Bricks from Sumas Clay Products have found their way from the base of Sumas Mountain in Abbottsford, B.C., to the walls of some pretty impressive buildings, such as Boeing Co.'s offices in Everett, Wash., and the Spieden Island home of Oakley Sunglasses founder Jim Jannard.
Owned by the Sumas First Nations, Sumas Clay, whose primary markets are British Columbia and Japan, makes bricks by hand using equipment and techniques that date back to 1911, when the plant fired its first kiln. This Old World manufacturing process – combined with the high iron content of the clay the company uses – produces a brick that is stronger and more durable than your standard-issue red brick, says chief operating officer Raphael Silver. In fact, he adds, Sumas Clay bricks have passed Japan's seismic codes for earthquake-proof buildings.
But the superior quality of Sumas Clay bricks has not translated into healthy profits. Annual revenue is about $200,000 – just enough to cover operational costs, including wages for the company's 10 employees. This is why Mr. Silver wants to switch the company's kiln-firing burners – which bake the bricks – from natural gas to a system that burns wood pellets.
This would be both cheaper and greener, boosting Sumas Clay's chances of earning LEED certification for sustainable practices, says Mr. Silver.
The cost of installing a wood-burning system would be about $80,000, he says. Sumas Clay, which also makes specialty products such as tumbled and clinker bricks, also needs money to create a greater awareness of its products and expand its market.
"The high cost of producing bricks, along with a number of other factors, have driven other brick manufacturers in B.C. out of business, so we're pretty much the only one left," says Mr. Silver.
From the judges
Stuart MacDonald, e-business marketing consultant, Toronto: "I think Sumas Clay is going in the right direction by exploring a wood-fired burner. But they need to do more to let the world know about them and create a greater demand for their product.
"They have to tell people about their unique products, their manufacturing process, the fact that they're investing in green technology and that they're preserving Old World craftsmanship that's been around forever."
Mark Healy, partner, Satov Consultants, Toronto: "These guys should be at trade shows. Not a brick show, but a home renovation trade show, where all the high-end companies show up.
"They should also offer to do installations, such as feature walls, in places like high-end furniture stores or luxury car dealerships, where people can see their stuff. They should also be on websites devoted to high-end artisan products. They need to be where their customers are."