Industry leaders reflect on inspiration.
By William Atkinson
Precast concrete is not gold, of course, but there are a lot of “gold nuggets” of wisdom between the ears of the executives who run successful precast companies. These industry leaders have collected a great deal of wisdom over the years, both from their mentors as well as from their own experiences.
Meet four current and former members of the board of directors with the National Precast Concrete Association (NPCA). Some of their inspirations go way back and some are more recent. All four are current or past members of the National Precast Concrete Association Board of Directors.
The dumbest guy I ever met
The most influential mentor Kirby O’Malley ever had was a man named Woody Western. “The most important thing he taught me was how to communicate,” recalls O’Malley, president of Garden State Precast Inc., Wall, N.J.
At the time, O’Malley was a young engineer working for a company that manufactured precast concrete pipe. He worked for Woody in Africa and Florida. “The first day I worked for him in Africa, he asked for a report on what had taken place the day before,” he says. “I walked into his office with a written report and handed it to him.” Western tossed it in the garbage and said to O’Malley, “Tell me what’s going on.” O’Malley told him, and Western asked more questions. He then told O’Malley to see him in his office the next morning at 7 a.m. “Woody was also the person who told me that we only work half a day – 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” recalls O’Malley with a laugh.
Six days a week for the next three months, O’Malley came into Western’s office every morning at 7 a.m., and was asked the same questions, all related to making special pieces for a large pipeline the company was installing. “I thought he was the dumbest guy I’d ever met, because he always asked the same questions – over and over,” he says. “However, it eventually dawned on me that, when each conversation was over, I knew exactly what he expected of me. I was a bright young engineer who thought I knew everything. It took me three months to figure out that Woody was probably the best communicator I had ever met.”
Today, as a result of Western’s influence, O’Malley makes it a point to tell his people that there are two kinds of people: communicators and extractors. A communicator will voluntarily share the information he knows. An extractor is someone who you actually have to go in and pull information out of them. In any business, according to O’Malley, people will do what is expected of them. The problem is they often don’t know what is expected of them. “Make sure they do by being a communicator,” he says.
This has also led him to understand the importance of showing respect for people. “It is important to respect the people you work with and respect the work they do,” he emphasizes. “If you wonder why they did what they did, don’t assume they are stupid or lazy. That will sour you on life and on people. Rather, first consider the idea that they did what they thought was expected of them and did it the very best they could.” O’Malley says a manager’s job is to make sure that his or her people know what is expected from them. “This means you have to communicate it well,” he states.
Stay the course
Tom Engelman, president of Bethlehem Precast, Bethlehem, Pa., really didn’t have a mentor when he first came into the industry. He learned the work from the ground up, starting on the floor and working in every job in the company. “Then we bought the partner out, and I took over the company,” he says.
Around that time, Engelman began to learn a lot from Mark Thompson of Jefferson Concrete, Watertown, N.Y., who was in a very similar situation to Engelman. “These days, I still learn a lot from Mark, as well as from Dan Barbour . “These are the two most influential people in the NPCA for me.”
One of the most important things he has learned from both precasters is the importance of staying the course. “Get your people together, get them all on the same page, and then stay the course,” he says. “Don’t let little things allow you to deviate. Keep working toward your goal, and let everyone know this is where you’re heading. Then be consistent with what you’re doing.”
One thing Engelman has learned on his own since then is taking care of key people. “Get your main group together, and keep them focused on where the company is, what you’re trying to do with the company and how you are going to get there,” he says.
Another thing he has learned is the importance of empowering people to do what they can do best. “We try to let them make their own decisions and not interfere, but we back them up when they need to be backed up by providing guidance as needed,” he explains.
Finally, Engelman has learned that the NPCA is an incredibly beneficial organization, especially for the opportunity to share ideas and problems with people who are not geographically close to you. “It really opens your eyes to the industry as a whole and how other people handle things,” says Engelman. “You can take a lot of that information back to your own business and implement it.”
The concepts have paid off. Bethlehem Precast has grown between three and four times larger since Engelman took over in 1995.
Going above and beyond
Andy Wieser, president of Wieser Concrete Products, Maiden Rock, Wis., grew up with his mentor – his father. “I was fortunate in that I started in this business when I was very young,” he recalls. “In fact, I was born into this business. My father started it from scratch about a year before I was born.”
The first and most important thing he learned from his father was the importance of hard work. “No matter what your position is in the company, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty,” he emphasizes. “You gain a lot of respect from your employees that way, as well as from your customers.”
Wieser still visits job sites and works on projects as time allows. In so doing, he also finds that he can pick up a lot of things when he’s on a site. “For example, you can see how to take care of things that you wouldn’t otherwise know about,” he explains.
The other thing his father always stressed was honesty with employees and customers, as well as being fair with them. Since then, Wieser has learned that his father, a past NPCA board chairman, was right about hard work, honesty and fairness. “On a project, for example, it may not always come out the way you want it,” he explains. “That is, with changes that take place along the way, you may not make as much as you originally expected.” However, since 75 percent of the company’s business is repeat customers, Wieser always wants to make sure customers are satisfied.
For example, he does a lot of work for farmers. “Once we set a price, we stay with it,” he notes. “If there are changes, such as changes in the configuration, we don’t want to ‘nickel and dime’ the customer.” The price stays the same. Wieser doesn’t make a habit of this, but he will do it as appropriate situations arise. “The customers know we’re doing this, and they appreciate it,” he adds.
The philosophy pays off. At a recent meeting of the Dairy Business Association in Wisconsin, the president of the association, a farmer who Wieser did some work for, stood up in front of 200 to 300 owners of the largest dairy farms in the state and said that if they ever had a need for storage systems, they should call Wieser Concrete. “I didn’t even know he was going to say this,” says Wieser. “You can’t get that kind of publicity in an advertisement. We didn’t do anything out of the ordinary for him. We just did what we said we would, and we did it on time. To him, we had gone above and beyond what he expected.”
What’s good for the industry is good for the company
Joan Bellamy Blecha, Southeast Region president of Hanson Pipe & Precast, has found that there are mentors to the company and mentors to the industry, and they aren’t necessarily the same people.
For Blecha, most of her mentors have been and are from the industry. One of her most important mentors in the industry was Jim Adams (Cretex Co., Elk River, Minn.). “He had a very big influence on me,” she says. “What I learned from him was the importance of giving back to the industry.” She also learned a lot from John Lendrum (Norwalk Concrete, Norwalk, Ohio) and Bruce Hottle (Eagle Concrete Products, Somerset, Pa.), as well as Jim Barbour and Dan Barbour (Barbour Concrete, Independence, Mo.). “They all brought strengths to the NPCA and the industry as a whole,” she explains. “All of them taught me that when you bring about good things for the industry, it ends up being good for your own company, too.”
Blecha says she has learned on her own that the size of your company doesn’t matter. What is important is that you have to do things well to survive in this industry, whether you operate a small company or a large one, and you have to be a good corporate citizen. “For example, you have to pour a quality product,” she says. “You have to do your homework in terms of the environment and regulatory agencies, and you have to participate in the political processes in your community.” She admits that several of these concepts were not particularly important when she was new to the industry. However, things have changed. And that is another thing Blecha has learned: the importance of always realizing that change is the only constant in the industry, and that if you don’t change, you’ll be left in the dust.
As these testimonials suggest, when you’re going for the gold it may pay to keep in mind those gold nuggets – they are a part of who you are what you do.