Expanding Horizons: An Interview with CEO Eric Edelson on Our Factory Expansion
Our team is growing and now our home in Aromas, California is growing too! Two years in the making, we're excited to expand our Factory to offer sustainable handmade tile to more customers than ever before. Along with greater capacity and an even better environment for our team to work, we're taking this opportunity to invest deeper into our sustainability efforts and continue innovating our products to be the best in the world.
With Phase 1 of our expansion underway, we sat down with our CEO Eric Edelson to learn about the expansion and what this moment means for our team, our customers, and our community.
How long has the Aromas factory existed in its current space?
We have been in Aromas since 1991 when Fireclay first bought property there and started manufacturing. This is our 30th anniversary at that location!
What was the intention of designing the new factory?
The intention of designing a new factory is one, expansion. It’s giving us the capacity to meet the growing demand and two, we want to build a fantastic place for a team. We want it to be a much more comfortable work environment where there's not as much pulling, stacking, and just moving because you need to create space.
There’s so much real-time adjustment that has to happen because we don’t have the space and this will just make production a lot easier for our team. A lot cleaner, a lot more organized, a lot safer. It’s not unsafe now, we just require a lot more physical movement for every square foot of tile that we make and it creates a lot more potential for something to happen.
So the intention is really more capacity, a much better work environment for our team, and the infrastructure to support more growth and more future expansion.
What are the new features of this new space? What's important and exciting?
We’re giving our production team a kind of blank canvas to redesign flow to be most successful for them. Outside of the company building these buildings, it's been our production team that is laying out what they think is the best of the best and what they’re most excited about, how they want to work, where they want to work and so that's super exciting.
We are adding a new roller hearth kiln to the space. We actually bought a new extruder in 2017 to replace our current extruder and it's just sat unused because we haven’t been able to install it. There’s nowhere for it to go! And so we're really excited to finally install that and really help the extrusion team. We have so much maintenance on our existing one, it takes a lot of work to keep it going so having a new extruder that is built for the long haul is exciting.
We get a lot more automation and that’s not to replace jobs, it's really to enhance jobs and reduce work that is not very appealing for people. We’ll have more space for R&D, for more projects, more products, and more future firepower.
Another thing we’re really excited about is to move to on-site renewable energy. We already procure our energy via renewable sources--we pay a little extra to get our energy to be clean--and we're going to be spending just about two million dollars in this first phase and probably four million dollars total to have on-site solar as well as a big investment in water.
We do a lot already for water recycling and reclamation, especially all of our production water where we capture and reuse it consistently throughout our factory, and we're going to be able to take that to an even more exciting level. So we're making a lot of investment in renewable energy and other sustainable production processes.
Are there any design features that are unique about our new headquarters?
We want this to be an incredible space for our team and when I say our team I mean our production team but also our office team. So that means building beautiful offices for people that are inspiring with great facilities for our marketing team for photography and video. We also have a dream of having an on-site full-service cafeteria for our team to provide healthy, highly subsidized meals. We’re currently exploring this with an outside consulting firm to assess viability, and I do believe within the next 18 months we have a chance of serving our team delicious, healthy meals.
What kinds of opportunities will this space open for Fireclay?
The thing that I get really excited about is to continue to bring more people through Fireclay. People love seeing Fireclay, they love being inspired by Aromas and I want more and more people to come to see it and be part of it. I want to bring clients there, I want people to come and design their homes there and be part of it and see their tile made. I want to continue to tell our story and have Instagram's Factory Friday be even bigger and to share more and show more. Having more space will give us more freedom and flexibility for more product development, more R & D, more innovation, that's really limited right now for us. We don't have the capacity to play and this will create the capacity to play.
Why expand the factory in Aromas?
Many would argue there are not many good reasons to expand the factory in California. California is the most challenging state to manufacture materials due to regulatory issues and high costs. Everything is harder in California, everything is more expensive. In addition, our property, it turns out, couldn't be more challenging to build on. It's the exact opposite of what you want in a factory site.
The soils are soft, which means that all of our foundation requirements are to the extreme. It is several miles from a fault line and so that adds complexity. There's quite a bit of elevation grade and so everything has to be cut and moved to make a flat surface so that has crazy requirements. There are no pre-existing utilities or infrastructure so we have to build all of our own including septic. There's no water so we have to provide our own well. There's no public utility water for fire suppression so we have to create all that through mechanical pumps. I could go on, but basically, everything is unbelievably more expensive. On top of all of this, we have an existing factory to build around which is really difficult on our team.
Of course, the reason to do it is our people. And this overcomes all the challenges.
We looked at a number of different potential locations in the area, these big buildings, and two things really stood out to me: One, these were all gigantic buildings, in many ways the ideal factory, a big building with nothing in it, but it's completely soulless and that's depressing. And then two, they were all 20 to 40 minutes in one direction so you lose people that way.
