By Kirk Stelsel
The year is 1903. In Kitty Hawk, N.C., the Wright brothers are flying their first aircraft. The first World Series is underway between the Boston Americans and Pittsburgh Pirates. And the Great Train Robbery is debuting as the first silent film across the country. That same year, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Montalbine family – five brothers who immigrated to the United States from Italy – is starting Roman Stone Construction Co. Today, 107 years later, Roman Stone is not only still in businesses but thriving in the precast concrete industry.
The external changes Roman Stone has endured since its founding – The Great Depression, two World Wars, 19 presidents and the digital revolution, to name a few – are almost unfathomable. But as the United States has evolved throughout the past century, so has Roman Stone. It is a business steeped in equal parts tradition and innovation – honored to look back but not afraid to look forward.
Layne Urbas, executive vice president, is immensely proud of the company’s rich history. As he enters the company break room, his focus turns to four black and white photos on the wall. Pointing to the photo of the company’s first plant, located in Brooklyn, Urbas tells a story that exemplifies just how much times have changed.
“I don’t think the business resembles what it did when they started it years ago, but it’s a different world out there and I think they would be very proud to see that it’s still going.” – Tom Montalbine
“They used to shovel the material onto the elevator by hand, and one day one of the Montalbine sons went to his father and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we buy a front loader,’” Urbas said. “He said to the son, ‘What’s the matter, you don’t want to work anymore?’ The father didn’t understand the concept of a machine making it faster. He figured his son could do it just as fast.”
The other photos depict the Montalbine brothers in various settings, including two of them posing with workers on a job site. Although it’s only a photo, it’s easy to see the determination in their eyes, and that drive remains with the company today.
When current company president Tom Montalbine, the only Montalbine working at the plant today, came on board in 1992, he and Urbas knew Roman Stone needed to evolve. The office had only one computer, nicknamed Wanda because they always wondered what it would do. There was room to increase efficiency and safety on the plant floor as well.
“We’re in a great market but we were kind of pigeonholed in the products we produced, so we wanted to diversify and move into new things,” Montalbine said. Statistically, only 32% of family businesses are passed down to the second generation, and 12% make it to the third. Closing or sale of the business often happens due to disinterest or failure to remain viable, but Montalbine and Urbas are determined not to let either of those factors permeate Roman Stone.
Both truly appreciate the business because they started at the ground level. Montalbine came to the family business in a roundabout way. After earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s in international finance, he was working in accounting for an international nonprofit before deciding to join the family business. When he came to the plant he started as a maintenance mechanic and then moved to production supervisor.
“Tom really earned his stripes,” Urbas said. “He has the respect of everyone here, because he worked his way to where he is now and he knows all the aspects of the business. When he tells somebody to do something a certain way, it’s because he did it himself.”
Montalbine is not one to sing his own praises, but Urbas has an easy time listing the many ways he has enhanced the company. “Tom was very concerned about not only learning how to produce concrete more efficiently, he was also concerned about safety within the plant,” Urbas said. “He conducted numerous seminars with the men discussing ways they could do safety procedures, and he made everyone get hard hats and safety glasses.”
While not family by name, Urbas is certainly family in spirit. The Montalbine family history is a topic he is passionate about, because he attributes his current position solely to their generosity and kindness. “I’m particularly proud of the trust that the Montalbine family put into a person like myself, who is not a member of the family, to end up ultimately being one of the guys running the business,” he said. “I’m like the character Tom in the Godfather movies. I’m the good German kid they adopted.”
Urbas came to Roman Stone in 1977 as a truck driver and was embraced by Tom Montalbine’s father, Nazzareno (Naz), and 2nd cousin, Carl Montalbine, who became his mentor. Over the years they promoted him from truck driver to dispatcher, mechanic and shipping manager. Eventually he was promoted to vice president of sales and then to his current position.
“My mentor decided he wanted to promote from within with people who really knew the business, and that’s why he gave me the first promotion,” Urbas said. “From there I recognized how the broker that was handling our sales was falling down on his end, and that was the springboard to me starting the first Roman Stone sales department.”
Hanging on his wall – visual proof of his pride – is a letter he asked to be drafted when he was elected as a director of the company in 1994. One sentence reads, “A director was elected for the first time in the history of the Companies from outside the Montalbine Family to hold office.” The fading signatures of Naz and Carl Montalbine can be seen at the bottom.
“I’m particularly proud of the trust that the Montalbine family put into a person like myself, who is not a member of the family, to end up ultimately being one of the guys running the business.” – Layne Urbas
One of the biggest contributions Urbas has made to the company is the renewed focus on on-time deliveries he instilled years ago, after taking an NPCA-sponsored course that showed late deliveries were the biggest complaint amongst precast customers. On-time deliveries became Urbas’ passion, and the plant began requiring drop-dead dates on all sales orders.
“The focus Layne gave the company on punctuality with our deliveries really gave us a big edge over the competition,” Montalbine said. “He introduced the catch line ‘Best Boomed Deliveries, On Time- Every Time’ and it has become representative of our company and our dedication to our customers.”
