With its talented, longtime staff and a diverse customer base for custom precast products, Advance Concrete Products has held on to employees during recent lean years and positioned itself for growth.
By Sue McCraven | Photos by Sue McCraven and Ron Hyink
Front row: Rick Kirchner, president; Gregory Pollard, vice president; Steve Kirchner, vice president of production
Back row: Bob Husak, sales; Lauren Sustic, production engineer; Mike Demeester, plant superintendent
Driving up the gravel entrance of Advance Concrete Products in Highland, Mich., the gray, overcast morning suddenly seems brighter. There’s a feeling of optimism and hope in the air, and it’s not just the spring flowers and well-kept landscaping. There’s a “help wanted” sign out front, a rare and welcome sight in a state with a deflated construction industry and record-high unemployment. And this positive impression only grows upon meeting the company’s staff.
Advance Concrete Products (ACP) has established a regional reputation for quality custom precast products with a broad customer base that includes state DOTs, universities, hospitals and utility companies. When asked about challenging precast projects, Rick Kirchner, president, smiles and says, “We like complicated. We like difficult. We like unique.” When asked about product diversity, he explains, “It’s our communication with the customers and their needs that has led to the reshaping and evolution of our products and equipment.”
With ACP’s 46 years in the construction industry, the result of this continuous dialogue with long-standing customers has created the company’s reputation for producing challenging, quality custom precast concrete products.
“It’s not about me”
ACP’s history, its success and its company culture are “all about the people here,” Rick says. “It’s not about me.”
For example, right now ACP is looking to hire a new employee. “We don’t hire a lot of people. We hire for the long term.” The reason Rick can say this is because a potential ACP employee faces a discerning (and likely grueling) interview process. He recently reviewed 145 candidates for a night-shift welder. Average tenure of the company’s long-time staff is remarkable and Rick’s hiring decision “has to be good 20 years from now.”
So if it is the employees who are the real story behind ACP, it made sense to interview each of the company’s principals, asking them to talk about their best and worst jobs, their biggest concerns and what makes the company tick. Here are their stories.
Worst job: Mackinac Island sludge tank hits the waves
“First, you have to understand that no vehicles are allowed on Michigan’s Mackinac Island in Lake Huron,” says Gregory A. Pollard, vice president, who has been with ACP for 34 years. “Only bicycles and horses are permitted for resident and tourist transportation. In the fall of 1991, ACP was delivering a crane and a 50-ft by 50-ft precast sludge storage tank (for horse manure) by barge to the island. Well, the crane got off OK onto the island’s dock ramp. But just when the loaded double-flatbed truck was driving off the barge, a large wave came in, pushing up the barge, causing the tractor’s front axle (which had already rolled off the barge) to crash down hard over the edge of the barge. Now we had 115,000 pounds of precast product sitting on the barge and the truck’s front axle suspended in thin air over the water. The waves kept rolling in and we thought we were going to lose the truck. Rick radioed the crane driver, who was already working at the installation site, to return to the dock immediately.”
Luckily, the crane operator was able to lift the truck chassis onto firm land and the driver was able to pull the load onto the island. Needless to say, the Mackinac Island tourists and business owners did not appreciate a 60-ft-long, trailer-mounted crane rumbling down their quaint, historical main street. To top that off, Greg laments: “Later that day, the contractor calls and says he’s missing a panel (it was there all along). That’s the kind of job where you just want to die. There are so many unknowns in this business.”
“What if?” and the importance of being prepared
“The toughest part of my job is the stress of not knowing what could happen next – with the plant, with a truck, or a problem with a piece of equipment – anything,” says Rick’s brother Steve Kirchner, vice president of facilities. While Rick handles administration indoors, Steve is the outside, hands-on man, always in the production plant.
“We’re pushing ourselves big time right now,” explains Steve. “The guys are under the gun and if something goes wrong, we need to fix it fast.” For example, the day before NPCA’s visit, the aggregate weights on the electronic scoreboard didn’t look right – they were going down. “Around here, we notice right away when something is wrong,” he says. “The jaws on the scale hopper broke. Our guys have been around here long enough to know when something is off, and they are great at ‘MacGyvering’1 it fast.