We love Aromas and we love the team that we have and so the added costs, the sacrifices, we felt were worth it because it keeps the team intact and we’re nothing without our team. So the answer was somewhat easy but has really just been very difficult to execute.
So why now?
We’re probably a year or two late. We’re behind, and that’s not for lack of trying, it just took a long time to get through planning, design, and financing. We’ve been working on this project for more than two years and first did a design for one of the buildings probably four years ago. We were able to purchase the property last year as a company and with our teammate ownership and other things, it's a really exciting time for us to invest and I'm glad we held off for as long as we did. We've gotten so much better at production because we've been so constrained. We had to get so smart about everything so as we're building now, we're doing it the right way.
I think if we had done this project two years ago we would've made many mistakes. We didn't have the competency and capabilities within our team to pull this off. We would've made mistakes that we would've paid for later, so it's a great moment where we have an incredible team, we have incredible partners and vendors, and machine builders, kiln makers, more material processors handling automation so when we set this up it's going to be a really fantastic, long-term, viable factory. That's super exciting.
One of the things we’re trying to do is not make this mistake again, so we’re already looking at Phase 2 where we want to build more space sooner, space that we don’t necessarily need today but will need a year or two from now.
Can you tell us about the current factory and what its limitations are?
The biggest limitation is space. Right now we have about 30,000 ft.² of actual manufacturing and production space and then 10,000 ft.² of warehouse space offsite, and I always joke that if you were to give one of my two daughters a piece of paper and a crayon with a few boxes and have them draw a layout of how production should go, that's basically what our factory looks like. This is no one’s fault, it’s just that we’ve grown so quickly and have had to make do with what we’ve had, which our team has done an incredible job with.
Because we lack covered space, we have to utilize the outdoor space that we have quite a bit. We used to celebrate that was an indoor/outdoor environment, like “Ah, this fresh air,” but when you're as busy as we are now and you don’t have covered space, that's really debilitating. Things get wet, dust is a big issue for us from a quality standpoint so there are many, many limitations with space and layout being our biggest ones.
What will the footprint be in the new space once the expansion is complete?
This first phase will allow us to have just about 80,000 ft.² of production and warehouse space. And then we’re looking at building another 35,000 ft.², so at the end of Phase 2, it will be about 115,000 between production, warehouse, and offices.
How will this expansion strengthen Fireclay and fulfill its goals?
Right now our work environment in Aromas, in certain areas it’s fantastic, in other areas it's very hard and very challenging. When you're packing boxes outside with 95° of direct sunlight on you, it's really hard. When you’re trying to load a trailer with a forklift from the ground rather than from a nice loading dock and it's raining outside, it’s hard. It can be pretty cold in the morning, really hot by the end of the day so it's just hard. And again, we used to think it was cool and cute and it's not. It’s certainly not at the volumes we’re asking our teams to hit.
We want to make it a great environment for teams so that we can grow more. That’s the number one thing.
What does this expansion mean for Fireclay customers?
For our customers, by having a more clean and higher quality facility, you’re going to get an even better product. Our product is already incredible, I think the quality is top-notch, but still, the inconsistencies in environmental temperature control do cause issues, and having things be more controlled is exciting.
Having an onsite warehouse should make lead times faster, more capacity will allow us to satisfy more clients and projects, we’ll be able to move even faster than we currently are.
We can also really optimize the warehouse to increase the amount of Quick Ship we offer.
What kind of impact will this expansion have on the surrounding communities?
We're a big employer in Aromas, one of the top 20 income generators for our county right now through sales tax revenue, and we want to do more. We already have great giving programs in place for people like the Aromas School and as we grow we’ll see more of that. We think we’ll create around 100 more jobs in the next five years in Aromas.
How did Fireclay's commitment to sustainability play into the design of the new space?
All of these increases in efficiency definitely mean less energy utilization. In a more clean environment without exposure to the elements like we have now you're going to see improved quality which means less waste. Investing in more renewable energy, more water recycling reclamation, and giving our R&D team space to play, you’ll be able to see more sustainability-driven investments in our product mix and materials coming through.
What comes next?
Our first phase of this will be completed by the end of Q1 2022. The first building will be done by the end of November and our second building done by the end of March 2022. We can settle into and then start our Phase 2 sometime next year.
We're all in! It’s been two years in the making and it’s all starting to come to life for people. Now we just need to drive it to completion so we can move in and safely occupy it and then get it after it!
Be on the lookout for more updates and exciting announcements as our new home in Aromas goes up. We can't wait to share what we've been working so hard on and can't be more grateful for our amazing customers for supporting tile made a better way and making this growth possible.