The Industrial Revolution
It was 1895 and the Industrial Revolution was well underway, rocketing the speed of manufacturing and life in countless American towns. It was a time of incredible innovation fueled by the intellect, grit and determination of leaders such as ours … Harry M. Riddle.
Born in the sleepy town of Asbury, New Jersey, our founder’s work ethic was evident early. He rose each day to chores on the family farm, followed by a five-mile hike to a job at the general store. By the age of 24, he owned interest in that merchant operation, and another in a village nearby. Now a laborer, postmaster, and entrepreneur, he listened intently for opportunity, and after a friend described the vast applications of graphite and its untapped industrial potential, an American enterprise was born.
The young Riddle began his venture by leasing a relative’s Asbury flour mill in 1895. The aging 1700s facility was reconstructed three decades prior and with the swift flow of the Musconetcong River, proved an ample source of power. Next, he hired his first technical expert – a miller – to help transform the operation to graphite refining, sourced, in part, from a small Rhode Island mine. Industrious and energetic, Riddle networked to find New York City brokers to secure global resources, and began importing raw graphite materials from Korea and Ceylon. His supply chain linked nearby New Jersey rails, where barrels of the raw materials were offloaded to make their final miles by horse and buggy to Riddle’s emerging company, Asbury Graphite Mills.
Riddle began building strong customer relationships, penning letters and sending samples of his products to foundries, as well as paint, stove polish and other manufacturers. His reputation for quality products and service grew quickly, as did Asbury sales from 36 tons of materials to 144 in his first three years.
By 1903, Riddle was able to purchase the mill outright, paying $2,000, and five years later, he acquired another across the river. Known as “Plant No. 2,” this ever-evolving facility became the hub of Asbury’s operation, while the original plant was used sporadically and closed in the 1970s.
Two Wars and The Great Depression
Recently graduated from high school, a young Harry Jr, (known as Marvin) joined his father’s company in 1914. Business had dipped briefly just prior to World War I, but as Europe became embroiled in the battle, graphite orders from the steel and nonferrous metal manufacturers that produced weapons began to spike. When the United States entered the war, all supplies of graphite were commandeered for military use.
Within five years, the younger Riddle earned his place as partner about the same time the business was incorporated in 1928. The elder Riddle began to bypass New York brokers, importing graphite directly from foreign mines and though the Great Depression impacted Asbury’s balance sheet, by the end of the 30’s, the demand for refined graphite was again on the rise.
Asbury’s esteemed founder passed in 1937, and Riddle’s son assumed responsibility for the business, as well as the postmaster position for the office operating out of the Asbury site. According to company lore, mill employees changed jobs at lunchtime, helping to get the mail out before returning to their refinery duties each day. However, when the business grew too large, Marvin Riddle stepped down as town postmaster, ending the longstanding family tradition.
With business again on the rise, Asbury bought a third facility in 1939, a former woolen mill in the village of Changewater, just a few miles upstream on the Musconetcong River. As the river’s power diminished, diesel engines were installed and eventually replaced the water wheel entirely.
Growth continued in the early 1940s as Asbury expanded its operations to the West Coast, buying a San Francisco distributorship and later adding a graphite refining operation. A few years later the second World War again increased the demand for graphite in military applications and all three of Asbury’s mills were in full operation, including the extra production capacity at the Changewater plant. Though the output of the operation was at maximum speed, the company continued to innovate, buying a former bakery in town and installing flotation equipment to produce the purer blends of graphite required by some munitions.
After the war, the Changewater plant that helped Asbury meet resource demands was gutted by fire and the company opted not to replace it. It was 1948 and a major expansion of raw material sources was underway. Starting with Mexico, Madagascar, Germany, and Norway offering ample supplies of graphite, China later joined the global resources, touting extensive reserves of the mineral. The entrance of the extra raw materials was well timed as Asbury’s business was beginning to plateau as commodity prices dropped.
This mid-century era also marked the third generation of the Riddle family leadership at Asbury, as Harry M. Riddle III joined the company in 1951. “Marv” Riddle just graduated from Lafayette College with a degree in metallurgy, and proved not only a sound businessman but a talented salesman, as well. Over the course of the next 15 years, he learned the business and prepared to carry on his father and grandfather’s traditions, while creating new strategy for growth to its operations.
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 engaged a different tactic, achieving growth by acquiring strategically located companies to expand geographically. The reason was simple yet important: limiting transportation meant competitive pricing.
Growth, Expansion & Diversification
As a result, Asbury grew on a number of fronts. In 1960, the company acquired Cummings-Moore Graphite Company based in Detroit, providing a Midwest base of operations, as well as Grafitera de Sonora, a Mexican mine. The following year, the company launched Asbury Graphite, Inc., a joint venture in Oakland, California, and soon after, bought the Charles Pettinos Graphite Company, established in 1891, it was located some 30 miles west in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Although a smaller plant, Pettinos proved to be a perfect place to complete specialty runs for customers, keeping with another principle of Asbury’s growing business and new vision for the company: meet customers’ need for more complex carbonaceous material while adding other carbon products and a more sophisticated graphite blend.
