National Gypsum banking on taking its Purple drywall to customers

A worker at National Gypsum watches during the “wet end” portion of production when the gypsum slurry is fed between two sheets of thick paper.
A worker at National Gypsum watches during the “wet end” portion of production when the gypsum slurry is fed between two sheets of thick paper.
Published Nov. 28, 2014

APOLLO BEACH — At the height of the housing boom, the drywall industry was producing 38 billion square feet of product a year.

National Gypsum, the second-leading producer of drywall in the United States, had 23 manufacturing plants, including two in Hillsborough County.

When the housing market tanked and demand for drywall shrank, National Gypsum mothballed four of its plants, including one here. The remaining plant on U.S. 41 in Apollo Beach went down to two shifts. The number of employees in Hillsborough fell from more than 200 to about 70.

The housing market hasn't exactly roared back to life, but National Gypsum is trying to tap into the sputtering growth by targeting what it sees as an expanding market — do-it-yourselfers and renovators.

The company, which is based in Charlotte, N.C., has a colorful selling point — its Purple drywall line is a trademarked product that the company says repels mold and moisture better than other drywall. The company says its Purple product also is stronger and is superior at blocking noise and stopping the spread of fire.

It's called Purple because that's the color of the paper that is on the drywall's face side. The company trademarked its Purple drywall, then talked with officials from Owens-Corning, which also trademarked its Pinkwrap insulation, said Jay Watt, National Gypsum's marketing director.

Taking the drywall directly to homeowners is fresh territory for the company, which has typically marketed to commercial builders.

"We haven't marketed to the consumer in a long time," Watt said. "We have been really successful in the commercial market. We can target that same product to the consumer."

Watt said Purple drywall costs about $100 more per room than regular drywall. He says that while people may not think drywall is a top priority for a home, the Chinese drywall fiasco — some samples emitted harmful emissions — from several years ago should serve as a lesson.

"So you saved $100 a room," he said. "What did that get you?"

As part of its push, the company has even hired the host of a show on the DIY Network as its spokeswoman. Anitra Mecadon hosts the show Mega Dens and says she knows how valuable noise-blocking drywall is in modern homes in which Dad watches football on a blaring big screen in one room, the kids play video games in another and Mom tries to read a book in a third.

"The sound is bumpin' in homes," Mecadon said.

National Gypsum, which was formed in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1925, chose to open a plant in Apollo Beach in October 2000 because of the availability of synthetic gypsum from Tampa Electric's Big Bend power station.

In the 1980s, the government required that coal-fired power plants scrub their smoke stacks to remove sulfur dioxide to cut down on acid rain. When the emissions are fed through a limestone slurry, the byproduct has the same chemical composition of natural gypsum rock that would be mined for drywall.

Under the arrangement, Tampa Electric doesn't have to put it in a landfill. An average of 75 to 100 loads from 25-ton dump trucks are delivered to the Apollo Beach plant every day. The plant is capable of making 2,400 square feet of drywall a minute.

But until the market revs up a bit more, the company's second Hillsborough plant, which is in the Port Tampa Bay area, will remain closed. Commercial construction, where higher margin products are sold, is steady but not nearly where it was years ago. "We're a ways away," Watt said.

National Gypsum's marketing shakeup comes as housing struggles to rebound. Loans are harder to get. The number of first-time home buyers has plunged. And many millennials are spooked by homeownership after seeing the housing disaster take a toll on their parents.

A steady recovery is okay with Watt. Too much of a jolt would lead to the inevitable crash.

"Volatility is bad for any industry," he said. "We're coming out of it nicely."

The company sees opportunity in the swelling interest in renovation, particularly among people who regularly tune into TV shows on the DIY Network and HGTV.

"The renovation market is really strong. People are spending a lot on remodeling," Watt said.

Indeed, a recent report from the National Association of Home Builders shows that remodeling is at levels not seen since 2005.

Said Mecadon: "Even chicks like me are saying, 'Hey, I can do that.' "