A single company experiences the outgrowth of the precast industry from infancy to maturity – from horse-drawn wagon to the computer age.
By Ron Hyink
The years either flash by like a falcon in flight or drift lazily along like a carefree cloud, depending on how you look at it, but any time you can witness the turn of a new century, you can’t help but reflect on man’s progress through the ages. As Norwalk Concrete Industries of Norwalk, Ohio, celebrates its first centennial this year, the owners and employees can take pride in the fact that their company has evolved through the most remarkable technological achievements that man has ever seen.
By the time the 20th century rolled around, electricity had made its way into businesses and homes, the automobile was pushing the horse out to pasture, and the Wright Brothers were about to astonish the entire world with controlled, powered flight.
Although precast concrete had been around in North America for a few decades, it didn’t seem to hold much interest for products other than burial vaults. But those were good sellers and reason enough for someone with a little wooden shack and big dreams to invest in the precast industry.
The Norwalk Vault Co. began operations in 1906 as a licensor of its patented precast burial vault and mold equipment, and soon more than a hundred companies around the country were making the Norwalk brand. The entrepreneurs at Norwalk cast their own brand as well, of course, but long-range transportation for such heavy products limited sales to the local Norwalk market. “At one time, they loaded the burial vaults on board railroad cars and sent them down to Wakeman – which is down the line here about 11 miles – then picked them up with horse and buggy and took them to the cemetery,” said Tom Lendrum, a former owner of Norwalk Concrete Industries.
In 1914, a group of investors out of New York bought the company and hired a man by the name of John Cox to manage it, but by 1922 the investment group bailed out and sold the business to Cox, who ran it until his death in 1931. His nephew, A.M. Lendrum – Tom’s father – became the manager and ran the business for more than 40 years before retiring.
Since the time Tom’s ancestors latched onto Norwalk Vault Co. until the 1950s, two world wars had come and gone, and Tom found himself being pulled in two directions – the “business” of war and the “war” of business – as America turned its attention toward the Korean War. Although Tom was serving as an Army officer, he and his father’s business partner, Reese Lawyer, bought the company from the Cox family in 1953, and Tom wouldn’t return to the business until 1960.
The company was very small and still clinging almost exclusively to its burial vault and steel mold business, which was conveniently located right across the street from the largest cemetery in the area. “All we had to do was load the vault on the back of the horse and wagon and take it over to the cemetery,” Tom recalled of the era leading up to World War II. Despite having a truck, transporting the vaults or any other products to other locations meant a lot of grunt work. “Everything was done by hand. We unloaded things off the truck with skids and rollers – we didn’t have any crane equipment on board the trucks.” But that would soon change.
“After World War II, we started making septic tanks and other precast concrete products,” said Tom, and since necessity is usually the mother of invention, they started manufacturing A-frame septic tank trucks with hydraulic equipment to handle the loads. “We manufactured a number of those in conjunction with our mold business. From the end of World War II, we were in the septic tank business, and then into catch basins, and then into a wider range of highway products. This was the evolution of the precast concrete products business.”
The evolution of the precast industry followed the evolution of the equipment that could handle and transport the products, according to Tom. “The truth is that precast concrete is made possible by materials-handling equipment,” he said. “We’ve been able to have trucks and cranes that can handle products for the job site, and that’s every bit as much a material-handling problem as it is a precast problem, in my opinion.”
It stands to reason, then, that the precast industry would expand into new and innovative products as the ability to handle and transport them evolved – and that the mold business would feed off that new energy as well. “The molds have become far more complicated, and it’s amazing the things that you can do, the shapes you can make with a good piece of mold equipment,” said Tom.
But the company would eventually shed its mold business. Tom and Reese ran the business for several years, but then Tom took over when Reese passed away in 1973. In 1978, as more precast products were added to the company’s lineup, Tom sold the burial vault business – and with it the mold business – and renamed the company Norwalk Concrete Industries, as it is called today.
