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Something from Nothing

By Kirk Stelsel

CSI’s engineered products plant is where the company’s wide range of wet-cast products are manufactured.Live free or die. New Hampshire’s state motto – part of a one-sentence toast written by Gen. John Stark in 1809 – sticks in your head like a catchy jingle. Stark was speaking to foreign tyranny when he penned those words, but his sentiments still ring true.

His generation formed a country open to ingenuity, hard work and entrepreneurial drive to create something out of nothing. In 1972, Len Worden set out to do exactly that by founding a precast concrete company based on a dry-cast manhole machine he had devised. All he had was an idea, the support of his wife and a drive to succeed.

Today, Concrete Systems Inc. (CSI), located in Hudson, N.H., has shipped product throughout the United States and Canada, and Len’s dry-cast machine can still be found in CSI’s manhole plant as well as in 65 to 70 precast plants across the country.

Stark’s notion is stamped all over Len’s company, his family and the team he credits as the backbone of the company’s success.

Your reputation

CSI manufactures manholes, barrier and other dry-cast products at a high rate using Len Worden’s original dry-cast machine.Many precast companies trace their genesis back to septic tanks or burial vaults, but it was manholes that inspired Len’s vision and it’s what CSI staked its claim on for many years.

Prior to starting CSI, Len moved his family from Canada to Nashua, N.H., to take a position at a precast plant, where he learned everything he didn’t want to do with his company. So, he set out on his own. Starting with his idea for a dry-cast manhole machine, Len wrote a solid business plan and secured proper financial backing. He wanted to hit the ground running, so he built a new plant and purchased new equipment and a new truck. As far as he was concerned, it was the only way to be a player. Last was hiring the right people. The importance of quality employees to the Worden family cannot be overstated.

With a team he trusted in place, Len used his energy, enthusiasm and understanding of machinery and precast to build a customer base. Chasing jobs was never an option. Rather, he focused on building a solid base of customers, many of whom are still customers today.

“He did it all,” said Len’s son and company president Mike Worden. “He’d go out and do the sales, come back at night and make manholes to get things going. My father is a smart man, probably the smartest guy I know, but I think the manhole line succeeded because he just out-hustled everybody.”

The admiration in Mike’s voice when he talks about the work his father put in is obvious, and is trumped only by his respect for his dad’s insistence on always backing up what he says he is going to do. Looking back, Len can still remember the first large manhole job he got and how important those intangibles were early on.

“We were scrutinized by a very large contractor who was wondering if we had the capacity to do the job,” he said. “I invited him to the factory and I won their confidence that day, and they awarded me the contract. I gave them my word because that’s all I had, and they believed in me.

“What else do you have besides your reputation at the end of the day?”

The “main thing”

Len Worden’s  dry-cast machine  is still operational on CSI’s plant floor today.Knowing there was demand for more than just manholes, Len began to diversify his product line. However, it was his insight to get into modular buildings for the telecom business that had the biggest impact on the growing company.

CSI began working with telecom giant Motorola and soon found itself shipping buildings as far as Texas, Nevada and even into California. As the product line grew, space at the plant became more and more cramped, so Len acquired a vacant building in Londonderry, N.H., to house the line.

“I think timing the telecom industry and getting into the modular buildings back in the ’80s certainly put us into a rapid-growth market,” Mike said. “We were in Texas for years at a time in the mid to late 1980s, shipping hundreds of buildings into the state.”

Although CSI has phased out that product line, the mark it left on the company is indelible. But as the company saw the market continually declining, the Wordens decided to get out and focus on new ways to use their former modular buildings plant and the valuable floor space it provides.

“You only want to ride (the market) up, you don’t want to ride it down,” Len said.

Diversification has always been key to the growth of CSI, but one of Len’s lessons that Mike took to heart was “keeping the main thing the main thing.” At CSI today, six or seven products have become the main thing, but Mike works hard to not lose track of each core product.

CSI has performed a lot of market research and spent a lot of time and energy on product approvals. Today, core products include median barrier, flat-top and skewed bridges, box culverts, catch basins, retaining wall systems, sound walls, utility tanks, and stormwater detention/retention products. Many more products simply fall into the “specials” category ranging from special headwalls and rail station platforms to circular precast smokestacks for power plants.

Despite the diversity, the focus for CSI will always come back to the “main thing.”

“We don’t build everything out there, but we look at it and see if it’s something that makes sense to us,” Mike said. “You don’t want to tie up all your equipment if you’ve already got a bunch of other work lined up for it. Sometimes the best project you don’t get is the one you say no to.”

“You have to have stable product lines to pay the bills and stay in business,” Len added. “You can solve any problem in business, I’m talking any problem in business, except for one. And the one you can’t solve is if you run out of money and it takes you out of the game.”

