C.L., Michael and Ross represent three generations of the Tidwell family, which owns Bartow Precast Inc. in Cartersville, Ga. Michael, who operates the precast plant, took a long and winding road to arrive at his destination of a thriving, profitable operation.
Story and Photos by Ron Hyink
If you should ever visit Bartow Precast Inc. in Cartersville, Ga., be sure to pack your GPS unit. The route leading from the bustling Interstate northwest of Atlanta will escort you into the rustic town, where you’ll have to negotiate several twists and turns to find the long, scenic stretch of country road that takes you to the plant.
In a similar fashion, Michael Tidwell, the company’s owner, has gone through many twists and turns in his life to arrive at his destination of a thriving, profitable operation. Likewise, he took an entirely new direction for the business to finally establish his company, a manufacturer of septic tanks, grease interceptors and its SureSpec line of water meter vaults, on a solid foundation of customer service, strong work ethic and positive attitude. Getting there, as they say, was half the fun.
Like many precasters growing up under the roof of a family-owned business, Michael decided early on that he wanted no part of running the business. Instead, his love for animals and his involvement in showing American quarter horses initially drew him to the animal health care industry, so off to college he went. “I had said I was going to be a veterinarian since I was 6 years old,” said Michael. A few chemistry and biology classes later, though, he discovered this wasn’t the right path for him. “Shortly into it I realized my heart wasn’t into veterinary medicine. And my dad had one of his operators out with some medical problems, so I came into the business just to help out.”
That exposure brought him closer to the business and its finances, which kindled a new interest in him. “So I changed my major to accounting,” he said. That landed him in the middle of the company’s sales figures and other numbers – good experience, except to Michael’s disliking it chained him to his desk. Eventually he was able to break that chain to pay more attention to all aspects of business operations, which he readily embraced. “So I decided to change to a management major.”
At that point, Michael was staying pretty busy working 30 hours or so a week and taking a full load at school. “It created a multitasking personality in me.” But it all came together after graduation, as the education and experience put him in view of the company’s entire operations. “I like being the big-picture person, I like the bird’s-eye view.”
A new direction
Michael’s father, C.L. Tidwell, a master plumber, along with Michael’s mother, Doris, started Tidwell Plumbing in 1959. By the 1980s, his father had spent a lot of his time installing septic tanks – or waiting on septic tanks to be delivered, to be more accurate. “He has always run his business on the basis that time is money, and so if you’re waiting on something then you’re paying your labor and you’re losing opportunities to do another job,” said Michael. So C.L. started to manufacture the septic tanks himself in 1985 and established Bartow Precast, a sister company to the plumbing business.
Time marched onward, and the precast part of the business slowly took shape. For a while, the Atlanta housing market was booming, right up to the outskirts of Cartersville, “and tank sales were good – good for all of us,” said Michael. “We had some competition, but it was just enough business for everybody and life went on.” As quickly as it surged, the building boom began to fade, and so Bartow Precast expanded into other drainage products to stay alive – but the profit margins just weren’t there.
Michael was handed the keys to Bartow Precast in 1999, and by 2004 he had made some gutsy decisions that would have a lasting impact on the company. “We were getting calls from local municipalities, and there was an opportunity in the utility vault market – and that really changed our focus,” said Michael. “We committed to that to the point of buying new equipment. We bid a municipal contract, and when it was awarded, we had several months to prepare for it. So that was our big stepping stone.”
Several things happened during that stretch. He bought a tractor-trailer with a large-capacity knuckle boom crane; he totally rebranded the company that culminated with a new logo and marketing strategy; and he turned his attention to quality control and refined production practices that began with a new engineer position, filled by Josh Gaines.
Rebranding was a key consideration of this new direction. More than just coming up with an eye-catching logo design, it involved a new mission, a new vision and a new product line. “Being in the plumbing industry, we were familiar with the process of how supply houses work to distribute for manufacturers. We wanted to be able to give our customers, the supply houses, something to sell – a brand – to give them some marketing opportunity. And so SureSpec was the name that we chose, and we trademarked that name and have been able to market and build websites and promotional items.” It was an opportunity for them to take an extension of Bartow Precast and have a quality branding process that its customers could share with their customers.
The new line of utility vaults provided a much better profit margin than the drainage products that Bartow had delved into, and so the company began
to build that niche market with the municipalities. “When I made that decision to focus on this, it just seemed like the path of least resistance for us,” said Michael. “So all these things began to happen, and as we hired qualified staff I was able to do more of my job of managing the business, creating a vision and helping us stay on track. So for us, all those physical changes were a way for us to change our way of thinking.”
Part of this new thinking combines customer loyalty with customer service. “We realized real quickly that the vendors who are there for you are the ones who deserve your loyalty, and we began to concentrate on that,” said Michael. “We wanted to create the same loyalty from our customers that we felt toward our best vendors. We wanted to become their best vendor.” His goal, he said, is to get the most business out of the fewest customers. Naturally he wants as many customers and as much business as he can get, “but we’d rather have 100 percent of the business from a handful of customers than a portion of the business from a large number of customers. If we don’t have 100 percent of someone’s business, then we need to figure out why – if it’s price, if it’s distance, availability. So yeah, repeat business is the only way we know how to do business.”
