P&Q Hall of Fame Profile: Donald M. James

By |  April 29, 2016

PQ1604_pqhof-james-1A number of great leaders have guided Vulcan Materials Co. over the years. Leaders such as Charles Ireland, John Lambert, Barney Monaghan, Houston Blount and Herb Skelnar.

Count Don James, a longtime Vulcan chairman and CEO, among that group of company greats.

“Don led Vulcan Materials as the largest aggregates supplier in the U.S. for 18 years, significantly expanding its operations throughout the nation,” says James Prokopanko, Vulcan’s lead director. “During that time, he guided Vulcan through periods of strong growth, as well as difficult market downturns, always with a keen eye on customer service, creating opportunities for employees and building sustainable, long-term value for shareholders.

James did indeed take Vulcan to new financial heights. Under his leadership, first as president and then as CEO, Vulcan’s enterprise value grew from $2 billion to about $10 billion. Plus, the aggregates facilities the company operates increased from 122 to more than 325.

“We had tremendous growth at Vulcan, and I am very proud of that growth,” James says. “I’m proud of our geographic expansion, as well as the intensity of our position in major metropolitan markets. Both initiatives have been valuable for Vulcan.”

Pursuit of growth

James, who joined Vulcan in 1992 as a senior vice president and general counsel, didn’t envision a career in the aggregates industry for himself. In fact, he joined Bradley Arant Rose & White, a Birmingham, Ala., law firm, upon graduating from law school. James spent 17 years at the firm, becoming a partner in 1982.

Ten years after becoming a partner, Vulcan approached James with an opportunity to join the company.

“I had not done any significant legal work for Vulcan at that point,” James says. “I did some work for another company that was in the construction materials business. But Vulcan offered me general counsel, and the rest is history.”

James admits he had a lot to learn about the industry, but his colleagues gave him on-the-job-training that brought him up to speed. About a year into his Vulcan tenure, James was offered the opportunity to run one of the company’s operating divisions.
By 1996, he was elected Vulcan’s president and COO. A year later, he became chairman of the board and CEO.

Little did James know, though, that his transition was the start of a great run in Vulcan history. Sales climbed under James’ guide, and he continuously put his legal knowledge to use in mergers-and-acquisitions arena. Vulcan was an acquisitions machine during the James era, doubling its permitted reserves base to more than 15 billion tons largely because of key acquisitions.

One key acquisition James steered was that of CalMat, a New York Stock Exchange (NYSE)-listed company Vulcan purchased in 1999. The acquisition thrust Vulcan into California, the company’s No. 1 revenue provider, as well as Arizona and New Mexico.

“In addition to buying the assets from CalMat, we have done another series of acquisitions in both aggregates and asphalt in those markets,” James says. “Now, we have a significant market presence in all the major cities in California; in Phoenix [and] Tucson, [Ariz.]; and in Albuquerque, [N.M.]. That region represents a combination of a large public acquisition followed by bolt-on acquisitions.”

Additional investments

Vulcan also made investments in the Sac Tun Quarry near Cancún, Mexico. The quarry currently provides about 14 million annual tons of construction materials to key U.S. ports, James says.

“We built out a large series of distribution areas out of [the Sac Tun Quarry], our largest quarry,” he says. “We bring materials to the U.S. along the south Atlantic Coast by ship. We have three ships that move rock from our quarry into a number of deepwater ports – probably 17 ports from Brownsville, Texas, around to Jacksonville, Fla.

“That’s been an extraordinarily strong growth area for us, particularly Texas and Florida, but all around the Gulf Coast,” James adds.

Vulcan’s 2007 acquisition of Florida Rock Industries Inc., another NYSE-listed company, provided the company additional growth in the South.

“That was really a large bolt-on,” James says. “Florida Rock gave us about half of its aggregates for the state of Florida. It also strengthened our position in Georgia and put us in Maryland for the first time.”


Vulcan doubled its permitted reserves base to more than 15 billion tons under James’ leadership. Photos courtesy of Vulcan Materials.

Vulcan doubled its permitted reserves base to more than 15 billion tons under James’ leadership. Photos courtesy of Vulcan Materials.

According to James, Vulcan’s long-term strategy over the last 25 years was to expand its presence in the fastest-growing metropolitan areas of the U.S.

“The coastal areas of the U.S. have grown much faster than the areas in the central part of the country,” he says. “Go back and look at the last 25 years, and the vast majority of our acquisitions have been in growing metropolitan areas.”

The state of Vulcan’s reserves today, considering the more challenging regulatory environment, is a testament to actions James and others took.

“The practical reality today is that getting new quarries permitted in a metropolitan area is extraordinarily difficult,” James says. “It’s almost impossible unless you have a much larger long-term strategy.”

Reclaiming mines is one approach that’s put Vulcan in a position of strength, James adds.

“One thing we’ve done – and Vulcan will do more of this in the future – is work with local government-owned reservoirs,” he says. “Our quarries make wonderful reservoirs. We’ve done that in the Washington, D.C., area and in Atlanta, working with local governments to give them access to our old quarries.”

Industry advocate

In addition to focusing on Vulcan’s growth, James regularly advocated for the growth of the aggregates industry. Vulcan refocused on public-policy advocacy under James’ leadership, understanding that publicly funded infrastructure has historically represented 45 to 55 percent of construction materials demand.

“It’s been much more stable than the private sector,” James says. “With housing starts rising and falling, we are focused on public advocacy as it relates to the demand of our products. That’s the one place we can make an impact.”

James served as an industry advocate in multiple capacities. He was a board member of the National Association of Manufacturers, as well as the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association. James also served on the board of directors of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Photos courtesy of Vulcan Materials.

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About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry. He can be reached at 216-706-3724 or kyanik@northcoastmedia.net.

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