Oldcastle Precast-Middle Island Traces its Success to a Constant Focus on Safety and Quality
By Bob Whitmore
Big city or small town. Mega-corporation or family-sized company. Oldcastle Precast-Middle Island is a study in contrasts. Located on Long Island, N.Y., just outside the orbit of the New York City megalopolis, Middle Island sits among a string of small towns dotting the 118-mile-long island that juts into the Atlantic Ocean on one end and connects to New York City via bridges and tunnels on the other. Given its prime location, it’s no surprise that Oldcastle Precast-Middle Island trucks the majority of its product to New York City, just an hour down the expressway. And while it is now part of the lineage of one of the world’s largest products and materials conglomerates, the company still resembles many successful family-run precast businesses, with a solid core of loyal, long-term employees who are experts in their areas, and a distinct culture that includes an annual family barbecue, regular recognition programs and personal attention to customers.
One of 55 plants in the Precast Concrete Division of Oldcastle Inc., the Middle Island facility traces its roots to two family enterprises and still retains many of the key employees from those earlier days. George Schramm, general manager, is the perfect example.
Schramm has been working at the facility for 30 years, starting at the Middle Island plant in 1979, when it was known as Vara Precast. He stayed with the company when it was acquired by Afco Precast, then remained when Oldcastle acquired Afco. Schramm began in plant maintenance, then advanced to foreman and plant superintendent. He was named the plant manager when Oldcastle came in, then promoted to general manager three years ago.
“I’ve seen a lot of opportunity at this company,” he said, “but you’ve got to like what you’re doing.” With 40 employees whom he refers to as his family, he obviously likes what he’s doing.
In a region of the country where commutes of an hour or more are commonplace, Schramm lives a block from the plant. All of his 40 employees are Islanders as well. Even though they’re in the shadow of the most densely packed and fastest-paced city in the United States, they are unaffected by it. Long Island culture is distinct from New York City’s urban lifestyle.
“I like it out here,” he said. “It’s still pretty much country even though the population has doubled in the last 15 years,” Schramm said. “It used to be all farms out here when I grew up. Now a lot of the farms are developments. That’s progress, I guess. What are you gonna do?”
The big shift at the plant came in 2001, when Oldcastle acquired the Middle Island facility along with another Afco plant in nearby Bohemia. The new owners had high expectations.
“They brought their safety culture into the plant for us,” Schramm said, “and they took quality a few steps higher.”
Oldcastle’s willingness to invest in safety and employee training, its intensive auditing process and overall business practices such as a code of ethics lifted the plant to a higher level and also helped it to strengthen some of its business relationships.
“Municipal vendors like dealing with us because of our code of ethics, because they know there’s no shady stuff going on, and that means a lot,” Schramm said. “That gives us a lot of pull with municipal work.”
The adoption of Oldcastle’s safety program was also an important step in the plant’s evolution. It required that every single person at the plant embrace the concept.
“It’s a dangerous business. You know it and I know it. So I was pleased to see that they (the employees) bought into safety, because let’s face it, if they don’t buy into it, it doesn’t happen,” Schramm said.
“In the beginning, naturally you’re going to get some push back. It was like that here. We had guys saying, ‘I’m not going to do that,’” Schramm said. “The negative people, they have to go anyway, otherwise you’re never going to get to your goals.” The current employees understand that working safely is a non-negotiable requirement. “We’re constantly pushing these guys,” Schramm said. “Pushing and pushing. It’s about pride. When we won a safety award we thought, ‘Wow, we won that,’ and we told the guys, ‘if you hadn’t bought into it, we wouldn’t have won anything. It’s more change than anything – change of culture.”
Louis Reyes, plant manager and a 13-year employee, takes it to a more personal level.
“I wouldn’t want to see my wife’s face or my kid’s face when George calls and says, ‘Louis got hurt.’ I just can’t picture my wife like that. So, do you think I want to go and tell somebody that their husband or their brother or their son got hurt? No way.”
As the plant manager, Reyes is on the front lines of both safety and quality standards. “We go by the rules – ASTM’s, NPCA, Oldcastle – and we respect everybody,” he said. “Every year we try to improve. My goal is to get better every day.” Reyes operates by a simple philosophy: “We want to do it right the first time. It costs money and time to make a repair, why not do it right the first time? We have a lot of experience – hundreds of years between us – so we make it happen here: safety, quality, efficiency. Everything goes together.”
Pat DeMuria, quality and safety manager, ties it all together with training. DeMuria started in the industry in 1974, working for Grant Prestress in Deer Park, N.Y. Along the way he learned the prestress side of the business, ran a pipe plant and did most of the other jobs. As part of his job, DeMuria runs the Safety Committee and stays on top of quality issues.
“There’s accountability,” he said. “Not to find fault, but to figure out the problem. We try to concentrate on the situation and not the person. That’s the culture we try to instill in everybody. Let’s not find fault, let’s figure out the problem.”