Developing an image
Long before taking the sharp turn in a new direction and its subsequent investment in new equipment, new positions and a new look, Michael had sought new ways of gaining an edge by improving his company’s product and image. NPCA’s trade show (now dubbed The Precast Show), educational courses and plant certification program offered a wealth of opportunity for growth.
“The trade shows were such a great opportunity to see new vendors and new equipment, and they are always in a fascinating location,” said Michael. “We went to shows for years, and then we jumped out there and became an NPCA member. And from day one, it was just an immediate feeling of belonging and a feeling of advantage – a book had been opened all of a sudden.” Now, he said, he knows where to turn for answers to his questions or where to find resources and advice. “And then we became more and more involved in that – PQS, the Production and Quality Schools – and when I hired Josh on, he and I both went through the Production and Quality School together.”Michael is now chairman of the Grease Interceptor Committee, and Josh is on the Underground Utility Vault Committee. “So we’re very fortunate and honored to have two positions on committees,” he said.
Josh, a graduate of Middle Tennessee State University’s Concrete Industry Management program, has seen firsthand the improvements made on QC. “When I got here, the QC department was a manila folder where some third-party people had come in once or twice a year and did some cylinder tests,” said Josh, who built his own QC program practically from scratch. “And so I was totally involved with it from day one – ordering the equipment, getting us a little building to have all of our lab stuff in, and really using the NPCA QC Manual as a guide on how to build a QC department. So it’s been cool to watch it evolve over the years.”
NPCA plant certification also offered them the incentive to tweak the production qualities they were already doing. “It’s given us an opportunity to identify any holes in our quality control program and add those processes to meet those certification requirements,” said Michael. “There’s no excuse for leaving out a step, there’s no excuse for doing a job this way today and that way tomorrow. So that standardization has really helped a lot.” Bartow Precast enrolled in the plant certification program for the first time in 2009 and performed very well, he said.
Consistent quality comes from consistently good production habits. “My crew does a good job taking care of forms,” said Michael. “I credit that to having staff that’s been here for a while.” He also attributes production quality to instilling a sense of ownership among his employees. The final product is only the final culmination of everyday quality standards, pride in doing a good job, and taking care of their tools and equipment. “We try real hard to encourage them that this is their stuff, they’ve got to work with
it. I think the biggest thing is that most every person here has been able to see this company evolve.” It all goes back to the concept of ownership, he said, when people see the change and when they see what the company is trying to accomplish and where each individual fits in.
Pride in the production practices carries through to pride on the job site as well. “All of our driver-operators, they know their part,” said Michael. “When they deliver a grease interceptor, they know the inlet from the outlet, they know how the product works, they know why we vacuum test. So they’re not just dropping it off in an excavated hole – they’re talking to the contractor about it. Same thing with the vault structures.”
Attitude from within
Convincing people to take pride in their work can be broadcast from management, but really, it’s an attitude that comes from within and is then developed to fit with the environment. Hiring the right people to begin with is the challenge. “We’ve come to realize that the biggest thing you need to look for in a person is attitude,” said Josh. “In a company like this, the cream really does rise to the top fast, and the people with bad attitudes are the ones that drop to the bottom. A person can have an infinite amount of knowledge and skill, but if his attitude doesn’t match it, his knowledge and skill will never pass up his attitude.”
Josh has seen such negativity, especially among young people who have not spent much time in the workforce. “Some people think they’re doing the company a favor – they show up to work and that had better be recognized!” he said. “I see it differently. It’s a privilege to be able to work, and it’s very surprising how many people don’t see it like that.”
Michael agrees. Once you hire a good-quality person and you begin to take those steps of growth, it’s easier to hire other quality people, he explained. “People say misery loves company. Well, a good attitude loves company too,” he said. “That’s something that we just don’t tolerate in the business is a bad attitude. No one really tolerates it in the company. I can’t imagine being in business or sitting at a desk where you don’t like the person beside you or where you don’t care.”
Maybe it’s the small-town character, or maybe businesses everywhere are starting to take on that family-like mentality. Either way, the word “family” means something special at Bartow Precast. “I think that makes a big difference too, being able to call your co-worker your friend and really mean it,” said Josh. “I really enjoy that part of the business, working from a relationship standpoint.”
It’s because of that nurturing sentiment that Michael cares so deeply for his employees. And it shows in the way he has handled the dismal economy and high unemployment rates prevalent in the country today. “We haven’t had any layoffs in this bad economy, and I think that most of us in this industry can say that the precast business had fared better than many other industries, even the ones that have experienced the bad times,” he said. “But when you’re going really strong, you’re getting a lot of loyalty from your staff to hang in there to get through the stressful days, to get through the long hours. But now that the economy is bad, it’s an opportunity for us to show some loyalty to our folks.”
Although he has had to cut back some hours, all of Michael’s employees still have their jobs. They’ve seen the news reports, they’ve seen what has been happening in other parts of the country, and they’re glad to be able to come to work every day with reduced hours rather than working three or four days a week or having no job at all. “So it’s been very nice, and it’s been a good thing to experience in an otherwise depressing economy,” he said.
Sometimes a trip down an unknown road leads in the right direction. When it involves solid customer support, pride of performance, positive attitudes and a family-like work environment, getting there is half the fun. “I don’t have any regrets at all,” said Michael.
Ron Hyink is NPCA’s managing editor.