An effective technical marketing plan should be a part of every precaster’s arsenal.
By Carol Brzozowski
It was a typically busy day for Greg Roache, CEO of Gainey’s Concrete Products in Holden, La. His agenda included such items as lunch with an engineer and a sewer district meeting in the evening.
“Everything I’m doing (on this day) has to do with technical marketing,” says Roache, who, along with the company’s vice president, spends 50 percent of his time engaged in technical marketing activities.
The substantial investment has paid off for the $4 million-a-year company. Business tripled last year “when we identified this business as our best business and put in place our technical marketing agenda,” Roache says.
While technical marketing has become a key growth strategy for companies such as Gainey’s, some industry observers say it’s still a weak spot for many others.
As a past chairman of the National Precast Concrete Association, Bruce Glaser of APS Concrete Products in Lannon, Wis., notes a broad range in marketing approaches among its members. “Some are extremely proficient in technical marketing and some hardly do any of it or don’t know how to do it,” he says.
Darryl Cloud concurs that the industry has a long way to go. Cloud, of Concrete Sealants in Tipp City, Ohio, notes an increasingly evolving marketplace for precast concrete products and that most companies are just beginning to recognize the need for a marketing plan. “It used to be they had a customer they supplied a product to and that’s all they had to worry about,” he says. He cautions that customer demographics are changing in such a manner that alternative and competitive materials have begun to pop up with a force unknown in earlier times and that these companies are seeking to bend the ears of engineers and specifiers.
Precast concrete manufacturers sometimes underestimate the value of their products, Cloud says. “I think it’s time they begin to tell the attributes of their contributions to the quality of a construction project,” he says.
The payoff for an effective marketing strategy is powerful. Marketing forecasters expect domestic business-to-business (B2B) purchases to total several trillion dollars annually, according to an article posted on the American Marketing Association’s Web site (www.marketingpower.com). B2B covers any entity that sells products or services to business, industrial, institutional or government buyers.
Marketing possibilities are numerous and include Web sites, e-mail, direct mail, print advertising in trade journals, brochures, business cards, trade shows, newsletters, press releases and personal visits.
One of the first precast concrete companies in the United States to develop a technical marketing team was Sherman-Dixie Concrete Industries in Nashville, Tenn. Mike Kusch, director of technical marketing, says the company’s three-person technical marketing team has no sales responsibility. Rather, its mission is to get its products favorably considered or specified.
“We strive to be a technical resource for our clientele because the market demands that we are knowledgeable on all products – more our competitors’ than even our own,” he says. “We very much understand the marketing efforts of the flexible pipe industry. Those typically are our competition, and it’s our duty to understand the good and the bad of those products as well as our own because it helps to better maneuver in the specification world,” Kusch says.
Sherman-Dixie started out as a pipe producer with a single plant but now owns several precast concrete facilities in the South and Midwest. Company officials understand that their greatest challenge is not only to maintain market share, but also to capture market share lost by other flexible pipe competitors.
Annette Gustin, who does technical marketing in Florida and Georgia for Atlantic Precast Concrete based in Tullytown, Pa., says her company strives to promote the qualities of precast concrete industry-wide.
“It’s not just our products, but we really have a focus on promoting and elevating how engineers and contractors perceive the precast industry,” says Gustin, who is assisted in her company’s marketing efforts by an engineer in Maryland. “They are always pushing to raise the bar on the standards we have to live up to and the quality of the products we produce.”
Precast concrete manufacturers choose a variety of methods to market, including direct mail and e-mail. By far, the most favored method is face-to-face meetings with decision makers.
While technology has expanded marketing opportunities, it does not replace the benefit of looking someone in the eye across the table and trying to sell your product or your image, says Kusch. “We are very conscious about building relationships, and you can’t do that over the phone,” he says. “You have to see those people, have them become confident in the fact that you are a good resource. The bottom line is if you can prove to them that you are going to do what you say you are going to do, then you have built an ally. It works well for both in the future as products come out.”
Sherman-Dixie’s marketing efforts focus on in-person meetings with specifiers. The company purchases local sandstone and cement, among other raw materials, and makes a point of emphasizing its dedication to the local economy to politicians who are part of the decision-making process.
The company also uses its manufacturing facilities as a marketing tool. “It’s very important to bringing in customers – whether it is a contractor, developer, city official, politician or consulting engineer -to see how our products are manufactured,” Kusch says. He adds that many local engineers have specified the company’s products for years but have never seen them manufactured. “It gives them a new appreciation for what dedication we have to making a quality product.”
