The precast concrete industry competes not only against other materials, but against a mindset as well.
By Ron Hyink
Great ideas that generate great products don’t always strike the public’s fancy at first. History is full of stories about common, everyday products that just never gained acceptance – that is until they were recognized for their indispensable value.
For example, after years of rejection, Whitcomb Judson’s “clasp locker” eventually caught on. The idea for it came about because of a friend’s stiff back and resulting inability to fasten his shoes, so by 1893 Judson patented his clasp locker, a slide fastener that could be opened and closed with one hand. But the device just wasn’t considered practical. In 1913, Gideon Sundback – Judson’s employee – took the idea up a notch and patented the “hookless fastener” and in 1917 the “separable fastener.” BF Goodrich decided to use the fasteners on galoshes, and the invention became an instant hit. Today we know these devices as zippers.
In 1897, Pearl Wait tried to improve upon gelatin, which was never a popular food item because it tasted bad and looked worse, so he added fruit syrup. Still nobody would try it, so he sold his Jell-O business for $450. Later, of course, it was discovered and soon became “America’s most favorite dessert.”
In 1878, Western Union told Alexander Graham Bell that the telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a practical form of communication. “The device is inherently of no value to us,” said a company memo.
Lord Kelvin, a British mathematician and physicist, proclaimed in 1897 that radio has no future.
In 1926, American radio pioneer and vacuum tube inventor Lee DeForest considered television an impossibility. And Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century-Fox, was quoted in 1946 as saying, “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
Henry Ford’s banker said the horse was here to stay, that the automobile was only a fad.
Fast-forward to the present day: Residential and commercial buildings made of precast concrete wall panels are slowly pushing their way into the marketplace, waiting for that first big break.
“I think there’s a big fear for the first-time user,” explained Brent Dezember, owner of StructureCast in Bakersfield, Calif. Brent, who acquired the company in 1995, suspects that those fears are based on outdated perceptions of precast concrete: that it will look ugly, that it won’t perform, that the precast panels will not show up on time or not show up at all.
Also, a contractor loses a little control over the process at the job site. For example, Brent recalled one contractor, who had ordered precast panels from StructureCast, was having grave concerns about the doors and windows not being in the right places or not lining up. The contractor didn’t even want to show up at the job site, because he was certain there would be problems. But once the panels were delivered and installed, the doors, windows and the panels themselves all lined up perfectly.
“If I were a general contractor, I’d be just as critical. So I think it’s founded – we’ve just got to keep working on it,” said Brent, referring to building and maintaining relationships. “And with the architects, when we meet with them, they really like the stuff.”
All it takes is one visit to the StructureCast plant to convince most architects that precast panels are the best way to go. When they can see the manufacturing process – touch it, feel it, see how it connects – then they’re sold, said Brent.
One way Brent builds relationships with contractors and architects is through early negotiations, often to change the design to precast from some other material. “We interject ourselves at the design process, while they’re budgeting and manipulating, playing with the plans to see what the building’s really going to end up with,” said Brent. “We just grab every plan we get and say, ‘Here’s an alternative to precast – what do you think?’” In fact, a significant portion of StructureCast’s business has come from this vigorous marketing tactic.
Jim Conrad, production manager for StructureCast, has a similar perspective. “The central valley has not been a big market for precast concrete, and I think it’s because nobody has taken the time to develop that market and tell everybody we’re here,” he said. He explained that the larger precast manufacturers typically don’t go after a job if it wasn’t designed for precast in the first place. “It’s just something that’s out of the ordinary than what most precasters are going for. So if we can achieve that, we’ll open a whole market.”
Just as important as establishing relationships is maintaining them. “So part of it would be credibility with the general contractor, and part of it is getting them to include precast where they didn’t have precast before.”
Besides having a fine reputation to stand on, StructureCast reinforces its credibility through plant certification. “We’re an NPCA certified plant,” said Brent. “We’re almost ICC certified – we’re missing one piece of the ICC certification. We’re L.A. city certified. So we’re very good at building the product.”
Besides the wall panel business, StructureCast manufactures underground products such as stormwater management vaults. “And then we do lots of culverts and custom vaults for all kinds of applications – caustic chemicals, runoff, electrical installations,” said Brent. “So we have two sides to the business: one real pretty and one real heavy.” Once he got into building the wall panels, however, he realized he would have to change his production practices. “We built wall panels with the same people who were building the vaults, and that worked OK but not great.” So now the wall panels and underground products are made by separate crews to increase quality and streamline the production process.
“By the time I was hired on, he was well into the certification process, but I had seen it develop more in the quality control area,” said Jim. “I think the wall panel part of the company has played an important part on the underground part, and everybody has become a little bit more conscious about quality. It’s not just something that’s going into the ground, it’s something that has to work, it has to be functional. So the whole company, I think, has gone through a learning process because of being certified. There are just certain steps you have to meet, and that brings you up to a higher standard.”
Jim explained that the company forwards samples to the architects and contractors to ensure those high standards are met. Once the customer sends color samples, StructureCast mixes a batch that matches the required color, then ships them out for approval. Once the color is right, if necessary the precaster can provide a full-scale mock-up panel.
Foot in the door
One of the exciting things happening at StructureCast is the drive to get into the residential housing market with precast concrete wall panels. “There’s a lot of growth in the housing market in the central valley in California,” said Brent. “There were 6,000 houses built in Bakersfield in the past year, 8,000 county-wide. It’s supposed to be the same this year. But we don’t have to get every house. One percent would be 60 houses.”
That may be just the break he needs to gain market share. “If we get the one builder to (use precast wall panels) and he has some success with it, then it might be a landslide,” said Brent. “You never know.”
But again, it’s like swimming against the current. “California builds 300,000 houses a year, and it’s a very production-oriented market, which means fast, cheap, faster and then cheaper,” said Brent. “So it’s hard to get in with a product.” What Brent would like to do is become more of a manufacturer as opposed to a custom precaster. For example, if he can align with a home builder, Brent can build molds for three or four models. “We could manufacture them and have them sitting in inventory, then we ship them out and stack them. If that can work, then the rest of the home market can adapt to it.”