By: Ron Hyink
Dellinger Precast Inc. was made with the bricks of hard work and the mortar of lasting friendships upon the cornerstone of quality products and dedicated employees.
Forty years ago, Gary Dellinger came home from Vietnam and, with little more than pocket change, went to work on his parents’ farm in rural North Carolina. One Friday while baling hay, the 23-year-old saw his future drive by right in front of him. It was a truck with a precast concrete septic tank and rig passing by on the country road next to the farm near Denver, N.C.
Immediately he thought, “No one around here makes those – they have to be hauled in!” Everybody out here has to wait a week or two weeks to get a precast tank, he said to himself. So he jumped in his car, followed the truck and watched as the driver set the tank, then followed him to his home base in Hickory, N.C., some 30 miles away.
Gary thought, “I can do this. It’s just manual work – when you’re raised on a farm, you can do this.” He would soon learn that concrete manufacturing calls for more than just muscle and a market for septic tanks when he established Dellinger Precast Inc.
Pursuing the truck driver all the way back to Hickory unleashed a new life and enduring friendships for Gary. The driver’s father manufactured rigs and forms for concrete, among other things, and was more eager to build and sell those rather than cast and deliver tanks all over the countryside. “At that time they made – and still do – septic forms, burial vault forms, box forms, about anything you want,” said Gabe Dellinger, Gary’s son who now runs Dellinger Precast. “But they also were in the precast business. My dad just went up there and met them and said, ‘I’d like to start manufacturing septic tanks.’”
Gary told him that he didn’t have much money, so the man gave him a set of used forms and told him to pay him back when he started to make some income. Until then, he said, just take them and use them. Dellinger has continued to buy forms from him since then.
Gary set up shop on a patch of land on his parents’ farm where nothing would grow. “There was an old roadbed there,” said Gary, which explains the barren nature of the soil, although the family had found it useful for raising chickens.
“I started out in a little shed that I built for an office,” said Gary, recalling that things started out extremely slow. “I couldn’t get anybody to buy from me. About every hour, I would pick up the phone to make sure it had a dial tone, because the phone wasn’t ringing.” Eventually he got some business, and his first two buyers turned out to be lifelong customers and friends.
Speaking of lasting relationships, Gary hired his first employee, Terry Mathis, who is still with him after 38 years. “We poured outside,” said Gary of those early days, and when that meant freezing weather, the curing process took place under home-made plastic tents. “We put a blow heater on one end and pieces of concrete around the edge and would blow it up like a big hothouse. And we would let it run all night.” The next morning, the heaters would be out of fuel, and the concrete would be cured. When enough light had gathered at daybreak, they would strip and oil the forms – or sometimes it meant working under the beams of the delivery truck’s headlights. “We did that 15-20 years outside.”
Gary relied on ready-mix deliveries every day to meet his pouring schedule, and it turned into another one of those close-knit relationships upon which he built his business. He got in so tight with the delivery driver, in fact, that the driver would pour the forms if Gary wasn’t able to get there in time.
But then a cement shortage in the ’80s changed all that. Gary could no longer get concrete deliveries, because the ready-mix company’s customers were mostly in a neighboring town and, with limited supplies, couldn’t be bothered to make the 15-mile trip to Denver. Then one day a cement supplier stopped by and suggested that Gary build his own batch plant, promising to provide all the cement he needed. Gary and Terry rolled up their sleeves, put up the batch plant and bought a used concrete truck from which to pour their own mixes. It was a move that eventually would mark the beginning of Dellinger Precast’s phenomenal growth.
Building a business
Gary has always had a thing about keeping plenty of finished product on hand. Although costly in the short term, the promise of a quick delivery frequently proved to make the difference in whether he got the sale.
And word got around. The City of Charlotte heard about the company, and came to ask if Gary would make water meter vaults. “The people they were buying from were making them wait a week, two weeks, three weeks,” said Gary, adding that they were charging too much on top of the lengthy delivery times. “Then they gave me a three-year contract so I could pay for everything.”