While Tom Montalbine is the only family member at the plant today – other Montalbines serve as shareholders – Roman Stone remains very much a “family.” As Urbas walks through the plant, he points out workers on the move and stops those in his path. He tells a story about each that demonstrates a deep knowledge and appreciation. He also knows how many years each has been with the company – more often than not 10-15 years or longer. In his eyes, everyone has a significant role. The camaraderie among the workers in the plant is easily apparent, and the respect they have for Montalbine and Urbas is equally evident.
In a world where loyalty on the part of employers and employees is becoming a thing of the past, it’s just the way Roman Stone operates. As secretary treasurer Sharon D’Agostino says, “Once you get in here you don’t leave, because it’s like a home. It’s like a second family.” D’Agostino joined Roman Stone 22 years ago as the bookkeeper. Describing how she got into the company, she said, “Katherine, an old employee, had to move to Florida and that’s how I got my job. She really loved it here, and every time she came back from Florida she would tell me she hated going and I’d better not leave.” Like Montalbine, Urbas and almost everyone at Roman Stone, D’Agostino simply cannot imagine leaving the company and has seen a tremendous amount of growth.
“When I first started, Tom’s dad and Carl had these little black books, and I would write what our sales were for the month and what our checking account balances were for the month,” she said. “And that was it. The company was basically kept by those. Since I started we have tripled sales and we’ve really diversified. We’ve really come so far in 22 years; we’ve just grown leaps and bounds since I’ve been here.”
The precast Permutation
Although Roman Stone experienced success early in the 20th century in the construction and foundation business, the changing landscape of America necessitated the company do the same. Over time, Roman Stone was reshaped, and by the 1950s the company was taking a new direction: precast concrete.
“We had dabbled with some precast because we were producing lead-lined bricks for a company that made X-ray machines,” Urbas said. “From that we were able to get approached by Con Edison.”
Consolidated Edison Co. (Con Edison), a large New York City power utility, came to the Montalbines with a need for scalloped spacers to separate the round concrete pipe it used as conduit for its wiring. After that contract expired, Roman Stone was given a contract to produce the conduit itself, which had evolved to become square in shape on the exterior. Looking for a way to improve the way the pipe was produced, Roman Stone developed an extrusion process by working with a local machine shop in Brooklyn. The new process allowed Roman Stone to make the conduit less expensively than the competition, and it wasn’t long until they received the bulk of the work. The conduit has been the plant’s core product ever since.
“We’re extremely proud of our 50-year relationship with Con Edison,” Urbas said.
To produce the conduit through extrusion, the concrete is loaded directly from the batch plant and pushed through a square opening at the other end with a consistent hole bored through the center. The plant produces a variety of shapes and lengths that allow Con Edison to meet the demands of any project. The extruded conduit is loaded into metal forms to help the fresh concrete retain its shape. Before it’s loaded onto carts that transport it along rails laid throughout the plant, a worker uses a machine to taper the ends to a specially formed shape. The conduit gets identical ends that are later fitted together using plastic couplings to ensure a watertight fit.
The concrete conduit provides a number of benefits. “The worst thing for an electrical cable is something that conducts electricity. Concrete does not, so it can’t electrocute somebody,” Urbas said. “And when a cable is fried it would weld itself to a steel pipe or burn plastic, but with our pipe they can just pull out the cable from both ends. The best part, though, is nobody has figured out the shelf life of concrete conduit. I think the Long Island railroad found a piece that was 98 years old, so it’s at least 100 years.”
The growth in business led the Montalbines to look for room to grow. In 1962 they purchased nine acres of land in Bay Shore, Long Island, to build the current 33,000-square-foot plant. The location allows the company to serve metropolitan New York City, along with Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk Counties.
Since that time, the product line Roman Stone offers to the electrical construction industry has expanded. Today, the plant can produce approximately 2,000 feet of conduit in a standard workday, and also produces precast concrete manholes, light pole bases, and junction and splice boxes in a variety of sizes. In 1991, Urbas recognized another opportunity to ensure Roman Stone could provide a complete package to the electrical construction industry. His idea was to begin offering the various cast iron covers needed for many of its products, rather than forcing the contractor to track down the needed covers.
Road to the Future
The growth Roman Stone has seen under the direction of Montalbine and Urbas has included updating the plant and creating new product lines to complement the pieces it has cast for years. Standing by the extrusion machine, Urbas points out visual evidence of how much the plant has evolved. He first points to the wall that once held controls for the machinery, and then to the automated controls that run it today – another improvement he credits to Montalbine.
“About five years ago we got some help from an automation specialist and replaced most of the manual controls with Programmable Logic Controls,” Montalbine said. “We reduced the number of pilot air valves by 60% which increased the reliability of the machine, increased production and made the machine really quiet.”
Standing in front of a computer and control box that run the plant’s two mixers, Urbas describes how much the plant has changed at even the most core level – the way it batches its concrete. In order to be approved by the New York State Department of Transportation, which it wanted to produce pull boxes and bases for, Roman Stone needed to become certified by the NPCA Plant Certification program.
