Speed Fab-Crete, a precast manufacturer as well as a general contractor, is a one-stop shop for buildings and bridges.
by Ron Hyink
For decades, entrepreneur Dave Bloxom captured the attention of television viewers in and around Fort Worth, Texas, with his commercials touting the virtues of his general contracting business. It was a time when TV commercials were an attractive, effective and affordable option for even small businesses to promote their merits to the public.
The cost of TV broadcasting has skyrocketed so much since then that his company, Speed Fab-Crete, eventually backed off from the airwaves. But the commercials definitely had a lasting effect, as people will still call today to say they saw Dave in a TV commercial and decided to give Speed Fab-Crete a call.
“We haven’t done commercials on television in 20 years,” said Carl Hall, part-owner of Speed Fab-Crete. “People still remember those commercials – we did a lot of them.” Dave continued to build a successful business, however, in turn surviving and then thriving in the busts and booms of the decades that followed. By 1998, David Bloxom – the founder’s oldest son – along with a management team bought out Dave’s business.
The wall of fortune
The elder Bloxom founded Speed Fab-Crete in 1963. He was a general contractor who offered design-build projects before the term was ever coined. After experimenting with precast concrete wall panel designs of his own creation, the new company was born. “We still carry some of that design through with some of the products that we have right now,” said Carl.
“It was Dave and a few other guys, and they actually poured the panels and loaded them on a truck, took them out and put the building up,” added Carl. “It was a small group. And several of those people who started with him stayed with him their entire careers.”
At the time, the precast wall panels were rather small. “He had a truck with a little home-made crane on the back,” said Carl. “We still have the truck – it’s parked up there on the hill.”
Over the years, the company took advantage of manufacturing various precast products for other customers and contractors by creating its own designs of those products, thereby expanding its product offerings to include wall panels, MSE walls and bridges. Today Speed Fab-Crete is a rare breed that does everything from manufacturing small pieces for various customers to serving as general contractor for design-build, turnkey projects.
Carl, who oversees Speed Fab-Crete’s precast division, started with the company in the early ’80s. He and four others, including David Bloxom, formed the management group that took over the company. David is president of the firm; Ron Hamm is sales director; Jeff Spedding is in charge of operations and supervises all the construction; and Jim Barton is in charge of purchasing.
Speed Fab-Crete’s design partner since 1998 has been Callahan & Freeman Architects, led by Frank Callahan and Charles Freeman. The two firms share the same office building, which itself is a beautiful and awe-inspiring testament to the two companies’ design-build relationship. Recently Speed Fab-Crete also partnered with EDGE Design-Build Partners, which will represent the precaster in offering various products for construction projects in central Texas and Louisiana.
“When I first came to work at Speed Fab-Crete, turnkey projects were probably 20% of our business,” said Carl, adding that shells – precast wall panels manufactured for other contractors and owners who finished the projects – made up the rest. “And then after the slowdown of the ’80s, we changed up our business plan and we went after more turnkey work. Now 80% is turnkey and 20% is shell buildings.”
Soon after the management group took over the company, it went into the MSE wall panel business – but in a roundabout way. A local galvanizing company was supplying galvanized metal for MSE wall panels for another precast manufacturer. “They woke up one day, and the wall producer owed them more money than what he could pay, so the galvanizers took over the whole business,” said Carl. Suddenly the galvanizer was in the precast business. “He tried it for a while and absolutely hated it, so he came to us and asked if we’d like to partner.” The galvanizing company still provides all the galvanized metal for the MSE wall panels.
In September 2009, Speed Fab-Crete began designing, building and installing short-span bridges. Until that time, it had been manufacturing bridges for companies that mainly provided architectural and engineering services.
Rather than manufacturing bridges for others, the management team decided to get into the bridge business for themselves. Jeff Harwell, who used to bring the purchase orders to Carl for manufacturing the bridges, came on board with Speed Fab-Crete to lead SFC Bridge Systems. “We had engineers with 10 or 15 years designing these bridges,” said Jeff of the former company. “When I came on board with Speed Fab-Crete, I said we can engineer this ourselves. We can sell it and follow up on it, and work with local consulting engineers to have them specify the product.”
