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Story and photos by Sue McCraven
A hasty visit from John Dillinger made this small Ohio community notable when he lifted $6,000 in a 1933 bank heist. Today, families take evening strolls here along Main Street, just a few blocks from the Mennonite-founded Bluffton University with its oddly quiet campus. About halfway between Findlay and Lima sits this idyllic Village of Bluffton surrounded by fields of soybeans, corn and wheat.
It’s a place where a visitor feels welcome at the local pub or in the cozy coffee house across the street. It’s where, a few miles south, Susie Miller (formerly Akin) greets you with a big smile while her miniature schnauzer, Riley, sniffs out your recent whereabouts. You’ve arrived at the family-run Bluffton Precast Concrete Company (BPC), begun by a risk-taker and managed by a second generation of Akins.
Surprise in a muscle car
Running lean since the housing crash, all employees here wear multiple hats as they cope with an unexpected uptick in business. Dropping from 50 employees during the “gravy years” to 28 hard-pressed workers today, David Akin, BPC president, understands only too well the recession’s brutal effects on the precast concrete industry.
Like many NPCA precasters, BPC is a family-run operation. Jim Akin started the business in 1968 – back when muscle cars like the Pontiac GTO and Ford Mustang were king.
Speaking of muscle cars, Jim rolls into the yard along with his wife, Tillie, not in a stodgy Lincoln Town Car but, surprisingly, in a black Dodge Charger – and Jim is full of surprises (see the sidebar “Where Angels Fear to Tread”). Three of Jim and Tillie’s four children, David, Michael and their youngest, Susie, are now at the helm, while remaining daughter Betsy is represented by her husband, Jim Stacy, the plant manager.
Freaky February & clay pigeons
“February was weird for us, because this past winter was busier than our last few summer seasons,” says David. “There’s lots of activity in Dayton and INDOT work in mid and northwest Indiana, also projects in West Virginia, Cincinnati and Indy.” Much of the municipal work comes from EPA-mandated CSO work.
“We’ve never been this busy in winter – it’s good news, but a tall order for our reduced staff,” adds David. Since the collapse of the “gravy years,” when subdivisions popped up everywhere, BPC’s net profit margin has taken a dive. The slowdown meant letting people go and enduring many weeks without a paycheck for himself.
BPC cranks out a steady stream of burial vaults, manholes and utility vaults, mostly custom orders. Recently, retaining wall blocks and MSE wall panels were added to the product line, and a very unusual custom project was a “love nest” for the endangered Eastern Hellbender Salamander. As one of David’s most enjoyable challenges, he says, “We’re proud to be helping the environment.”
Eight years ago, BPC invested $1.5 million in a computer-controlled, 2-yd Skako mixer, batch plant, cement silo and indoor aggregate storage – all contained in a new 10,000-sq-ft building. Risking this unprecedented amount of capital produced large bank payments and stress levels. Fortunately, David’s grandfather passed along a way to handle pressure.
An avid gun collector, David loved shooting as a boy when his granddad taught him to be a marksman. Blasting clay pigeons out of the sky, often 25 for 25, helps David release steam. “With so much on my plate and worrying about the future of our business, skeet and sporting clay shooting is my main stress reliever,” he says.
On the road again …
In a trailer adjacent to the main office, David checks two computer screens and says, “We’ve been a distributor-driven company for over 20 years now – no salesmen.” David maintains strong relationships with distributors by meeting with them often. Today, BPC serves five states: Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana. This means long days on the road that put more than 1,000 miles per week on his truck. On the road, he stops at construction sites to banter with contractors, a practice that has led to jobs. “I’m the sales guy here,” he says, “because that’s what I was good at before coming to BPC 22 years ago, and it was just a natural that I bring that ability to our family business.”
Before joining BPC, David and Michael worked in other careers. With a new business/marketing degree, David began his career as a Marathon Oil Corp. marketing rep. After a short stint there, he found himself unemployed and living with his parents. “I took advantage of dad’s cemetery industry connections and landed a job with Gorham Bronze, selling grave memorials,” says David. Then he began his own manufacturers’ rep business in the cemetery supply industry, BPC included.
In 1990, “My father offered me an opportunity to join BPC,” says David. Newly married, he and his wife, Julie, decided to move from Columbus to Lima. “Things were pretty tough at first. I took quite a cut in pay,” he says, “and the move was a culture shock.”
Savings helped, and David saw huge potential to grow BPC. “I had been a diligent saver, and I committed myself to BPC. Any initial sacrifices for Julie and me certainly played out well in the long run.”
A Jack of all trades
Michael, BPC vice president, likewise paid his dues as he plied his economics degree in banking. He was conflicted, however, over pressure to sell one-year adjustable mortgages to young couples when he knew they were unlikely to afford the bank’s planned rate increases.
Like his brother, Michael came to Bluffton in 1990 during BPC’s heyday when it pulled in healthy profits. Today, Michael is found on the road repairing installed manholes or filling in as a driver. His dedication to BPC is evident in his willingness to do whatever it takes. “With a bad knee, repairs aren’t easy, but we’re short-staffed and we all do what we have to do to keep things running,” he says. Michael is skilled at most jobs, from operating cranes to cutting steel. “The majority of my time is spent on take-offs, getting the plans ready for production, and I enjoy design problems.”
Some drawings that Michael gets are not feasible. “You can’t put a 36-in. pipe in a 48-in. structure,” he says. “We rarely build right from prints, and it has gotten worse over the years.” He theorizes that young engineers lack the field experience behind well-drawn plans.
Regarding the economy, Michael says, “Anymore, this business is hard to predict. We used to have a backlog and we could project out. Now, competition is fierce and we travel farther than ever to get work. We’re busy and want to hire more people, but how long will the good times last?”