You can’t do it yourself

It doesn’t take long to realize that Len and Mike firmly believe the credit for CSI’s success lies with the employees. “It’s not us, it’s the people,” they add. “We were able to build this together. Many of the people who started here have stayed with us and retired in this company or still work here. It’s all about the people.”

Although neither Len nor Mike can pinpoint why they have been fortunate enough to keep so many long-term employees, both stress the importance of empowering employees to make a lot of strategic decisions. They rely on managers to know what they need on the floor, in the warehouse and in the future, as well as to help put a budget together and see what’s coming down the road.

Mike sees his two main roles in the company as talent scout and opportunity provider. Every employee takes ownership for their actions and the Wordens give them full responsibility.

“Never have we had a culture from the top down,” Len said. “There’s nothing dictated, and we involve everybody from the grass roots. If I’m at the top, how the hell am I going to know what’s going on?”

“You can’t do it yourself,” Mike adds. It’s all about the people. Our employees are our most important asset.”

I’m one lucky guy

The UWall form was developed by Cleco with many efficiencies built in and can be quickly modified thanks to unique connections.Although Mike is the founder’s son and it’s easy to think his role at the head of the company was predetermined, reality could not be further from the truth.

Len never set out to build a family business. It was his intention to build a good, solid business for his employees. Although Mike was out helping in the yard as early as 12 years old to earn money for dirt bikes and manufacturing manholes, box culverts, buildings and retaining walls during high school and college summer with his friends, he was never forced into the family business.

His first full-time role in 1989 was right around the time CSI’s transportation products were ramping up, so his time was largely spent on the road seeking product approvals throughout the six New England states.

Although Mike is the founder’s son and it’s easy to think his role at the head of the company was predetermined, reality could not be further from the truth.

Len never set out to build a family business. It was his intention to build a good, solid business for his employees. Although Mike was out helping in the yard as early as 12 years old to earn money for dirt bikes and manufacturing manholes, box culverts, buildings and retaining walls during high school and college summer with his friends, he was never forced into the family business.

His first full-time role in 1989 was right around the time CSI’s transportation products were ramping up, so his time was largely spent on the road seeking product approvals throughout the six New England states.

Skewed bridges are among CSI's core products.After accomplishing his goal, he returned to the plant and began working under Len’s long-time senior vice president Al Couturier developing new products. As Al neared retirement age, Len’s instructions were clear: Spend one year finding somebody to replace yourself and the other year being goodwill ambassador. Len provided Al with a few names of people outside of the company and told him to test the mettle of both internal and external candidates.

“After about a year I said, ‘Come on Al, time’s up’ and Al told me, ‘I found a guy,’’’ Len said.

When Al told him it was Mike, Len’s reaction was “Mike who?”

After realizing Al was talking about his son, Len asked what real experience Mike had running a company. Al wisely asked Len how much experience he had running a company when he started, and all Len could say was “good point.” Len was pleased with Al’s argument, so he called Mike in and told him what was going to happen.

At that moment, he put Mike firmly in control of the company. There were no stepping stones, no interim position and no micromanagement. For Mike, it was a big, and very unexpected, moment.

“I hadn’t really given it much thought, because I didn’t really know that it was coming,” he said. “It’s not like my father said, ‘Hey, this is what we’re thinking.’ It actually took me by surprise, because it wasn’t anything I had really solicited. I was here just doing my job.”

While Al was busy tutoring Len’s son, Len was busy tutoring Al’s son Dave who had taken an interest in the machinery side of things. Dave is now one of the long-term employees who make CSI tick as the head of its Cleco division.

Cleco, a precision fabricating company, is part of the CSI family of companies.

“My son became Al’s protege, and I’d say David became my protege in the machinery and equipment side,” Len said. “We both developed each other’s sons. Dave is one of the finest people I’ve ever known, just like his father.”

While the move to put Mike in charge was unexpected, and never anything Len had set out to do, Len couldn’t be more pleased with how things worked out. “I look at this as I’m one lucky guy that he aspired to the business,” he said. “I got a guy I can trust, that’s as loyal as can be and his work discipline is the same as mine and his mother’s – although his polish comes from his mother. Since that day I talked to him and we made the decision to put him in charge, he’s been in charge and I’ve never had to second guess him or go against anything he’s done.”

Len also feels fortunate that his oldest daughter, Shelley, has been involved in the business. Shelley came to the company from the corporate world to help it grow in her own way. She implemented new software for more accurate job costing and accounting, and to keep track of all operations. Working with Mike and his team, she also wrote the company’s estimating program that is still used today.

“I’m proud to say that Shelley has been here for probably 20 years,” Len said. “So you can see how lucky I’ve been. My family aspired to it.”

A real good solution

One application of CSI's Uwall is wing walls for short-span bridges.Licensing has always been a part of the mix at CSI, starting with Stay-Wal and then Neel Company’s T-Wall. CSI was also one of the original CON/SPAN (now Contech) licensees in 1990 and still manufactures for Contech today. However, the move to being licensor was new territory for the company: CSI jointly developed a retaining wall system it calls Universal Wall, or Uwall, for itself but quickly realized it might be a product other precasters would be interested in manufacturing and decided to establish a licensee network.