The “now” economy: public thrives, private dives
While the current economic downturn has had a negative effect for the entire country, some areas were hit much harder than others. “Texas was late in feeling the effects of the recession, especially the Fort Worth area, although we’re definitely feeling it now,” said Carl. Work in the private sector has been decidedly crippled, and now many businesses are hanging on to their wits along with some work in the public sector until the economy improves. “But fortunately we’re still going strong. I don’t think we’ve laid anybody off, and in fact on our general contracting side we’ve actually added people because of the work we’re doing in public schools.” (See the sidebar “Everman Schools: Cooking with Gas.”)
Fortunately for Speed Fab-Crete, it has enjoyed a long and sustained relationship with local car dealerships, and they have proven to be the ace in the hole from the private sector.
Years ago, Speed Fab-Crete built dealerships for Tom Durant, who owns the mega sized Classic Chevrolet. “He’s the largest Chevrolet dealer in the U.S. and he has been for five years,” said Carl. “We built the original dealership there, and we built everything out there for him.” Classic Hummer was the first Hummer dealership in the southwest United States, said Carl, “and we were able to design-build that for him at a considerable cost savings.”
Chevrolet is requiring all franchise holders to redesign their dealerships with a specific design, right down to the size, shape and location of the showrooms and offices, said Jeff. The experience with Classic has helped Speed Fab-Crete as a precast wall manufacturer to provide the correct configurations to other Chevrolet dealerships in the region and as a general contractor to provide a complete turnkey package. “The first prototype was built in St. Louis and very expensive, but we are able to design-build them at a savings,” said Carl.
A bridge too far?
For the bridge systems, a lot of the work is coming from the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT), because most private developers are still seeking funding for their projects. “Typically we’ll have quite a bit of private-sector work going through the plant, and we’re just not seeing it now,” said Carl.
“I have over 20 folders on my desk with preliminary drawings on bridges for private development, and they’re all just sitting there,” said Jeff. “People have already put money into it. They have these developments planned – bridges designed, streets laid out – that are on hold. Investors can’t get the money.”
But Carl adds a touch of encouragement. “I will say this,” he said. “Taking the country as a whole, I can’t think of a better area to be than the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I think we were one of the last areas to feel the recession, but I think we’ll be one of the first ones out of it also.”
Jeff and his SFC Bridge Systems division go to great lengths to get the nod for a bid, although it used to be tougher because of the lack of product recognition among specifiers and engineers. “It was a niche product. When I started doing this eight years ago, local engineers never heard of it,” said Jeff. “So it took a long time for engineers to accept this. There are minimal TXDOT specifications on it – we had to design and write all our own specifications. So now when I go out after all these years, we have specs on it, we have the history on it, we have all the calculations to show the vertical and horizontal loads, hydraulic reports and other technical information. We have all that down now, so it’s a lot easier going into business a year ago than it would have been six or seven years ago.”
To Jeff, it’s a matter of consulting engineers simply leaving bridges to a bridge specialist. “They have a stream to cross or a path to cross, then they have roads to build and pipes to put in and plenty of other stuff,” he said. “And I come in and say, ‘Tell you what, you just give me the information – how big the stream is and how much water is in it – and we’ll design the whole bridge for you.’ And they say, “Great, you do the engineering and all that.’”
So Jeff will come back with a set of preliminary drawings within a few days. “They’ll take a set of plans for the complete project, which could be 600 pages, and they’ll just slide our eight pages right in there,” said Jeff. “And when the general contractors look at the whole project, the bridge is detailed with our name on it. So we had it all done. That’s what really sells it, is doing all that work for them.”
Speed Fab-Crete has to do all the engineering before it ever gets the contract. “It’s not like you can just go in and give them a quote and if you get the job then you engineer the bridge,” said Jeff. “Nah! Doesn’t work that way. We have to figure out everything – all the costs, all the engineering, do all of those things, and if we don’t get the contract we lose that money.”
