Sanders Pre-Cast gets back to basics with customer service and quality.
By Ron Hyink
There was a time when a handshake was as good as a contract, and a man’s word was his honor. Business was a mindset based on honesty, integrity, a well-made product and great customer service. That “old school” way of conducting a business is an almost forgotten lore.
Mark Sanders is a holdover from that era, and in fact he’d rather endure a financial drubbing than go back on his word. As president of Sanders Pre-Cast Concrete Systems Inc. in Whitestown, Ind., Mark was actually placed in that predicament sometime back. “We had a guy who oversold us one year. It took a lot of hard work, but I bit the bullet and ran double shifts and made it happen,” said Mark, whose plant manufactures precast wall panels, MSE panels, hollowcore slabs and three-sided structures. “We could have walked away from it and said we don’t have anything in writing. But you know, I grew up the old way – if we give somebody our word, then we’re going to stick to it. And boy, did I like eating it? Not at all!”
Those old-fashioned ways, if we must call them that, provide a kind of legacy not only for individual employees but the company as a whole to follow. For example, Mark places a high priority on the well-being of his employees’ quality of life. “I’ve always been a fan of family comes first, whether you’ve got a soccer game or football game or volleyball or a play or something,” he said. “That happens one time, and you never get to see that again.”
As for the company itself, how it is perceived by its customers is important to Mark. Each employee must be well-versed in company operations, and so must learn all aspects of the job. “I want everybody to know each and every step, so there’s not one person who hasn’t been down in the trenches to figure out how the plates get put in the walls, how the cables install – everything,” said Mark.
Even the sales staff will get their hands dirty. “Whenever we get new sales guys in, the very first three or four weeks of employment here is in the plant,” said Michael Cook, general manager. “You’re going to get dirty, you’re going to know what goes on, how it works. And that is before they even go out in the field to sell. Like Mark said, you know what you can do and what you can’t do before you go out,” added Mike.
“It just makes you feel good that you’ve got good, loyal people behind you,” said Mark.
Sanders Pre-Cast is also a believer in community outreach and gets involved in many ways. It is a perennial sponsor of local sports leagues in football, softball, soccer and other sports. The company has been involved with foundation work for the Boys and Girls Club in the nearby town of Zionsville, and helped build a shooting range for the local sheriff’s departments and bought protection vests and other items for them. The banquet facilities at Sanders have also served as a place for fundraisers, such as a recent girls’ softball team. “It’s just part of being in a community,” said Mark.
Do they make these generous contributions for the glory? “No, I’d just as soon not be recognized,” said Mark. “I just leave it underneath the table and let it go.”
Like most businesses, Sanders Pre-Cast was hit pretty hard with the economic slump a few years ago, but managed to pull through it fairly well. “This is the fourth year going on five years, and I don’t know that 2011 is going to be any better,” said Mark, adding that some companies may not survive if they don’t diversify their product lines.
“We cut back on employees,” explained Mark. “We let some go, but we’ve hired most of those back. We cut people down from five days to four days – and some are still on four, but we still got most of those people back as well.”
Some employees who had left for other reasons were simply not replaced. “A lot of guys around here now are wearing a few more hats,” said Mike. “They know they’ve got to pick it up and just be a little bit more efficient.”
A closer look at expenses was made all across the board as well, explained Mike.
“We’ve cut people back but we’ve been able to keep our productivity up, and we just run a little bit more efficient,” said Mark. “You go out and start looking at things a little bit closer. I think if you’re going to survive through the downturn, you have to do that. If you don’t, then I don’t think you would survive it. And you’ve got to have a pretty good bank and an understanding of banks, and so far we’ve had that,” he added.
“Vendor relationships are big, too, because a lot of times when you’re bidding a project and you’re really getting your numbers down tight, the guys you worked with for so long, they’re a team and they know you’re going to be there for the long haul and they want to be a part of it,” said Mike. “We’ll do a lot of negotiating, and they’ll help us with that too, and it’s all about saving money. We’ve seen a lot of companies not raise their prices, because how can you ask for a price increase when nobody’s doing anything?”
Mark takes the same approach for his customers – with openness, honesty and integrity. “We try to do the right things at the right times, and if we’ve got problems we solve them then – we don’t wait it out and figure out whose fault it is,” said Mark. “I’ve always said in a business that if you don’t lie you don’t cheat on people, you treat them right. They’ll come back.”
Mike explained that it was this model of doing business that gave the company a solid reputation and brought customers through the door. It helped cement a solid relationship with at least one important client. “They were using another precaster and weren’t really pleased with the quality of work and the timeliness of deliveries, and heard nothing but good things about us,” said Mike. “That’s one thing Mark has always done. He’ll sit down and listen to you. He might not agree with you, but he always has time to hear you out. So we heard them out, and now we’re pouring bridge structures,” he said.
Mark got started in the construction industry at an early age in 1970. “I came out of high school at the age of 17 and went to work for a guy for about four years,” he said of his early experience with framing houses and making support foundations. “At the age of 21, I started my own business. And then in April of ’77, I still had the framing business and then started concrete foundations as well.”
From there, Mark expanded into the concrete foundations business and then into developing subdivisions. “I started building houses and condos and started Sanders Development Group, which built subdivisions,” he said. He developed subdivisions around golf courses, industrial parks and retail buildings, and he owned retail buildings in Avon, Ind. “We developed residential subdivisions in Boone County, Hendricks County, Marion County, Morgan County,” added Mark.
