By Ron Hyink
Some people look upon the desert and see nothing but barren, inhospitable wasteland. Others who peer beneath that veil discover a world that’s rich with life and beauty. But those who live here seem to become a part of their surroundings – earth, sky, all living things – as if they had been painted onto the same canvas. Even the buildings where they live and work have that same look and feel, that same texture. Adobe-type dwellings in earth-tone shades proliferate as if they had been raised from the ground rather than having been built upon it. The pulse of life here seems to surge from earth to sky and to all living things.
This is the Coachella Valley of Southern California. There are no steel-and-glass structures jutting up into the blue to compete with this natural portrait. Rows of mountains for as far as you can see line the valley’s northern and southern boundaries and add depth to background of this living tapestry.
Rex and Nancy Seawright arrived on the scene in 1998 to apply their palette of precast concrete that so well preserves the look and feel of nature. Their artistry includes such commodities as columns, balustrades, copings, trim moldings, landscaping products and fireplace surrounds through their company, Seawright Custom Precast Inc. They are also a distributor of natural Adoquin (cantera) stone and can carve and sculpt it into almost any shape.
A desert beginning
Rex, a native of Pittsburgh, moved to Phoenix in 1982 and hired on with a small company that bought and installed architectural precast concrete. “I had never seen anything like it before,” he said of the precast products. After gaining skills and experience there, he and a co-worker created their own installation company, but eventually they decided to drift off in their own directions.
Now in business for himself, Rex continued his entrepreneurial calling as an installer of architectural precast concrete. In 1989, the road to one of his installation jobs led him to the Coachella Valley, where he found more and more installation work, although he would continue to commute from Phoenix – a jaunt of some 250 miles – for several years.
By 1994, Rex and Nancy built a house here and decided to stay, although Nancy would commute for another four years as she clung to her job as a clinical laboratory scientist at a Mesa, Ariz., hospital. But soon they made one of those major decisions in life: “In 1997, Nancy and I decided that it was time to start making our own products,” said Rex. “We were looking for a retirement source, as we had nothing to retire on other than a few broken-down trucks and some equipment.”
Having been in the business for 15 years, he knew the products, he knew all his competitors and what type of products they were selling, and he knew what type of products he needed to sell. “So we created our own manufacturing plant from scratch, not knowing anything about the manufacturing end of it,” he said. “Just basically using street smarts and common sense, we started putting things together. And it took us almost a year before we put out much of a product.”
Nancy explained that being an installer – essentially a broker for other people’s products – was another impetus to start manufacturing. “We were responsible for the manufacturers, even though we had no control,” she said. “So if they shipped the wrong product or not enough product, it was still our fault even though it wasn’t our fault.”
For the customers
With her degree in the science field, Nancy felt her training and experience wouldn’t help much in business, so she went back to school for business and accounting courses. But one could argue that regardless of her background, her determination and persistence have paid off.
“I liked going back to school, actually. Learning is fun for me,” said Nancy. “I’m quite involved with legislative and political advocacy – you know, trying to help small businesses, trying to help subcontractors.” She is member of the American Subcontractors Association and the California Small Business Association, and in fact was asked to participate in roundtable discussions, which was quite an honor for her. “So I enjoy that aspect – it’s aside from the business, but it’s part of business.”
Persistence really comes into play when working with contractors. “I always strive to help the customer. It’s our job to help them do their jobs better,” she said. Rex explained that contractors are usually preoccupied with footings, electrical, plumbing and the like and wait until it’s nearly too late before they think about the precast products. With the turnaround time to cast and cure the products, the precasters can’t wait until the last minute for a commitment.
“If something comes up where they change their mind, such as add more pieces or make it wider, then we have to pour more pieces,” said Dave Seawright, plant manager and Rex’s brother, who moved from Florida to join the company in Phoenix during the mid-’80s and made the move to California. But then the colors of the uncured concrete don’t match the originally installed pieces. “It’s in a fresher state, so we have to let them know that it will blend in eventually. This piece is two months old, this piece is two days old. It takes a while for it to cure.”
