John Kemp | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND

Coloring Outside the Lines
By Robert Green

The question of what business people should do to gain the best performance from their companies is constant. Numerous seminars and the entire industry of “leadership coaching” exists to provide the answer. Although turning bold objectives into financial reality is still as much alchemy today as science, most experts accept that personal attributes – especially the ability to persuade – is a key component of high performance leadership. One such persuasive leader is John Kemp of Oldcastle, and what he has done at the $14 billion building materials giant is worthy of careful attention.

Oldcastle is a North American materials giant based in Atlanta that few people have heard of. Yet it is the company behind hundreds of brands delivering aggregates, concrete and asphalt – as well as many other products – to the construction industry across the continent. Irish Holding company CRH, a $26 billion company, began rolling up smaller aggregate and materials companies under Oldcastle in the late 1970s and has not stopped yet. Allowing the hundreds of companies acquired to continue operating under their prior names – like Allied Building Products, for example – was intentional keeping decision-making authority at the local level

John was born in Laguna Beach, California to a career Marine Corps father and a nurse mother. They moved constantly in his early years but settled in Chicago at age 10 when his father retired from active service. John was sent to Catholic school where he was in frequent trouble with the nuns – “I was the rebellious one,” he says – but still had time to do some interesting things like win the Ping Pong Championship for the entire state of Illinois at age 12 and play catcher on an all-state little league baseball team. He attended public high school and enjoyed it. “I liked the diversity of public school,” he says, “and I was always able to get along great with everyone.” Unsurprisingly, given his penchant for getting along, he was elected both Junior and Senior Class president, played baseball and tennis where his leadership abilities were both noticed and admired by both faculty and students.

For college, John considered larger schools like Northwestern and the University of Illinois, but finally decided on the smaller, liberal arts college of Monmouth. He liked the reputation that the college enjoyed but was also drawn by the fact that actual professors would be teaching his classes. He joined a fraternity – Sigma Phi Epsilon – and settled in for classes in pre-med. Then, near the end of his sophomore year, he took a Geology class and “fell in love with rocks.” He felt that Geology would allow him to use his creative side – through hunting for important deposits – and spent the rest of his time in college excelling in Geology while looking forward to a career in oil exploration. Unfortunately, his graduation coincided with an historic downturn for the oil business and there were no jobs to be had.

Not wanting to lose him from the field of geology, a Monmouth professor arranged for him to get into the Master’s program at the University of Missouri to continue learning until the industry came back. But after successfully completing his first year with a 4.0 GPA he was told by several oil company executives that the industry would not “come back” for a decade or more. With growing student loans to repay – and an upbringing that taught an abhorrence of debt – John decided to forego the completion of his Masters in Geology and look for a job.

Responding to a job ad for Master Builders, John went to the Oak Brook Marriott for an interview that he found in retrospect to be hilarious. He was told to go to a particular room. “I went into this messy room and there was no one there. I waited for a while, and still no one came,” he says. “Finally, I went into the hallway and saw a large man in a pink jumpsuit coming toward me carrying a huge pile of clothes. He said, ‘are you John Kemp?’ and I said, ‘yes.’ Now I knew that it was some sort of test.” John walked over to greet the man who said that his name was Howard Duncan with Master Builders. He handed John the pile of clothes and asked him to carry them back to his room. After getting settled, his first question to John, after a long pause, was, “do you mind getting dirty?” They talked for two hours and John made the list of 10 finalists out of 200 people and was soon hired for sales with a salary of $24,000 per year. It was 1985.

John worked in Chicago, learning the construction business. John had many unique clients ranging from an all-female owned concrete company to a client straight out of the Sopranos!. True to form, he got along well with all the diverse clientele. John found Chicago to be very much a city that did business based on who you knew. Through friends who had ties to Mayor Daley’s office, he saw it all first-hand and was both appalled and impressed with how the Chicago system worked. But he still loves the city and has great memories of his time there both as a child and an adult.

