Cruising along at 40 years with NPCA, precasters check the industry’s rearview mirror – and the open road ahead.
By Bridget McCrea
Reflecting on 60 years of success in the precast concrete industry, Tom Lendrum’s thoughts go to a few key milestones. As a young boy, he remembers hanging around the plant watching his father’s team manufacture precast products, waiting patiently as they cured and then tagging along as they were transported out to the yard.
Lendrum, former president and CEO of Norwalk, Ohio-based Norwalk Concrete, also remembers how so many precast firms – including his company – jumped into the industry by making the first mass-produced burial vaults. And lastly, he thinks about how industry growth was closely intertwined with how quickly materials handling manufacturers could make machines to move the most sizable precast pieces.
“The history of the precast business is almost the history of materials handling equipment,” says Lendrum. “Without the ability to handle these products, we couldn’t build them.”
That advent of larger, more robust handling systems helped Norwalk Concrete make a move into septic tank manufacturing in a post-World War II economy. The expanded focus paid off for the company, which today continues to produce sewage treatment equipment – albeit in a much bigger way. “We’ve seen that aspect of our business evolve into bigger castings and more sophisticated equipment,” says Lendrum.
The firm sold its burial vault business in the late 1970s, but not before franchising its patented process to more than 100 companies throughout the United States and Canada, essentially pioneering a movement that would find more precasters “thinking globally” when it came to doing business with customers and vendors. The movement fed a consolidation trend, which resulted in fewer “mom and pop” shops and larger national producers.
“You really can no longer be an entrepreneur working out of your garage in this industry,” says Lendrum. “You have to look and act like a ‘real company,’ with executives and employees who are knowledgeable about business management. That’s a very critical point.”
A look back
Over the last 40 years, significant changes have taken place within the precast industry, which was essentially founded by many of the same “mom and pop” shops that Lendrum refers to. Joe Wieser, president at Wieser Engineering and Manufacturing’s Maiden Rock plant in Wisconsin, started the company’s precast division 40 years ago, and he isn’t sure if this is a particularly beneficial trend for an industry where family-run companies were once the norm.
“We’ve seen multinational companies getting involved in the U.S. precast industry that weren’t involved 40 years ago,” says Wieser.
As the business shifts have occurred, Wieser says his firm has stayed on top by keeping on the cutting edge of technology, particularly when it comes to automation and other tools that help precasters work smarter, better and faster. He’s toured plants worldwide in search of the best technology options. Thirty years ago, for example, he says the company began manufacturing dry-cast products and embracing the automation that came with that trend.
Now the precaster is riding the rising tide of the latest trend: self-consolidating concrete and structural fibers. To get there, the company is working with chemical and admixture companies to learn all it can about the trend. “Using structural fibers in the mix design – and the self-consolidating concrete – eliminates the need for vibration and takes the place of steel reinforcing,” says Wieser. “It’s going to have a major effect on the industry.”
Also having an effect on the industry are standards like plant certification, which Wieser says have helped raise the industry’s profile. Wieser, who was chairman of NPCA’s Production Committee the year the organization decided to institute a plant certification program, says the group also provided a valuable platform through which precasters can communicate with, and learn from, one another.
Present at the first NPCA meeting in 1966 in Dayton, Lendrum says he was at first skeptical of the organization’s ability to effect change in the precast industry. His doubts were proven wrong, and his firm has since taken an active role in the organization, with Lendrum serving one term as chairman in the mid-1970s and his son John chairing the association in 2002. Since then, he says NPCA has helped the industry stand on its own and “break out of the ‘mom and pop’ mold.”
With the advent of technology came changes in the way precast products are made and in the way the precasters themselves do business. Along the way, the industry has also raised its own profile by producing quality products and by taking the steps necessary to get the word out about those products. As a result, Lendrum says more potential customers realize that mass-producing concrete in controlled conditions results in a higher-quality job and faster, cleaner installation on the job site.
“As long as the highway departments and construction industry can accept the fact that they don’t have to do everything on the job site anymore,” Lendrum explains, “we’re able to deliver precast concrete products like catch basins and bridge sections at a lower price and better quality than they can get by fabricating on the job site.”
Expect that movement to continue, says Lendrum, who sees a time when precast is incorporated into even larger projects, as evidenced by Norwalk Concrete’s recent production of 25-ton bridge sections. “You’re going to see more buildings, highways, bridges and other large projects including precast in the future,” he adds.
That is, as long as the industry continues to portray itself as “the material of choice” and as long as the precasters and vendors behind the products continue to focus on quality and customer service. “There was a period of time when the precast product quality was frankly not what it should have been, and architects and engineers lost faith,” says Lendrum. “Thankfully, that’s turned around within the last 10 years.”
At Modern Precast Concrete in Ottsville, Pa., Vernon Wehrung, president and CEO, started in the business in 1972, then moved into his current position in 1976. While the industry was in its infancy in the 1940s and 1950s (his parents started the company in 1946), he says the focus was mainly on septic tanks and burial vaults. But as more engineers and builders became aware of the value of precasting, versus pouring on site, he says the industry took on a life of its own.
