Bricks & Beyond
Fourth generation launches Southfield Corporation’s next era of growth
From the iconic Wrigley Field and Chicago’s towering skyscrapers to the classic residential structures in the metro area, the Oremus family has helped define the character of a city, a state and much of the Upper Midwest over the last 60+ years. While the names have varied—from Prairie Material to its parent name, Southfield Corporation, to local brand name Illinois Brick Company—the owners have remained focused on fostering an independently owned and operated company that adapts with the times. Now in its fourth generation of family leadership, Southfield Corporation is poised to take another giant leap forward in products, services and regional market presence.
Yet, what makes this company distinctive is not its expanding footprint or its rising annual revenue—it’s one family’s inspiring multigenerational vision and purpose that extends beyond just concrete and brick.
Southfield owes its legacy to two men. In 1948, John A. Oremus began delivering coal door-to-door to commercial and residential properties in the Chicago area, with help from his teenage son, John W. (Jack) Oremus.
By the early 1950s, John saw increased demand for building materials such as concrete and, with a little help from a coal client, formed Prairie Material, an aggregate and ready-mix supplier. It started as a classic small family company with an employee roster consisting of only family members (John and Jack could not do it all by themselves; the office was managed by John’s wife, Angie, daughter Dorothy (who remains a leader in the company to this day), and son Tommy. By the 1960s, the company was among the leading suppliers in the area. Jack began to take on more responsibility as his father split time between running the company and serving as the mayor of the village of Bridgeview, the family’s hometown.
In 1978, Jack expanded into brick distribution, and by 1984, bought the industry-recognized name, Illinois Brick Company (IBC), a distributor of brick products. With one brand, one truck and three brick lines, Jack focused on expanding the brick distribution presence. Key projects at the time included work at Grand Central Station, which was a mix of high-rises and mid-level town homes, and Dearborn Park, which was the beginning of Chicago’s Southside development. By the mid-1990s, Prairie and Illinois Brick’s operation expanded to include natural and cast-stone products and employed around 2,500 people.
Jerry Vinci, Executive Vice President of IBC, one of the longest-tenured employees in the company, joining in March 1981, recalls those early days with John and Jack: “Throughout my years here, we have been evolving as a company and strive to take on new products as building codes, consumer preferences and new methods of installation change. Yet through it all we’ve maintained that personal touch, an open-door policy and we take the time to know each of our employees and treat them the same way we like to be treated.”
By 1997, the company was rolling along, building its brand and expanding its customer base, when Jack, then CEO of the company, died in a car accident. His son, Alan Oremus, then Vice President of the company, stepped in as CEO to drive the company forward.
In the Oremus family, every generation is tasked with growing the company, whether that’s expanding services, products or geographic boundaries.
Under Alan’s leadership, Prairie grew to become one of the largest family-owned concrete companies in the country, but changes were ahead for the concrete side of the business, and in 2008 the Oremus family sold Prairie Material, leaving its focus exclusively on brick distribution. From this decision, Southfield Corporation, named after the neighborhood in Bridgeview where the Oremus family had always found a home, was born.
The sale of Prairie and shift to Southfield caused a shake-up in the Oremus family as well. Alan recalls, “Over four generations, nearly every Oremus family member worked for Prairie at some point in their lives. Given what the economic landscape looked like in 2008, we knew the sale of Prairie was the perfect opportunity for a reset that would give our remaining Illinois and Indiana operations their best chance to grow.”
The sale of Prairie opened the door for the fourth generation of the Oremus family—many of whom might have followed in their parents’ footsteps—to learn about life outside the company. The family encouraged its next generation to explore the world outside and figure out what they’re passionate about in terms of career direction. For a few, the draw of the family legacy would bring them back.
In particular, Alan’s nephew, Jordan Hanson, felt the pull. Jordan recalls, “From the age of 15 and into my early twenties, I worked unloading boxcars of brick and loading trucks in our yards between Chicago and Milwaukee. I loved working at the company and always hoped after college I’d have the opportunity to come back and continue our family’s legacy in some capacity. Becoming an attorney was a great means to that end.”
Jordan graduated from law school, passed the bar in 2011 and went to work as a commercial litigator for the Chicago-based Gould & Ratner LLP law firm. Along with other assignments, he also served as outside counsel to Southfield. With his Uncle Alan’s support, he joined Southfield as Deputy General Counsel and, soon after, became Executive Vice President of the company’s Indianapolis operations.
Since the 2000s, Southfield has focused on growing its operations in Chicago and Illinois and expanding its footprint to nearby Indiana, including acquiring a number of formerly independent companies, such as Northwest Indiana’s Rose Brick, Lafayette Masonry, as well as Edgewood Building Supply and Indiana Brick Corporation in Indianapolis. Today, the IBC distribution network spans 24 locations across Illinois and Indiana and employs around 350.
Alan adds, “It’s important as a family-run operation that we develop a plan that lets our companies retain their local identities while building the larger corporate brand and common management structure, giving the people in these organizations opportunities to grow in ways they never imagined.”
Of course, one challenge with geographic growth is maintaining the family feel. One approach the leadership team has taken to connect the “family” of companies is to emphasize personal interactions among all the employees through activities. Examples of this include the annual Southfield Family Fest, tickets to baseball games and regular interaction at the various work yards, sales forums and focus groups.
Jordan adds, “A large part of my job is bringing our people together and really listening to their concerns. We want voices to be heard—because to get where we’re going, we need everyone on board. We want our people happy and excited about the road ahead. The only way to do that is to engage and listen.”
Jordan and Jerry, along with Nathan Karaway, IBC’s Vice President of Architectural Sales, are expanding the company footprint further still by constantly exploring new product and system offerings to better serve the architectural community.
In particular, IBC is focused on developing alternative claddings and expanding into commercial structures. Nathan, who built his way from the ground up in the company starting 15 years ago, says, “My team’s mission is to expand our footprint in the commercial sector through innovative architectural solutions. IBC was largely founded as a major supplier to the residential community, but over time we’ve placed an increased emphasis on growing architectural work in the city of Chicago and the surrounding communities.”
Through interesting design challenges and complex problems, Nathan and his architectural sales team have done just that. Nathan adds, “We pride ourselves in continuing to explore ways to meet the demand in the design community with new offerings from unique brick sizes, shapes and textures as well as facade cladding systems.”
"It’s important as a family-run operation that we develop a plan that lets our companies retain their local identities while building the larger corporate brand and common management structure.” Alan Oremus, CEO, Southfield Corporation
The Roots of Advancement
In July 2018, Jordan was elected President of Southfield Corporation at the age of 32, taking over from David Webster, who passed away earlier this year.
Jordan adds, “It’s part of our family legacy that every generation mentors the next to maintain a smooth leadership transition. Alan has been instrumental in my life. He’s one of my role models and mentors, just like his father, Jack, was to him. I strive to be like my Grandpa Jack, the man I believe set the foundation for our company to move from generation to generation with vision and who championed the importance of creating opportunities for our people.”
Looking back, Jerry points to the corporate stability. “In my 37 years, we’ve had only three executives lead the Illinois Brick Company side of operations, including myself. Our brick business started out as a two-person sales staff selling only a handful of brick products. Today, brick is the heart of our business and Southfield is one of the most well-known brick distributors in the area. One thing that sets us apart from many of our competitors is the diversification of our products.”
Along the brick road ahead, Jordan is particularly enthusiastic about bringing the excitement of the construction world to his employees, his clients and the community. He concludes, “One of the fun things about growing up in construction is the opportunity to see the effect our work has on a community, particularly in our own backyard like the city of Chicago.”