Life isn’t complete until the customer says, ‘Wow.’
By Ron Hyink
Sometimes it’s the little things in life that keep us going strong. We can toil all day and a lifetime doing what we love to do in our jobs, and maybe we can even make some money at it. But that doesn’t always scratch the deepest itch of gratification.
There’s something more that needs to be seen than your name on a product, something more to be felt than a tidy profit in your pocket. Sometimes you just need someone to take notice, someone to recognize the drive and determination that got you to the head of the class, something to make it all worthwhile. It’s the feeling of accomplishment, the point of highest achievement – the raison d’être – when someone says, “Wow.”
Mike Vaughn, president of Vaughn Concrete Products (VCP) based in Henderson, Colo., puts forth an unusual amount of effort to hear that word, or some variation of it, from his customers. For him it all starts with a quality product and unrivaled customer service. More than just a company slogan, everyone at VCP strives to equate their name with reliability and the Wow Factor.
Vaughn makes his point by telling the story about a deal he struck a few years ago on a box culvert project. Although his bid was 20 percent higher than another precaster’s, Vaughn told the contractor he could save him a lot of money by using his two-piece precast box culverts. The contractor didn’t believe him, so Vaughn promised to meet the competitor’s price for the culverts if the contractor would split the difference of the installation costs. Compared with the 13 days and $480 per hour required for the competitor’s product, Vaughn placed 540 feet of box culvert in 10 working hours on site.
On the day of installation, VCP was ready. “We had everything lined up the night before,” he said. “We started there at 5 in the morning. We had three people just hauling with trucks, so we always had something to unload.” Our crew knocked off at 4 that afternoon, then finished the job early the next morning. “Then (the contractor) said, ‘Wow,’” recalled Vaughn. “And that’s what we want, is the customer to say, ‘Wow.’ And they only have to say that once. That was just pretty neat.”
It’s common for Vaughn or his employees to hit the road early. In fact, few other precasters claim to have sleepers on their trucks. With two other precast plants in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Amarillo, Texas, his operation is spread fairly wide, and VCP products often have to spend a little more time on the road than those of most other precasters. But distance isn’t the only driving factor to leave the plant early with a delivery. VCP wants to have the product on site and ready to unload before the contractor’s workers arrive.
“Our trucks hit the road the night before or at 2 or 3 in the morning,” said Vaughn. “We’re there when (the contractors) show up to work.” By doing this, VCP trucks are the first to get unloaded. “If we show up at 9 or 10 o’clock, first off it disrupts the contractor’s production, and second it takes us a lot longer to get unloaded.”
With the Cheyenne plant about 90 miles to the north, the Amarillo plant about 435 miles to the south-southeast, plus factoring in the wide-open spaces of the West and the long distances company trucks often drive, VCP’s trucks may conceivably be 1,500 miles apart on a given day. Yet VCP employees communicate with the office so everyone stays informed and on top of all the operations so that they can be assured the Vaughn name is living up to its promises.
Vaughn is not one to sit in his office all day, unless you consider his truck a mobile office. He is a hands-on kind of guy who has no hesitancy to jump inside his own truck to make a delivery or crawl under it for a little maintenance. The outside of the Kenworth semi brandishes his name on the door; the inside is equipped with a laptop with a satellite internet connection (the cell phone with a fax machine attachment were put out of service at the end of 2007).
This is the environment in which he learned the precast trade. While growing up, he would help out on the family farm and in the plant. “When I turned 16 and was old enough to drive, I was a delivery person, because I could make deliveries and still come back and work,” he said. At 17 years of age when high school let out for the three months in summer, he hit the road. “I would easily put 50,000 miles on a semi truck. And that was good experience.”
Those were the years when Vaughn also learned his mechanical skills. A small company such as VCP owns only so many trucks, so if one went down for repairs there was little choice but to get it back on the road as quickly as possible. The same was true for other equipment such as forklifts. “When a truck went down back then, it was in the shop and it would normally roll out the next morning,” said Vaughn. “That was a good learning experience as well.”
These days, trucks are just as much advanced technologically as they are complicated, with computerized components that often require factory-trained technicians and expensive diagnostic equipment. “The older trucks we can still work on,” said Michael Greenrod, plant manager, explaining that they take the newer ones to a local dealership. “We used to just take them apart and fix them and put them back together,” said Greenrod, a 23-year veteran at VCP.
Still, Vaughn can usually tell what’s wrong with a rough-running diesel engine just by listening to it. “That’s one thing that’s a little bit different about our operation. There isn’t any one of the trucks or trailers or boom trucks or piece of machinery I couldn’t tell you where we got it and where we would need to get parts for it,” he said. “I’m proud of that. There are not a lot of people that know much about their machinery; that’s what I do.”
He has performed every job at the plant, and since the company fabricates its own forms, he has had a hand in building most of those as well. “That makes a lot of difference in how successful you are and how well you know your costs.”