“The first precasters were basically just pouring everything in the plant instead of on site,” says Wehrung, who adds that the recent movement into self-consolidating concrete has helped the industry’s image. “The industry is evolving nicely,” says Wehrung, NPCA’s immediate past chairman, “and we’re making everything from the basic products to utility buildings to post-tensioning.”
Still, Wehrung says the U.S. precast concrete industry has a long way to go to catch up to its overseas brethren. He’s traveled the world over the last few years and come to the conclusion that although the industry here may seem mature by domestic standards, in reality it’s still in its infancy.
“Our industry is far from mature compared to the rest of the world,” says Wehrung. In Austria and Japan, for example, precast manufacturers utilize a combination of turning devices and multiple forklifts for each product line, whereas U.S. precasters are more apt to either switch turning devices for products or use an overhead crane to get the job done.
By taking a page from the book of their overseas counterparts, Wehrung says precasters would be able to get more work done with fewer human resources. Such innovations can also help offset the rising costs of raw materials – from steel to cement.
That’s good news for precasters, who have been hit hard by mounting prices of such goods, says Jim Westhoff, president at A-Lok Products in Tullytown, Pa. Westhoff sees better utilization of raw materials and alternative methods for reinforcing concrete in the industry’s future.
“In terms of cement, that means advancing the way concrete is mixed and coming up with supplements for cement that allow precasters to reduce water usage,” which in turn allows reduced cement usage, says Westhoff. He adds that while the short-term outlook for raw material pricing and availability is negative, “the situation is going to drive us to do new things, which in turn will positively impact the industry.”
Ron Burg, vice president at Construction Technnology Laboratories Inc., a Skokie, Ill.-based wholly owned subsidiary of Portland Cement Association, concurs. “With cement in short supply, expect to see a continued use of innovative and different materials, both in addition to – and to supplement – the cement,” says Burg. “We see that trend ultimately driving the acceptance of supplementary and alternate materials within the precast industry.”
Full speed ahead
Historically, it’s been fairly easy for the uninitiated to see just how strong and solid precast concrete is. But when engineers began to realize just how well precast minimized energy requirements, optimized energy performance, increased building life, created potential reuse of materials, and cut down on noise and dust, selecting it as a material of choice became a no-brainer.
“Precast is perfectly situated for use in construction as opposed to designing with other materials or even other concrete designs,” says Kenneth Kruse, director of industry development at Cleveland-based DeGussa Admixtures Inc. (formerly Master Builders).
Because of this, Kruse expects more engineers and specifiers to incorporate precast into larger projects in the near future as yet another way to minimize energy usage within their buildings and maximize those structures’ lifespans.
Mike Gee, North American marketing manager of admixtures at Grace Construction Products in Cambridge, Mass., also expects precast to play a larger role in that kind of building sustainability in the coming years. Gee says the ability to reuse precast will come to the forefront as customers strive to “get materials to do more than they do right now.”
Gee also sees a growing opportunity for precasters to sell “concept to completion” solutions and not simply a few pieces of precast concrete. That’s a big change from the old days, when precast concrete manufacturers did just that: manufacture precast concrete.
“When I first started in this business, a precaster’s involvement in a project was limited to providing the concrete portion of the structure,” says Gee. “Now the movement from component to full-service is on the rise.
Changing with the times
Over the last 40 years, precasters have kept up with the changing needs of their customers, embraced larger, more complex projects, implemented new strategies and tested new products. Over the next 40 years, Ty Gable, NPCA president, expects the industry to continue on that track as owners and specifiers become even more demanding and educated than they are today.
“They want quality products that can perform for 100 years in the manner that they expect them to perform,” says Gable, “and their patience for marginal quality materials has shortened significantly over the last few years.”
As the newly inducted NPCA chairman, Joan Blecha, president of the Southeast Region for Hanson Pipe in Jacksonville, sees challenges ahead for the industry as materials shortages and price hikes continue to hamper the business environment. Internally, she says precasters will need to balance recruiting with cultivating a competent, knowledgeable workforce with management of those external challenges – at least over the next 12 months.
“We all need to be very aware of the conditions and how to manage them adequately,” says Blecha, who adds that NPCA will continue to share critical information about the industry and key trends affecting precasters through its various channels.
The good news is that precasters are working more efficiently and watching their bottom lines more closely than ever. As a whole, Gable says the industry is committed to quality products, efficient manufacturing systems and value-added services. “Many of them are not only producing precast concrete products,” says Gable, “they’re also enhancing those products with extras (such as finishes) that meet the customer’s needs.”
They’re also cultivating one of the most important aspects of their business: their workforces. Going forward, Gable sees firms putting an even bigger emphasis on that human capital. “Precasters will need to educate and value their employees better than ever before,” says Gable. “That includes giving them a say in what goes on, training them and rewarding them in a competitive fashion. Loyalty doesn’t come cheap, and if you want loyal employees you have to invest in them.”
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