Asbury Graphite History
Growth, Diversification, and a Longstanding Tradition of Family Values
The Industrial Revolution
The American Industrial Revolution was well underway. The year was 1895. And in the quiet northwestern New Jersey town of Asbury, an important American enterprise was born.
Harry M. Riddle founded what is today Asbury Carbons, Inc. He became a hard worker at an early age, doing chores on the family farm, and then walking some five miles to work at a general store. By the time he was 24, he was part owner of two general stores, one in Asbury, New Jersey, and another located in the nearby village of Hampton. He was also Asbury’s postmaster. However, he had much greater ambitions, and when a friend told him about the wide applications of graphite and its untapped industrial potential he was determined to become involved in the business.
In 1895, Riddle leased an Asbury flour mill that was owned by a relative and powered by the swiftly flowing Musconetcong River. The mill had been built in 1865 to replace one constructed in the late 1700s. Riddle then hired a miller and transformed the operation so that instead of grist it now milled refined graphite, produced from raw material, some of which he bought from a small Rhode Island mine. Most raw graphite, however, was imported from Korea and Ceylon by New York City brokers. The barrels of raw graphite came by rail to a nearby New Jersey train station and transported the final miles to the mill by horse and wagon. Riddle called his new company Asbury Graphite Mills.
To market his product, Riddle, not surprisingly, relied on the U.S. mail. He wrote letters to potential customers’ foundries and manufacturers of such goods as paint and stove polish and enclosed a sample. It proved an effective technique, as sales grew rapidly, from 36 tons of material to 144 tons during the first three years. Business was so strong that in 1903 Riddle paid $2,000 to buy the mill, and five years later bought another mill across the river. Known as “Plant No. 2,” this facility would be continually upgraded and become the hub of Asbury’s operation. The original plant, on the other hand, was used only intermittently and was finally closed in the 1970s.
Two Wars and The Great Depression
In 1914, Harry M. Riddle, Jr., known as Marvin, joined the company after graduating from high school. At the time, business had dropped off but it quickly picked up a few months later as Europe became embroiled in World War I. Graphite was in great demand in the mills that made the steel and melted the nonferrous metals needed to manufacture weapons. When the United States entered the war, in fact, all supplies of graphite were commandeered for military use. In 1921, the younger Riddle became his father’s partner, and in 1928 the business was incorporated. Also of note, during the 1920s the elder Riddle decided to bypass New York brokers and began importing graphite directly from foreign mines.
Asbury’s business was hurt by the Great Depression of the 1930s, but by the end of the decade the demand for refined graphite was beginning to rebound. In the meantime, there was a change at the top. In 1937, Harry Riddle died and was succeeded by his son, who also took over as Asbury’s postmaster, with the post office operating out of the company’s offices. According to company lore, around lunchtime each day mill employees became postal workers to help get out the mail, then went back to refining graphite. However, when the business grew too large, Marvin Riddle stepped down as town postmaster, thus ending a longstanding family tradition.
With business picking up at the end of the 1930s, Asbury bought a third mill in 1939, a former woolen mill located a few miles upstream on the Musconetcong River in the village of Changewater. However, as the river was no longer able to supply the necessary power, diesel engines were installed to help out, and they eventually replaced the water wheel entirely. In the early 1940s, Asbury expanded its operations to the West Coast, buying a San Francisco distributorship. Later, a graphite refining operation would be added. The extra production capacity afforded by the Changewater plant would be needed a few years later, during World War II, when once again the demand for refined graphite in military applications increased dramatically. During the war, Asbury had all three of its mills in operation. The company also bought a former bakery in town and installed flotation equipment to produce purer blends of graphite required by some munitions.
After the war, in 1948, the Changewater plant was gutted by fire and the company opted not to replace it. The postwar era also saw a major expansion in sources of raw material. Mexico, Madagascar, Germany, and Norway became graphite suppliers, and they were later joined by China, which sat on extensive reserves of the mineral. The extra raw material would be much appreciated because commodity prices would drop at a time when Asbury’s business reached a plateau.
The 1950s would also mark the entry of the third generation of the Riddle family in the business. In 1951, Harry M. Riddle III went to work for Asbury, which at the time was posting annual sales of $1.75 million. “Marv” Riddle had just graduated from Lafayette College with a degree in metallurgy, but he would prove to be a sound businessman and a good salesman as well. Over the course of the next 15 years, he would learn the business thoroughly and be well prepared to carry on the tradition established by his father and grandfather, but at the same time he was instrumental in introducing a new strategy for returning growth to the business.
Like his father and grandfather, Marv eschewed the idea of becoming a value-added manufacturer, believing that Asbury should remain a basic supplier of refined graphite and avoid competing with its customers. Instead, Asbury opted to achieve growth by acquiring strategically located companies in order to expand geographically. The reason was simple yet important: limiting transportation costs was an important factor in maintaining a competitive
Growth, Expansion & Diversification
Thus, in the 1960s Asbury grew on a number of fronts. In 1960, it acquired Cummings-Moore Graphite Company based in Detroit. Not only did it provide Asbury with a Midwest base of operations, Cummings-Moore owned a Mexican mine, Grafitera de Sonora. In 1961, Asbury expanded its West Coast business by launching a joint venture in Oakland, California, called Asbury Graphite Inc. of California. A year later, Asbury completed another acquisition, this one closer to home and slightly older. It bought the Charles Pettinos Graphite Company, established in 1891 some 30 miles west in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Although a smaller plant, Pettinos proved to be a perfect place to complete specialty runs for customers. This practice was in keeping with a third principal for growing Asbury and part of a new vision for the company: To meet the need for more complex carbonaceous material, add more sophisticated graphite blends as well as other carbon products.
