It has weathered the economic storm and, despite it, even acquired a plant and new product lines. Like any success story, though, the narrative needs a beginning, and Shea Concrete’s story starts in the backyard of the family’s home in 1949. Its story is much like family-owned precast companies across the country, made possible thanks to hard work and tough decisions that have transformed it from a small operation to a top producer in New England.
The early years
Shea Concrete was founded by Ernie Shea as a concrete block wholesaler in Wilmington, Mass. He remained in this business until the ’60s when a customer suggested he start manufacturing precast concrete septic tanks. At the time, precast concrete was still establishing its place in the building products industry, but Ernie saw the potential so he purchased the company’s first form, a 750-gallon septic tank, from Norwalk Precast Molds.
Casting the tanks back then was nothing like what you’ll find at precast plants today. The “plant” was the backyard of the family’s home, and production was done outdoors without the assistance of batch plants, automated mixers, gantry cranes or any of the other machinery in modern plants. Instead, employees hand-batched concrete with a quarter-yard mixer and some shovels. Once the concrete was batched, they would run wheelbarrows up wooden planks and dump the concrete into the form. Each tank took one yard, meaning four batches of concrete.
When Ed Shea, Ernie’s son and current owner of Shea Concrete, thinks back on what it was like working for his father early on, his tone is a little nostalgic but also very serious. “It was awful hard at the beginning,” he says. “Everything was done by hand and everything was outside. It was hard, hard work, but we were young – it was part of the deal.” The work was grueling, but entering the precast business would prove to be a wise move for the company.
Shea Concrete had just a handful of employees in the ’60s, including a high school kid named Bob Flores who showed up at the Shea’s house in 1967 looking for a summer job. Ernie very matter-of-factly told Bob he’d hire him, but that he “wouldn’t last a week.” He did last, though, and by the end of the summer he asked if he could come back the next summer. “Ernie looked at me and said, ‘Nobody comes back next year,’” Bob recalls, “but I liked it.”
A slight grin comes to his face when he thinks about wheelbarrows of concrete occasionally tipping as they ran up the planks or pouring 10 yards a day with only the quarter-yard mixer. As a distant memory, he finds humor in how hard simply pouring a form was. “At the time, we were pretty much like the Flintstones,” he says. “It could be a blizzard and we were out there pouring concrete. We’d cover everything with tarps and have portable heaters that would run all night.
“You’d come in the next day and have snow and water from the melting, and the tarps would all be destroyed. It was horrible.”
Bob has now racked up 44 years with Shea Concrete, a feat that stands in stark contrast to today’s employment landscape. He was there for the birth of Ed’s kids, has seen them grow into adults and influential members of the company, and has always been Ed’s go-to guy. “Bobby’s been such a key player for me all these years,” Ed says. “It’s unheard of to have someone work for you 44 or 45 years, but I don’t think Bobby and I have ever had a misunderstanding. We’ll sit down for a meeting and we’ll both have the same notes before we even get there.”
Ernie was a conservative man and cautious about growing the company, so Shea Concrete was successful but remained small. When Ed and Judi took over, they brought a new personality and business approach. “My father did very well, but we just did things different,” Ed says.
Ed is the definition of a “people person,” and he has used his interpersonal skills and innate business savvy to establish the Shea Concrete brand. His persistent optimism and unconditional honesty have become synonymous with the company. “Eddie is hard working, caring, honest and very well respected,” Bob says. “I’ve never heard a bad word said about Eddie.”
Never one to shy from a challenge, Ed has expanded the scope and reach of Shea Concrete exponentially through acquisitions that have brought new product lines, customer bases, equipment and locations. Thanks to the relationships he has developed with fellow precasters in the region, some competitors have even come to him when they were selling, because they knew he would take care of their customers.
The path for Ed hasn’t always been clearly marked or easy. In 2001 he put up everything he owned for collateral to make his largest acquisition, only to have the 9/11 terrorist attacks that rocked the country happen shortly after. “The plane hit the tower, and then another one hit and I’m thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’” he says. “I thought, ‘We’re going to be at war and no one’s going to want to buy a septic tank.’ Things turned around, but I was real worried about that time.”
Time and time again, his decisions have proven to be the right ones for the company and its employees. Thanks to that, the company that had just one delivery truck when he took over now has 24. The employee base has grown from six to around 80 – as high as 100 before the recession – and it now has four plants. “I think we’ve made a lot more good decisions than bad decisions,” Ed says. “We just kept growing and growing and took a lot of chances, and we did very well.”
While Ernie and Ed have led the charge for Shea Concrete over the years, the employees have always been its secret weapon. In addition to Bob, the company has many other long-term employees, and most important among those are the growing cast of employees Ed more affectionately refers to as family.
Since they were old enough, Ed’s four daughters – Brenda, Kathleen, Mary and Nancy – have proudly worked for the company alongside their mother, Judi. Today, Brenda handles human resources, Kathy takes care of accounts receivable, accounts payable duties fall under Mary and Nancy helps out in various departments. “I’m proud to have all my daughters work there, and I’ve been very lucky that my daughters married good guys,” he says.
Ed’s three sons-in-law have all come to play important roles in the company. Greg Stratis, married to Brenda, is the manager of the company’s plant in Amesbury, Mass.; Mary’s husband, Tony DiRocco, is the head mechanic; and Dave DeRose, Nancy’s husband, is production manager at the Amesbury location.