Within another decade, during the mid to late ’80s, Tom’s sons, John Lendrum and Jeff Malcolm, began working at the company – but only after they had invested some time and serious thought away from the company. “I said to them, ‘Go spend five years making mistakes on somebody else’s time and money, and then come back,’” quipped Tom. Then in a more earnest tone: “Any one of my children who wanted to was free to come back to the company, and these two gentlemen did.”
Jeff was first to return after graduating from college and working in sales and marketing for two different steel producers. John, who originally had no intention of returning to Norwalk, graduated from college and entered the Army, and he still serves as an Army Reserve officer with the Corps of Engineers.
After 50 years of ownership – in 1993 – Tom sold the business to John and Jeff, who continue to run it today. Jeff handles the sales and marketing end of the company, while John handles production and operations. “And then for long-term planning and the big-picture stuff, we put our heads together,” said Jeff.
“I do very little bid work, because Jeff does all that,” said John. “By the same token, he doesn’t get too involved with what’s cast on a day-to-day basis on the plant floor.”
Jeff adds that it may be a bit of a unique style of management. “There are probably not a whole lot of companies out there, whether precast or any other business, where two people are equal partners in the business,” he said. “So I think it’s worked well for us that we keep it separate. There’s enough work for both of us, so we don’t really need to be in each other’s hair.”
And it has worked well, as evidenced by the phenomenal growth over the past few years. The company grew slowly at first with Tom at the helm, and then took off from there. “In 1960, which is when I came back (from the Army), the company had eight employees and since then grown to about 80 employees now,” said Tom.
Early growth came as a result of increasing the number of product offerings and acquiring other plants in which to manufacture them. It follows a certain trend in the industry, according to John. “The late ’80s is about the time a lot of smaller operations started to either grow or sell out,” he said.
It was also in the late ’80s when Norwalk Concrete Industries became serious about offering value-added products – those that are packaged with components built into the product at the plant and sold as “one-stop shopping” items to cut costs at the job site. As it turns out, value-added products have also become a trend that further defines the “grow or die” phenomenon in the precast industry. “At one time, if you sold electrical manholes to somebody, you just sold the manhole – a piece of concrete. Now they’re sold as a package with hardware and, in some cases, electronic components as one package,” added John.
Perhaps one of the most significant technological changes in the precast industry, though, was the introduction of admixtures. Admixtures have enabled precasters to build a higher-quality product through improved mix designs, and Norwalk Concrete Industries has learned the benefits. John said the new technology has significantly increased their options by opening up the possibility for custom mix designs they can offer to their customers. Using one mix design for every product is no longer the norm for economy and ultimate strength reasons. A typical day may see three to five different mixes used.
As the value-added products and enhanced quality gained popularity, they helped perpetuate company growth. “We’ve grown a lot,” said office manager Kathy Leak, who has been with the company for 35 years. She arrived just as the company was withdrawing from the burial vault business to focus on residential and then commercial septic tanks and aerobic treatment units. “We were just getting into the home units when I started. We had maybe 500 in the ground, and now I think we have 6,000.”
While everyone else at the company plunged into the learning curve brought about by new technology as well as value-added and other products, Kathy coped with her own learning curve when the personal computer burst on the scene. “I started out on a little board, writing handwritten checks and things like that, and had little card files,” she said. “And now we’ve got this big computer system. It’s amazing when you think back to how we did it by hand and what we do now.”
Kathy recalled the progress from hand-written files to a mechanical bookkeeping machine. “They actually put me in a little closet room, because it was so loud,” she said. “And then we went to a card system, and then we started going into the computer systems.”
The Norwalk employees coped well with all the changes, but they were running out of room due to rapid growth and expansion. “We were crawling all over each other,” said Kathy. “We had to do something.” So they built a new plant. From 1999 to 2000, with the old plant bursting at the seams, a new one was finally completed. The employees continue to operate from both plants, which are located within minutes of one another.
Shane Horner and Scott Priest were also happy to see the new plant open, which gave them more elbow room at the original plant. Shane, an 11-year veteran with the company, became plant supervisor at the original plant once the new facility began operations. He and Scott, quality control supervisor, have been around long enough to witness plenty of growth, not only in the number of employees but in the number of product offerings as well.