Additionally, the company offers luncheon presentations and half-day technical seminars at which engineers can get professional education credits.
APS Concrete Products hosts luncheon seminars focusing on specific products and geared toward engineering firms and specifiers. “Our belief is that the specifier is the center of influence, and if we can get them to specify our products or products like ours, that will influence many clients compared to just marketing to one person,” says Glaser.
His company also markets to engineers and specifiers through e-mail, brochures and postcards. His wife, Peggi, handles the company’s advertising.
Typically, such marketing efforts are conducted prior to projects going to bid. “This is so when they have a project, they will think of us,” says Glaser. “If the timing is good, we will speak to them as they are specifying plans for a certain project. Our hope is that they will start incorporating our products in future multiple projects.”
Gainey’s also incorporates written communications in its technical marketing efforts. Letters introducing engineers to the company are followed by personal calls to interested engineers.
Roache also points out that technical marketing needs to be directed to key players, including secondary decision makers. For instance, while a developer is buying the products and paying the bill, that developer depends upon the engineer’s recommendation.
“The developer only wants to know how fast you are going to get it into the ground and what liability he’s got,” says Roache. “You have to understand what an engineer is looking at and gear what information you provide to him specific to that. We give engineers all the information they need.”
Roache says he believes e-mail is too easily deleted and favors a well-written letter. “You have to immediately qualify yourself,” he says. “We put information in there that we hope would validate why they should continue to read it.”
Precast concrete’s watertight properties in its joints and seals are the main points Atlantic Precast Concrete emphasizes in its marketing strategy. “We’re finding even storm systems need higher criteria because of the threat of infiltration from the ground waters,” says Gustin. “If that infiltration gets into the stormwater and into the sanitary system, it’s expensive to treat.”
Ease of installation is another factor Atlantic Precast touts. “It’s faster for the contractor because he excavates, sets the piece and backfills,” Gustin says. “If it’s cured by a precaster, it’s also cured in a controlled environment, so the strengths are better.” And a controlled environment also offers better safety controls.
In marketing precast concrete, Glaser says he first wants to familiarize potential clients with the products. “All of the technical aspects you think they would be interested in are not as important as increasing their awareness a product exists,” Glaser says.
Glaser emphasizes quality control and points out that his company is part of the NPCA Plant Certification Program. “I talk about the structural design and integrity being part of the precast product as compared to certain other materials, such as some of the plastic derivatives or any plastics that might last a long time. But in terms of structural strength for its intended use, it (plastics) needs to have proper bedding and installation. That doesn’t allow much forgiveness for mistakes in installation, whereas concrete does,” he says.
With the array of choices, Kusch’s team demonstrates to consulting engineers why precast concrete pipe is more beneficial, saves money, lasts longer and offers the least liability among those choices. Kusch points out that in many cases where precast concrete loses out to other options, the low-bid contractor has to engineer backfill around a flexible pipe for it to function properly.
“Many times that’s just not being done,” he contends. “There’s not enough field inspection to really watch how a contractor installs pipe, and if it’s not done per specs, there can be shape and strength problems that ultimately decrease the longevity of the flexible pipe.”
Sherman-Dixie has conducted several field investigations of its competitors’ products and its own product. “We’re out to educate not just on precast concrete pipe, but also what you get and what you have to be cognizant about when you are designing other flexible pipe systems,” Kusch says.
Kusch estimates that up to 15 percent of the company’s budget is dedicated to technical marketing. The return on that investment is paying off – the company notes communities that once used metal or plastic pipe are now specifying more concrete pipe, thus calling for increased precast production.
How does a company new to technical marketing implement an effective strategy? Glaser suggests attending NPCA meetings – including the classes and committee meetings – and networking. “Sharing experiences with others does more in terms of jump-starting a program than they could ever do on their own by trying to develop it from scratch,” he says.
Glaser also suggests asking someone from another company to serve as a mentor.
In implementing a technical marketing plan, Kusch says companies need to identify someone who not only has a solid technical background – such as a professional engineer – but people skills, communication skills and the passion to help catapult the company to the top of the industry.
Of course, getting to the top of the industry is a lofty goal. But today’s precaster will find it much tougher to go anywhere without a solid technical marketing strategy in place.