One – on – One…with Ron Williamson
 
July 1st, 2007

“The need for more environmentally sound  building practices has brought the construction industry to a point where they value the features and benefits of our products more than ever.”

By Kathleen Furore

July-August 2007

How does a journalism graduate and advertising sales representative become a sought-after marketing expert in the tile industry? Just ask Ron Williamson, Marketing Services Director at Ironrock, a quarry tile and decorative tile manufacturer in Canton, Ohio.

Nearly two decades ago, the one-time newspaper employee answered an ad for a samples and marketing coordinator at Ironrock and parlayed the position into his current spot as Marketing Services Director, where he combines his love of architecture and design with his knack for writing about and promoting tile products.

Williamson spoke with TileDealer about his background, and about how Ironrock grew from a small brick paving company born in the late 1800s to the preeminent manufacturer of unglazed ceramic quarry tile and decorative tile products it is today.

TileDealer: What is your background? How did you get involved in the tile industry?

Williamson: I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Ohio University in 1982. I majored in advertising and minored in psychology. I always had an interest in architecture and design, and leaned toward the marketing end of the business.

After graduation, I worked at a newspaper selling ad space. I was looking for an opportunity to get out of that business, and in 1989 I came to Ironrock. I answered the company’s newspaper ad for a samples and marketing coordinator. It was a nice marriage of something I had always been interested in and my media background.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve grown the position. With the advent of desktop publishing, I’ve been able to do advertising, write press releases—anything that has to do with communicating information about Ironrock products—all in-house. We now have a great marketing staff including a graphic designer and a design assistant to help with marketing tasks. There is also a sample room manager who gets samples out to the field.

A huge part of my job is making sure that the sales managers in the field have the tools they need to represent our products.

TileDealer: Can you give a brief company history, starting with the company’s inception as The Royal Brick Company in 1890?

Williamson: The founder, Jacob J. Renkert, started working in the brick business in 1866. The company began as The Royal Brick Company in Canton in 1890. In 1902, it became the Metropolitan Paving Brick Company because of a merger with other brick manufacturers. The basic reason the company is here is because this area of the country—near the Appalachian Mountains—has excellent raw materials. At one time, the company was the largest manufacturer of road paving brick in the world.

Over the years the company has supplied a diversity of ceramic products to the building industry such as paving brick for Canton’s streets; New York City’s tunnels; the Indianapolis Speedway; some of the largest tile installations in the country, including quarry tile for mass transit areas in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and tile for the Pittsburgh International Airport. We’ve also done a large number of high-end, custom home applications using products from our Meredith line.

The company’s name has changed over the years to reflect changing product lines. Metropolitan Paving Brick became Metropolitan Brick, then Metropolitan Industries when it diversified in the 1960’s. The name was changed to Ironrock Capital-Ironrock in 1999. The company is currently known as Ironrock and has the Metropolitan Ceramics and Meredith Collection product brands.

In the early 1970’s then-President and CEO Steven Renkert decided to bring the company back to its ceramic manufacturing roots and began developing a quarry tile plant at the current Canton location. He had the foresight to see a real need to fill this market niche—commercial extruded quarry tile—with a quality product. Quarry tile is used where durability and slip-resistance are main concerns—restaurant kitchens and other heavy traffic areas are good examples.

By 1978, a new plant to manufacture vitrified, low-absorption, unglazed ceramic split tile for indoor and outdoor use was opened on Millerton Road in Canton. In developing this plant, Metropolitan chose to use the split tile process which utilizes the vertical extrusion of two pieces of tile joined by connecting webs or “sticks”. Metropolitan quarry tile can be installed easily, has a slip-resisting surface and is available in a wide variety of colors, sizes, and textures.

In 1986, Rachel Renkert started Meredith Collection, which operated separately in the Metropolitan plant. Meredith became a brand of Ironrock in the early 1990’s. Amelia Renkert, Steve’s daughter, became President of Ironrock in 1992. Today Guy Renkert, Steve’s son, is president and CEO. He succeeded Amelia in 2002 after Amelia’s return to the practice of law and is the fifth generation of the Renkerts to manage this family-owned company.

The Renkerts are very interested in investing not only back into the manufacturing facility, but also into the community. They are very civic minded and involved in the Canton community through scholarship programs, support of the local arts and other charitable activities.

Also, Ironrock has many employees that have been with the company for years and even decades. That says a lot about the work environment that the Renkerts have established.

TileDealer: Your company manufactures Meredith Art Tile and Iron Gate Tile under the Meredith Collection banner. You also offer the Metropolitan Ceramics brand. What are the characteristics of the products in each line?

