A glimpse of growth: Mountain West Precast has charged out of its corporate youth and is striding confidently toward a prosperous adulthood.
Story and Photos by Ron Hyink
Stephanie Loud just wanted to earn some extra money to buy her family a boat, so she decided to work part-time for a family member’s incipient precast plant. That was the original plan, anyway, and as we all know things never go according to plan – instead of being at the helm of a boat, she found herself at the helm of the company. That all happened in a whirlwind-like 2002.
“And I still don’t have a boat,” she said. During her first few months, Stephanie quickly discovered that she had an inherent knack for running such a business, and so she soon took over and became the proud owner of Mountain West Precast, a manufacturer of highway barriers, pavement slabs and retaining walls in Ogden, Utah. By 2005, she had reorganized the company under her name.
Today she stands out as one of the few female owner/operators of a precast concrete plant. That distinction, along with her relative inexperience with precast operations during those formative years, proved to be hindrances along her path to earning respect in the industry. But Stephanie Loud is not one to back down from a little adversity, and in fact the pluck and determination of this self-proclaimed over-achiever would move her beyond those barriers time and again.
Barriers to making barriers
In order to be taken seriously in the precast world – both as a woman and as a rookie – Stephanie had to be firm in her business dealings and persistent in her study of how concrete and the precast industry behave as they do. For example, she soon found out that swapping her Subaru with the yellow flowers in the rear window for a Jeep Liberty made a profound difference in how she was greeted at a construction site. Once she cut through any false assumptions about her, she was able to use her confidence, knowledge and natural ability to gain the respect of others and get the job done.
When trying to gain a foothold in the business, she set about establishing a solid foundation by making sound decisions, including the selection of a competent office staff and production crew on whom she could rely and trust to consistently manufacture a quality product.
“I was the first sales rep that they hired here to share the sales duty with Stephanie,” said Randy Adams, who wears several hats including outside sales and estimating, project manager and production supervisor. “Stephanie was pretty much doing it all – sales and trying to bring on more products and managing and running the company. She figured if we’re really going to grow, we need to expand and get the word out there a lot more. So that’s where I come in.”
Another of Stephanie’s sound decisions was getting involved with industry organizations, particularly the National Precast Concrete Association, to help put an edge on her production skills. At NPCA’s Quality and Production School, for example, she met another precaster who, like her, depended on mixes from a ready-mix company, but dosed his own SCC chemicals on site at his plant. It’s not a true SCC, explained Stephanie, but a modified SCC with a very low water-cement ratio. “Because of my NPCA involvement, I’ve been able to meet these innovators who are doing different things that are very creative,” said Stephanie. “And it’s making us more creative, it’s making us really stand out in our state.”
Stephanie used that bit of innovation to create buttery-smooth finishes on her highway barriers that are noticeably attractive. “Beautiful product – even the state says our barriers are beautiful,” she said. “Nice, kind of shiny, almost a plastic sheen on them.” When she originally approached the ready-mix company about the idea of dosing her own SCC chemicals into the truck, she once again bumped up against the glass ceiling. And once again, when they realized she knew what she was doing, she broke through and gained their respect.
And the mix turned out to serve her very well. “It’s got a lot higher slump – we’re pouring a 9 on our slump right now – but we’re getting our water-cement ratio down to like .33 with chemicals,” she said. “So we’re still forcing the chemicals to change the behavior of the concrete, it’s just that it’s not a true SCC, but it’s getting very similar results.”
Weather or not
Stephanie also explained that the modified SCC is curing faster than conventional concrete. Her production workers cover the product with tarps, but there is little need for steam curing except occasionally during the winter months. “We seem to have a really good environment where we are,” she said. But it hasn’t always been so simple.
Mountain West had originally set up shop on a ready-mix company’s property in a canyon within yodeling distance of Ogden. “It was very cold down there, kind of a cold sink,” said Stephanie.
It was also very windy. Those who live near the mountains – or for that matter in the big city with its big skyscrapers – understand how the wind tunnel effect forces a breeze into a tighter area and turns it into a gusty wind. And when a wind is squeezed into that tighter area, it can become a force to reckon with as it comes howling down between the canyon walls. Those heavy curing tarps would flap like flags in a gale, and hardhats would fly off workers’ heads and roll along like tumbleweeds. But it took only a few short years for Mountain West to outgrow the land it was leasing, so Stephanie set about to find her own property.
“We bought our land in ’06 when we hit a pivotal point in our growth,” said Stephanie, referring to the office and production area on Ogden’s west side that had once been a farmhouse on a small section of land that had since been rezoned for heavy manufacturing. “Bought a little farm,” she said. “And now we have a lot nicer weather.” That makes all the difference for the all-outdoor production crew. “We’re kind of in a magic pocket actually. Some of the weather tends to miss us. It’s really nice – it will go all around us, but for some reason right where we are, we’re OK.”
The old place offered enough space for a small, new precaster to make a few highway barriers, which at first was Mountain West’s sole product. At the time, Stephanie had just 10 barrier forms that were not DOT-approved, and a very old forklift. “We sold barriers to cities, counties, that kind of stuff,” she explained. “But then it became obvious to me right away that we were going to have to get the DOT barriers.” By the time the next summer rolled around, in 2003, she did just that, and she bought a bigger forklift to handle them.