After the major batch plant investment, BPC purchased additional forms. “We’re able to do many different things more efficiently,” says Michael. “We’re not stuck in one market.”
One man, four hardhats
Ben Wittenmyer was a surveyor, a virtual one-man GPS surveying operation. He took off cross-country, even working in Honduras, mapping pipelines for Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC. “The year I got married, I was home 33 days, so I started a flooring business,” says Ben. “But after four years, driving 120 miles a day gets old. In ’06, my mom met Susie’s mom at Bible study. Mrs. Akin said her son, Michael, was looking for someone with engineering and computer skills – plus, Bluffton was only a 12-mile drive.”
Ben not only took over IT from Jim Stacy and became BPC’s resident engineering and design guru, but is also the safety and QC guy. Most of Ben’s time is spent on project design using Stack-It, finessing engineering plans into workable prints for BPC’s production.
Ben loves one-off designs (check out the $1.3 million Ferrari on his screen saver in the photo), but safety is his toughest challenge. “Safety is the hardest part of this job,” says Ben. “There’s so much involved with OSHA rules and regs; you have to focus 100% or you’ll miss something.” For example, the plant is cramped for space and some aisles are narrow, so Ben has to remind the guys not to set things in doorways or rebar in aisles. “We all need to stay in a safety mindset,” he says.
Where Angels Fear to Tread: Jim and Tillie Akin
What do you think of a math major who tries his luck in purchasing for Dow Chemical, travels as a salesman for Northern Fibre Products, and reps for National Lime & Stone Quarries? Then he travels to Seattle as an aeronautical engineer for Westinghouse before managing Hillcrest Golf Course where his partners know him as an excellent golfer. Leaving the greens, he decides to learn – from scratch – how to make septic tanks. He builds this mosaic career while his wife, confident in her fearless husband, raises their four small children.
Meet Jim and Tillie Akin, married 55 years, who beam with pride over their progeny who run the company that Jim established in 1968 as Bluffton Septic Tank Co. With early success in tank sales, Jim and his longtime right-hand man, Dwight Rader, expanded to burial vaults and manholes. “Dwight started out at 16, cutting rebar after school, and never had another job until his retirement in 2006!” says David.
“Jim always wanted to be on his own,” says Tillie, “and people knew they could count on his honesty.” When asked if he was afraid to jump into the unknown, Jim says, “Sure, I was scared.” But he jumped in nonetheless. Is Jim Akin a case of “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” or “Fortune favors the brave”? Now there’s an easy question.
Farmer’s work ethic & hiring problems
Jim Stacy, plant manager, began as safety director and IT manager, then got his CDL along the way to help fill in as a driver. “I’ve been here 18 years, starting when we were still in the septic tank business,” says Stacy. Raised on his grandfather’s 900-acre farm, he knows hard work, can repair most machinery and still drives a tractor at home.
Prior to coming to Bluffton, Stacy spent 18 years at Kodak in Findlay, expecting to retire from the company like his dad. “Kodak got run over by the foreign digital cameras,” says Stacy. Like Ben, he came to BPC with essential experience (machine operator, shipping/receiving and systems manager). “I supervised 300 people at Kodak – mostly women,” he says, laughing about the change at BPC, where he supervises all men.
Stacy also does the hiring and, as he represents the epitome of the American farmer’s work ethic, says, “It’s hard finding people today who are willing to work hard and stick with it.” Finding good people is always a challenge. “A new guy will work two hours, take a break and leave. So I look for a farming background – and 80 to 90% of them work out. They understand a day’s work and aren’t afraid to get dirty.”
A fire drill every day
“Five years ago it was a major slowdown, but now it’s a fire drill every day,” says Stacy, adding that he thinks it’s the result of pent-up demand. BPC’s product line, which now includes custom pieces, and customers’ demands have really changed, he says. “Before, you’d get a job and have three or four weeks to produce and ship it. Now, most customers want it within a week.”
Contractors scream and priorities change daily, and it’s almost impossible to cater to these demands, says Stacy. “You either do it on time or they go elsewhere. That’s the biggest change I see in this business. It puts stress on everybody.”
Dispatch logistics and schedule changes are Stacy’s biggest headaches. “We have four drivers on staff and a couple of backups. We own five semis and a straight truck – and they’re busy all the time,” he says. A driver may take a load to Dayton and return to find another load waiting for him to take to Toledo.
“We reminisce about the plethora of subdivisions and all the underground products that they entail, and how almost all that work just dried up,” says David. “But we’re hearing the ‘S’ word again,” referring to residential subdivision construction.
Six years ago, there was such a large inventory of finished homes that, after the economy fell, these houses stood empty on weedy lots. “Some said we wouldn’t hear the ‘S’ word again – not in our lifetime,” adds David. “But it’s beginning to come back slowly now, and I welcome it with open arms!”
Only one in three family businesses survive
Just 30% of family-run businesses survive to the second generation, according to the Small Business Administration. Even so, family-run companies have impressive stats:
What’s behind two generations of Akin family ownership at BPC?
The Akin family and the production crew can’t hide their secrets for success. Sure, the Akins had their share of sibling head-butting. But down the road from the comfortable Village of Bluffton we find the result of their family dynamic: a warm welcome, a wagging tail, practical jokesters and a farmer’s work ethic. We meet dedicated people who came to BPC with excellent skills, and who wear many hats without complaint. We encounter a tight-knit family and two generations of natural-born salesmen. We talk with a fearless man and his family who all show satisfaction and gratitude for the blessing of an enduring family enterprise. These are BPC’s secrets of success. Welcome to Bluffton.
Sue McCraven, NPCA technical consultant and Precast Inc. technical editor, is a civil and environmental engineer.