H2 Precast Has Become a Haven Family Tradition
By Kirk Stelsel
When Larry Haven started H2 Precast in 1984 on one acre in Wenatchee, Wash., he never could have imagined his company building a 50,000-sq-ft plant on 15 acres just 23 years later.
His drive was undeniable, but he was also practical. He saw a modest market for precast after the only producer in town went belly up, and set out to meet that need. Through the years, demand has increased and H2 has grown. But, although the new plant sits just 7½ miles down the road from H2’s original location, the journey has been anything but easy.
Through it all, family, quality, pride and perseverance have remained the unwavering principles of H2 Precast. These core values have been passed down from one generation to the next and enabled the company to pull through the tough times, prosper when times are good and accomplish both without compromise.
Wenatchee and its sister town of East Wenatchee sit on the banks of the Columbia River roughly halfway between the eastern and western boundaries of Washington state. Their combined populations would barely make a list of the top 25 largest cities in the state, but the region holds the advantage of being fairly isolated from the metropolitan hubs of Seattle/Tacoma to the west, Spokane to the east and Portland to the south.
Knowing this, Larry started H2 Precast with his brother by purchasing the remnants of the local precast operation that had closed. The plant was bare bones at the beginning – small, the equipment was old, and they had only one beat-up half-cab delivery truck – but the crew of four worked hard to make it successful.
Larry bid jobs, drove the truck, repaired the truck, and spent many long days getting the company off the ground. After a couple of years, Larry bought out his brother, but was soon joined by another family member who would fill in the second half of the H2 namesake: his son.
A family affair
Russ Haven was just 15 when his dad started H2 Precast, but he was soon helping out with odd jobs on the weekends and started working summers in 1987. He learned the family business from the ground up, and by 1989 he was working at the plant full time. His dad taught him the various jobs around the plant, but the most important lesson had nothing to do with concrete. It was the example Larry set as a businessman and a leader that most influenced Russ.
“My dad was a hard worker – first one there and last one to leave, doing whatever he could to keep it rolling,” Russ said. “And he was a good employer. I don’t think you can find anyone who didn’t like my father.”
Around the same time, Russ was joined at H2 by other young employees, including some childhood friends. The timing was impeccable, because business was starting to pick up. In the early years, the company stuck mainly to a few basic pieces, but that was changing. Cities and municipalities were coming to H2 with new product ideas, and Larry was never one to say no. The crew would often work all weekend to get jobs done, and through that sweat equity the company started to grow.
The increased demand presented an opportunity for H2 Precast. By 1992, the family business was bursting at the seams and it could no longer survive on the modest piece of property it owned. The decision to build a new plant was made, but growth was tempered by devastating personal news for the Haven family.
From father to son
The same year the company made the decision to relocate and expand, Larry was diagnosed with leukemia. It was a blow to the Haven family and the employees of H2, but Larry and Russ embarked on constructing a 20,000-sq-ft facility to accommodate their thriving business despite the bad news. When it was completed in 1994 the new plant was a big improvement over its predecessor, complete with a five-acre parcel to store inventory and room to expand output. “Dad did what he did for my future, and I did what I did to make him proud,” Russ said. “There was never a doubt that I would be in his shoes some day, but that was never my focus.”
Before long, though, that’s exactly where Russ found himself. For the next four years the company continued to grow, but by 1996 Larry was forced to make the hard decision to retire from H2 Precast and focus on his health. His body could no longer keep up with the day-to-day demands of the plant.
For Russ, this was a turning point. At just 25 it was his turn to lead the company, so he leaned on the principles his father had taught him. Looking to his extended family – his employees – he found exactly what he needed. He and a core group of guys that would become the foundation of the company began shaping its future. “If it hadn’t been for some caring and dedicated employees who stepped up to help me during that time, we probably would not have made it through that transition,” he said.
By this time, H2 Precast was up to seven employees. Through NPCA, Russ and his dad had learned about dry-casting and purchased a dry-cast plant from Turmac, which greatly improved production. The company also began making electrical vaults for municipalities, and that line of business really took off. Thanks to these decisions and a hot economy, the company was producing at full capacity and barely able to keep up with demand.
For Russ, this meant long days organizing the workload while still learning the ropes of running the family business. He’d often come back at night or on the weekends to bid jobs or get through paperwork, but he also received a great deal of help from his employees. “What’s great is the employees have always known what the needs are, and they’ve put in the time,” he said.
In the meantime, Larry underwent a successful procedure called a mini bone marrow transplant thanks to his sister. Although it was not without side effects, the procedure gave him relatively good health, and he was able to watch his son continue to grow the family business.
Calm before the storm
With Russ and his trusted team at the helm, including Quality Control Manager Justin Peters, Sales Manager Clay Prewitt and Plant Manager Dave Schneider, H2 continued to grow. Dave, a 17-year H2 veteran, joined the company as a part-time welder as an added challenge to owning a small orchard and now leads the production crew. “I love it here,” he said. “I grew up with Russ and he helped me plant my orchard, so it’s just kind of a big family thing. I’m kind of hoping to retire from here.”
