Since its very beginnings, Independent Concrete Pipe Co. has exhibited its pride in product as well as employee.
(“Then”) By Ron Hyink and (“Now”) By Greg Snapper
Long before concrete vibrators or even an efficient means of transporting heavy concrete products came into existence, Independent Concrete Pipe Co. of Indianapolis had been churning out quality reinforced pipe. It was a time when work was considered duty, when full-service filling stations and early morning home deliveries of fresh milk were the norm.
When Howard Schurmann founded the company in 1912 and for several years afterward, there was no actual factory but rather a “general office” from which all things were issued for production at the job site. These included batching equipment, forms, tools, field superintendents and explicit directions on everything from personal conduct to mixing, forming and installing pipe as well as dealing with contractors, laborers and the public at large.
The company’s “Manual of Instructions for Field Superintendents,” published in 1928, accompanied the superintendent to aid in his success (as well as the company’s) as he ventured out to the project site. Another book, titled “Independent Concrete Pipe for Permanence,” also published in 1928, offers a glimpse into the manufacture of quality concrete pipe and includes detailed photographs from that period.
Leafing through these books today is like peering into another era, another world where precast concrete production was infinitely more complicated, yet the company’s expectations of top-notch quality in the product as well as the employee was unquestionable. For example, the Manual left little doubt about the company’s expectations of moral character: “We have no place in our organization for the individual who does not care to arouse his progressive spirit. Your company desires in its organization only men who can, and will, extend cooperation to their fellow workmen; who will recognize and extend courtesies; and who have sufficient strength of character to overcome temptation. …”
The job of field superintendent called for a higher caliber of person, because the position carried enormous responsibilities. He was expected to set up shop at a distant location to
manufacture concrete pipe on site, and this included everything from employing laborers to purchasing cement and aggregate from the local area. As he made his way to the construction site, typically by rail, the Manual directed that he first secure temporary living quarters for himself, then find more permanent digs in which he could move his family at company expense for the duration of the project:
“Secure permanent living quarters as soon as possible. …”
“Your ordinary and necessary traveling expenses for yourself and family, as well as three days’ hotel expense, will be allowed you. …”
The Manual continues its discourse on meeting the contractor, where and how to set up for production, hiring and paying laborers, tips on batching the proper mix, preparing reports,
paying bills and tidying up after the job was done. Even the quality of mixing water was deemed very important, wherever it could be found:
“In the event you find it necessary, or more advantageous, to secure your water supply from private property owners, precautions must be made to prevent damage to their property.”
Laden with the funds to carry out the project, the field superintendent was required to open a bank account locally from which he could pay the bills, and cost consciousness was a constant priority. When things got dicey and he needed advice or anything else from the general office, depending on the urgency, a special delivery letter would do, or in a case that demanded immediate attention, a long-distance telephone call, albeit costly, was allowed as long as he knew where to reach his field representative.
Telegraph was another option:
“A straight wire, which contains ten words, is the most expensive of the telegraph forms and should only be used where immediate action is required. …”
Such is the way it was back in the early days of Independent Concrete Pipe Co. and the precast pipe industry. The demand for quality was high, yet the level of technology to achieve it was low, which points to the extreme effort required to achieve that quality. There were no vibrators to make a production worker’s life easier, so to attain the desired quality, air pockets and voids had to be eliminated by spading after each batch had been placed. This method gave way to tamping machines with wooden sticks that packed the concrete in the form, but the tamping machinery practically begged for constant maintenance.
By that time, though, production had migrated from field to factory. It was during the next couple of decades, in the ’30s and through the ’40s, that concrete plants sprang up along railroad tracks. This adaptation brought Independent’s concrete pipe production to more
centralized locations as materials such as bulk quantities of bags of cement could be delivered much more economically.
Soon after that, paddle mixers brought some measure of automation as well as increased production. And before long, trucks and trailers had been developed to haul bigger and heavier products farther down the road, which increasingly diminished the need to build plants near railroad tracks.
By the 1950s, the precast industry was emerging out of its labor-intensive methods of production and into newer technologies and automation to secure increased efficiency, fewer breakdowns and enhanced safety. Out went the tamping machine, and in came vibration technology as well as the packer head and dry-cast production. Those advances along with the overhead crane helped bring production indoors. It was during this time that Independent’s ownership went from Schurmann to Sherman – Sherman E. Johnson, that is, a road builder who started a pipe company in Toledo, Ohio, before he purchased Independent.
Johnson’s descendents still run the business today. “My great-grandfather was Sherman E. Johnson,” said Scott Bundrant, COO of Independent Concrete Pipe. “I’m the fourth generation. You know it’s rare for companies to get into the fourth generation.”
Bundrant explained that the family always tried to treat it as a business first but never lost sight of the fact that the employees are a part of the family. “So it’s really a family within a family,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate from that standpoint.”
