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'It's Columbus Brick, and it will stay that way': Fourth-generation Puckett talks about company's 127-year history, vows sale won't change mission

 

Al Puckett was the fourth-generation owner of Columbus Brick Company, which operated as a family owned company for 127 years. Puckett sold the business to Tennessee-based General Shale earlier this year.

Al Puckett was the fourth-generation owner of Columbus Brick Company, which operated as a family owned company for 127 years. Puckett sold the business to Tennessee-based General Shale earlier this year. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

The four generations of the Puckett family taken in this photo more than 65 years ago; (left to right) Al Puckett (an infant); Allen Puckett Sr., Allen Puckett Jr. (Sonny) and company co-founder W.N. Puckett.

The four generations of the Puckett family taken in this photo more than 65 years ago; (left to right) Al Puckett (an infant); Allen Puckett Sr., Allen Puckett Jr. (Sonny) and company co-founder W.N. Puckett.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

From left, Columbus Brick Company employees Kenneth Webb, Carl Summerville and Randy Macon shape bricks. Webb has worked for three months at the company. Summerville has worked for the company 15 years and Macon for 17 years.

From left, Columbus Brick Company employees Kenneth Webb, Carl Summerville and Randy Macon shape bricks. Webb has worked for three months at the company. Summerville has worked for the company 15 years and Macon for 17 years.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

 

Slim Smith

 

 

The Puckett family has owned and operated Columbus Brick Company since it was founded in 1890. In fact, the company's 80 employees are all family. A few of them are even named Puckett. 

 

That's the way company president Al Puckett sees it, at least. 

 

On a cool November morning, Puckett happily conducts an impromptu tour of the expansive facility, with its two plants and massive brick kilns. 

 

He seems to know and delight in even the most minute details of the operation, but it's apparent the workers are what he finds most special. 

 

"He's third generation," Puckett proudly notes of an employee as he moves through the plant. 

 

"His daddy worked here back when my dad was running the company," he says of another. 

 

"Third generation," he says a few minutes later. "Him, too." 

 

Every employee, it seems, is rooted in the company. 

 

"It takes a certain type of person that doesn't mind work because this is work, I learned that early on," says Puckett, the fourth generation of his family to own what was until October the oldest family-owned business in Columbus. "You're not going to get rich, but we can offer a quality of life and a culture you won't find most places." 

 

In October, Puckett sold the company his great-great grandfather, W. N. Puckett, co-founded in 1890. Tennessee-based General Shale, a subsidiary of the Wienerberger AG of Vienna, Austria, and the largest brick manufacturer in the world, is the new owner. 

 

But Puckett says nothing will change. It will remain a family business in the best sense of the word. 

 

"They want everybody to stay," Puckett said. "They will not put a person here. I'm going to stay on for at least four years and our general manager, Ed Thebaud, will continue to manage the day-to-day operations. Nobody is going to lose their job. It's Columbus Brick, and it will stay that way." 

 

 

 

Not a quick decision 

 

While the decision to sell the business might have caught the community by surprise, it was not a quick decision. Puckett said he had been working on the deal for several years. The decision, he says, was based on the evolution of the brick industry, which is afar more complex as it becomes highly automated and globally focused. 

 

Although a fifth generation of the Puckett family, Allen Puckett IV, will continue to work at the company, the need to bring in a corporate partner was obvious. The decision to sell, Puckett said, was very much a family decision. 

 

"The kids wanted to do other things, too'' said Puckett, 68. "I can understand that. I felt that way. I probably would have been a farmer. I might have starved to death, though, but I liked being outdoors." 

 

Puckett says he never regretted his choice to stay in the family business, though. 

 

"Sure, there are always things you want to pursue," he said. "But life is life. You may want those things, but really, what you have to do is walk through the doors that are before you." 

 

 

 

Changes in brick-making 

 

Puckett practically grew up at Columbus Brick. He was 12 when his great-grandfather died at age 96, in 1961. After heading to Clemson University to earn his engineering degree in ceramics, he returned to work along side his dad, Al Puckett, Jr., affectionately known as Sonny, who had taken over from his dad and Al's grandfather, Allen Puckett Sr. 

 

As someone who has spent his entire life in the brick industry, Puckett has seen its amazing transformation. 

 

When the company was founded, hundreds of employees were needed to produce even a fraction of the 140 million bricks the 80-employee company ships out each month now. 

 

In those early days, bricks were made by hand, formed in wooden molds, and fired in coal-burning kilns. Mules, rail cares and steamboats were used to ship the bricks, with thousands of bricks being unloaded by hand every day. 

 

Even by the time Puckett came along, the process of brick-making was still a back-breaking, labor-intensive practice. 

 

That hard work, and finding employees willing to do it, was one of the things that fostered the family culture the company still embraces today, Puckett said. 

 

The industry kept changing, and even a novice can see the impact of automation and robotics as Puckett moves from one plant, still operating as it did 30 years ago, to the new plant, a fully-automated production requiring only a handful of employees to operate. 

 

That isn't the only change, either. 

 

"There used to be a brick company in just about every town," Puckett said. "Now, there are only two left in the whole state. As we went through the downturn back in 2008, I've watched some many family businesses go away -- four in Mississippi and a huge one in Alabama. It's happening all over. The brick industry still hasn't recovered." 

 

Puckett said that was not a factor in his decision to sell the company, however. 

 

"The company is in great shape," he said. "It's not like (the sale) was something we were forced into.  

 

"Our industry is in dire straits, about 30 percent of the brick companies are sitting idle, so nobody needs to go buy more capacity," he added. "I think probably the biggest thing we were known for is the people we have accumulated. I'm often told I have the best people in the industry. I think that's what made us appealing to General Shale. They know us. We know them." 

 

 

 

A good reputation 

 

Buddy Wittichen, based in Memphis, Tennessee, was one of Columbus Brick Company's main distributors before he sold his business in 2004, curiously enough to General Shale. 

 

"You won't find a better guy than Al," he said. "He's knows the business from top to bottom. He's as straight a string, too. I can see why General Shale wanted to do this deal. They know what they are getting with Al." 

 

While Columbus Brick has established an enviable reputation in the industry, the company has cemented itself in the hearts of the community as well. 

 

Located on Military Road and Bluecutt Road, it sits in the predominantly-black, mainly poor Ward 4. For generations of Ward 4 residents, Columbus Brick has been a beacon of hope and opportunity, based on the company's generosity, it's willingness to provide even those with a troubled background a job, its genuine affection and support for the community. 

 

Fred Stewart, who served as the ward's city councilman for four terms and has known Puckett for almost 40 years, said the community owes a debt to the Pucketts. 

 

"I think everybody heard the rumors going around that they were selling the company and I think folks were sad about that," Stewart said. "But the way I look at it, when you contribute all your life to a company and make it prosperous for the community and have supported a whole lot of people who were in need, all you can do is say thank you. 

 

"When I was on the council, I would come and talk to him about things we needed," he added. "He would sit down and hear you out, really listen. Then he would say, 'Give me a couple of days. Let me see what I can do.' And then, he would call you. He has done some much. I think highly of him." 

 

About the only thing the Pucketts are reluctant to share are the details of their generosity. 

 

"You never see us much in the newspaper," Puckett said. "That's on purpose. We really like to stay below the radar. We just do our thing." 

 

That, Puckett says, won't change.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]

 

 

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