Made here: Logan Clay Products among few firms still making sewer pipe, chimney liners

LOGAN, Ohio — In a factory outbuilding at Logan Clay Products Co., two workers try to answer a question with a mechanical press: How tough is this clay pipe?

The machine makes contact with the brick-red drainage pipe and bears down. Its feat of strength is almost silent, with nearly all the action appearing on a digital screen that shows the amount of pressure: 10,000 pounds, 20,000 pounds, 30,000 pounds.

With that, the press stops and slowly pulls back. The pipe has more than passed its test, part of a routine spot check.

Logan Clay has been around for more than a century and sells something that has been around even longer.

“There is clay pipe in the United States in the ground that’s been functioning for 200 years,” said Dick Brandt, the company’s owner and the third generation of his family to run the business.

Strength and longevity are the essence of his sales pitch to customers who may be considering less-expensive options, such as high-density plastic pipe. “We believe and preach, and the people that buy our product believe, that we’re going to outlast” the competing materials, he said.

And yet, clay pipe has been losing market share. As of 2013, a category called “clay and other” was an estimated 0.9 percent of the country’s $5.2 billion in drainage and sewer pipe sales, according to Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-area market research firm. That was down from a share of 1.5 percent in 2003.

Logan Clay is one of four major players remaining in the country, down from a much larger network of regional players in the 1970s. The others today are Gladding McBean and Mission Clay, both in California, and Can Clay in Indiana.

The winnowing of the field has freed up customers that help to sustain the surviving companies.

Most of the customers are local governments and the contractors that serve them. Logan Clay ships its pipes as far west as Omaha and as far east as New York. Logan is the sewer pipe supplier for much of New York City.

“The sewer pipe that we have now, even though it was not installed well 80, 90 100 years ago, is still working well for us,” said Mike Nixon, superintendent of water and water-pollution control for the city of Lancaster, Ohio.

He isn’t sure whether the century-old pipe is from Logan Clay, but he knows the city has been buying from the company since before he started in the 1980s.

“We’re a conservative community and we don’t have unlimited funds, so our desire is if we put in infrastructure that it (must have) a long life cycle,” he said.

Pipe-making has been done at the Logan site since 1876, and at some point, the business started being called Logan Clay, according to the company. Sections of the current complex have been around since at least 1921.

Brandt’s grandfather, Barton Andrew Holl, joined the company in 1939 as a salesman. When he learned that the owners were looking to sell, he borrowed money and acquired a majority stake in 1950.

That was about the time that Logan Clay was at peak employment of about 200, before many tasks were automated. Today, there are about 85 employees.

Sewer pipe is about 80 percent of sales, followed by clay liners for chimneys, which are about 15 percent, and a variety of other products that make up the remaining 5 percent.

Raw clay and shale is harvested from a field near the Hocking-Perry county line. At the plant, a machine grinds the clay and shale to a powder form, which then gets mixed with water.

House-size machines take the clay mixture and push it through a high-pressure molding process to shape pipes and other products. The result is a hard material that is about to get a lot harder. The next steps involve drying, which can take several days, followed by a trip to one of the plant’s 10 kilns. Inside the kilns, gas burners turn the temperature up to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The next generation of Brandts is already part of the business. The son of the owner, Rudy, started there in 2000 and is now executive vice president.

“We have a good time together,” Dick Brandt said, smiling, while his son sat nearby. “I’m sure sometimes he gets tired of the old man, but he tolerates it well.”

Rudy Brandt is optimistic about the company’s long-term prospects. He is confident that clay pipe will always have a market and that his company has the resilience to survive the market’s ups and downs.

“We feel very good about the business going forward,” Rudy Brandt said. “And part of that is because of what we’ve been through,” he said.

From The Columbus Dispatch  |  February 14, 2016