New General Shale leader laying groundwork for future

Nathan Baker • Apr 30, 2014 at 9:13 AM

General Shale’s new CEO Charles Smith said he plans to continue building on the solid foundation he and his predecessor have laid during their tenures.

Most recently the president and chief operations officer at the Johnson City-headquartered company, Smith got his start at General Shale in 1992, when he was fresh out of Tennessee Technical University.

In his 22 years with the manufacturer, he helped make many important decisions, including scouting the location for the company’s current corporate offices, and worked with former CEO Richard Green, who retired at the beginning of April, to help guide the construction materials maker through the housing market crash.

When the mortgage crisis hit full-force seven years ago, the resulting collapse of new homebuilding cut deeply into General Shale’s revenues.

To keep the company sound, its leaders made the difficult decision in 2009 to close the local brick plant, Smith said.

“That was a tough time and something the entire industry faced,” Smith said of the recession generated closure. “We sincerely held on as long as we could in this area, but when the market goes from x-number of starts to a fraction of those starts, we suffer.” General Shale still operates a manufacturing facility in Piney Flats, where approximately 60 employees produce concrete products and do-it-yourself kits, and more than 65 people are employed in the corporate offices in Johnson City, including researchers, marketing experts and management.

Smith said with the company’s growth plan, which includes continuing to develop and offer new products to help insulate against another market crash, more workers could be added in Piney Flats with line expansions.

“We’ve got to be innovative in our product line, making sure we’re more than just a brick company,” the new CEO said, making sure to underscore General Shale’s continued dedication to brick and block. “We now offer a wide array of products, from thin brick and rock, concrete, patios, fireplaces and do-it-yourself kits. We want to continue to be diversified and be innovative in our approach.”

Last year, General Shale purchased a plant from Cunningham Brick Company in Grover, N.C., including the building, equipment and the rights to make its products.

“One of the things we have coming, is I see us expanding our product portfolio,” Smith said. “We’re broadening our commercial brick line and expanding our commercial efforts in North America. By doing that, we’ll utilize this plant as the base of our commercial efforts.”

The employees in the research and development department based in the corporate offices are responsible for watching consumer trends and developing new products to continue to answer demand, he said.

From building season to building season and from one region to another, preferences for the colors and textures of building materials widely vary.

The good news for General Shale, Smith said, is that the building trends are turning away from vinyl siding and wood and back toward brick.

“I think we have seen a movement away from it in the past, but in recent studies, the consumers are looking more for sustainability, energy efficiency and low maintenance costs, and that’s what brick provides,” he said.

The home construction market also appears to be regaining ground. This year, new construction has increased 20 percent over the last, a welcome sight after years of slump.

Still, under his leadership, Smith said General Shale will continue to broaden its product base in hopes of avoiding a future crash in the construction market.

“Things are starting to look better, but we want to make sure they don’t get as bad as they were again,” he said. “That’s what we started four or five years ago, and that’s what I hope to keep up.”Follow Nathan Baker on Twitter @JCPressBaker. Like him on Facebook here.

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