Justin, also a childhood friend, has been with the company 20 years and says he can’t think of any other place he’d rather work. Clay has been in the precast industry for 17 years, including 10 at H2, and is proud of the company’s products and culture. “Here at H2, we are always reinvesting in the company and trying to do it better than our competition,” he said. “I don’t know of a better team of guys that are all on the same page and trying to do the best they possibly can.”
Together, they guided the company through a number of strong years, and by 2005 H2 Precast had once again outgrown its home. Larry had always looked to his employees to help make the big decisions and Russ has continued this approach, so he, Justin, Clay and Dave got together to discuss the future. The team decided it was time to move and expand again. For Justin and Dave, this would be their second expansion with H2 Precast.
They planned and executed the move and designed the new plant to their needs. The team came up with an H-shaped design for the building with quality control and reinforcement production done in the center. The cages are then pushed out to either side, one with dry-cast and the other wet-cast. “NPCA provided the opportunity to learn from other precasters, how to control costs and helped prepare us for building a new plant,” Russ said. “Part of our building design came from seeing how others did it. I think everybody should learn from NPCA, take its classes and network, because it opens your eyes.”
The new plant was completed in 2007, which turned out to be the best year in the history of the company despite Russ serving as project manager on the new plant. He would check in at night and sign checks, but the employees essentially ran the company, which showed him how exceptional they are.
The new plant utilizes radiant floor heating and two Wiggert & Co. planetary concurrent mixers with PCS controls and integrated industrial computers from American Concrete Technologies. The batch plants are fed from in-ground, truck-dump hoppers to ensure year-round production.
For Russ’s dad, the growth of the company was both astonishing and a source of great pride. “He was amazed by the size and extent of product that we were now able to produce,” Russ said, “and he was proud that we had made good decisions and put together a winning plan and production facility. He was proud that, as a team, we built a beautiful future to work into.”
Three long years
After the success of 2007, all the momentum H2 had built stalled when the recession hit and the team braced for the worst. The plant was complete, but all further expenses were put on hold. “We had to do some of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Russ said. “We had to cut some employees, which I hate to do, and we stopped everything that we didn’t have to be doing.”
Nobody knew how far the economy would sink or how long it would last, but Russ, Justin, Clay and Dave all agreed there would be no compromise made on quality. It has always been a top priority for H2 Precast, and Russ describes the company as “finicky” when it comes to the little things. No product leaves the shop if it doesn’t look exactly right. Larry always told his son and employees, “Don’t do it if you’re not going to do it right,” and that has stuck. The team has remained focused on making quality precast, and the plant earned Quality Award of Merit citations from NPCA in 2007 and 2010, an honor reserved for the top 25 plants in NPCA’s Plant Certification Program, which currently includes 376 companies.
As the company battled through the recession, Larry continued his fight against leukemia, but it was taking its toll. In May 2010, 18 years after being diagnosed, Larry Haven passed away. “He was an inspiration to many, many people with his strength and perseverance,” Russ said. “Working for my father was the biggest blessing I could have ever asked for.”
Despite losing his dad last year and the recession dragging on, Russ and the rest of the H2 employees have kept a positive outlook. Sales in 2011 have shown the first signs of growth since 2008, and they feel the recession has made H2 Precast a much leaner, meaner machine.
The management team is optimistic about the future of the precast industry, confident in their capabilities and excited about new opportunities. For them, the sky is the limit when it comes to product lines. With the new plant and the drive to succeed, they aren’t afraid of trying anything. In the past, Russ said they were sometimes apprehensive about new products, but the only limiting factor these days seems to be weight and whether or not they have the crane capacity to lift them.
As the sales manager, Clay is front line between this growth and the customers. “The concrete industry has really evolved, and we have better forms, technology and concrete,” he said. “It’s a slow change to get people to realize that concrete isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago.”
A lasting legacy
An article in the Wentachee Business Journal from 1996 features a photo of Larry and Russ Haven smiling next to an electrical vault. In the story, a quote highlights the legacy Larry passed down to his son. “All of our employees are key to us working well,” Larry said. “You can’t build a company with just anybody.”
For Justin, there’s no question as to whether Russ has kept that same focus. “With Russ’s dad it was like family,” he said. “We’d talk about things, get together on weekends or get together out at his place. Russ has definitely picked up where his dad left off.”
Dave echoed those thoughts. “I grew up around Russ’s dad, and I really liked the guy,” he said. “I see a lot of his dad in Russ and it’s cool to see that, because his dad was great. He was never the type of person who wouldn’t talk to his employees and Russ is the same way.”
Russ has used the perseverance, pride, and dedication to quality and family his father instilled in him to take the company to new heights, and he hopes to pass along those same lessons to the next generation: his kids. “I would love it if my children want to be involved,” he said. “I will work toward making the company as strong as I can so that if they so choose to give it a go, they will have a good job and a chance to become a part of something that the Havens are proud of. But they are going to have to work at it and earn it.”
That’s the Haven family tradition.
Kirk Stelsel is NPCA’s communication manager.