By Ron Hyink
As Tom Borcherdt hurtles into the hairpin turn, he grabs a handful of brake and drops down a couple of gears as he leans his body and the bulk of the beast beneath him. The wide rear tire bites into the pavement with the sudden extra weight, and before it can complain Tom twists hard on the throttle as he straightens up and exits the turn.
He scrambles ahead and jockeys for position with another rider inside the next turn. Out of the curve, he hammers the throttle again and lets the other rider stare at his back for a change. More riders are ahead, but some have more powerful machines. It may be all he can do just to keep up.
It’s a race against other riders as much as it is a test of his own abilities.
Self-confidence. Stamina. Skill. Without qualities such as these, Tom would not be very competitive in his favorite pastime of racing vintage motorcycles. But he not only possesses these qualities, he truly enjoys the sport – and he’s getting better at it. He had tried several other hobbies, but none completely rounded him out until he found this special one. Or maybe it found him.
It’s a little like life itself – and a lot like precast manufacturing. In other words, there are some pretty tough curves out there to negotiate; any hesitation or lapse of concentration may result in a loss; and it requires constant awareness of what the competition is doing. And sometimes a company has to experiment with several different products until it finds its niche.
It took several years experimenting with different products before Borcherdt Concrete Products Ltd. of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, hit its stride. With four employees, a one-bag mixer and a few rickety wooden forms, Tom started out making precast septic tanks, well crocks for shallow wells and short culvert sections.
“I got into the concrete business back in 1974 mainly because I wanted to be my own boss,” said Tom. “I liked manufacturing, and there was an opportunity to purchase a small business.” Armed with an engineering background and funding from wherever he could find it – including his mother and his brother – Tom went to work in an old, small barn in Arcadia, just outside of Yarmouth. “Just about everything we poured was outdoors, and we could only work in good weather.”
The septic tank forms he had inherited with his business purchase were made of plywood and held together with wire. The well crock forms consisted of some thin hand-fabricated sheet metal wrappers that had to be placed inside wooden forms to keep the outside round, and a wooden spider to keep the inner core round. “And then as you cast it, you had to be careful that it didn’t move from side to side,” he said.
He had an old truck with a boom mounted on the front that served as a crane, plus a 3-ton delivery truck that moonlighted as a gravel hauler from the aggregate pit to the mixer. And then there was the mixer – a one-bagger mounted on a self-powered platform with wheels that could roll right up to the pile of gravel. “Yep – 45 shovelfuls of gravel for a bag of cement, mix it, and then we would drive this thing to the form and tilt it over and dump it in,” recalled Tom.
Despite the lack of more advanced equipment, Tom had achieved his dream of being in business for himself. Tom’s wife, Joyce, joined in on the new family-owned venture and did whatever she could, mostly holding down the office, but with three children all under the age of 5, she already had her hands full. They soon found that they needed to hire some more office help, although Joyce continued to work for several more years and help it grow.
Practically from the beginning, Tom was looking for ways to make his company grow and become more successful. “We added new products every year – I was always trying to find a niche for myself,” he said. “So we started making manholes, and we actually found that there was only one other manufacturer in the province at the time that was doing manholes, so we could actually pick a job off now and then.” He could pick off only the smaller jobs, though, because with just a half-dozen forms, 30 or 40 manholes were all he could handle. “We could make one piece of each size a day, and that was it.”
In just five years – in 1979 – the Borcherdts had built a new plant, which they still occupy today. It was originally a 40-by-80-foot manufacturing facility that has since more than doubled in size. “About every seven or eight years we put an addition on there,” said Tom.
One of their product offerings at the time of the move to the new digs was Wafflecrete wall panels. Wafflecrete forms had 8-inch ribs and 2-by-4-foot grids in between with 2-inch-thick walls, which in itself presented some challenging issues such as ensuring an inch of concrete cover over the reinforcing wire and making doors and windows.
Other products came along, but because of the low market demand in his area, they were not cost effective to produce. “We got into all kinds of shapes and sizes of patio blocks and colors, and we had gotten into some fence posts and fence rails,” said Tom. “We found that we couldn’t market some products to consumers because most of the consumers were not in our area. The large market for Nova Scotia is the Halifax area – and that’s 200 miles away.” Although he found he couldn’t service that market efficiently with some of these products, Tom said he is glad to offer them if a customer wants them.