John spent  a few years in Los Angeles for Master Builders – where he appeared on game shows Jeopardy and Concentration, and obtained an MBA – before moving again for work in Dallas. Shortly after marrying, he and his wife bought a tract home which he was able to observe being built. While this was good for John, it was not so good for the builder – he knew that the shower had not been properly installed. He went ahead with the closing and then had the shower ripped out and properly installed – all videotaped – and showed up shortly thereafter at the builder’s corporate office with the video tape, bags of debris and a camera crew from the local ABC News affiliate. John demanded and received his expenses for the new construction, the cost of his personal time and treble damages – all without a waiver. “I always prefer friendly persuasion,” he says, “but sometimes a more dynamic form of persuasion is required.”

At this time, John was thinking very seriously about how much he loved the construction business but also how much room the industry had for improvement. His discussions with good friend, Steve Kaufman, who owned a company that poured concrete for approximately 1,600 residential homes in Dallas each year, led John to personal action. “Steve and I used our technical and industry experience to come up with a chemical process for self-leveling, self-finishing concrete,” he says. “This turned out a better final product for the homeowner with less labor and more profits for the contractor.” Kaufman still uses it today in his company, but it wasn’t adopted everywhere. “There’s more innovation & quality control in your ball-point pen than there is a new home.” “Residential building innovations take a decade or more to find their way into the American home,” he says, “and the commercial construction isn’t a whole lot faster.”

John continued to move up in the company, now owned by BASF, and moved to Atlanta to manage sales and strategic accounts. John persuaded his bosses to let him remove some inadequate sales people knowing he would immediately lose $3 million in business, but he had a plan to triple sales in the Atlanta region, which immediately took him to Houston for another promotion.

John became friends with Doug Black, the CEO of a company called Oldcastle while in Atlanta. He knew that Oldcastle was a multi-billion dollar materials company that supplied more concrete, asphalt and other materials to builders for construction than any other company in North America. Doug liked John and tried to hire him for a position at Oldcastle before he left for a new promotion in Houston. “Doug Black was a high-integrity, straight-shooting kind of guy,” says John, “but he wanted me to run a precast concrete plant in Lebanon, Tennessee, which was operations. I felt that position would not make the best use of my business skills, so I turned him down and went to Houston.”

But Black did not give up. Eight months later, John got a call saying that the right position was available for him – as VP of marketing – and could he meet Doug on Saturday in Eagle Lake, Texas? They met at the Holiday Inn and Doug left John for 30 minutes with his right hand man, Tom Solberg, a no-nonsense materials guy. John quickly knew  this was a test. They talked and it apparently went well because when the CEO returned, Sober told him to just go ahead and hire John immediately.

Moving from Atlanta to Houston and then back to Atlanta again in less than 10-months was certainly disruptive and the endeavor was made more complicated by the fact that John’s wife was pregnant and gave birth to their daughter a mere four days before returning to Atlanta for his new job at Oldcastle. But John really wanted the opportunity to work for Doug Black. John felt that Black, a West Point graduate and Duke MBA, could teach him a lot about leadership. “Doug lived what he believed,” says John, “and had a ‘refuse to lose’ attitude – but not at any cost – that I found attractive. The foundation of his character was integrity and I knew that I could only develop leadership skills to match his by working with him every day.”

John started with Oldcastle in March of 2001 as Vice President of Marketing for the Architectural Products Group. His first assignment was to take a concrete paver product – Belgard – and turn it into a $250 million revenue stream for the company in three years. John was excited. He started making plans and went back to Doug Black with  a million dollar program budget request. Doug told him no. And that  $16,000 would be available for each of the next three years to get the job done. “I immediately began to think that I had made a huge mistake in leaving BASF,” he says, but felt there was no choice except to somehow make it work.

The Belgard paver product was great, but John was extremely limited in the ability to tell people about it. So he began by looking at the chain of distribution differently: Oldcastle was the manufacturer, who sold to the dealers (like John Deere Landscapes), who sold to the contractors that  installed it, who then sold it to the general public. With a very small budget, John believed that the slim budget required a new marketing and sales partnership  with one of the entities in the distribution chain. The dealers? No, they were most concerned with price – a higher value product would not be their first priority. The contractors? No – while they loved to install, they hated to sell. That left the general public.

