Hardscapes among fastest growing Johnson Concrete offerings

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 21, 2012

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — People waiting for the train at Klumac Road have had some entertainment for the past few months.
Johnson Concrete, a company founded in Salisbury in 1947, has been constructing an elaborate “outdoor living space” to usher in a new part of the business: hardscapes.
Unlike the plants and flowers used in landscapes, bricks, pavers and stone are the materials used to create hardscapes, one of the hottest trends for homes — patios, fireplaces and other outdoor areas that can turn a backyard into a mini-resort.
Johnson Concrete now stocks and sells the materials needed to construct everything from a retaining wall to an outdoor kitchen, including rental equipment for do-it-yourselfers. The company has two designers on staff.
“It’s awesome. I like it,” said customer Joshua Abrego of Concord, who drove to see the new display and price material for a retaining wall. “You can really see how it’s going to look.”
The Salisbury manufacturing plant still makes concrete pipe but now functions as an outdoor living design center, as do locations in Concord, Lexington and Willow Springs. Johnson Concrete recently closed its Raeford plant and moved operations to Lexington.
The public is invited from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday to the display at 217 Klumac Road, which includes an outdoor kitchen, gazebo, patio, island, fire pit and fireplace.
When construction of schools, hospitals and prisons slowed to a trickle during the recession, Johnson Concrete entered the outdoor living space market.
Three years later, hardscapes now make up between 10 percent and 15 percent of the business, Executive Vice President Charles Newsome said.
With real estate values still in the doldrums, many homeowners who can’t sell their homes are remodeling them instead. Home remodeling is expected to have its strongest year since 2006, according to a report by the remodeling futures program at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Homeowners are looking beyond the kitchen and bath for upgrades that will increase the value of their homes and make them more enjoyable.
As the staycation trend continues, homeowners want a connection to the outdoors, said Starling Johnson, Johnson Concrete corporate sales manager and the fourth generation of Johnsons in the family-owned company.
The leisure living category is now a $6.2 billion industry in the United States, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbeque Association.
For Johnson Concrete, which manufactures concrete pipe and block, moving into outdoor living required a “completely different business model,” Johnson said.
“We went from taking care of a small group of core customers, often industrial, to homeowners,” she said.
The company had to retrain employees who for years had only sold pipe and block to contractors in the construction industry.
“Adapting to the homeowner has been a challenge, but our staff has risen to the occasion,” Johnson said.
The company’s bread and butter remains block masonry and pipe. Johnson Concrete is still trying to establish brand recognition in the outdoor living market, Johnson said.
“We’re newbies at hardscapes,” she said.
For do-it-yourselfers, Johnson Concrete rents 10 pieces of machinery, from a mini-excavator to a table saw, as well as offering free installation workshops. The next one is set for 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. May 8.
For those who want someone else to do the dirty work, Johnson Concrete will recommend an installer.
Johnson declined to give cost estimates, saying the price tag of a project can vary based on installation. She wouldn’t reveal the cost of the new outdoor display, which may be taken down and reassembled on another part of the property in a few years when the railroad closes the Klumac Road crossing and Johnson Concrete sits at a deadend.
The city of Salisbury successfully worked to save Johnson Concrete’s location from the railroad realignment.
Sherry Beck serves as hardscapes manager for all Johnson Concrete locations, and Mike Johnson manages the Salisbury site.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.