Harry M. Riddle, Jr., retired in 1965, leaving a solid record of achievement that spanned three decades and took the company from a two-mill, 20-person operation, to six plants and more than a hundred employees. After, Harry M. Riddle III moved seamlessly into the lead, using his 15 years of experience as one of Asbury’s key strategists to continue the company’s growth plan.
In 1968, Asbury bought a graphite mill located in Bloomsbury, New Jersey, which paid dividends when the nearby Joseph Dixon Crucible Company was destroyed by fire and needed the large, long-term supply of the graphite Bloomsbury produced. Asbury also added to its Mexican mining assets, acquiring a 25 percent stake in Grafitos Mexicanos, the largest graphite mine in the country. Grafitos and and all Mexican mining operations eventually became part of its Cummings-Moore division.
By the early 70s, the company launched an internal sales unit to refine graphite products from the Asbury Cumograph Corporation based in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The global expansion continued to Canada in 1973 when the Wilkinson Foundry Facing and Supply Company was acquired to serve primarily as a distributor of Asbury products. More importantly, Wilkinson provided an operations base and in 1980, allowed Asbury to mine graphite near Quebec.
Domestically, the company expanded west coast operations in the 1970s, moving the California unit to a new Rodeo, California plant specializing in calcined coke for cast metal and corrosion markets. A year later, Asbury diversified, buying a glue manufacturer and extender in the state of Washington, later selling when determined to be too much of a departure from its core focus. It was the second attempt to branch out after the company entered the custom blister packaging industry for premium graphite and closed Asbury Packaging.
Asbury was able to broaden its mission with the 1976 acquisition of Sunbury, Pennsylvania-based Anthracite Industries, which processed non-graphite carbon products, ground anthracite, metallurgical coke, calcined petroleum coke, and the amorphous graphites typically used to add carbon content to steel. A year later, it also reorganized its business under a holding company structure, resulting in the creation of Asbury Carbons, Inc.
Next, the company created Asbury Graphite of California in the 1980s, acquiring Fluxmaster, Inc., a Clearfield, Utah-based flux manufacturer for the aluminum and foundry markets. It added lead and colored pencils to the product mix by acquiring the M.A. Ferst Company of Atlanta, but closed the facility within a decade after foreign competition used price to corner the market.
By 1984, Asbury bolstered its slate of non-graphite carbon products, purchasing a Union Carbide plant near Kittanning, Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh. Though 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 and proved particularly useful in the steel industry.
Next, Asbury opened a plant in Dequincy, Louisiana in 1993 to process natural amorphous graphite, artificial graphite, and calcined coke. The facility was strategically located to serve the southern United States, as well as Central and South America. The 1990s also marked Asbury’s 100th anniversary and mid-decade, the fourth generation of Riddle leadership taking the helm. Stephen A. Riddle was named president in 1995, with his father remaining as Chairman. Groomed to carry on the family tradition, Steve Riddle grew up with his great-grandfather's company and served first as the Vice President of Sales in 1987 and Executive Vice President in 1995.
As the 1990s came to a close, Asbury made another significant acquisition, purchasing the U.S. graphite and lubricants division of Dixon Ticonderoga Co. Specializing in the production of writing instruments, art supplies, and office products, the addition allowed Asbury to put specialty lubricants in its product mix.
In recent years the company took significant steps to preserve the heritage of its first facility, the water-powered flour mill Harry M. Riddle 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. The group is dedicated to the preservation of the heritage of the 42-mile Musconetcong River and raising funds to restore the mill and the region’s most famous company.
Acquisitions and Partnerships
Asbury has used its success to springboard into other ventures that capitalize on our ability to grow and innovate in the graphite industry.
Asbury Established Ventures:
- Asbury Graphite Mills & HQ – Asbury, NJ
- Asbury Graphite Mills – Kittanning, PA
- Asbury of California – Rodeo, CA
- Grafitos Mexicanos de Asbury – Torres, Mexico
- Asbury Graphite and Carbons NL B.V. – Maastricht, The Netherlands
- Asbury Graphite of North Carolina – Lumberton, NC
- Anthracite Industries – Sunbury, PA
- Asbury Wilkinson – Burlington, ONT
- Cummings-Moore Graphite – Detroit, MI
- SLIP Plate Lubricants and Coatings – Port Huron, MI
- Southwestern Graphite and Specialty Products – DeQuincy LA
- Process Engineering Corporation (PEC) – Crystal Lake, IL
Today, with stewardship in the hands of the fourth generation of the Riddle Family, Asbury Carbons is a strong and growing family of companies and a major supplier of natural and synthetic graphite, cokes, coals, and all carbon products, as well as a variety of raw materials used around the world. It continues to earn its position as the world’s largest independent processor and merchant of graphite for more than a century and remains committed to the thoughtful expansion of product lines to ensure that high-quality raw materials are seamlessly delivered to the world’s cast metals and industrial markets, ensuring customer needs will always be met.