Employee longevity is a great indicator of this “family experience” and reciprocal dedication between company and worker. Bundrant tossed out a couple of examples, such as an employee in Toledo who started working for the company at age 16 and recently retired. “He was literally offloading the rail cars with bags of cement,” he said. “That was his first job. All week long, all he did was throw the 50-pound bags of cement off the rail car.”
An even more remarkable example is Jeff Davis, Bundrant’s predecessor as vice president of the Indiana division, who started out at the age of 19 as a truck driver and retired 42 years later. Davis handled every job that came up:
truck driver, yard manager, plant manager, operations manager, then to the vice president level. “He was my father’s right-hand man before he retired,” said Bundrant. “He had a fantastic reputation in the business too. Everybody knew him across the country, because he was so knowledgeable about the operations. We miss him every day.”
Another facet that has made Independent such a success over the years is acquisitions and new markets.
But these were not done without a lot of thought and planning. “If the right fit comes along, we’ll do some acquisitions, but our method of operation is not growth through acquisition,” said Bundrant. “Our method of operation is to improve and get better at what we do in the markets we’re in.”
And really, Independent is one of the largest pipe producers on the continent, although considerably outdistanced by large corporations such as Rinker and Hanson. “We’re one of the few truly multi-plant family businesses left,” said Bundrant, but he gives due credit to the larger corporations. “I think the Rinkers and the Hansons are good for our industry because they bring the financial backing to it the right way, and quite honestly they can be very helpful in sharing their expertise when it comes to quality.”
And it always comes back to quality. It’s an integral part of Independent’s legacy, and a pivotal point for its future as it tests new precast markets, such as bridges. “We are not going to try to make a financial statement impact in the first year,” said Bundrant.
“We want to learn how to build the product. We want to learn how to market the product and do it the right way and ease our way into it. We’re not doing cannonballs into any pool – we’re going to make a little ripple and see how it goes and try to grow slowly through that.”
Since its very beginnings, the company has insisted on quality products, above-average employees, a family atmosphere and sure-footed growth. All along the way, it has had its own way of doing things, making a truly Independent Concrete Pipe Co.
The Independent Concrete Pipe Co. started out in a small general office in Indianapolis. That was in 1912, when the site served as the central nervous system for operations. Everything from materials requests to dealing with contractors, laborers and the public cycled through there. But now that office building has long since been demolished. Over the last several decades, the company has expanded considerably, but it kept its Indianapolis headquarters.
Beyond the Hoosier capitol, Independent now operates seven additional plants that serve Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois. It’s considered one of the largest precast pipe companies on the continent, and it still applies the same business methodology today that it did nearly a century ago.
The company’s method of operations, or better yet its mantra, is “to get better at what we do in the markets we’re in.” Transformed from a small family-run outfit capable of small but quality work in the early 20 th century, Independent’s M.O. has led the now multimillion dollar company to some of the nation’s most visible construction projects. Two of these projects are taking place right now, practically in the company’s own back yard: a new stadium and a new airport.
Lucas Oil Stadium
Indianapolis, an amateur sports haven and home to a handful of professional teams, will open a new football stadium for the NFL’s Colts in August 2008. Working for years with the municipality, Independent snagged the precast pipe work for the downtown project. The pipe sizes and quantities were varied and applications unique. Thousands of feet of pipe were specified to relocate an interwoven series of brick and mortar sewers in the center of the site.
Beneath the 25-acre downtown site, the sewers, which rivaled the age of Independent itself, conjoined where architects envisioned the playing field – 25 feet below street level. At varied depths between 10 and 25 feet, a lattice of 102-, 54-, 36- and 24-inch main and lateral brick sewers interwove like a series of freeways. At depths that would otherwise halt game play after stadium construction, builders were faced with five sewer relocations before surface construction ensued.
In this relocation maze, neither steel, fiberglass nor plastic was specified. Only precast concrete presented enough advantages for the field design solution.
“The specific site conditions, loads imposed on the pipes and corrosive soils pointed us in the direction of reinforced concrete pipe,” said Stephen Starek, P.E., with VS Engineering of Indianapolis. “We specified concrete specifically because of our firm’s past experience with reinforced concrete pipe.”
Independent cast two 45-degree bends and a T-manhole to connect the 102-inch RCP sewer in the northwest corner. Precision manufacturing, engineering and installation gave Starek and V&S what they wanted: a functionally safe 90-degree turn for the 102-inch relocation.
“We drilled partially into the wall of the 102-inch pipe and installed brackets and a steel rod to hold the pipe from coming apart from the bend elements,” Starek said. “On the spring line of the pipes, we installed three tie bars upstream and downstream of the bends just to hold it all together.” Starek said clamping the pieces together strengthened the joints. “Once fully operating, those pipes will run near to capacity, and when water flows around that corner, it will exert significant force on those joints.” With the bend strong and safely completed, V&S Engineering could add Lucas Oil Stadium to its roster of successes.
