Tricon Precast Ltd. surges beyond the expansive Texas state lines with its sound wall, retaining wall and short-span bridge products.
By Bob Whitmore
With far more miles of highway than any other state, Texas offers fertile ground for a precaster looking to grow a retaining wall business. But the owners of Tricon Precast Ltd. were thinking big when they developed their patented retaining wall system – bigger even than the Lone Star State, which spans nearly 268,000 square miles and comprises more than 7 percent of the land mass of the United States.
No, Mike Ogorchock and Gilbert Flores weren’t about to be confined by borders. With classic “don’t fence me in” Texas mojo, the two partners have built an operation that spreads out far from the center, like one of those large ranches that ramble across the state.
Ogorchock, originally from Pennsylvania, and Flores, who comes from the San Antonio area, have built a partnership that spans more than 20 years. Tricon Precast started slowly, producing mainly concrete traffic barriers. But the partners had an idea for a retaining wall system. Over time, they tested and tweaked their system. Working closely with the Texas Department of Transportation, they eventually developed a retaining wall system that meets TxDOT and AASHTO standards and is gaining acceptance across the country. The system is now approved in 28 states, with applications pending in 13 others, Ogorchock said.
With the home plant in north Houston that spreads across 47 acres, and a second large plant in northeast San Antonio, the Tricon operation has plenty of Texas-based capacity – with a reach that expands in all directions through the licensing of its systems to other precasters.
The company’s mechanically stabilized earth system (MSE) – trademarked as the Tricon Retained Soil Wall System – now forms the core of the two partners’ business, with nearly two-thirds of the product they manufacture stacking up as MSE walls.
But that’s just part of the story. Tricon continues to flourish – even in these challenging economic times – because of at least three key business principles: they are close to their customers, they are continually working to improve their product, and they are dedicated to meeting deadlines and solving problems for customers.
From ready mix to precast
The company traces its roots to the ready-mixed side of the concrete industry. Mike Ogorchock is one of those guys with concrete dust in his veins. He grew up in the industry, working for the family ready-mixed company, Dubrook Concrete, located in Dubois, Pa., and learning all sides of the business from the ground up. Ogorchock’s two sons are continuing the tradition. Son Michael is operations manager at Tricon, while Kris is the production manager. In the mid-1980s, Ogorchock and partner, Bob Duffin, were operating a small precast company, Varicon Products. Flores was a general contractor doing work for TxDOT when their paths crossed.
“I was doing a road repair job just north of Houston and needed some specialty concrete,” Flores said. “I approached Mike and Bob. They had a small plant at the time and agreed to set it up close to the job site. We did that job and it opened discussions for future ventures.”
The three kept in touch, and about 18 months later, the two original partners brought Flores into the company, forming a new venture they called Tricon, with “Tri” symbolizing the three partners and “Con,” of course, representing their material of choice.
“We formed the new venture to make a variety of precast products, and we started out doing a lot of highway barriers at first,” Flores said. The partners soon realized that traffic barriers are not a niche product – most precasters make them and they are readily available. Also, DOTs tend to stockpile them, so there is not an ongoing demand.
“We started researching the market and looking into other products,” Flores said. They discovered a potential niche in the retaining wall market and started developing their own retaining wall system. Meanwhile, they were precasting on leased property, and also realized that if the retaining wall product line took off, they would need to own their own land. “We knew we couldn’t stay under a lease-type situation,” Flores said. “In the wall business you tend to have lots of product sitting out in the yard. By having our own property we knew we could get active in the wall business and have space for product. We have to sit on them (the walls) sometimes for a couple years – so you don’t want to lease and then have to move.”
After several years of testing, the company earned TxDOT approval for retaining walls in 1990 and started a period of slow growth. By 1997, Duffin was ready to retire, and Ogorchock and Flores bought out his interest and continued developing their business.
“At about that time, we really started to expand,” Flores said. “We added property and facilities, and we poured everything we made back into the business.” They added equipment, built automated production lines to add capacity and continued to crank out walls, traffic barriers and a variety of other products. “It’s a process that has been going on basically the last 10 years,” Flores said.
When they were firmly established as one of the major players in the national retaining wall market, the partners started looking for new fields to plow and created a short-span bridge system, which is trademarked as the Redi-Span Arch Bridge System. They have also developed a steel/precast composite element trademarked as the Con-Struct Prefabricated Bridge System.
Stacked and ready to go
A tour through the yard at Tricon’s Houston plant reveals 8,000 to 10,000 retaining wall panels, in a wide variety of architectural finishes, bar-coded, stacked and ready to go when TxDOT or the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) is ready for them. The Tollway Authority is one of the new style of public-private partnerships that have emerged around the country in recent years. The NTTA is a political subdivision of the state of Texas, with a mission to construct, maintain and operate turnpikes and charge tolls to help pay for those services. The NTTA could be letting up to $1 billion per year for the next 20 years in highway contracts in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex. Tricon has already won two contracts to provide retaining walls to NTTA projects. Featuring a three-dimensional prism-shaped design, Tricon’s NTTA panels will form a distinctive ring around tollways in the Dallas area in coming years.