Remaining true to his word, Gary kept plenty of stock on hand to tend to the needs of the city. “We have 50 of each size on the yard,” said Gary. “Even though it’s expensive, you make more money off your inventory than you can in a bank. We’ve always believed in that. As you look around our yard, you can see we have a lot of inventory.”
Gary, along with “he can build anything” Terry, continued to build and add and grow, eventually leading to their current 40,000-sq-ft production facility, which sits on a 35-acre chunk of land five miles from the original location. “They went from a backyard operation to what it is today – it just took off,” said Gabe. “My dad is real ambitious, so that’s the main reason the business is where it is today.”
Although Gary handed over the business to Gabe, he is still very much involved. “He’s always looking into the future,” said Gabe. “He’s not just sitting here looking at today, and that’s our biggest help. We’re rushing around so much trying to make stuff happen and make a living right now, and he’s sitting back looking at the future. He’s smart, he’s real business-smart. He’s got vision like no one I’ve ever met.”
Part of that vision is to provide a quality product, and that is one of the many tasks assigned to Nicole Dellinger. Nicole, Gabe’s wife, serves in the demanding role of quality control manager and office manager. In addition to overseeing forms and product quality, checking loads and inventory, and staying on top of break testing and the safety program, she is the go-to person for the NPCA Plant Certification Program. “Plant certification has helped us ensure that we are producing the best-quality products for our customers,” she said. “We have also received more jobs because we are an NPCA Certified Plant.”
Gabe said that he expects North Carolina to start requiring NPCA Plant Certification for DOT precast products in the near future, and he is poised to take full advantage of it. “All the stringent testing you have to do with NPCA falls right into the DOT guidelines,” he said.
Building up and building down
Gabe took over the day-to-day management of the plant six years ago, but long before that he was busy gaining hands-on experience. “It was kind of a long process,” said Gabe, who went to work at the old plant full-time right out of school. “I grew up in the plant. In high school, I’d work in the evenings and on weekends, and work in the summers. Yeah, I’ve been doing this all my life.” He started out working in the plant, then drove a delivery truck, and then went back to the plant and batching concrete. “I just kind of worked my way up, and that’s all I’ve ever done.”
Once the new plant was built, Gabe said business really started to open up. “About eight years ago, we built this plant, and in the first year and a half we more than doubled in size,” he said. “The sky was the limit!”
At the old plant, most of the work was performed under open sky, and amenities were rather sparse. “All we had were our boom trucks to pull our stuff off with,” said Gabe. “Then we moved up here. We’ve got gantry cranes and overhead cranes in our building, and it just went wild. Of course, the economy was good then, too.”
Dellinger Precast began to offer 4-ft-diameter manholes all the way up to 12-ft, and 10-by-20-ft boxes and even bigger, and that included some DOT work. “But our biggest thing before the economy went bad was subdivisions,” said Gabe, adding that subdivision work means lots of catch basins, sewer manholes, water meter vaults and other products.
During those good times, Gabe likened the office door to a revolving door because of the number of customers coming and going. “It was like that every day, all day,” he said. “We were working daylight to dark. We didn’t have a sales force – we didn’t have to! All we had to do was make quality products.”
And then there was the economy thing. When it went bad, work dried up suddenly and coldly. “Just a snap of your fingers. I mean, it was like the water spigot was running and it just cut off,” recalled Gabe. For a month and a half, Dellinger received not even a single job and was forced to cut prices. “We didn’t have a choice. It was either that or die a slow death.” Then they changed their whole business model as more DOT work opened up. “We started going after everything. We’ve got two full-time estimators now, and all they do all day long is find work and bid it.”
During the now-extinct robust economy, the company was pouring between 120 and 130 yd a day. “Now we’re doing between 70 and 90,” said Gabe. The number of employees peaked at 48, and is now down to about 42.
