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Front & Center: The Spokane masonry company working on the Wonder Bread building

Michael Spilker, owner and president of Spilker Masonry, a company founded by his father, Ken, 64 years ago, is photographed with his masonry crew working on the Wonder Bread building in Spokane, Wednesday, May 23, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Michael Spilker, owner and president of Spilker Masonry, a company founded by his father, Ken, 64 years ago, is photographed with his masonry crew working on the Wonder Bread building in Spokane, Wednesday, May 23, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Mick Jagger did rather well as a musician.

But apparently his mum got no satisfaction from his rock star status.

“She would rather I do something nicer,” Jagger said, “like be a bricklayer.”

Michael Spilker’s mother had no such regrets.

Since he was a lad, Spilker has devoted himself to the life of a “brickie” – from salvaging old bricks for a penny apiece to helping manage construction of landmarks such as Spokane’s Veterans Memorial Arena.

Spilker is president of Spilker Masonry, the company his father, Ken, started 64 years ago, and his brothers Tim, John and Matt helped expand. During a recent interview, he discussed legacies, employee loyalty and Priest Lake.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Spilker: On Shady Slope Road north of town by the Little Spokane River.

S-R: Any siblings?

Spilker: I have four brothers and one sister.

S-R: What high school did you attend?

Spilker: Gonzaga Prep.

S-R: What were your interests?

Spilker: Work. I started cleaning used brick with my brothers and sister when I was 12.

S-R: How much did you earn?

Spilker: Five dollars a pallet, which works out to a penny a brick. But later as a teenager, I remember accumulating a lot of paychecks on my dresser.

S-R: What did you do with the money?

Spilker: When I was 16, I bought 5 acres and my first car – a brand new (Pontiac) Trans Am.

S-R: Was that the coolest car in G-Prep’s parking lot.

Spilker: Yes – that and my brother’s Camaro.

S-R: How long did you keep the Trans Am?

Spilker: About a year and a half. Then I put a well in at my property and started building a house when I was 20.

S-R: Did you attend college?

Spilker: No.

S-R: How old were you when you ran your first jobsite?

Spilker: Twenty-four or 25. My brother Tim sent me to oversee work on Omak’s Omache Shopping Center.

S-R: How was it managing bricklayers older than you?

Spilker: Some didn’t like me being in charge, but I earned their respect after a while.

S-R: When was the last time you laid bricks day to day?

Spilker: When I was in my early 30s.

S-R: Did you enjoy it?

Spilker: Yes. And I enjoyed driving by the building later and feeling I was a part of history.

S-R: Artists typically sign their work. Do bricklayers ever leave their mark?

Spilker: Some. One of the better bricklayers in Spokane – Vayne Glass, who’s retired now – worked for us, and on jobs with blended brick, he’d make a “V” using matching colors. There’s one at Rogers High School. Most people wouldn’t notice, but he does.

S-R: Is that something you encourage?

Spilker: No. (laugh) We weren’t aware of it until later.

S-R: What useful business lessons did you learn along the way to becoming head of Spilker Masonry?

Spilker: Surround yourself with good people. And cover your ass. Every project has its share of changes, revisions, issues, so it’s important to document when you’re told to do something a certain way.

S-R: How has the industry evolved during your 38-year career?

Spilker: Equipment has come a long way – things like mast climbing platforms (that mechanically lift workers and materials up the face of buildings). They keep bricklayers in the sweet spot, so they’re not having to bend over or reach.

S-R: Has your company had setbacks?

Spilker: Yeah. The last one I remember was a big school project down in Wapato. We didn’t have much work going, so we went after that job too aggressively, underbid it and lost money.

S-R: Besides the economy, what factors affect the masonry trade?

Spilker: The Washington Energy Code is tough on our business because of greater insulation requirements. A lot of new buildings, like the new Amazon warehouse near the airport, use tilt-up walls – sandwich panels with insulation.

S-R: Does the general public understand that most “brick homes” are actually wooden structures with brick veneers?

Spilker: Probably not. But there are local examples of solid brick structures. One is the Wonder Bread Building (just north of the old YWCA), where we’re adding a second floor. We’re doing a brick veneer with 6-inch steel stud backing, but the look matches the original building.

S-R: Where do you get your bricks?

Spilker: Some we get from the (Mutual Materials) Mica plant in the Valley. The 140,000 thinner, Roman-style bricks we’re using for the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center (at GU) come from Pacific Clay down by San Diego.

S-R: What did it cost to ship 140,000 bricks from Southern California?

Spilker: About $75,000.

S-R: How much do you typically pay for bricks?

Spilker: Most cost between 70 cents and $1.40 apiece.

S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?

Spilker: Fall, when people are eager to get projects done before the asphalt plants shut down.

S-R: Do you continue working through winter?

Spilker: Pretty much. When temperatures drop below freezing, we set up tents, add mixtures to the mortar and follow cold-weather procedures.

S-R: What are some advantages of brick?

Spilker: They give buildings a longer life cycle. For instance, when brick and block are used in a school corridor, they’re indestructible compared with Sheetrock walls. They’re also fireproof and look nice.

S-R: How about disadvantages?

Spilker: They cost more than some other materials and take longer to install.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Spilker: Working with my kids, nephews and employees who I like to consider part of our masonry family.

S-R: What do you like least?

Spilker: Dealing with poor-quality material.

S-R: What challenges lie ahead?

Spilker: Finding new employees who can handle the work. Everything we deal with is heavy. Also, getting employees to stay with us after we’ve trained them.

S-R: How much does a journeyman bricklayer earn?

Spilker: About $30 an hour on the check – $50 including all the benefits.

S-R: How young do you hire apprentices?

Spilker: Right out of high school.

S-R: If someone discovers you’re a masonry contractor, what might they ask?

Spilker: Most don’t know what masonry is, so they ask, “What’s that?”

S-R: What do you tell them?

Spilker: “Brick, block and stone.”

S-R: Do you have a favorite Spokane masonry building?

Spilker: I like the (1909) Washington Water Power Substation next to City Hall. Also the (1924) building that Milford’s Fish House was in. They used paver brick there.

S-R: What are you most proud of?

Spilker: My family’s legacy. When I drive by the Garland Theater, Sacred Heart Doctors Building or the renovated Great Northern Railroad clocktower in Riverfront Park, I think about my father and grandfather, who worked together as general contractors from the ’30s up into the ’80s, back when generals had their own bricklayers, plumbers and electricians. Maybe someday my grandkids will think of me when they drive past the Spokane Arena, 41 West Riverside (now Banner Bank) or the Franklin Elementary addition.

S-R: How old are you?

Spilker: 56.

S-R: How old was your dad when he retired?

Spilker: 58.

S-R: What’s your exit plan?

(Before Spilker can reply, his daughter and the company’s treasurer, Emily Eaton, sitting nearby, shouts, “Us!” referring to herself and her three siblings, then laughs.)

Spilker: I’m working on it. Four years.

S-R: Then what will you do?

Spilker: Spend time at Priest Lake.

S-R: Is your house at Priest Lake masonry?

Spilker: No. It was my dad’s cabin. But it does have a nice chimney.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.


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