“That was the real estate development arm,” said Mike. “That was in the mid ’80s when he started developing property. We started building houses under the name Linmarc Homes in the late ’80s.”
In the late 1990s, Mark patented a precast foundation design for slab homes, an alternative to laying block, because there were not enough workers at that time to accomplish the labor-intensive work. It marked the beginning of Sanders Pre-Cast Concrete Systems, one of several Sanders companies. “So we designed and patented the system, and used it for probably four or five years,” said Mark. The panels were 18 inches high and up to 42 feet long, and were set in place with a crane. “We went in and set a foundation, and they could backfill it in 1½ to 2 hours.”
From there, the precast division expanded into wall panels, MSE walls, three-sided bridge structures and, soon to come, its own brand of wall panels (see the sidebar “Sanders Pre-Cast Patents New Panels” at the bottom of this post).
Walk into the Sanders Pre-Cast plant, and you’ll see a shop set up for efficiency. Everything is in its place and ready for the next pour.
Walk into the production offices, and you get that same feel. Lining the walls of the hallway are a series of printouts depicting several ongoing MSE wall projects. To the casual observer, the printouts taped to the wall look like simple line drawings of MSE walls with letters and numbers that make little sense, and squiggly lines pointing here and there. To Shawn Wirey, plant manager, they show exactly how a panel is to be manufactured and in what sequence, and whether each has been poured.
“Putting all the drawings up on the wall comes in handy,” said Shawn. All the information is stored on computer as CAD designs, of course, making the tape and paper exercise seem excessive. “But for our production supervisors to walk in here to see the walls and where we’re at on a job, it helps everybody out tremendously.”
Standard panels, specialty panels, elevations, ground slopes, top slopes, blockouts – all can be determined at a glance. “Every form that we have out there on the floor is right here,” said Shawn. “This is what we’re casting today, and if we see we’ve got some open forms, let’s throw some standards in there to make it a little bit of an easier pour. Or if 75 percent of these forms are standards, let’s throw some specialties in there and mix it up to where you still get a full day’s production. You fill all the forms, and you stay on schedule.”
Each panel has a unique number to be installed in a specific location, even though several panels may have the exact same dimensions. The intention is to be able to track each panel back to manufacturing and delivery in case of problems. Records for each panel will show not only mix designs and break tests, but when each was shipped and, with the help of a digital camera, how each load looked before it left the yard.
Markings etched into the edges of each panel tell the delivery driver how the load is to be sequenced on the job site.
Also aiding efficiency is safety and care for the workers. Rather than complying with OSHA safety standards for fear of being fined, the attitude here is protecting fellow employees by being proactive about safety. “I’m not worried about a fine,” said Shawn. It’s more important to focus on asking whether someone could get hurt performing an action a certain way. “A fine – yeah, you could pay that, but you can’t replace a finger or an eye.”
Having kids, Shawn said, makes you think differently about safety. “That’s the No. 1 thing – if you see something that is not safe and you ignore it, if you just keep doing your job, then you’re just as responsible as the next guy,” he said.
It’s all about caring. Mark Sanders built his businesses and reputation on it, and it shows in every area.
Sanders Pre-Cast Patents New Panels
By Kirk Stelsel
Success can be defined in many different ways. For some, it’s a finite goal. For others, it’s more of a lifelong pursuit.
Mark Sanders falls in the latter category. A serial entrepreneur, he has never been comfortable with complacency. Instead, he is in a perpetual mode of forward-thinking. This has led to the creation of a bevy of ventures that fall under the umbrella of several Sanders companies.
In the late 1990s, after more than 20 years in the construction business, Mark saw an opportunity to design and build his own proprietary machine to create hollow core slabs for residential foundations and seized it. The entire system was designed in-house and patented, and that project was the catalyst for the creation of Sanders Pre-Cast Concrete Systems in 1999.
As new opportunities began to arise, Sanders Pre-Cast expanded into other precast pieces including MSE and sound walls. While the current process has been successful for Sanders Pre-Cast, Mark felt there was room for improvement. So he sat down with a small group of people and asked how they could make it “better, quicker and more efficient.”
The answer, once again, was to create a patented system, designed in-house and unique from anything else in the industry. A team of four or five designed a system that will change the way Sanders Pre-Cast creates wall panels from start to finish. The next step was to have a prototype form built to see how it would perform. Much to Mark’s satisfaction, it worked exactly as he thought it would.
The result will be a reduction of a whopping two-thirds of the labor currently expended to create panels. The new system will allow workers to form panels standing up, rather than having to bend over, and enable two workers to strip a form, put it back together and pour again in just four minutes. Among the many benefits, Mark believes the greatest will be the huge difference in pricing due to the reduction in labor.
Despite the economy, Mark plans to increase the capacity of his main production facility, which already covers three acres under one roof. This will allow for future growth and facilitate the new wall system.
With the patent in place and the testing completed on the MSE wall, and nearing completion on the sound wall, the MSE system has been approved by the Indiana Department of Transportation, and the final hurdle is getting the sound wall system approved. Once completed, Sanders Pre-Cast will roll out the new system and consider licensing it to other producers based on demand.