Harry M. Riddle, Jr., retired in 1965 after heading Asbury for nearly three decades and left a solid record of achievement. When he had succeeded his father, he took over a company with two mills and less than 20 employees generating sales of $400,000. Now he turned over a business to his son that employed more than a hundred people at six plants, with sales approaching $4 million. There was no need for a period of transition, as Harry M. Riddle III had been with the company for 15 years and played a key role in developing Asbury’s growth strategy. He merely carried on with the plan.
In 1968, Asbury bought a graphite mill located in Bloomsbury, New Jersey, a purchase that paid immediate dividends when an area company, Joseph Dixon Crucible Company, was destroyed by fire and now required a large, long-term supply of the kind of graphite that Bloomsbury produced. Asbury added to its Mexican mining assets by acquiring a 25 percent stake in Grafitos Mexicanos, the largest graphite mine in the country. All Mexican mining operations were ultimately assigned to the Cummings-Moore division.
Asbury grew internationally in 1972 by launching an international sales unit to export refined graphite products: Asbury Cumograph Corporation, based in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. In 1973, Asbury gained a presence in Canada by acquiring Wilkinson Foundry Facing and Supply Company, which would primarily serve as a distributor of Asbury products. More importantly, Wilkinson provided Asbury with a base of operations from which it could establish a graphite mine near Quebec in 1980.
Asbury also expanded on the West Coast of the United States during the 1970s. The California unit was moved in 1974 to Rodeo, California, where a new plant specialized in producing calcined coke to serve the cast metal and corrosion markets. A year later, Asbury bought a manufacturer of glue and glue extender in the state of Washington, but this attempt at diversification proved to be too far afield from the company’s expertise, and it was eventually sold. A few years earlier, Asbury had also attempted to become involved in the production of custom blister packaging for premium graphite products, but this venture was also a poor fit, and in 1976 Asbury Packaging was closed.
A more successful attempt at diversification was the 1976 acquisition of Sunbury, Pennsylvania-based Anthracite Industries, which processed nongraphite carbon products’ground anthracite, metallurgical coke, calcined petroleum coke, and amorphous graphite’primarily used by mills to add carbon content to steel. Also of note, in 1977 Asbury reorganized its business under a holding company structure, resulting in the creation of Asbury Carbons, Inc.
Asbury continued to expand and diversify in the 1980s. It acquired Fluxmaster, Inc. in 1980. The Clearfield, Utah-based company made fluxes for the aluminum and foundry markets and became part of Asbury Graphite of California. In 1983, Asbury added lead and colored pencils to the product mix by acquiring The M.A. Ferst Company of Atlanta. (After 10 years, however, the unit was closed when it was no longer viable because of cheap foreign competition.) In 1984, Asbury added substantially to its slate of nongraphite carbon products by purchasing a Union Carbide plant near Kitanning, Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh. Although the plant produced some graphite, it primarily processed calcined coke for the cast metal market. In 1989, the company introduced the Asbury Injection Method, which relied on a pneumatic conveyor system designed to handle carbon powders and was especially useful in the steel industry.
Asbury opened a plant in Dequincy, Louisiana, in 1993 to produce natural amorphous graphite, artificial graphite, and calcined coke. The $2 million plant was strategically located to not only serve the southern United States but Central and South America as well. The 1990s would also see Asbury celebrate its 100th anniversary. In addition, 1995 marked a change in leadership as the fourth generation of the Riddle family stepped in. Stephen A. Riddle took over as president, with his father staying on as chairman. Steve Riddle was well groomed to carry on the tradition established by his great grandfather. He was exposed to the family business while growing up, and then joined the company full time. He became vice-president of sales in 1987 and executive vice-president in 1995. He now assumed the day-to-day responsibilities for a company that was producing more than 160,000 tons of graphite and other carbon products and generating over $70 million in revenues each year.
Before the 1990s came to a close, Asbury completed another significant acquisition, paying $23.5 million for the U.S. graphite and lubricants division of Dixon Ticonderoga Co., a company that specialized in the production of writing instruments, art supplies, and office products. As a result, Asbury added specialty lubricants to its product mix. Over the next two years, Asbury integrated the Dixon assets, closing down the two plants it inherited and transferring operations to the other Asbury operations. Even as it was shuttering old factories, Asbury was taking steps to preserve the heritage of its first facility, the water-powered flour mill that Harry M. Riddle originally rented to launch his graphite business. Asbury deeded it, along with 3.5 acres of property and two other buildings, to the Musconetcong Watershed Association, which was devoted to preserving the heritage of the 42-mile Musconetcong River and committed to raising money to restore the mill. In the process, the organization would preserve the heritage of the area’s most famous company.
Today, with stewardship in the hands of the fourth generation of Riddles, Asbury Carbons is a strong and growing family of companies and a major supplier of natural and synthetic graphite, cokes, coals, and all carbon product, as well as a variety of raw materials used in a wide range of industries around the world.
Asbury Carbons has maintained its position as the world’s largest independent processor and merchant of graphite for more than a century. The company is committed to expanding its product lines to supply critical raw materials to the world’s cast metals and industrial markets, ensuring customer needs will always be met.