“We just think when you have something unique that offers a real viable and economical solution, you may as well allow others a chance to create a good opportunity for themselves,” Mike said. “If we didn’t feel we had the best product available, we wouldn’t bother putting time and energy into getting DOT approvals.”

The wall system, a gravity wall to a certain point and then MSE, has now been used for private, commercial and municipal projects, but the main emphasis is highway markets and DOT work. The forms allow the precaster to quickly adapt to different sizes ranging from a 2-ft by 8-ft section up to the largest 7-ft by 8-ft section. The forms also make sloping the face easy, so that the wall can follow the grading on site. Tiebacks are done using a geogrid material made by Italy-based Maccaferri, which have a 122-year design life.

“The top course can become custom sections in essence,” Mike said, “but we’re set up to do them very economically. To me, it looks more aesthetically pleasing when you have a nice, clean angle all the way down – so it’s perfect for large wing walls for bridges too.”

The license comes with the engineered wall system, the forms and the forming expertise. Technical training is done on the licensee’s production floor, and they visit CSI for sales and marketing training.

“It’s not a solid piece of concrete, but a true engineered wall system with a lot of economies built in. It has a standard 5-in. face, which can easily be adapted to be 12 in. for special applications when needed, and 6-in. standard stems, and the Uwall sections can be installed extremely fast,” Mike said.

A leading force

There are many more changes on the horizon for CSI, partially because Mike inherited the “never rest” attitude from his father, and partially because of the team and culture the family has built. With engineering, precision form fabrication and decades of manufacturing experience right at its fingertips, the precast company nestled away in Hudson, N.H., will continue to evolve in the years to come.

“We are excited about entering different markets with several additional new products we’ve been working on, which we’ll be ready to roll out in 2014,” Mike said. “As we look at our next 40 years,” Mike started before Len chipped in “I’ll be here!” eliciting a good laugh from his son, “we want to keep CSI positioned as a leading force in our industry. Our slogan is ‘New England’s Infrastructure Product Source,’ and we want to maintain that.

“I’m excited for what the future holds, for all the excellent people we have, and for those who will join us.”

Kirk Stelsel is NPCA’s director of Communication.

Sidebar – Memories and Friendships are There Forever

Len and Michelle WordenLen was very involved with NPCA in the early days, joining immediately after starting CSI. Through the association, he developed strong relationships with people he still considers good friends. The list of Len’s friends in the industry reads like a who’s who of past presidents and Yoakum Award winners.

“There are guys I think so fondly of – we traveled together, we partied together, we were in each other’s plants – and I cherish those memories and that time,” he said. “We all had kids, they all had kids and the evolution goes on. It was easier for us to keep in touch back in those days, but those memories and friendships are there forever.”

In addition to the relationships, Len participated in many efforts to help the industry grow and improve, including serving as NPCA Board Chair in 1994 during which time he helped advance the association as a professionally staffed organization.

“When I was chairman of the board I didn’t do any work that the staff could do,” he said. “A lot of people are guilty of doing the work. I didn’t. I delegated the work – told them what I expected, what I wanted and they were very capable of doing it.”

Len has seen the industry change for the best and the evolution of product standards, quality, plant standards and safety as a result of being conscious and doing things the right way.

“I love to look at the pictures and see the plants and see guys I don’t even know – I used to know everybody – and everybody seems to be doing an outstanding job,” he said.

Sidebar – A Distinct Advantage

When it came to machinery, automation and forming equipment, Len always tried to do it himself. It wasn’t long after he got into manufacturing manholes and incorporating Concrete Systems Inc. that he came up with a sister company named Concrete Vibratory Systems Inc. (CVSI).

The company had developed equipment it never planned to sell to other people, but other precasters saw it and wanted to purchase it. Len had one large precaster from the Midwest insistent on purchasing the dry-cast manhole system. It was at that point that Len decided to form CVSI and build dry-cast manhole equipment for retail.

Len still remembers selling the first dry-cast machine. He was just a kid when he flew out to the plant and sat with the owners, but they believed in him and wrote him a check for a third of the cost of the machine before he even started building it.

“I probably broke every speed law on the planet on the way back to the airport,” he said.

Len later merged CVSI into Cleco Manufacturing in 1985 after purchasing the company. Cleco, a precision metal fabricator, brought a new set of expertise. The company ships all over the United States and Canada and has even sold its product in Norway.

Today, Cleco performs turnkey plant design, material handling systems, batch plants and more, and allows CSI to be uniquely self-sufficient.

“Certainly, having the machinery side helps us a lot,” Mike said. “Being vertically integrated is quite important to us. It’s a distinct advantage for us on some of the larger jobs and custom projects.”

Want to see more from our visit to CSI? Click here.


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