Williamson: Meredith Art Tile is inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement and is sold in tile boutiques throughout the U.S. It features detailed hand-painted relief carved decorative tiles. Meredith Art Tile’s market is focused toward high-end applications for mostly residential new construction and renovation. Certain designs are also very popular in bungalows and Craftsman-style homes.

Iron Gate Tile features Victorian-inspired designs. This line’s price point is slightly lower than that of the Meredith Art Tile and offers some inventoried designs and field tile. Iron Gate Tile appeals to the market interested in a “subway tile” look. It is sold through dealers throughout the U.S. This last year has seen a complete updating of the Iron Gate Tile line.

Metropolitan Ceramics is our line of unglazed, extruded quarry tile. The standard product is one-half-inch thick for added durability and comes in a variety of colors and sizes. We also make other thicknesses for various applications. The product is a low-absorption product, which makes it suitable for indoor and outdoor use. It runs through our kilns vertically as two pieces attached by pencils or sticks. This allows for better firing. Once fired, the two tiles are split—thus the name “split tile”. We also make products with added slip-resistance.

We also introduced a new product line called Down To Earth (DTE) that is part of the Metropolitan Ceramics brand within the past year. It has all the features and benefits of quarry tile with added texture and unique sizes that appeal to the growing trend in the residential market for enhanced outdoor living spaces. Down To Earth also features random shade variation to add to the classic look of the product.

TileDealer: What are some of your most popular products and what are the most common applications in which they’re installed?

Williamson: In our Meredith line, Ginkgo and Square Rose tiles—traditional Arts and Crafts looks—are very popular. We also have unique mural series that are extremely popular. That includes The Coastal Series with a lighthouse and seashore motif; Treescape; and a Mountain series.

Iron Gate offers a subway tile look with neo-classic designs. Because it is such a traditional, Victorian tile line I can’t really say one design sells better than another. The Palm Border and Bead and Diamond Border are popular, and we just introduced a Fleur de Lis motif. As for installations, kitchen backsplashes and counters, bathroom applications and fireplace surrounds are some of the most common areas for Meredith and Iron Gate.

On the Metropolitan side, our Down To Earth products are popular for outdoor spaces—patios, walkways, pool surrounds and even driveways. These tiles are good in any climate from Minnesota to Miami!

TileDealer: Has the downturn in the housing market impacted sales of the kind of high-quality ceramic tiles you manufacture?

Williamson: There is always going to be a demand for quality products. People are renovating and remodeling if they’re not buying new homes, so it really isn’t negatively impacting the higher-end part of the market. In fact, the downturn has actually helped the Metropolitan side of our business. With the downtick in the residential side of the business, a lot of distributors for Metro product are looking for other places to generate revenue, which is helping on our commercial side.

TileDealer: Fuel costs are soaring, which obviously affects tile production and shipping costs. How is Ironrock handling the challenge high gas prices are presenting?

Williamson: We definitely have felt the effects of rising natural gas prices and are always looking at ways to be more energy efficient. As for gasoline prices, like all industries, if it continues we eventually will feel the effects because the consumer will at some point have to make choices. Because we ship freight on board from our plant, it hasn’t had that big an impact yet. It also helps that we’re centrally located.

TileDealer: What trends are impacting the tile industry today? And how are those trends impacting Ironrock’s business?

Williamson: Our products are very traditional, very niche, so we don’t track trends a lot. However, there is a lot of renovating and remodeling going on. And, as I mentioned before, there is a big demand for outdoor living spaces, which has created a good interest in our Down To Earth product line.

Another giant movement is the LEED and green building trend that is beginning to impact every company. The architectural community is looking at a product’s lifecycle and it’s green attributes closer than ever. Our tiles are very sustainable with an extremely long life cycle, so this is playing to our advantage. Also, our quarry products are very natural, scrap can be reused in production and used to make road beds, and the finished product can be recycled. Our products are also made in the United States, so it costs less to transport them.

Going green, having sustainable products is all about being a good steward. And it is good business, too.

TileDealer: Are there any big plans in store for Ironrock? What does the future hold?

Williamson: We will continue to add capabilities within the framework of the types of products our plant is designed to manufacture efficiently. We have built a reputation for manufacturing quality products and we wouldn’t want to sacrifice that to chase the latest trend. Fortunately, the types of products we manufacture don’t go out of style. In some cases, as with our quarry products, design trends come back to us. One example is the need for more environmentally sound building practices, which has brought the construction industry to a point where they value the features and benefits of our products more than ever.

Source:

Ron Williamson

Marketing Services Director

Ironrock

Canton, OH

330-484-4887

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