South Texas has quietly become one of the nation’s top growth markets, and Hanson is strategically preparing for the region’s future.
Article by Ron Hyink
The Rio Grande Valley, encompassing four counties from McAllen to Brownsville, has always provided fertile fields for farmers. The weather is temperate most of the time and, as a floodplain of the Rio Grande, the soil practically comes with a guarantee for abundant crops. In fact, more than 40 world-renown crops grow in this very soil.
The valley also happens to be the second-largest irrigation area in the world, and that has made it a great place for precast concrete pipe manufacturers. Now the area is experiencing a population explosion comparable to any other fast-growth area in the United States, and that’s enough to stir even the most quiescent precaster to action.
Location, location, location
These attributes are precisely why Hanson Pipe & Precast Inc. has been itching to set up shop here.
“The whole purpose of coming this far south into Texas is because it’s the No. 1 growth market in the state,” said Clifford Hahne, president of Hanson’s South Central Region. “Due to the tremendous amount of farming and the environment where we don’t get many freezes down here, they grow citrus products and farm year-round – cotton, vegetables, soy beans – and much of it is irrigated, because it’s so flat you have to bring water to it. So it’s an exceptional underground water market in addition to all the growth, the DOT work and the residential work that comes with the population growth.”
Hahne explained that he had been evaluating the market and its potential growth in the region and was waiting for the right opportunity to make his move. That opportunity came in December as Hanson acquired W.T. Liston Co. of LaFeria, Texas, a manufacturer of precast pipe and other underground products since 1919 (see sidebar “A Texas Original”). Pat Liston, former owner and now technical marketer for the LaFeria plant, represents the fourth generation of Listons to operate the plant, which is rare for any industry.
“We picked this spot out about three and a half years ago as a target area,” said Hahne, although there were other strong contenders, and he had tried for more than three years to convince Liston to sell the property. “We finally won him over,” Hahne quips. “The thing we liked about Liston was his location. He’s central to the lower valley – it’s almost dead center in the middle of the shipping area. So we really liked it logistically, and we were able to secure some land adjacent to here during the transaction.”
Hanson immediately picked up the pipe production and plans to add box culverts and other products to the inventory, including precast homes featuring a new cellular concrete technology (described later). “We’re really excited about getting into this market as a participant,” said Mike Leathers, vice president of sales for Hanson’s South Central Region. “We would compete down here occasionally (from Corpus Christi/Robstown and San Antonio), but it’s hard to compete against local relationships.”
Hahne also sees another side to the valley’s strategic location, and it all has to do with the free trade agreement with Mexico. With five large towns poised on this stretch of the border, he expects the area to become a major entryway to the “Golden Triangle” that includes the region between San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. “The Texas transportation corridor will come through one of these five towns all the way through Dallas,” he said, adding that the projects for highway construction will start here. “So we really want to be in on the start of that operation.”
With a new owner comes new management, of course, and José Peña has been looking forward to this opportunity for a very long time. He has trod in the shoes of production laborer, dispatcher, inside sales, outside sales and administrative manager. And now as plant manager of Hanson’s latest acquisition in LaFeria, Peña is in a prime position to put all his experience to work on a larger scale.
Peña, an immigrant from Mexico, first signed on with Hanson in 1990. After stepping off the production floor and into dispatch, he started making positive influences. “That’s how I got my recognition with Hanson, through dispatch,” he said. “I implemented a lot of new ideas, I ran an operation that was very cost-effective – and the other plants started using my methods.”
After working in dispatch for eight years, Peña moved to inside sales for about three years when Hanson supported him in returning to college for his degree. “I got my degree in accounting and finished up in 2003,” he said. “And as soon as I got my degree, I was promoted to outside sales, relocated to San Antonio, from San Antonio to Houston.” In Houston, Peña earned a promotion to administrative manager and maintained that position for two years.
Once the dust had settled from the LaFeria plant purchase, Peña was selected for the top job as plant manager. “That was my ultimate goal, to become a plant manager, since I first started back in the ’90s when I was a laborer,” he said. As a production laborer all those years ago, Peña saw some things that could be changed for the better, but he was not in a position to do so. “But I figured if I became a plant manager some day, this is the way I would want to run my plant. And those are the things I am implementing right now,” he said. “I’ve been here for four weeks, but I’m already making changes – and we’ve been getting good results so far.”
Although Peña was still shuttling back and forth from Houston to the new job in LaFeria, his influence had already resulted in more efficient work methods by production workers. During his short time at the LaFeria plant, he has already implemented new transportation safety training and policies, which subsequently resulted in a 36 percent increase in product deliveries.
Production workers, particularly the Hispanic workforce, are already developing a great respect for Peña. Not only does he listen to their comments and suggestions with his open-door policy, he has been in their shoes and successfully made the long, uphill journey – and one might say against the odds – to plant management, as have other Hispanic workers in the Hanson system. But then he has earned the opportunity himself with hard work and a solid track record. “You too can do this,” he tells his workers, and so he has become an inspiration to them as well.
A relatively new product Hanson has developed may come to the LaFeria plant for manufacture. AeroDwell is a precast wall panel system made of cellular concrete using a foaming admixture that incorporates micro air bubbles for lighter weight without sacrificing inherent properties.
The 8-inch-thick walls include both exterior as well as interior finished surfaces. The exterior surface can be plain to accommodate a stucco finish, or textured surfaces such as brick or wood grain can be included at the factory. For the interior surfaces, a homeowner can hammer nails into it for hanging pictures or mounting hardware such as shelves.
Using the destructive forces of hurricanes along the Gulf Coast as a baseline, Hanson is making sure that its product will stand up to that kind of severe punishment by using weld plates at the tops and bottoms of the walls, which are welded to the ceiling and slab. “So even if you have a water event, it won’t take the wall down,” said Hahne. “Most of the houses in New Orleans are ruined because of the water damage.” He explained that all it would take for the precast system is a good pressure washing and perhaps replacement of the windows and carpets to make the home habitable once again.
And they go up quickly. “All these walls come to the job site completely ready,” said Mike Leathers, vice president of sales for Hanson’s South Central Region. Citing one example, a crew of three or four workers set up all the walls for a home in just three hours. “They got to the job at 7:30 in the morning, and the (walls for the) entire house was erected – interior and exterior – by 11:30.”
The product is 40 percent lighter than the typical precast wall panel, so it transports much easier. The panels also come ready for wiring through cast-in conduit raceways.
But perhaps the biggest benefit to come for homeowners is the fact that insurance companies are beginning to recognize the benefits of precast concrete homes where it has become increasingly difficult for homeowners to get coverage in the New Orleans area, for example. “We’re getting better mortgage points, better buyer insurance, better flood insurance,” said Leathers, referring to the product’s newfound acceptance. “If there is a fire or if there is mold or if there is a tornado or a hurricane, there’s not as much damage.”
It’s an exciting time for those who are living in the Rio Grande Valley, and that’s especially true for Hanson Pipe & Precast Inc. With its new strategic location in one of the hottest growth markets in the nation, the company is poised for great success in the region’s future.