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Boston Valley Terra Cotta has come a long way from its brick-making roots

Drive through the rolling hills of Orchard Park on South Abbott Road, and suddenly it’s there, in a secluded spot: a sprawling plant that is home to Boston Valley Terra Cotta.

It seems an unlikely place to find a manufacturer working on projects for buildings in Buffalo, New York City, and even other countries.

Then again, this might be the most appropriate spot. Boston Valley takes pride in its long history, and this is the site where the maker of architectural ceramics and its forerunner traces its 19th-century roots.

And while Boston Valley’s work has touched numerous notable buildings – like the Guaranty Building – and the company’s name is well-known within its industry, its employees essentially work behind the scenes. They carefully put their stamp on restoration and new-build projects, using a blend of craftsmanship and high-tech tools to produce pieces built to last.

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Gallery: Boston Valley Terra Cotta builds on tradition

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But even a decades-old company tucked away in a rural setting can’t escape the modern-day pressures of manufacturing. For Boston Valley Terra Cotta, that meant ensuring its plant had sufficient capacity for the projects it took on and running its operations as efficiently as possible, said John Krouse, the president and a co-owner of the family-owned company.

Last year, Boston Valley Terra Cotta completed a $2.6 million expansion and added a dozen jobs to its workforce, which has grown to 160 people. The company increased its backlog – the value of the orders in its pipeline – to $20 million from $16 million.

“And we’re maintaining that backlog, so it kind of proves we can sustain that growth and then kind of hit that point where we wanted to be in our planning phase,” Krouse said.

Some of Boston Valley Terra Cotta’s recent local projects include work for Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the Delaware North Cos. headquarters at 250 Delaware Ave., and the University at Buffalo’s new medical school. Nearby, it is working on the renovation of Cornell University’s Upson Hall academic building. Farther from home, the company is supplying products for high-rise buildings in New York City, London and projects as far away as Australia. Canada is a consistently good source of business.

But the company is not attempting to compete by being all things to all projects. Far from it.

“We’re not trying to position ourselves as a commodity product,” Krouse said. “We’re trying to position ourselves as a unique, signature product for an architect that is designed specific for the building, not just a standard block. So we’re kind of in a niche market.”

In that way, he said, Boston Valley Terra Cotta has something in common with the architects whose vision inspires the projects the company supplies.

“I think architects are trying to also set themselves apart from their competition,” Krouse said. “And the only way they can do that is through designing very unusual, very beautiful buildings. And our material allows the architects to get creative and maybe do something a little bit different than a flat panel.”

Those architects also like to see stability in a company and feel assured it has the capacity for a very large job, he said.

The surge in local work, coupled with the prospect of a big project in New York City, nudged the company to expand. Boston Valley wanted the reassurance that if one piece of production equipment went down, it would always have a backup to keep things flowing.

Boston Valley Terra Cotta and its forerunner, which made clay pots and bricks, have been around for decades. The Krouse family bought Boston Valley Pottery in 1981. Today, John Krouse and his two brothers, Rich and William, co-own the business, and their mother serves on the board of directors.

Benjamin Rand, president of Insyte Consulting, a nonprofit that works with manufacturers, called Boston Valley Terra Cotta “a really exciting company to have right in our backyard.”

“It’s another one of those cases of the kind of thing that people don’t realize we have in Western New York,” Rand said. “These guys are world class at what they do, and they really built it. Before 1990, they were basically making bricks. Now they’re dealing with world-class architects and artists, these people who are putting huge projects together.”

As Boston Valley Terra Cotta sized up its growth plans, the company reached out to Insyte for a fresh perspective. The company wanted ideas for how to run its operations as efficiently as possible, Krouse said.

“Nobody knows more about ceramics and terra cotta than these guys,” Rand said. “It wasn’t really that we have expertise there. We just had the opportunity to take a closer look at some of the details.”

In technical terms, Insyte wanted to help the company figure out to minimize the variability in its processes. Once those issues were identified and changes were made, the company could reduce its scrap rate and improve its output.

Krouse said there were plenty of variables to study at a company like this one, from raw materials sourcing, to dryer temperatures, to firing cycles.

Some of the changes Boston Valley Terra Cotta implemented were relatively simple but made a significant difference. For instance, Insyte recommended turning a cart holding products inside the company’s brand-new dryers by 90 degrees, allowing air to travel through parallel, instead of perpendicular, to the cores.

The company has benefited from Insyte’s recommendations by lowering its product rejection rate and not having to run as much overtime to catch up.

“You’re less stressed out,” Krouse said. “With ceramics, there is always a certain amount of product rejection, but this makes the rate more predictable.”

Krouse said the company also benefits from being close to universities and community colleges to tap into their resources, for both new hires and expert input. He admires that workers in this region are “not be afraid to roll up their sleeves and make things.”

“Here, there’s still a blue-collar ethic that is fabulous,” he said.

The workers’ pride comes across in a walk through Boston Valley Terra Cotta’s extensive operations. Employees are eager to point out the carefully crafted details, the uniqueness of the designs, and mention where their work will end up.

There are pieces for a restoration project at Seaside Park on Coney Island, like an image of King Neptune.

Boston Valley Terra Cotta has made its mark in both new construction and restoration projects. The mix serves the company well, Krouse said.

“The new construction market offers a lot more growth annually, just because of the nature of the building construction movement going on right now,” he said. “Restoration will always be there, and it kind of ebbs and flows but it never peaks beyond a certain dollar amount, whereas the new construction market, the projects we’re seeing are very massive expansions. Things are a little more global now.” Opportunities seem aplenty, with large-scale urban redevelopment projects taking shape in major cities overseas.

For some manufacturers, finding workers with the right skills to fill certain jobs is a challenge, as older workers retire and fewer younger workers follow in their footsteps. But Boston Valley Terra Cotta hasn’t really had that problem, Krouse said. He believes the projects the employees get to work on may be a reason for that.

“I think people want to be part of something bigger than just coming in to work and looking at something go by on a conveyor belt,” he said. “They actually feel like they’re actually participating in the building of the structure that’s going out the door. Then they get to show it to their family and their friends and say, ‘I did that.’ And they did.”

Rand, of Insyte, said a company’s identity can become a recruiting tool.

“The opportunity to work at a company like that, whether it’s restoring a priceless building or creating a brand-new landmark, that’s something you don’t get every day,” he said. “I think other manufacturers could take a lesson from that and understand, what is it that’s unique about what they’re doing, or where they’re playing, and how do you use that to become more attractive to the workforce?”

For a company that values tradition and precision, and wants to keep growing, Boston Valley Terra Cotta’s recent expansion “takes the pressure off,” Krouse said.

“It allows you to sleep at night, knowing that you’ve taken on very large contractual jobs,” he said. “It’s all about maintaining the quality of the material with the promised delivery dates. That means a lot to us.”

email; mglynn@buffnews.com