The Park in Dallas
As for the public sector, several projects are keeping Speed Fab-Crete’s mixers spinning. The precast pieces shown on the cover of this issue represent an unusual kind of product. “Those are called trenches,” said Carl. “Basically they are huge planter boxes.”
The trenches, to be delivered to neighboring city Dallas, will be used to create a park that will perch atop the Woodall Rodgers Freeway known as The Park in Dallas, a development sponsored by the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation. The trenches will be placed at ground level on concrete beams, essentially putting a cap over a freeway corridor that runs below grade. “The trenches will butt end to end, and then they’ll be filled with dirt,” said Carl.
The “dirt” will be a special blend of lightweight soil for grass, plants and trees, and a lightweight fill. Most of the park will have a 12-inch-thick layer of the special lightweight soil, and the trenches will provide the depth required for the trees. “They’ll create about five acres of plaza, joining two sections of downtown Dallas that are separated by a freeway,” explained Carl.
Capping freeways is not a new idea, although Dallas is leading several other cities in the nation with this concept that will bring greenery and sustainability to urban areas.
Getting all prestressed out
Speed Fab-Crete has had great success in manufacturing and installing precast products for other contractors, then taking that knowledge in-house to create its own brand of products. A logical next step, then, may be to invest in prestressing equipment. “We currently work a lot of hollow core and double tees into our projects, but we don’t manufacture hollow core or double tees,” said Carl.
“That’s what’s cool about a place like this,” said Jeff, thinking of the company’s future potential. “We get these ideas, and we not only have somebody interested in it, we have the skill and the land to do it, we have guys up at the office just dying to get into something else. We have a decent market in Texas.”
That’s the thing with Speed Fab-Crete – as a general contractor, it can build and install things for others and either buy the products or manufacture its own. As a precaster, it can create and manufacture its own designs and install them itself or sell them to others. At one extreme, it can precast small items and sell them, or at the other extreme it can provide a turnkey product – or do anything in between those extremes. It’s win-win.
Ron Hyink is NPCA’s managing editor and editor of Precast Inc. magazine.
Sidebar: Everman Schools: Cooking with Gas
It’s good news that Speed Fab-Crete can put up school buildings made primarily of precast concrete at great cost savings to the school district. It’s even better news that a blue-collar school district can have a first-rate school built for its children. That’s the story of the Everman School District, one of the poorest suburbs skirting Fort Worth, Texas.
The Everman School District, covering some 16 square miles, sits atop a vast natural gas deposit known as the Barnett Shale. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this equates to a windfall and lots of royalty money, but the decision by the school board to invest that money in interest-producing funds for the benefit of its schools – and its kids – is sheer genius.
Perpetuating that astuteness was the decision to build its schools with precast concrete for its quality, low cost and long service life, and Speed Fab-Crete was on hand to make it all a reality. “We’re the general contractor on the job,” said Carl Hall, part-owner of Speed Fab-Crete and manager of the precast division. “The construction of that building and all the other buildings we did was typically the same construction where we drilled piers into the ground, installed precast beams spanning from pier to pier, and then hollow core deck on top of the beams. The wall panels sit either on top of the deck or on top of the beam, but mostly it’s on top of the beam. So it’s a suspended building, and the reason for that is because of soil conditions.”
The result is a clean, modern series of school buildings with the most up-to-date amenities, including a large, open foyer where students can kick back in a casual atmosphere; spacious classrooms; a modern science laboratory; and a top-notch field house for its sports programs that rivals those of some of the best colleges.
Carl said the area had a lot of issues that held up progress on construction. “There were considerable underground obstructions that had been there for many years,” he said. “We weren’t aware of it and had to deal with all those issues – septic tanks, water lines, abandoned water lines, abandoned gas lines.”
Speed Fab-Crete saw the project through, and precast concrete became a part of Everman School District’s success. Unfortunately the City of Everman does not own much property to take advantage of the natural gas windfall, but then the school district, because of its wise investments, will not require the burden of future tax increases to build and maintain its schools. Building schools with precast concrete ultimately will add to the district’s independence.