The word “brick” just doesn’t do justice to what Techo-Bloc creates. “Technically we’re in manufacturing, but really we’re in innovation and design,” explains Nancy La Rocca, co-founder and VP of the Montreal-based slab and paving stone producer. She’s promptly interrupted by Techo-Bloc’s president, Charles Ciccarello: “It’s not a brick, it’s a thing of beauty!” Naturally, they’re also married.
“He’s the visionary and I’m the planner,” says La Rocca of her husband and business partner. Ciccarello had learned the landscape trade as a child working with his father, who eventually opened up a distribution centre to sell pavers and retaining walls. “While I was working there, since we were having a hard time actually keeping up with the sales we were doing for other people, I had the dream of opening and producing our own stones.”
But in 1989, it was his new wife—with a kind loan from his father-in-law—who imagined better bricks and believed they were the ones to make them. (La Rocca won’t take credit for the idea, but it’s safe to say Techo-Bloc wouldn’t exist without her.) “When we started, they were mostly squares and rectangles that nobody got excited about,” she says. “We started off trying to redefine the product as something really beautiful. We wanted to inspire architects, engineers, designers and homemakers to try our products and make them their own.” They set up shop in fashion-forward Montreal and began with ceramic-like stones in interlocking shapes, chic colours and detailed finishes that helped move masonry from a trade to an art. “Just like designer clothes, we brought fashion to this industry,” says Ciccarello.
Thirty years later, Techo-Bloc’s catalogue—a nearly 200-page glossy book with enough swanky pools and lush gardens to pass for a travel magazine—features more than 2,000 different paving stones in all kinds of styles. They are mix-and-match to make pathways and patios, yes, but also for use in fire pits, pizza ovens and outdoor kitchens. Techo-Bloc products are stocked by independent retailers and sold directly to contractors; the Techo-Bloc website will even let you plug in your postal code for a list of local hardscapers who’ve completed their “Techo-Pro” program.
Seven hundred employees work across eight 80,000-sq.-foot manufacturing plants—three in Quebec and five south of the border in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois. The rapid digitization of the industry, meanwhile, is both a blessing and a curse. “Technology has advanced so much and so fast that people constantly struggle to keep up,” says Ciccarello. He’ll spend ample time and money training employees only to have technology surpass them by the next season. It’s a frustrating experience for mere mortals, but Techo-Bloc tries its best to help: “We encourage our employees to take courses and classes—and pay for it all, of course—so they can learn. We’re right here to support them, constantly and continuously,” says La Rocca.
Interestingly, millennials now comprise 40% of Techo-Bloc’s surprisingly young-skewing staff. They bring a passion for the environment and sustainability, and an endless stream of new ideas. “Permeable pavement,” for example, is Techo-Bloc’s recent solution to excess stormwater runoff caused by larger and more frequent storms. Rather than require water to flow to a drain, this pavement mimics natural soil and lets runoff percolate through. Techo-Bloc then made a swanky YouTube video, one of hundreds of HGTV-esque short how-to clips—like “How to Build a Grill Island” and “How to Build a Linear Gas Fire Pit”—that hype their new products to younger generations and have been watched more than three million times. At least at their house, appealing to the next gen is working well. Their oldest daughter Jessica is their marketing director; son Bobby is Techo-Bloc’s research and development director; and youngest daughter Karina, when she’s not at university, works part-time in the family business’s HR department.