Ready and Willing

By Mason Nichols

Reading Rock 2For some businesses, establishing a positive company culture can be a daunting task. While most owners recognize that promoting employee morale, fostering effective communication and efficiently meeting customer needs are all crucial to success, it can be difficult to implement a business plan that addresses these issues while simultaneously moving forward. But for Reading Rock Inc. (pronounced “Redding”), a precast concrete producer based in Cincinnati, a simple phrase serves as the foundation for a continuous dedication to excellence and progression: “Yes, we can!”

ROCKS solid

Spending just a few minutes at Reading Rock reveals that the company’s simple promise to meet any need is indeed fitting. Looking around, one quickly notices the wide array of products the company manufactures, including everything from basic 6-in. step units to incredibly ornate architectural column caps.

Gordy Rich, president, explained that Reading Rock’s commitment to never turning down a project is crucial to the company’s success and paramount to making the many skilled teams feel as though they are part of one large family. “Every day when we come to work, we know what we’re doing here,” he said. “We know that if we don’t do our job, we can’t fund the people sitting next to us. They’re part of our family. We have an everyday reminder of why we’re here, and that’s pretty compelling.”

The Reading Rock family is tied together through the constant reinforcement of ROCKS, a set of five core values that the leadership team expects all employees to practice on a daily basis. These values include:

  • Responsibility
  • Openness and honesty
  • Continuous improvement and communication
  • Knowing internal and external customers
  • Safety as a lifestyle instead of a slogan

At the heart of the ROCKS core values is the International Rett Syndrome Foundation, a nonprofit corporation housed at Reading Rock that aims to fund research and provide support for those afflicted with Rett syndrome(i). Rich’s daughter, Kelly, was diagnosed with the neurological disorder at a young age. Adhering to the values emphasized within the ROCKS core values serves as a constant reminder for Reading Rock’s employees to bring the best mindset and approach to work each day, regardless of the situation.

Brian Leary, Mark Swortwood and Gordy Rich

While these principles and the foundation contribute to the success of the business, Rich recognizes that knowing the customer has enabled Reading Rock to remain committed to client needs while continuing to significantly expand its product line over the years.

“Really, it’s the understanding of the aesthetics,” said Rich. “We sell color and texture, and I think we understand that’s who our customer is. We can do more in color and texture than almost anyone else we run into, because we know that’s what our customer wants. So if it has color and texture, we can make it out of something.”

When Reading Rock was founded in 1947, it was just one of the many block plants that sprung up after veterans returned home from World War II. Though the company exclusively produced block masonry units when it first opened its doors, through time the product line expanded to many other pieces such as precast concrete lintels and paving stones. Today, Reading Rock’s inventory is as diverse as ever, ranging from interlocking concrete pavers and segmental retaining walls to nearly every imaginable component of the building envelope.

Contributing to the company’s wide-ranging portfolio is the aforementioned dedication to continuous improvement and communication, something that Mark Swortwood, senior vice president, explained as a constant endeavor. “We have a culture where we’re never going to reach perfection, but we want to strive for that,” he said. “There’s not a lot of celebration – because you’re never perfect – but when we do celebrate, we move on and say, ‘Okay, what can we do to get better?’”

The solutions provider

Reading Rock 3Striving for perfection is one thing, but quickly and efficiently finding solutions to customer requests is crucial to establishing long-term business success for Reading Rock. Shannon Tokarsky, assistant vice president of specifications and marketing, attributes Reading Rock’s ability to consistently meet customer needs to both the company’s product line and the passion employees exhibit when working on projects.

“Being a solutions provider is not just something we put on paper,” said Tokarsky. “It’s something that we really promote. Our product line is so vast that, depending on what your needs and wants are, we have a product that can meet those requirements. And people are truly passionate about what they do here. We work really well as a team, everything from engineering to manufacturing and sales.”

Swortwood echoed Tokarsky’s sentiments, adding that the manufacturing team’s attention to detail results in positive outcomes for the company. “It’s not like, ‘Well, we’ll just figure it out.’ We’re very methodical in how we approach things, whether it’s setting up the color and using a spectrometer to match something that’s made in one of the other buildings or raw material storage, moisture probes, whatever it is,” he said.

Reading Rock 4Even when presented with challenging jobs, the “Yes, we can!” attitude pushes the production teams at Reading Rock through unique situations. Swortwood described a large job in Mississippi the company secured, which included three pieces weighing 42,000 lbs. While Reading Rock’s manufacturing facilities aren’t designed to produce and ship materials of that scale, the team came together and discussed whether or not making the product was possible, how the molds were going to be created and the steps necessary to remain committed to staying safe. In the end, the team was able to successfully manufacture the product, load it onto a truck and ship it to the customer, offering up a solution for a scenario in which other companies may have floundered.