By the mid ’80s, Tom had taken another stab at wall panels, this time a steel deck system with insulated sandwich walls consisting of a layer of concrete, a layer of Styrofoam and another layer of concrete. “We actually did quite a few fish plants and some local commercial buildings in this area with that product.” And with that, he steered a course toward all custom-made architectural products such as wall panels, window sills, wall bands and lintels.
“We found that this was a product that worked better for us,” explained Tom. “The price per pound was higher, and because the price per pound was higher, we could ship them farther and still be competitive with other people.” Being a small company of 16 employees meant less overhead costs and more efficiency with his labor force compared with some of the bigger companies.
His big break came through a construction association on which he had served as a board member. “I got to meet a lot of heads of large construction outfits in Nova Scotia, and one of them had a job to do, a big building on the campus in Halifax,” said Tom. It was the School of Business at St. Mary’s University, affectionately called the Sobey Building because of a large donation by the Sobey empire of supermarkets in Nova Scotia.
“This is a major structure – major architectural panels, curved panels, columns, white marble stone and white concrete,” explained Tom. “And this contractor gave me a chance to bid on that job. He didn’t have to do that.”
For that job, Borcherdt Concrete Products produced some 600 pieces within a six-month timeframe. “It’s a real showcase. And that really put us on the map architecturally,” said Tom. “From then on, if any contractor or architect wanted to know what kind of work we’d done, we’d just send them to that job.”
In 2003, right after the Christmas and New Years break, calamity struck. As Adam Borcherdt, Tom’s son, wrote in the Summer 2003 issue of MC (“Fire Nearly Spells Disaster for Precaster”), the shop’s furnace oil pump had sprung a leak onto the floor, creating a puddle 1 to 2 inches thick, including an area underneath a propane-fired water heater. Some employees shut off the pump and began to clean up the mess, but then the water heater started up and ignited the oil.
“And that fire quickly consumed everything in that room – all the electrical equipment, my air compressor, water pump, basically the entire brain of the operation,” said Tom.
There was a concrete firewall between that area and the production area, and it had done its job of containing the fire, but it didn’t go all the way to the ceiling. “The heat and the flames came over the top of it and absolutely destroyed everything, including two overhead cranes,” said Tom. The fire also reached the lunchroom on the side of the building and blackened everything.
The mixer itself wasn’t damaged, but all the hoses and cables attached to it were destroyed, plus the conveyer belts, the cement augur from the silo, the lights and even the heating system and wall insulation. “We had to have a whole new roof put on the building. We got that and still ended up painting everything because there was smoke damage everywhere,” recalled Tom.
Fortunately no one was hurt, and his insurance covered nearly everything. “We were 97 percent insured on our building, but for our contents we had only about half the insurance we should have had,” said Tom. “So that’s an important message.”
The fire didn’t keep him from obligations to his customers, however. Production moved to his sandblasting shed to make product using ready-mixed concrete while the plant was being rebuilt. In just two and a half months, they were back in full operation with the rebuilt plant. “And it’s a good thing, because we had that correctional center to make,” said Tom. “We were immediately into that and just barely able to keep up with that job.”
Through the years, the laws of supply and demand steered Tom toward the small custom architectural products. “We found that was a niche the bigger supplier of precast really wasn’t interested in, so it worked to our advantage,” he said. “And because we were serving in a commercial market like schools and the institutional market, the price was much better than residential.”
The bigger suppliers shy away from products that are worth less than about a thousand dollars apiece, said Tom. “It has to do with design drawings, (Canadian) standards, handling, delivery, fit, finish, allowing for some waste – there are always some rejects – and they just decided that if I’m happy to do the small architectural details, they’d just as soon have me do them. They’re not interested in those products.”
And it has played out well for Tom. “We’ve learned how to produce a quality product,” he said. “And that’s very important to the architects – the color, the finish, sandblasted finish – light, heavy and medium – acid wash, exposed aggregate using retarders, different color stones.” He also has had to find his own sources for different colors of sands, pigments and other materials to produce what the architects want. “It keeps us a head above the industrial precast suppliers and able to compete with the big guys.”
In fact Tom can ship his products to all four Atlantic provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and still come out ahead. One job in St. John’s, Newfoundland – about as far east as you can go on the North American continent – required a 400-mile drive plus a 17-hour ferry ride.
“We’re in the enviable position that most of the architects and engineers and contractors know us in the four Atlantic provinces,” said Tom. “They call us now, which is great – we don’t have to call them anymore. They call us because they know we produce a quality product and we produce it on time.”
That’s because he has found his niche – but it didn’t come easily. It took time, experimentation and determination to not only stay in the race but to keep up with the front runners.