John Spencer and his wife, Micheila, started Spencer Brickwork, Inc., in 1979 with three other employees: his two younger brothers, Doug and Dave, and his father, John Sr. Twenty-four years later, they now run 13-14 crews and employ 96 people. Spencer Brickwork’s business volume runs between 11-13 million a year based solely on residential work – except when one of their clients occasionally builds an office building. Spencer took time out of his day-to-day business to answer a few questions about the masonry industry and his volunteer activities in the field.
Masonry: Since the origination of Spencer Brickwork, what do you think has been the key to your company’s growth and success over the years?
Spencer: Key for me is having a wife and partner who inspires me and has given me the confidence to properly delegate to the right people for many years. Also, all of our lead people have a great work ethic and are highly competitive and motivated. We also maintain our people through a service awards program, bonuses and other incentives.
Masonry: Spencer Brickwork has won several awards over the years, including MCAA’s International Excellence in Masonry award. What is Spencer Brickwork doing that others aren’t to win these awards?
Spencer: We are fortunate enough to get to follow a lot of the top design architects in St. Louis through our builders and we have some seasoned foremen that just thrive on these jobs. Their enthusiasm carries over to their men and it shows in their work.
Masonry: John, you’re chairman of the Masonry Institute of St. Louis and a MCAA Regional Vice President, among many other roles in the industry. What’s your reason for being so active in the industry, and what would you say to masons who don’t participate at all?
Spencer: I first joined our local association in the mid-80s when we were expanding our company. I wanted to gain more knowledge of our industry. I did. Along the way I became friends with a lot of great people that happened to be leaders in our local and national association and, before you know it, they pull you in and now you are involved. It’s been great for me and for our business.
For those people that choose not to participate, you can’t imagine the wealth of knowledge you are missing out on. Just speaking with an older contractor that has done it all, seen it all and had it all done to him can give you more insight on your industry, your business and your potential success/failure than you can ever fathom… and all it takes is going to one meeting.
Masonry: Since 1987, you’ve also been making annual pilgrimages to Mexico to help erect much-needed buildings, such as schools, churches and orphanages. Tell us more about this noble effort.
Spencer: One of my bricklayers asked me to go along to help build a church. My dad had just died the year before and I remembered his smile when he spoke of his travels to Mexico and how much he loved their culture. Something told me to go and I went – sixteen times in sixteen years.
We recently went back to an orphanage we had built in 1988 to put up another much-needed building. The original block building was in pristine shape, immaculately clean and was home to twice the number of smiling, healthy children it was designed for. There is a great need all over the world. I thank God I’m a craftsman who can build something that’s good and safe for these orphans to live in and to have a chance at their lives.
Masonry: What were the main differences working in Mexico compared to the U.S., and how did you work around them?
Spencer: All the help is volunteer with great hearts and little skill from every occupation except masonry. There are no machines to lift or unload material. We do have “decent” scaffolding now but years ago you would not believe what we worked off of.
Depending on the project, you may work from sunup ’til sundown. The pace is extreme and our goal is to get the masonry up in four days and the steel trusses and roof on in one to two days.
We have completed two-story buildings many times. The largest job we recently completed had 10,000 reinforced blocked with four block gables. We completed the roof on the 6th day. This was done with a total of three actual bricklayers and about 50 volunteers, mostly students.
Masonry: What would other masons need to do if they wanted to help on a project such as this?
Spencer: I’ve worked with people from all over the country, Canada and even South Africa. If anyone is interested, give me a call and I can set you up. It’s definitely a life experience. It will make you feel good about your trade. It will also make you really appreciate your local block manufacturer’s quality, but the main thing is you’ll give those little kids a chance.
Masonry: What do you feel is the biggest misconception about the masonry industry?
Spencer: That masonry can’t meet the builders’ schedules and time frames.
Masonry: What would you do to change that misconception?
Spencer: Show them some of the recorded cases studies out of our St. Louis Masonry Institute’s archives of the many successful jobs that have met and exceeded the most stringent of schedules. St. Louis has some highly motivated contractors with a strong, well-trained union workforce to get the jobs done with the highest quality – on time.
Masonry: What are your three biggest concerns in keeping your company successful?
Spencer: We need the economy to stay strong; the Midwest, fortunately, seems to always stay more stable than the coasts do.
Another concern is keeping our jobs and our people safe, which helps control our insurance costs.
Also, keeping our jobs productive through the constant influx of young people – we currently have 10 apprentices – which balances nicely with our seasoned veterans. We are also moving to more forklifts and crank-up scaffolding.
Masonry: What do you feel is the industry’s biggest challenge in the near future?
Spencer: In finding young people to continue in the masonry trade. People are getting “softer” with computers and technology, and masonry is a physical and many times dirty job. This will be a real challenge.
Masonry: Where do you think the masonry industry is going to be 10 years from now?
Spencer: I think masonry interior wall systems will be back in school work after studies show the huge cost of maintenance and upkeep of drywall. Masons will be setting larger units to increase productivity. Larger mason contractors will be general contractors selling the whole package to the consumer.
Masonry: What do you think will be the masonry industry’s biggest competitor in 10 years?
Spencer: Concrete tilt-up panel systems have made the biggest strides and probably will continue to do so. There always is a new wall system coming up trying to take the place of a structural masonry wall, because it is such a good system, but there will always be a place for our masonry walls because of their beauty, durability and convenience.
Masonry: What do you feel are the most critical issues you’ll face with future government regulations?
Spencer: OSHA regulations… specifically regarding silicosis and ergonomics.
Masonry: Which group do you feel has the bigger impact on masonry’s future: architects, engineers or general contractors?
Spencer: As a residential contractor, I would say architects – right now they are really into stone, brick detail and lots of it. As an industry, I would say engineers and general contractors who will be turning to masonry once again after seeing failures and the maintenance it takes with all the other systems (EIFS, glass, metal, drywall, etc.). Masonry is the most durable.
Masonry: What do you like most about being a member of MCAA?
Spencer: I like attending the national conventions to see if there is anything new in the way of machinery, scaffolding or tools that will help our company – just recently we discovered some fabulous stone hammers that really speed up production.
I also really like the contractor interaction and how willing they are to discuss different techniques, problems they’ve had and successes they’ve had. MCAA brings us all together and keeps our industry and my company moving forward.