Quality begins at home
VCP originally took root in the excavating business that Vaughn’s parents, Johnie and Pat Vaughn, started in 1962. Business came in the form of Johnie grading houses, installing water lines and septic systems, and Pat keeping the books. After a few years they realized that they were putting in more and more septic systems, which eventually led to supply-and-demand problems as well as quality problems.
“We couldn’t get quality tanks, and we couldn’t get tanks when we needed them,” said Vaughn. “And we had years where we put in an awful lot of tanks – we put in as many as a couple of thousand a year.” And so began Vaughn Concrete Products. By 1970, the company was concentrating heavily on the precast side of the business. It continued with the excavating business until the early ’80s, and then it was all precast manufacturing.
At about the same time, Johnie and Pat decided that if they could cast septic tanks successfully, they could manufacture other products as well. A decline in building construction resulted in less need for septic tanks, but the agriculture industry was strong, so they started producing precast agricultural products such as feed bunks and cattle guards. The Cheyenne plant was in full production by 1983, and they started operations at the Amarillo plant in 1989.
Today a large portion of the business centers on utility vaults. “We build utility vaults from 2 feet by 2 feet on up to 16 feet by 30 feet,” said Vaughn. “The biggest piece I think we’ve ever built was 142,000 pounds.” Other offerings include grease interceptors, oil field products, storm shelters, landscaping items and transportation products.
Despite the growth, VCP employs a total of about 60 people and has kept its small-business mentality. Everyone on staff is focused on customer service. A phone call to the office, for example, will be answered by a live person rather than a recording – there is no voice mail here. And typically the caller won’t have to speak to more than one or two people to get immediate answers to their questions.
When NPCA plant certifications came into existence back in 1987, VCP quickly jumped on board. “We were the 14th plant to become certified,” said Vaughn. At the time, it was a bold statement to show that the company had indeed set itself apart from other plants. “That was before the time DOTs were requiring it or even knew much about it.”
In 1991 VCP won the Wyoming Governor’s Quality Award, which focuses on leadership, management, customer service and results. “That was pretty nifty for a small business like we had,” said Vaughn.
Despite the company’s small size, VCP is very innovative – not only with its customer service, but also with the products and forms it manufactures. The Water Mill, for example, is a windmill-shaped, decorative water vending station that has proved to be a popular item. It consists of a precast kiosk that contains water purification components for a company that sells and services them across the country. “We’ve got them in Florida, we’ve got them in California, we even have some up in the northeast part of the country,” said Vaughn. “They had started with wood, and they needed something that would satisfy, at that time, the Uniform Building Code so they wouldn’t have problems getting permits and so forth. Now we’ve got them in all areas of the United States.” Vaughn explained that other precast manufacturers scoffed at manufacturing the water mill buildings because of various engineering obstacles, such as figuring out how to get the product to release from the unusual configuration of the form.
Above-ground storm shelters represent another product that has done well for VCP. “They are made to go in people’s garages or on their back porches,” said Vaughn. “We also make free-standing units that can go out in somebody’s back yard.” The above-ground storm shelters are available in four standard sizes and meet all the requirements of the National Storm Shelter Association standard.
Yet another product that has caught a lot of attention is Vaughn’s entry in NPCA’s most recent Creative Use of Precast (CUP) Awards competition. VCP tied for second place in the Above Ground category. Vaughn’s entry, titled “Vertical Axis Wind Energy Turbine Structure,” consists of one 32-foot-tall curved airfoil section comprised of four 4-foot-wide by 15-foot-long by 8-foot-tall solid sections stacked together and two 12-foot-wide by 32-foot-tall by 12-inch-thick solid panels that channel wind into a turbine to create an energy system that generates power.
“We’re pretty diversified,” said Vaughn. “We’re not the big-volume people – we try to be the details people. We cross t’s and dot i’s very well, and that’s what has been a success for what we do.” That plays into the whole VCP concept. Vaughn is comfortable with the fact that he knows his customers can rely on VCP. “They know they’ll get the response and they’ll be taken care of.”
Johnie and Pat Vaughn are still very involved in the day-to-day operation of VCP. Mike Vaughn’s wife, Karen, and children Ann (a high school senior) and Adam (a college freshman) work part-time for VCP. Daughter Sydney, 3, “just livens the place up,” the Vaughns said. “It is definitely a family owned and operated business.”
Mike Vaughn is a registered engineer in seven states, but he isn’t taken in too much by the fact. “Those seven engineering licenses on the wall aren’t really where I’ve got my education,” he explained. His parents taught him, “Education comes from knowing what people’s problems are and knowing what our problems are and being able to find a solution to fix them,” he said.
But it’s really more than that. “The thing I like people to say is ‘Wow.’ When somebody says, ‘Oh, that’s neat,’ then that made the whole thing worthwhile.”