Greg, the first son-in-law to join the company, was working for defense contractor Raytheon when Ed offered him the opportunity. At first he wasn’t sure, but the turning point came when he was offered a new position at Raytheon. “I figured I’d better do that or do something else, so I decided to give it a shot,” he says. “Ed told me, ‘If you’re going to come work for me, you’re going to have to bend wire and rebar and learn it from the bottom up,’ and I said sure.”
Today, Shea Concrete is a very different company than the one Ernie started in his backyard. Ed can tell that without even stepping foot in a plant. “Everything is complicated today,” he says, referring to the broader dimension of roles a precast plant plays these days, including sales, inventory tracking, plant certification and quality assurance programs, safety programs and website maintenance. “Just go in any office and look at the number of people in there. You used to be able to do it with a couple of people, now you need six or eight people.”
Ed has spent a considerable amount of time teaching Greg the ropes of running a plant and the company. Just as Ed wasn’t afraid to take the company to new places, Greg is now ensuring it remains ahead of the curve for the future. He points out that success today requires a diverse product catalog, aggressive marketing and sales efforts, and an increased focus on electronic opportunities.
“I think any operation that has one, two or three product lines is going to struggle in this type of economy,” Greg says. “Our product line is vast, but the reason we do that is because a lot of our customers love the idea that they can call up and just get everything from us.”
Like many plants, Shea Concrete had always succeeded through word of mouth, but it now has a sales force actively seeking projects to bid. Greg has also made sure Shea Concrete has a strong web presence, and that its plants are NPCA Certified. He serves as president of the Northeast Precast Concrete Association, and has held a number of lunch and learns and public tours at Shea’s plants. To better track production, inventory and quality, he has also started using RFID tags from International Coding Technologies.
“One of the big things now is there are so many competitive materials out there, you have to get specified,” he said. “I think it’s something the precast industry hasn’t done well with, because it’s not in precasters’ nature to market – it’s new for us. The Internet is also very important, everything electronic, because the specifiers love it – especially the young ones.”
With Ed and Bob both nearing retirement age, a calculated shift of passing the torch is taking place – but there’s no rush to ride off into the sunset. To start, Bob has decided to take Fridays and winters off. “I’ve always said I don’t want to wish my life away because I like my job so much,” Bob says. “It’s not a chore for me to go to work every day, because I enjoy it. It will be hard to walk away.”
Ed, knowing he has trustworthy employees running the company, has not been shy about taking well-deserved leaves to enjoy time away with his wife, Judi. After all, he and Judi have grown the company the right way, without cutting corners and with the utmost honesty and integrity. “If I didn’t have real good people I wouldn’t be able to be out on the road, but things run fine,” he says. “I think I’d do basically what I’ve done again. I have no complaints or regrets.
Survival of the Fittest
When Shea Concrete started doing precast concrete septic tanks outdoors, the thought of four plants and a wide array of product lines wasn’t even a dream. The company poured outdoors for more than 20 years before its first plant, a modest 60-by-60-ft structure, was built. Through strategic acquisitions, though, Ed and Judi Shea slowly built the company into what it is today.
The first of these came in 1980, bringing the company new forms, customers and a mixer, which allowed it to no longer be reliant on ready-mix deliveries. Soon after, another precast company went out of business in southern New Hampshire with which Ed had a good working relationship, so he purchased forms and a customer list. In the mid-’80s Ed built the company’s first plant in Wilmington, Mass., and since that time he has grown by buying up plants including locations in Nottingham, N.H., Amesbury, Mass., and, most recently, Rochester, Mass.
The Amesbury plant, the company’s largest, was purchased 11 years ago and includes a 33,000 sq. ft. production facility with three 25-ton cranes from Capco Crane & Hoist Inc. and a Wiggert concurrent pan mixer with a 3-yard traveling bucket from Advanced Concrete Technologies.
Through the buyouts, Shea Concrete has added many product lines, the most successful of which may be the license to produce Easi-Set Industries’ Precast Buildings. The company’s Easi-Set building production capacity was maxed out by midyear, and with that success in mind it has also purchased the license for Easi-Set’s JJ Hooks traffic barriers.
Navigating Rough Currents
When the recession hit, Shea Concrete braced for the impact. It leaned out its staff and even temporarily closed two locations, one of which has since been reopened. Despite the economy, though, the company has found ways to grow and succeed in the face of adversity. “We leaned out, but we became leaner and meaner,” says Bob Flores. “Our profit margins didn’t drop.”
For owner Ed Shea, knowing costs is an important part of it. “I think we have a pretty good handle on that,” he says. “I’ve seen people bid jobs that they couldn’t possibly make money on. This recession woke a lot of people up.”
The company has not hesitated to invest when needed either, including buying its plant in Rochester to diversify the company’s product line and bringing it into utility work. Shea also purchased about 20 forms for utility products to ensure it was a one-stop-shop for customers. As a result, the plant had one of its best years ever last year.
“We’re not afraid to make investments,” says Greg Stratis. “I think you have to be willing to invest in something. We make sure to keep money in reserve, so if we want to add to the capital we can.”
Shea’s goal is to be nimble enough to adapt to whatever the market is demanding, diverse enough to meet any need, yet small enough to always make customer service a top priority. It is always looking for different options for products and even add-on services like providing vacuum testing, which has proven to be profitable and a customer favorite.
“Number one is to just listen to the customers you’ve got,” Greg says. “Shea has done well being a company that really takes care of its customers and listens to them. If you get too carried away you can lose that, so you have to find the balance.”