Realizing that his problem was also an opportunity, John decided to use the internet to focus on his core demographic, women aged 35 to 65, with household incomes of $150,000-plus per year. “We had the best product so it only made sense to focus on its high-value. My goal was that Belgard would become the Louis Vuitton of pavers, the highest quality, most-expensive and well respected brand.” But with a marketing budget of only $16,000? It required a completely different marketing approach. So John built a system-wide network on a shoe-string budget.

John got other operational units to make small contributions, which helped expand the budget  to $60,000. He made a deal with an outside vendor to build websites for contractors that connected them with  the general public, while retaining the  leads for Oldcastle. The fee for building websites was extremely low, but the vendor made up for it in maintenance costs passed on to  the contractors who  were thrilled to have an online presence for the first time. John made heavy use of Search Engine Optimization to ensure Belgard popped up first on Google, Yahoo and other major search engines. By 2006, Oldcastle had built more than 1,000 contactor websites, all linked to Oldcastle (like a hub and spoke), leading to  $500 million per year in paver product sales. “We could have got it up to a billion per year, but there were capacity issues. Still, it was very successful and we did become the Louis Vuitton of pavers,” he said.

Oldcastle would go on to make greater use of the web network John helped  build, now referred to as ION (Integrated Oldcastle Network), to sell add space and earn additional revenue. He also created deeper dealer loyalty through additional program integration, the best example of which was a distribution arrangement with John Deere Landscape. “They were a tier–one, high-value brand and we had tier–one, high-value products. It was a match,” said John.

John was promoted to Chief Marketing Officer in 2010, and charged with elevating the Oldcastle brand so it  meant something to the business world and the general public, instead of them recognizing individual product brands. The Oldcastle universe of products was broad and diverse,  and unifying them all under one brand  would be a challenge. John decided to do something ingeniously simple, by focusing on the things that all the companies had in common.

Drawing on his geology background, John developed a new marketing approach rooted in simplicity and called it, “We start right here.” A highly appropriate approach for a company that draws nearly all of its products from the Earth’s elements in bulk. Inside, the brochure was divided into the three building categories in which Oldcastle sells: 1) Sitework – aggregates and concrete products for the early stages of a site; 2) Building Envelope – for all the glass, siding, masonry and roofing products that enclose a building; and 3) Exterior and Interior Improvements/Finishes – for paving, paver stones, steel studs, drywall and ceiling tiles.

The brochure goes on to explain that “Oldcastle has assembled North America’s largest product offering from one source for one reason – to make the construction process operate more efficiently.” The approached worked. “Sure enough,” says John, “builders and contractors started coming up to us saying, ‘I knew that you did precast concrete, but I didn’t know that you did drywall,’ or architectural glass, or whatever.”

Last year John was asked to take on a more strategic role as Executive Vice President of Business Development because of his success in working internally across Oldcastle’s various enterprises, and with various types of external purchasers. John’s business track record generating billions in revenue and his great reputation as a friendly persuader made him the perfect person to coach and teach the operators how to grow organically as opposed to growing via acquisition. Because of his success in this endeavor, he was recently promoted to President of Oldcastle Building Solutions, where he will continue to pursue a broad range of revenue opportunities for the company. “Our size allows us to pursue a strategy of building value-added relationships with owners, architects, developers and general contractors so as to influence the construction supply chain in a way that is unique in the industry,” he says, “and the upside can be dramatic.”

Although John loves people and his public persona, John remains a highly private person, especially with his family.. “I am extremely private with my family life,” he says. “My family is mine….not the public’s.”

He is thrilled with Oldcastle today and his role in its future. “I’m excited to be the tip of the spear in leading change and innovation,” he says. “Oldcastle is large enough that we can leverage our collective strength to drive efficiency and change in the construction industry and I’ll be helping to make that happen. Who wouldn’t be happy with a job like that?”


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