Birmingham-based Vulcan Materials Company is the leading U.S. producer of construction aggregates, crushed stone, sand, and gravel used in building roads and commercial properties. It has been acknowledged by Fortune magazine as one of the nation's most successful companies. Vulcan is a multinational corporation, with plants, offices, and quarries in 24 states, the District of Columbia, the Bahamas, and Mexico. With roots dating back to the early years of the twentieth century, the company operated as a family-owned business until 1956, when the company's stock was first traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Vulcan has been recognized by the media and public health and environmental organizations, among others, for its commitment to environmental concerns, involvement in local communities, and ethical business practices. Vulcan and its related companies have supplied building materials for such well-known Alabama projects as the Birmingham Airport, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, and the Mercedes-Benz plant, but also many of international renown, including the Atlanta Airport, Chicago's O'Hare Airport, the Louisiana Superdome, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The company that would become Vulcan Materials traces its origin to 1910 and the Birmingham Slag Company, founded by Henry L. Badham and Solon Jacobs, husband of woman suffrage leader Pattie Ruffner Jacobs. The men recognized that the slag byproduct of the Birmingham industrial district's blast furnaces could be used as an aggregate for road construction. In 1916, Ohio banker and businessman Charles L. Ireland purchased Birmingham Slag and turned the operations over to his three sons: Eugene, Barney, and Glenn, who had experience with stone quarries in Kentucky and West Virginia. The small family-owned company began to grow as demands for hard-surfaced roads increased after the rise of the Good Roads Movement (a Progressive-era effort to improve the road system in rural areas), the expansion of automobiles and trucks, and the passage of the Federal Road Act in 1916. This law provided matching funds for state highway departments to construct roads.
By the 1920s, Birmingham Slag had established four plants in the Birmingham area. The company benefited from the business boom in that decade and despite the later hardships of the Great Depression continued to prosper and grow. Leadership of the company passed to the third generation of Irelands in the 1940s: William C. (Big Bill), William R. (Little Bill), Glenn, and Charles W. Ireland. By 1951, Charles W. Ireland had developed a plan to expand the company. The U.S. post-World War II economic boom increased automobile ownership, and with that came an increased demand for crushed stone, especially after 1954, when Pres. Dwight Eisenhower announced his commitment to build a $50 billion interstate highway system across the country.
Charles Ireland saw stock sales as a way to achieve the capital necessary for expansion. With significant negotiating help from the company's outside legal counsel, Bernard "Barney" Monaghan, Ireland directed the company's transition to a public corporation. This was accomplished through the purchase of Vulcan Detinning Company of New Jersey, a company that was already traded on the New York Stock Exchange. This is the source of the current name, although many people mistakenly believe that it is derived from the company's birth in Birmingham and is an allusion to the city's symbol, the Roman god Vulcan. On December 31, 1956, the Irelands incorporated Vulcan Materials Company, folding in the Birmingham Slag assets and Vulcan Detinning, and on January 2, 1957, under the symbol VMC, the stock was traded in New York with shares selling for $12.69. At the end of five days of trading, 13,800 shares had changed hands.
Vulcan Materials is known among large corporations for its multi-generation management by the same family, for retaining workers for many years, and for successfully incorporating several small family-owned quarry and rock companies. Much of the credit for the successful mergers is due to Monaghan, who worked closely with owners of merging companies, explaining the protocols of going public. The Ireland family was also wise to insist that the company retain the professionals and experts who worked with these merged companies. This willingness allowed Vulcan Materials to position individuals in executive management who consistently contributed to the company's success.
In 1957, with an inflow of new capital available because of public investment, the vision of the Irelands began to materialize. Vulcan acquired nine companies, including Lambert Brothers of Knoxville, Tennessee, and North Carolina-based W. E. Graham & Sons General Contractors. The companies, mostly family owned, provided Vulcan with plants, stone reserves, and experienced employees and leadership in the stone-crushing business. Vulcan Materials merged with Union Chemicals and Materials in 1957, making it a diversified company better able to adapt to changes in the crushed stone market.
Corporate attorney Monaghan left his law practice to join Vulcan in 1958 and was named president and chief executive officer (CEO) the following year, when another dozen companies were folded into Vulcan. By 1961, Vulcan had acquired some 50 family-owned companies and employed approximately 5,250 workers in the middle of the decade. As of the late 1960s, the company had five operating divisions in the Southeast, a Midwest division, a chemicals and metals group, and a construction materials group and about 5,000 employees. In the mid-1970s, Vulcan negotiated a contract to supply crushed stone, concrete block, and ready-mix concrete to Saudi Arabia, which was enjoying a building boom as a result of the 1973 oil embargo and its ensuing profits.
W. Houston Blount, who had joined Vulcan in 1956 and had served in various executive positions, was elected president and CEO to replace Monaghan in 1979. Blount sent the company's senior geologist, Pete Wiese, to search for stone sources in Mexico, where he located a rich deposit of limestone on the Yucatan Peninsula. In 1984, Herb Sklenar, a former financial officer, took over as CEO and negotiated a partnership with the Mexican firm Grupo ICA to develop a quarry and a deep-water port to load vessels for transit across the Gulf of Mexico. This project took time to develop but was operating by the 1990s.
A changing economic climate in the 1980s prompted Vulcan to reevaluate its metals and chemical businesses and a more recent move into oil and gas exploration. An evaluation of profitability and stockholder returns convinced board chairman Houston Blount and CEO Herb Sklenar to sell off the metals and oil and gas assets and to concentrate on the crushed stone business, and the company purchased new stone quarry sites in Texas and Kentucky. In the 1980s, Vulcan Materials strengthened its commitment to environmental stewardship, which had always been part of the corporate policy of social responsibility. Emphasis upon the safety and health of workers and neighbors, philanthropic activities, and community involvement were also priorities. Attorney Donald M. James joined Vulcan in 1992 as Senior Vice President and General Counsel and became CEO in 1997. Under his leadership Vulcan acquired the massive CalMat quarries in California and with its operations in Arizona and New Mexico, was operating in 24 states. In October 2004, Vulcan announced the sale of its chemical business to Occidental Chemicals, which was finalized in 2005. This ended Vulcan's era of diversification, and the company returned to its core business—crushed rock and construction materials.
As of 2007, Vulcan had seven divisions with aggregate headquarters: Western (Los Angeles), Southwestern (San Antonio), Southern & Gulf Coast (Birmingham), Southeast (Atlanta), Midsouth (Knoxville), Midwest (Lombard), and Mideast (Winston-Salem) and sales of about $3 billion. Employment in the first decade of the twenty-first century has hovered around 11,000 workers nationwide.
Vulcan materials has received many honors in its recent history, including a designation as one of the top 100 best-managed
industrial companies by IndustryWeek magazine and recognition from the U.S. Department of Labor for its efforts to promote affirmative action and equal opportunity.
The company has also been recognized by several wildlife and conservation organizations for its work in habitat conservation
and restoration and beautification of quarries.
Flynt, Wayne. Mine, Mill & Microchip: A Chronicle of Alabama Enterprise. Northridge, Calif.: Windsor Publications, 1987.
Leah Rawls Atkins
Published May 6, 2009
Last updated October 31, 2012