Brian Leary, senior vice president, referenced Reading Rock’s willingness to expand as key to the company’s growth, especially as the industry experienced difficulties during the recession.

“The unique thing I found walking in the door was that the precast plant was here and the company was moving toward producing architectural precast,” he said. “The economy was beginning to flatten out in 2008 and 2009, so the question was, ‘We have a plant, what else can we do?’”

Reading Rock 5To continue to meet customer needs and remain successful, the leadership team placed an emphasis on determining what additional products could be manufactured utilizing the tools and equipment already on hand. This led to Reading Rock entering into the ReCon Retaining Wall business as a licensee, and today, big block is produced side by side with the complex architectural pieces that serve as the signature of the Reading Rock brand.

“We continue to evolve,” Leary said. “Being able to manufacture additional products on the same shop floor with the same safety, quality and focus is what makes us unique.”

Rich agreed with Leary, noting that satisfying customer needs is what drives Reading Rock into new territories. “If it can be made out of concrete, we should be able to manufacture it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to us if you want to use a segmental retaining wall, a big block wall or whatever. We want to be that solutions provider, and if we can offer a better solution by offering different products, then that’s our responsibility to the end user.”

Team players

Reading Rock 6Maintaining an expansive product line and committing to evolution is no simple task and is something that requires buy-in from all employees. In order to help achieve these goals, Reading Rock has taken several steps to ensure that everyone understands the importance of the company’s core values, from general office staff to workers on the production floor.

One initiative the company has recently implemented is the ROCKS core value award, which recognizes employees who have positively contributed to Reading Rock by exhibiting characteristics of ROCKS. Tokarsky explained the award as yet another component of the company’s willingness to always strive for improvement.

“The idea behind the award is that anyone can nominate anyone,” said Tokarsky. “It doesn’t have to be a manager down. It can be a manager to a manager or it can be a peer to a peer. We’re trying to promote the positivity in the organization and how that ties back to our mission, our purpose and our core values.”

Each month, a winner is chosen for the award, but all of the employees who were nominated are also given exposure through the Reading Rock newsletter, via social media and in the company’s town hall meetings. The hope is that teamwork is further promoted as employees take pride in the work they perform together.

Reading Rock 7The ability for any employee to nominate any other employee speaks to the openness of Reading Rock’s communication channels, something that Greg McMullin, production manager for the company’s RockCast line, views as key to success. “Openness and honesty are probably the biggest things here,” he said. “Anyone can walk into Gordy, Mark or Brian’s office if they have ideas or want to critique anything. They can go straight to the owner of the company.”

Reading Rock has also made strides in enhancing teamwork by translating more company communication into Spanish. A significant portion of employees working on the production floor are non-English speakers, and as such, the company wants workers to feel as though they, too, participate in and contribute to the company culture.

Tokarsky added that one of the biggest requests from workers on the production floor is the ability to understand more about the projects they work on, including their locations and purpose. Workers have also taken great interest in photographs of finished projects.

“One of the things we’re doing now is reaching out not only to the sales team but across the organization and asking about the projects that have been completed during a given month,” said Tokarsky. “Then we will have those who respond send us a picture and give us a few sentences explaining why the project was a success.”

In order to achieve maximum visibility, these reports are publicized through posters and the company newsletter. As with other forms of company communication, they are also translated into Spanish so that all employees can appreciate the extent of their work.

Rich explained that a priority for Reading Rock is ensuring that all employees recognize ROCKS. “You could ask anybody, from the person on the floor to the truck driver to anyone else, and one of the things we’ve driven home is that all of them should know what ROCKS is,” he said.

The 50-16 plan

Reading Rock 8Looking ahead, precast concrete is set to play a large role in Reading Rock’s commitment to evolution. Recently, the company initiated its 50-16 plan, which is designed to grow business 50% by the end of 2016. Though the bar has been set high, Rich believes the company can achieve its goal thanks in large part to the versatility of precast concrete products.

“Of all our business segments, we think precast has the highest growth potential because of its flexibility,” said Rich. “We think the opportunity is out there for us to reach our goal, and a large part of that potential for success comes from the precast segment of our business.”

McMullin noted that the company’s precast concrete line takes over when production limitations of its cast stone (dry tamp) product line make it difficult to manufacture a product to exacting specifications(ii). “When you’re working on a fancy capital, you have a 15 to 1 rule in length for dry tamp,” he said. “But in precast, you can do much larger panels as well as reinforce the product with steel.”