“When I first started, it was just this shop here,” recalled Shane, referring to the original building. “Then we added on that back building and a new mixer.” He recounted other updates the company made to keep pace with the rapid expansion of the workforce and the resulting disappearance of work space. “It’s grown tremendously since I started.”
Scott recalled the expansion into new products during his 19 years at the company. “Back when I first started here, we didn’t do storm and sanitary manholes,” he said. “Basically all we did was just septic tanks, barrier, catch basins and some bigger structures, but nothing like what we’re doing now. Utility vaults are double the volume of what we used to do.”
The original plant – known as the Woodlawn Plant to Norwalk employees because of its location on Woodlawn Avenue across from Woodlawn Cemetery – still incites vivid memories among the long-term employees. Gary Edler, who started with the company in 1967, now works part time in the service department at the new plant. “Most of the time, when they were pouring over at the old shop, they poured steps and burial vaults, and then of course we handled funerals at that time,” said Gary. “So we would go right out to the cemetery and set the tent and all that kind of stuff. I did that for years too, because you had to be a jack-of-all-trades – you didn’t just have one job.”
Gary also recalls Tom’s occasional dramatic visits to the plant. “He used to fly his helicopter in at the old shop, an Army helicopter. He used to bring it over there at Woodlawn, and then we’d tie the blades down,” he said. “It was kind of nice to see that helicopter parked out there.”
The Norwalk employees all take great pride in their work and especially in the people they work for. And the feeling is mutual. Tom, John and Jeff take great pride in their employees, and in fact give credit not to themselves but to the dedicated employees for the company’s success. John summed it up nicely: “Every business goes through cycles when they have good times and bad times – and a lot of those people have been with us through both. You’re not successful unless you have people like that for their willingness to support you and work with you.”
With 100 years worth of success and growth, how does a company begin its second century? “We don’t have any huge plan, but the business survived because we had good employees who were able to step up to the plate,” said John.
The bottom line, then, according to John and Jeff, is that their next century will start out with more of the same: success and growth. “You have to grow, and there are a lot of different ways to do that,” said John. “If you try and stay at the same level – the same dollar volume, the same product line, the same profit margin – you’re not going to be successful. But we have to be very careful to make sure that we’re looking at measured growth, what we can afford and what we can do. What is the next new product down the road? What is the next piece of equipment we need? We have to be thinking out in that area.”
Jeff agrees. “We’ve adopted several new product lines here within the last few years. There’s a lot of fresh stuff going on with an emphasis on product development and making these new products commercially successful,” he said. “At the same time you have to be looking out for the next opportunity.”
But there are many other things on their minds besides the products they offer, such as customers and employees. “Celebrating 100 years is great, but your customer wants to know what you’re going to do for him next week,” said John. “That’s important to us as we grow and make the right decisions and provide a value-added product to our customers.”
John also described other needs for the future that are more inwardly focused. “More training for our employees, labor saving equipment, additional forms, partnerships with people to be their precaster of choice. That’s a good foundation to build for the future, and it’s nice to have that history going back to draw from.”
What will the next hundred years bring to the precast concrete industry? What hot commodities will Norwalk Concrete Industries be producing in the 22nd century? The future owners will have to answer those questions. But in 2106, as the employees celebrate the company’s second hundred years, they’ll probably reflect on the amazing technology that another century has brought them.
Precast concrete industry leadership has become somewhat of a family tradition at Norwalk Concrete Industries. Tom Lendrum, former owner of the company, and John Lendrum, current co-owner, each have served as NPCA’s chairman of the Board of Directors, and both were recipients of the Robert E. Yoakum Award, the highest honor NPCA can bestow upon its members.
Not only was Tom one of NPCA’s founding fathers, he also served as its chairman during 1975 and won the Yoakum Award in 1976. John followed suit years later when he served as chairman during 2002 and won the Yoakum Award in 2005. The Yoakum Award is presented to NPCA members who exhibit outstanding service and leadership in the industry and to the association.