“We used to batch it all by hand, but now, because we entered into the quality assurance program run by the NPCA, it’s all computerized,” Urbas said.
This led to a big shift for Roman Stone. With NPCA Plant Certification in place, the company began looking for other products to produce for the NYSDOT. The next idea came after Urbas saw a picture of one of his fellow precasters working on a road in the NPCA publication Precast Solutions. That gave birth to the idea of creating a proprietary Precast Concrete Pavement System (PCPS), which became known as Roman Road Systems. The process of developing the PCPS system and getting it approved by the NYSDOT led to the hiring of Roman Stone’s first full-time engineer in January, yet another step forward for the ever-evolving company.
“I think we have good employees and I think they’d realize that they did a wonderful thing.” – Tom Montalbine
Montalbine and Urbas immediately recognized the immense advantages of PCPS, including double to triple the lifecycle of traditional fixes and installation in a fraction of the time. Traditional road work can close down stretches of road or intersections for days, weeks or months as the existing road is removed, the site is prepped and a new road poured and cured. The use of PCPS eliminates many of the inefficiencies.
Most of the work is completed in the precast plant, before the road is ever closed. Slabs are poured, stripped and stored at the plant, allowing Roman Stone to build an inventory large enough to complete the project without delays for pouring. Once on site, the damaged road section is cut using a template Roman Stone designed to ensure an exact fit. The exposed surface area requires much less preparation due to the use of a special urethane lifting and stabilization process. After the surface area is graded using a scratch template, also designed by Roman Stone, the area is compacted and the slab is lowered in. Roman Stone uses Uretek to pump a high-density urethane blend through pre-drilled ports in the slab until the slab is perfectly level with the surrounding road and completely stabilized.
The entire process, from the removal of the old concrete to the setting a new slab, takes less than one hour, and as many as seven slabs have been installed in one workday. Once the slabs are installed, the road is ready for traffic in just 15 minutes. A major intersection can be completed in just one evening, and by working on small sections at night, roadways can be reopened each day for rush-hour traffic.
“Our hope is that this is going to be one of the tools that DOTs can use to extend the life of their concrete pavements,” Montalbine said. “I think it’s something that’s needed and that there is a huge opportunity out there.”
Robert Weyrauch, a job supervisor with Ahern Contractors Inc., worked with Roman Stone on the first project to use the Roman Road System. In total, 35 slabs were used on a project on Route 27. “The reasons why we picked the Roman Road System is because I felt that it would not only be cost effective but also reduce the amount of time that would be necessary to complete the project,” Weyrauch said. “Our expectations were not only met but they were exceeded in the sense that we completed it in a tighter time frame than anticipated.”
The Roman Road System has been tested extensively by the NYSDOT, both in the Roman Stone yard and in the field. The success of these trials has led to approval for a much larger-scale project that will include a four-mile stretch of four-lane highway that will include 800 slabs.
The next product decision made was to license the J-J Hooks barrier product from Easi-Set Industries, and then to begin producing catch basins. “Once we were doing the road slabs, that opened a new consumer base to us, so we decided the temporary barrier and catch basins would be perfect for us,” Urbas said. “We didn’t have anyone selling J-J Hooks barrier up here and we felt that the same people who would be buying our road slabs would buy our barrier and catch basin.”
With a new engineer in place, Roman Stone also began working on precast buildings. “Our new engineer is an expert on precast buildings, so we decided that would be something good for us to go into as well,” Urbas said.
While the Roman Stone Construction Co. of 2010 bears little physical resemblance to the one pictured in those four black-and-white photos hanging in the break room, the common traits are easy to identify: dedicated employees focused on hard work, quality products, great customer service and innovation. Montalbine is proud of the opportunity his ancestors created for him, and he’s confident that if the Montalbine brothers could see the business today, they would feel the same. “I think we have good employees and I think they’d realize that they did a wonderful thing,” he said.
“I don’t think the business resembles what it did when they started it years ago, but it’s a different world out there and I think they would be very proud to see that it’s still going.”
Kirk Stelsel is communication manager at NPCA.
Sidebar: NPCA Plant Certification
When Roman Stone began developing products for the New York State Department of Transportation, it was required to achieve NPCA Plant Certification to ensure quality and consistency. In order to receive DOT approval, Roman Stone needed to automate its batch plant, as well as make other quality control changes around the plant. At the time, the plant was still batching concrete by hand and did not have sophisticated quality control processes in place.
While NPCA Plant Certification required an investment by Roman Stone, achieving it has not only allowed it to begin work with the NYSDOT, it has improved the entire way the plant operates. “Everybody began to understand the idea of quality assurance,” Urbas said. “There was accountability. It helped us to keep track of when product was made better so we could investigate why something went wrong when it did go wrong.”
Roman Stone now has a lab and a quality control technician who is able to help the plant better understand the intricacies of concrete mixes and ensure the concrete it delivers is up to strength. “If there was any problem, whether it be a crack or something not aesthetically right, we could trace it back to what day and who did it,” Urbas said. “It helped everybody understand quality was job number one.”