Leary added that current trends within specific precast markets have allowed Reading Rock to experiment with additional product lines. “Precast is definitely growing within the hardscapes market and in the big block market,” he said. “The big block market is now one where engineers and architects are becoming more comfortable, so now they want to do more things with it.”

These changes within the industry have resulted in the development of a combination precast and Allan Block system, which is designed with a precast face and interlocking segmental retaining wall backs. Leary believes this new endeavor serves as a prime example of the company’s ability to leverage two core competencies while expanding into another.

The company is also seeking to extend its RockCast line of precast products, with plans to roll out an entire exterior site package. Swortwood explained that while it may be very difficult to create a full catalog, the company is considering putting together a large idea book to get the creative juices flowing. “When customers look at the building and site package, under the RockCast precast realm we can do all of those things,” he said. “There’s definitely a lot of opportunity.”

No matter what the situation, Reading Rock’s goal is to get more “products on projects,” an endeavor that leadership believes will come to fruition through the extraordinary flexibility of precast concrete.

If you can dream it…

Reading Rock 9Reading Rock’s “never say never” attitude serves as the core to the company’s approach to business, leading employees to take on new and challenging tasks, and for management to open up new opportunities for expansion. Without such an outlook, Tokarsky feels as though the company would become stagnant, failing to attract the kind of employees who help keep Reading Rock ticking.

“When employees get to use their brains and work outside of the box, that’s when they really excel,” said Tokarsky. “I think the people who work here like that variety and like to be stretched into thinking differently.”

Rich echoed Tokarsky. “The people here are what set us apart from everything else,” he said. “We’ve got great people who really drive our culture through. When someone visits here, we’ve said that our success rate is 100%, because you can’t help but want to be a part of the family when you leave.”

For more than 65 years, Reading Rock has proven that its willingness to meet any challenge is vital to establishing a thriving business. For Rich, continuing that storied devotion to excellence will mean continuing to rely on “Yes, we can!”

“If you can dream it, we can build it,” Rich says. “Just give us a shot.”

Mason Nichols is NPCA’s communication coordinator.

Sidebar – A Fair Trade

By Kirk Stelsel

Membership in a trade association means something different to each member. For NPCA members, networking, The Precast Show, publications and education consistently rank among the top benefits in satisfaction surveys.

Reading Rock finds all these and more as benefits of its membership. However, Brian Leary, the company’s senior vice president, feels as though what you get from your membership is directly proportional to what you give, and in the end everybody comes out ahead. The company is an NPCA Certified Plant, and Leary sits on the NPCA Board of Directors.

“When we get involved we want to contribute,” Leary said. “If I don’t bring interesting opportunities back and different ways of doing things, then I haven’t done my job for the company. If I don’t bring our best practices or thoughts or different ways to look at things to board meetings and committee meetings, then I haven’t done my job in the other direction. It’s a two-way street.”

Reading Rock 10

Company president Gordy Rich echoed those thoughts. “Participation on the lowest level probably is not going to get us anything,” he said. “The one thing I’m pleased to see is that NPCA is very much aware of the competitive environment and its position and what it needs to do to continue to stay ahead of the curve. It’s that understanding of where we are and what opportunities are out there. You only get that from shared learning.”

In addition, the company has been an NPCA Certified Plant since 2007, a program that has provided great value for the company. According to Leary, it helps set Reading Rock apart and establishes it as a company that understands how to make the product correctly. NPCA certification is a third-party, accredited program that confirms best practices, consistency, safety and quality not only in the precast industry but in the entire building materials arena.

“By having that certification behind us, we’re more knowledgeable and more credible and able to be a better resource to our customers to ultimately have a better product,” Leary said. “Being a part of NPCA is critically important. Let’s be serious, there are lots of competitive products that could substitute out, and we’ve watched this happen. The associations play a great role in helping us control building standards and codes that allow the products to continue to grow and for us to move forward.”

Kirk Stelsel is NPCA’s director of Communication.


(i) Rett syndrome is a progressive neurological disorder that results in impaired motor functions. Often misdiagnosed as autism, the disorder can result in difficulty with movement, communication and coordination. To learn more about Rett syndrome, visit the IRSF’s website at

(ii) Dry tamping is a casting method utilizing a special zero-slump concrete mix. The mix is poured into a mold and vibrated in layers, each a couple of inches thick. A rake is employed to prevent delamination before the piece is stripped and touched up for any blemishes. Finished pieces are placed into a kiln chamber, where they typically cure for 12 hours at 100 degrees with 100% humidity.

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