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Value Added: Building a business, block by concrete block

Brendan Quinn's success at turning around Ernest Maier's fortunes prompted a visit from the president, who wanted to highlight a D.C. area industrial business.
Brendan Quinn's success at turning around Ernest Maier's fortunes prompted a visit from the president, who wanted to highlight a D.C. area industrial business. (Dennis Brack/pool)

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"You work for the soul of the business," his father had told him. "If you can nurture the soul of the business, it keeps everybody employed. That's your job."

He borrowed $50,000 from Suburban Bank against the masonry company's receivables to put some cash in the coffers until he could gin up some business.

The company had advantages he could exploit. For one thing, its customer list dated back 40 years.

"The company had a good reputation, but it faltered when it ran out of money. I went to customers personally, with salespeople, and said, 'I'm fixing this thing.' I had to go and tell them the company still existed and they could rely on it."

Reliability is a key tenet to this day: Ernest Maier owns all its delivery trucks so it can ensure its goods reach their destination.

Quinn nosed around his sales team, advising them on which customers were most likely to pay.

"I have a Spidey sense for guys that won't pay and guys that will pay, and when they get in trouble, getting there before others get in there."

He put out an edict, too: No job was too small. Bid, bid, bid.

One contractor ordered 5,000 blocks. Then another order came in. One job at a time.

The company went from $1 million revenue in 1995 to $2.4 million in 1996 and $3.6 million in 1997, when it turned a $130,000 profit.

Quinn eventually bought the business in 2001 for $4.18 million. He paid the Maiers $1 million outright from investors Quinn had rounded up. He then agreed to a "seller's note" of $418,000, which he had to pay the Maiers over the next few years. Finally, Quinn took over $2.7 million of company debt, relieving the Maier trust of any liability.

The company expanded, buying a cinder block business in Delaware for $3 million and building another brick company from the ground up in Charlottesville. By 2007, Ernest Maier was doing $44 million in sales and earning $1.5 million in profit.

Ernest Maier's commercial masonry accounts for half of sales, and outdoor patios 25 percent. The rest is retail and small contractors who come in and fill up their trucks.

The 9 million blocks it makes and sells bring in $13 million a year. The other $27 million is from wholesale and retail products, ranging from bricks to flagstone to sand and drainage supplies.

Ernest Maier employees earn an average of $44,000 a year and receive company health insurance, which costs Quinn $360,000 a year. The company's 125-employee workforce is four times the number Quinn inherited 15 years ago.

The business is such a success that President Obama visited its concrete block plant in October to showcase an industrial firm near Washington.

Maybe Jack Welch is next.

On Twitter at addedvalueth.


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