Building it bigger
Commercial work is slowly starting to come back, and Dellinger recently contracted to make products for a subdivision for the first time in more than a year and a half. “We’re seeing more commercial jobs bid, so I think everything’s looking up,” said Gabe. “But it’s slow here.” And so DOT work is still decidedly the option that will put bread on everyone’s tables.
Rather than butting heads with other precasters over smaller products, Dellinger tends to gravitate toward larger and more complex products. “We like the bigger jobs,” said Gabe. Not only is the profit margin wider with the larger products, the competition is narrower. Due to a little wizardry in the face of engineering and transportation challenges, Gabe and Terry recently built a box of mammoth proportions for a sewer treatment plant in Rock Hill, S.C., nearly 50 miles away. “They unloaded it with a crane,” said Gabe. “The crane picked it up, and its scales read 75,200 lbs – one piece. But then there were three pieces on top of that,” he said, adding that the total structure was 24 ft tall installed.
“We had to get a friend of ours to haul it, one of our customers, because our trailers couldn’t handle it and the tractor couldn’t handle it,” explained Gary. “We didn’t have enough axles on any of them.”
The main piece of the sewer treatment plant was an 8-by-10-ft diversion structure stretching more than 12 ft high. Cast with weir walls inside, it catches debris and diverts the sewer to two 6-by-6-ft boxes on each side, also manufactured by Dellinger, then flows into the treatment plant. “This was the biggest piece to come out of our plant,” said David Burgess Jr., the operations manager.
Usually the company would cast such a large structure in place, explained David, as the concrete is still batched at the old plant and hauled to the new plant in their own ready-mix trucks. “We are self-sufficient. We haul our own rock, our own sand, our own cement,” he said, adding that his crew can perform on-site core drilling up to 28 in., and up to 48 in. at the plant.
Coring at the plant is still an outdoors operation, although a new building is currently being constructed to accommodate a 10-ton crane and a new coring machine featuring a water recycling system. During coring operations, the water will run into a washout pit where the heavier sediment will settle to the bottom, and the water will be filtered and returned to the coring machine. Until then, the slurry will be used wherever possible. “It’s a good cure for potholes in the yard,” said David.
Building a future
Every now and then, Dellinger reaches out to do new things to maintain its posture of growth. “It might be something small, it might be something big,” said Gabe. “When you’re in business, the way we look at it, you have to grow. If you don’t grow, you’re going to die a slow death. You can’t stay the same size. You don’t have to grow in leaps and bounds, but you have to grow a little bit every year.”
A few years ago, for example, the company had bought its gigantic 10-by-20-ft form. “We said we’ll save money,” said Gabe. “We’ll pay the expense now, but it’ll pay for itself and make us more money in the long run – and it has.”
This year so far he has purchased two new forms. “We bought a mono-bend form,” said Gabe, explaining that it will save considerable time when making structures for wastewater conveyance systems. “You can pour the invert and everything in a one-piece pour. And we purchased the distributorship on it for half the state of North Carolina.” The other form he purchased was for making box culverts. “We’re going to get into box culverts,” he said.
Another area in which Dellinger may have great success is prestressing, specifically bridges. “It might not happen this year, it may be next year, but we’re looking into it,” said Gabe. “We’re not going to jump into it until we’re ready.”
Growing incrementally has proven to be a success pattern. “To us, businesses are like children. You start them, you nurse them along, and you put everything you’ve got into them and hope they will take hold and grow and mature into something that you’re proud of,” said Gary. “And so far it has.”
Both Gary and Gabe attribute their success to their customers and employees, who are really like family. “The customer is all you’ve got – your customers and your employees,” said Gary. “And that’s the way it is.”
Gabe agrees. “We don’t operate with a corporate attitude, we still operate with a family-owned attitude,” he said. “All our people are like family – it’s pretty much just one big family business.”
Ron Hyink is editor of Precast Inc. magazine.