Riemer Haagsma, project superintendent, said that precast is less expensive but more difficult to install than natural stone. “(With stone) you can shave it, trim it, sand it. You cannot do that with precast,” he said. “You have to cast it right to begin with. You cannot just go back and sand (concrete) because the aggregate will show.”
Riemer, originally from Holland, worked with Dave in Florida and later joined the Seawrights in Phoenix and California. He explained that some precast finishes are more workable, however. “If it’s sandblasted, you can use a light sandpaper and blend it in. But if it’s smooth, you can’t do that.”
With so many variables to juggle, close coordination with the customer can become crucial, and that requires a special art. But then art is what Seawright Custom Precast is all about. If necessary, Nancy will make several phone calls to prompt the contractor to action so the product will be ready when needed. She says that even when the ball is in the contractor’s court, “I make sure that they’re going to hit it back to me. So it’s up to us to educate them to help the relationship be a good working relationship.”
Coming in at the tail end of a contractor’s planning phase is a natural occurrence for an architectural precaster, as they already know what they want – but Rex would like to change that process. “A lot of times the design’s already been created, and we come very late into the project,” he said. “Then we just do what we do best – get a good product and good installation.”
Sometimes the contractors are very specific about what they want and how it should be done, and that makes life easier for everybody, he said. The danger is treating the architectural components as an afterthought. “I like to get in at an early stage and help people fix the problem. I get more enjoyment out of helping people create something.”
One architect approached the Seawrights to request “value engineering,” an approach that called for the precaster to help provide a more efficient design. At first it seemed to them like a a desparate cost-cutting measure, but it effectively put them in the designer’s seat. Their suggestions to swap out their more expensive stone products with precast, or to eliminate some of the custom precast for stock precast pieces, won them the job. “It was a win-win situation,” said Nancy, because the contractor got the look he wanted at a lower price and the Seawrights entered earlier into the planning phase – plus they got the job where the contractor may have looked elsewhere.
In a similar fashion, Rex has on occasion drawn upon his many years of installation experience to suggest changes for other contractors. Though he admits he’s not an engineer, he is quick to recognize that a structure may not be sturdy enough to support the heavy weight of stone or even precast, for example, and will help redesign the shape or suggest something that’s easier to install. “So we will try to advise clients when we think that there might be a better way of doing something,” said Nancy.
“A lot of people will go with the precast because it’s a lot less expensive than natural stone,” said Dave. “But from a distance, it still gives you that same stone look.” Dave explained that many of their customers are homeowners, whose dimensions can be loaded into a CAD program from which they can get a visual representation of the plan. “If he finds out that it’s too overpowering, or it’s too small a fireplace for such a big wall, we can suggest some changes.”
Value engineering has been a key not only to getting the job – especially at a time when cement, steel and gas prices are at an all-time high – but also to perpetuating the company’s reputation for superior customer service.
Rex has felt the urge to expand office and yard space to make way for the future, but more importantly he is looking for new and innovative ways of doing projects. “Precast and stone incorporate well together,” he said. “We do a lot of homes with hand-carved stone on part of it and precast on the other, and it’s a good blend.”
His company is well-equipped to get in on the ground floor, so to speak, of architectural designs. “We do everything in-house,” said Rex. “We do all of our own estimating, we do all of our own CAD work, we do all of our own molds. We don’t subcontract any work. Everything starts and finishes here and ends up on the job site.”
One of his goals is to get into more decorative buildings and renovations, such as Las Vegas-style hotels. But his dreams are even bigger than that. “One project I’ve always wanted to do is build a big cathedral. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance, but that would be fun,” he said. A more immediate goal, though, is to make the company self-sufficient and continue to turn a profit. “It’s not necessarily the size of the business, it’s refining it and retuning it and creating a profitable business that will maintain its own destiny and profits, and keep people employed.”
His team of 28 employees is getting better and better at their jobs, he said. “We have a great staff of people, and they’re doing an awesome job. It takes good people to make good product.” But it also takes an artist to preserve the natural beauty of the desert with a precast product.