Precast concrete manufacturers, on the other hand, tend to measure success by their bid packages, craftsmanship and, of course, dollar signs. Independent Concrete Pipe Co. of Indianapolis gauges success by the bottom line too, but for the stadium, the company wanted constant product supervision on the job site, so they turned to their long-time installation expert, Terry Spencer.
Spencer is field service representative with Independent for Lucas Oil Stadium. As on-site inspector, Spencer was the watchful eye over RCP delivered, installed and backfilled. Keeping tabs on the near-simultaneous installations across the site meant his reactions and judgment had to be right on. He said the concrete pipe may represent Independent’s craft, but what’s on the line is the credibility of the precast concrete pipe industry.
“My first responsibility at the job site is to the contractor,” Spencer said. “Keep in mind, however, that when the contractor is gone, Independent’s pipe will still be in the ground representing the concrete industry.”
And the pipe will be there well beyond our lifetimes, said Eric Carleton, P.E., also with Independent. “Competitors say precast pipe will corrode or it isn’t as tough as specifiers’ and manufacturers’ claims,” Carleton said. “But here comes a major municipality building a stadium, and they’re building with precast concrete.”
The Indianapolis Department of Public Works has “all the confidence in the world” with New Indiana Stadium’s concrete pipe infrastructure. Sandy Shafer, senior construction project manager for DPW, said below-ground construction had its share of difficulties, but companies like Independent helped make it a success.
New Indianapolis Airport
And that reputation has recently brought Independent another project – infrastructure work for a billion-dollar airport expansion. In Indiana these days, the airport business is strong. Indianapolis, America’s 12 th largest city with the world’s eighth busiest cargo airport, is currently expanding its airport.
An expansion is the loosest sense of the term, but more accurately, Indianapolis International is starting from scratch. In a more centralized location than the current Indianapolis International Airport, the New Indianapolis Airport will stretch twice the size of its predecessor. Its 1.2 million-acre lot sits midfield, conveniently located between a pair of two-mile-long runways. Benefits of the new locale include aircraft taxi times shaved in half, and more gates, concessions and services. The new airport will be big, and so will its price tag. Indiana taxpayers pay nothing directly, but the airlines, federal grants and passenger fees foot most of the $1 billion bill. Integral components of this mega investment include multimillion dollar projects specifying precast concrete, and that’s where Independent comes in.
“We wanted to do as much of this work as possible using local talent, local companies and local resources,” said Greta Hawvermale, assistant project director for New Indianapolis Airport. “So even when we brought in a master architect who was out of this area, we structured the specific construction with different local companies.”
Independent’s strong presence in the local precast concrete market coupled with its years of service to the New Indianapolis Airport owner, Indianapolis Airport Authority, made the precaster a shoe-in for manufacturing.
Independent cast varied sizes of pipe, box culverts, furnished inlets and manholes in a grouping of five different projects. The North Apron Grading, Midfield Terminal Exterior Storm Sewer, Main Entry/Exit Road, Air Side Storm Sewers and Deicing Underground Storage include everything from conveyance structures to pipe infrastructure. All products, ranging from round and elliptical pipe, 15-inch diameters to 66-inch diameters as well as box culvert structures, were manufactured in Independent’s plants in Indianapolis, Louisville, Ky., Maxwell, Ind., and Mishawaka, Ind.
Mark Bloomfield, project executive for construction manager Turner-Trotter Joint Venture of Indianapolis, said containment and treatment are vital in airport construction, where Independent’s products played environmental roles.
In an effort to contain, treat and eventually recycle a polypropylene fluid used for aircraft deicing, twin box culvert runoff channels were built beneath the airport’s new 100-acre concrete apron. When the airport opens in 2008, these channels will keep surrounding streams and aquatic wildlife free from contamination by transferring excess wintertime deicing fluid from the apron to an underground storage container. During warmer weather, it will transfer stormwater.
“Deicing fluid contains a compound of a chemical nature,” Bloomfield said. “So it’s very important to us from an environmental standpoint to capture that fluid before it gets to the water system.”
With the chance to build from scratch, airport officials were steps ahead when they specified Independent’s box culverts to remedy the environmental threat by polypropylene glycol. Box culverts, albeit “underneath” the scenes at the New Indianapolis Airport, serve as environmental safeguards to protect Indy’s water supply and surrounding ecosystem.
The stadium and airport projects are big-ticket items, but Independent Concrete Pipe Co. is up to the task. Not only can it handle the huge quantities of product required from its multiple plants, it has the backing of its great reputation for quality drawn from its long history in the precast industry.
It’s all a reflection of what’s written in the company’s mantra, of what’s instilled in each employee, and what goes into each product during and well beyond the manufacturing stage.