“Every product we make is a DOT-approved product, whether or not we’re selling it to a DOT customer,” said Stephanie. “That way we always pour to the DOT standards, so that we can always sell it to the DOT.”
That strategy brought in more revenue and with it a little more prominence for her and the company. But still there was more to be gained, so in 2004 Mountain West earned NPCA plant certification, and in 2005 Stephanie asked to be placed on one of NPCA’s product committees to further extend her networking within the industry and to gain more knowledge about precasting. “They (NPCA) said, ‘What’s your experience?’ I said, ‘Not a thing, but I’ll be the best committee member you ever had!’” So they put her on the Retaining & Sound Wall Committee, where she served as secretary and got to know other retaining wall manufacturers. One thing led to another, and she soon started producing her own retaining walls.
Stephanie then went on to serve on the Precast Concrete Paving Slab Committee and, again, started producing her own slabs. It turned out to be another good move. The paving slab market has grown over the past few years as state and federal highway administrators realize the value of time and cost savings the slabs provide. “If there’s a bad section of the road – potholes and cracks – they (highway crews) will go in one night, cut that section out, and our precast piece will fit exactly into that section,” said Kyle Blanchard, production manager.
Each paving slab may have its own unique dimensions, depending upon its placement in the highway. The contractor will prepare a specific shop drawing for each slab, and then Mountain West will set up the forms accordingly. Each slab must be cast to within one-fourth inch to comply with the maximum acceptable joint width of one-half inch. “We’ll determine whether we need dowel bars and mouse holes, and cast it,” explained Kyle.
The mouse holes, a key feature of the patented Super-Slab System, are slots cast into the bottom edge of the slabs. The mouse holes match up with – and fit down over – dowels previously installed in the existing pavement or in new adjacent slabs and then grouted. “The mouse hole is a dovetail shape, so once the grout hardens, it’s not going to come out.” It’s a simple but ingenious detail that provides a strong structural interlock between adjacent slabs.
Grout ports cast in the top of the slab allow bedding grout to be distributed to the bottom surface, where a series of channels – also cast into the slab – fills with grout to ensure the slab is fully bedded in its final position. “They’ll fill up one hole, and when it starts coming out the other hole, that’s when they know it’s full,” said Kyle.
Stephanie will soon add to her product offerings, and as is her style, she has put forth a lot of thought and planning. “I have the next product line all figured out,” she acknowledged, although she isn’t ready to divulge her ideas. But she is excited to talk about her new batch plant, which will be up and running by the time this magazine issue prints. “It was a great time to buy a batch plant – prices are good.”
Once again, Stephanie had done her homework on batch plant equipment before digging out her wallet. As she bounced from place to place and roamed the aisles of trade shows, she still ran into a few sales reps who at first didn’t take her seriously. But she was able to get some sage advice from her acquaintances through NPCA and distill it for her own research. “I’ve been working on this for a year and a half. I knew what I wanted,” she explained.
Stephanie explained that the new batch plant will arrive as a turnkey unit. “Everything will come all dropped into place. I’ll pour a foundation, and that’s it,” she said. From that point on, all she’ll have to provide is her own mix designs. “One thing we’re good at is mix designs.”
The new batch plant stands a very good chance of opening even more doors for Mountain West. “It’ll give us a lot more freedom on when we can pour certain things,” said Randy. “With state projects, the state inspector has to be here to test all the mud, so it still would rely on their schedule.” However, Randy and the rest of the crew anticipate having the new batch plant and having more control over their production schedules. “So it will be a very big benefit,” added Randy. “It’s just another sign that we’re legit – we’re growing!”
Sidebar: The art of a challenge
What does a person – a young grandmother who has a degree in fine arts, who paints, who plays piano, sings opera, speaks German, hikes in the hills and raises bees on a 10-acre spread in the mountains – do for a living? She makes precast concrete, of course. Whenever Stephanie Loud sets out to accomplish something, she puts her heart, mind and soul into it, tapping into a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy.
Having raised five children, we can add to that list Chief Operating Officer, hockey mom, nurse, PTA president, ethics coach, local government activist, impromptu child psychologist (one daughter called from college while Stephanie was proofreading this) and a host of other qualifications.
A peek inside her office hints at her disposition. Adorning the wall in large letters is a quote, which she says sums up her life in a nutshell: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” It’s an inspiring reminder of an article phrase-turned-book title by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in which she examines how notable women have shaped history in America and around the world.
So why precast concrete? “Because it’s artistic – I feel like I am sculpting with concrete,” said Stephanie. “Also because it’s a challenge, and I never have learned how to walk away from a challenge.”
Artistic and challenging – now that’s something most precast plant owners can identify with as they immerse themselves into their craft. Not that you would ever confuse a grand piano with a traffic barrier, but there is something to be said about expressing oneself through artistic ability so that others may appreciate it too.
That’s the world in which Stephanie thrives – if it’s artistic, it was probably challenging; if it’s challenging, it will surely have an artistic flair by the time she is done with it. She would expect nothing less out of life.
Ron Hyink is NPCA’s managing editor.