adopted a no waste product policy,” he says. Any scrap the business generates is crushed and sold to road excavation companies on construction sites. By 1980, over 3,000 acres of land had been accumulated by the company under which rests a vast reserve of high grade shale. With an estimated 300 year supply of shale, the company’s primary raw material, David asserts “we won’t run out."
What does a tavern and country inn have to do with Summitville Tiles? The historic Spread Eagle Tavern, built in 1837, was in disrepair more than a century and a half after it was built. David’s father, Peter, who was close to retirement in the late 1980’s, recognized the tavern’s value when it went up for auction. David recalls how his parents purchased and lovingly restored the building over a two year period. “My parents brought this wonderful old building back to life,” David says. “The initial impetus for the project was as a corporate guest house but it is also open to the public.” Today, the Spread Eagle Tavern & Inn offers fine dining in seven rooms and overnight accommodations in one of five guestrooms. If you visit on a weekend, you might meet David’s 94-year-old mother who still dines there every Saturday night.
Summitville Tiles has worked with McDonald Hopkins for over 70 years. “McDonald Hopkins played a pivotal role in devising strategies to help us remain a family business and continue into the third generation,” David says. “It’s been a great relationship. I have trust and faith in their (Roger Shumaker, a member in McDonald Hopkins’ Estate Planning Practice Group, and McDonald Hopkins) integrity and advice. I have always felt completely at ease when I need an issue resolved."
David points out that attorneys at McDonald Hopkins have assisted with the spin-off of part of the business—Summitcrest Farms—to his cousins, as well as a restructuring and recapitalization that helped “right size” the business. He credits Shawn Riley, now the president of McDonald Hopkins, with guidance on that project. David is proud of the longstanding relationship Summitville Tiles has with McDonald Hopkins and with so many customers and suppliers. “They are like family. That is so rewarding for me—the longstanding relationships built on mutual respect.”