The attention to quality permeates the plant, starting with a 7 a.m. huddle every morning between the crew leaders and their teams. The forms are stripped and the product is inspected. The department heads then meet at 11 a.m. every morning to discuss quality and any other issues.
“Nothing is perfect, but if we see there’s a mistake or something’s not right, we work it out,” DeMuria said. “We bring it up at the table.”
Most issues are dealt with on the fly, during the production cycle. “There’s a lot of communication,” DeMuria said. “We all have walkie-talkies. The lead men have walkie-talkies and Nextels that everybody can hear.”
They keep the chatter going throughout the plant to make sure QC adjustments are made right away.
“A guy sees a problem with the concrete, let’s say,” DeMuria said. “He calls our concrete technician, Pablo, and he’ll say, ‘Pablo, the concrete’s too tight.’ It’s communication, because if the guy down below doesn’t tell the guy upstairs, how’s he going to know? He’s going to think everything is all right. Now he knows that he’s got to make an adjustment. If you complain about it four days later, what good does that do?”
Maintaining quality control is a challenge for all precast plants, but it becomes even more difficult in an open air facility is enhanced by its clean appearance. The 28-acre plant is neat and orderly, due to the “clean as you go” mandate. Cleaning is a “constant thing,” Schramm said. “If you let it go for a couple weeks, it shows. You clean as you go, otherwise you’ve got a mess on your hands. You have to reinforce it, but you don’t have to go around telling everybody every day. It’s a culture we’ve built up here.”
Schramm watches as forklift operator Rod Morganweck deftly picks a manhole riser from the production area and moves it to a tall stack on the other side of the yard.
“He’s been around 28-30 years,” Schramm said. “Just watch how easily he sets that thing down. These guys make it all come together.”
Climbing down from his forklift, Morganweck says he enjoys working in a plant where everything is kept clean and orderly. “This could be the messiest operation you’ve seen in your life, but look at that work station,” he says, pointing to a spotless area in the yard where just a few minutes earlier two workers were prepping a manhole form.
“Guys don’t want to work like animals. They give us the time and equipment to do it right. And we have the luxury of having experienced men,” he adds. “We don’t have a lot of turnover, and that helps a lot.”
Schramm agrees. “People think they’re going to save a few bucks laying people off; it doesn’t work. These guys work steady. They work all year round. The newest guy here has been here for like eight years. Safety wise – forget about it. If you’re changing people all the time, it doesn’t work. If you look at safety records, it’s always the newer guys who are getting hurt.”
The attention to safety and quality requires constant reinforcement and ongoing training, DeMuria said. They try to keep their employees happy, because they invest a lot of time and money into training, and they don’t want to lose them to competitors.
The Safety Committee includes employees from every area of the plant and the management team. Monthly meetings include standard fare such as discussions of near misses, accident prevention and outside deliveries. They also include special training. “We have certified trainers come in. We had a nurse come in and teach first aid and blood-borne pathogens. We had a forklift expert come in and teach sling safety. We do a forklift road test. We have defensive driving for delivery guys,” he said. “And all of this costs money. A lot of money goes into safety. Same with quality.”
After spending most of his career working for family-owned businesses, DeMuria was interested in working for a larger corporation, and he hasn’t been disappointed. “It’s a good company,” he said. “If there are things they can do for us, they’ll do it for us.” DeMuria said the employees appreciate that they are working for a stable company in a recession, but they also appreciate the family atmosphere that Schramm and the management team have created. It’s the best of both worlds, as far as DeMuria is concerned. “We read the papers too,” he said. “Everybody does a little extra because of George. He makes it all work for us. Even before he took the job (as general manager), he asked us, ‘Are you guys with me? Because if you’re not with me, I’m not taking the job.’ And we said, ‘Sure George, 100 percent.’ It’s important to have that camaraderie.”
Louis Reyes concurs. “We’ve been working together for so long we’re like a big family,” he said. “That’s what George tells us: You guys are my family. So many places, they don’t care. You just go home at the end of the day. We care over here. We care a lot. On big projects, we’re asking each other, what do you think, how can we do it better, how can we do it right. We get the best ideas – a little bit from over here and a little bit from over there, and that’s how we make it happen.”
The Middle Island plant traces its roots to the 1970s, when it was known as Vara Precast. In 1998, Afco Precast acquired the plant and it became one of three Afco plants on the Island. Oldcastle acquired two of the Afco plants in 2001, merging them into the Middle Island facility in 2004.
Oldcastle-Middle Island is one of 55 precast concrete companies in Oldcastle Precast, one of six divisions of Oldcastle Inc. Other divisions include Oldcastle Materials, Oldcastle Architectural, Oldcastle Glass, Oldcastle Distribution and Oldcastle Construction. Oldcastle operations include more than 1,900 locations with 40,000 employees in all 50 states and four Canadian provinces.
Oldcastle Inc. is the North American arm of CRH, one of the world’s leading building products and materials companies. Based in Dublin, Ireland, CRH operates in 35 countries with total employment of about 93,500 people.