The NTTA work and Tricon’s ability to gain approval from other state DOTs stemmed from its close relationship with TxDOT, which is part of the “know your customer” philosophy the company fosters. “The state of Texas is one of the biggest users of MSE walls in the country,” Ogorchock said, “so if you can get approval in Texas, you should be able to get approval in most other states.” With more than 10,000 miles of highways, the state has more than double the highway miles of California, which is second.
In terms of business strategy, it is a “think globally, act locally” duality that the company practices. While Tricon’s management team is always looking beyond Texas in recruiting licensees and adding additional states to its DOT-accepted list, the sales team stays busy developing the fertile Texas market. Tricon sales engineers travel throughout the sprawling state, calling on county engineers, DOTs and local government. With 254 counties and more than 1,200 incorporated cities, there are hundreds of potential specifying entities.
Like many precast companies, Tricon seeks to educate specifiers and decision makers about the benefits of precast. In a rural area, a bridge may be a community’s lifeline for school buses, mail carriers, emergency vehicles and other vital traffic. Showing local leaders how a short-span precast bridge can shave days or weeks from a potential road closure can pay big benefits, Ogorchock said. “You have to let them know what you’re doing,” he said. “It takes time, but it’s worth it.”
One of those bridge products is the Con-Struct Prefabricated Bridge System, which Ogorchock describes as a “fast deploy economical, low-maintenance bridge superstructure system. The Con-Struct system consists of galvanized steel trapezoidal box girders that connect to a precast concrete deck. The bridge can span up to 100 feet and be erected quickly, which makes it ideal for rural areas. Tricon is also working to promote its Redi-Span system, which provides an alternative to the box culvert-based design.
DOT by DOT
At the national level, Tricon licenses its retaining wall system to high-quality precast manufacturers. Licensees include Concrete Systems Inc. (New Hampshire-New England region), ADL Systems (Michigan), McCann Concrete (St. Louis area) and Mountain West (Utah).
“We do the engineering work and provide the forms and certain components,” Flores said. “The licensees market the system locally, do the casting and deliver the product.” DOT approval is critical to the growth process, and gaining approval from DOTs is a state-by-state process that varies greatly across the country.
“We started going through the approval process, working mostly from east to west,” Flores said. “Then once we have the approvals, we recruit good precasters to produce the products. Over the years it’s worked out pretty well. We have good representatives in the other regions. They all have their own contacts and customer bases in place, so it makes more sense to license to them.”
In addition to looking across the United States, Tricon has looked across the U.S. borders, both south and north. The company has gained a toehold in the emerging market of Mexico and is also tracking interest from its outreach into Canada, where the short construction season makes precast bridge systems even more attractive.
While the bridge products represent a growing opportunity, the retaining wall business is still the company’s steak and potatoes. Retaining walls comprise about two-thirds of the company’s product mix. Tricon remains one of the leading traffic barrier producers in the state of Texas, making both standard barriers for TxDOT work and custom designs for race tracks, and security at petrochemical companies, refineries, airports and other industries. Sound walls, bridges, privacy fence and other products round out the mix.
Like most innovative companies, Tricon isn’t resting on its accomplishments. The company is continuing to refine its retaining wall system. Last year, when steel prices spiked, Tricon sought ways to mitigate the increased cost of the steel. “We’re constantly tweaking the tieback system, trying to reduce the use of steel,” Flores said. “We’re toying with those kinds of things all the time.”
The two partners continue to push the company forward – each one working from his own unique perspective. “Mike knows more about concrete than anybody I know,” Flores said, “whereas I’m looking at it more from the other side. I think more like a contractor or an engineer. It’s a good synthesis. Together we are able to come up with a lot of ideas to help solve some of the difficult problems that a contractor might run into.”
Even with a recession in the construction industry now in its third year, the partners remain in a growth mode. Their goals are to “continue to expand nationally with the retaining wall system, build the bridge business and bring our Texas plants up to full capacity,” Flores said. “We also plan to continue to gain approvals from DOTs, recruit more licensees, develop Mexico even further and expand into the Canadian market.”
With the North Texas Tollway Authority, DOT work, local municipalities and the prospect of up to $2.5 billion in federal government infrastructure stimulus funding flowing to the state of Texas, Tricon may need some of that extra capacity soon. “If that happens, we’re going to have to put our foot to the pedal,” Flores said.
The partners, the management team and Tricon employees exemplify the culture of the company, Ogorchock said. “We can’t replace a customer by not treating them in a first-class way,” he said. “One thing we stress is service. We want to create a culture of service, helping our customers solve whatever problem they may have, making sure they don’t lose any time because of us and even helping them to accelerate their time frame so they can have a successful result on their projects.”
Bob Whitmore is NPCA’s Director of Communication.