Steve, an engineer who is ACI-certified in testing, has spent most of his time since high school working in the plant with his father, Ron Kirchner. He remembers his dad always posing the question to him and his brothers: “What if?” Kirchner senior was always prepared (see the sidebar “A Better Way to Treat People”) and is the reason ACP has a large capital investment in redundant equipment on site, including cranes, trucks and a back-up mixer.
22 years: average tenure
When it comes to the average tenure among employees at ACP, Steve is not exaggerating. The average length of employment for ACP staff members is 22 years, a remarkable achievement considering the economic downturn of the last several years. Michigan was one of the states hit hardest by the Great Recession, with huge losses in manufacturing and high numbers of unemployed.
But even through the recent lean years, when work was down, ACP had no layoffs. This is perhaps a more remarkable statement about the ethics and policies of ACP management than the length of time workers stay with the company. “We are always digging for jobs and making sure the guys are working,” says Bob Husak, sales. “We were under a lot of pressure the last three years, where we had only 20 hours of production work (per worker per week), but we made sure staff (paychecks) got closer to 40 hours.”
Specializing in custom work
Starting out in the mid ’60s, company founder Ron Kirchner, partner Tom Engle and another man produced only septic tanks. By the mid ’70s, “We had only three sizes of manholes and eight or so forms,” says Steve. “Now, we rarely have a run of manholes that are the same.”
Today, ACP does mostly custom precast concrete work based on complex specifications. It produces a wide range of precast products, from commercial utility vaults, manholes, handholes and storage tanks to box culverts, Storm Safe shelters, and Adspan three-sided bridges and tunnels.
When queried about the wide range of products, Rick replies, “Our customers define our product. Challenging custom work is now our forte. We over-engineer. We use high-early cement. We take on complicated, difficult jobs and our whole team, from sales to production, will look at it. We look at the customer’s needs, time and weight constraints, crane limitations. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach. Even if it costs overtime and inventory, we’ve never missed a delivery date. We’re not going to be caught off guard. We’re not going to cut corners. But that’s our reputation.”
Best part of ACP
Mike Demeester, plant superintendent, is a no-nonsense professional who has been with ACP for 36 years. At work every morning by 6:30, Mike’s toughest job, “at my age, is the hours and keeping the guys motivated. We were slow for a couple of years, now it’s 50 to 55 (hours per week).”
With his long history at ACP, Mike is perhaps the best person to ask about the real heart of the company and why people stay. “I enjoy the work and love working outside,” says Mike. “I like the owners, they’re real fair here. We’re like one big family, we hang out together, do stuff together. We haven’t let anybody go since ’82. For the last two years, we could probably have used three guys out there and get by, but they kept everyone around in tough times.”
Mike revealed one of the big reasons for the company’s success: “We’re flexible. A lot of customers will call on Thursday and want a manhole delivered on Saturday. Guys come in at night, come in early to get the product to the customer. I’m proudest of our work ethic. We produce a good product here.”
Anyone can sell at a low price
“My toughest job is trying to convince potential customers that ACP precast is a better product and why,” says Bob Husak, sales. “Anybody can sell at a low price. It’s easy. My job is to sell our product and the company, to convince purchasers of the quality that’s behind it and the service they will get throughout the whole project, from start to finish.”
Like all the principals at ACP, Bob is multitalented and well connected with a broad range of customers, from schools and universities to hospitals and utilities. Bob brought in a large and difficult (“never-ending spec changes, never alluded to in the bid”) two-year Marathon oil refinery job in Detroit that helped carry the company through the recent lean years. He estimates jobs and is able to make minor adjustments to 1-D CAD drawings for hurry-up, last-minute change orders.
Bob is fairly famous at ACP for bringing in unprecedented, complex designs and asking production: “Hey, you guys think you can make this?” He follows jobs closely from the winning bid through on-site installation to calling the customers afterward to make sure they’re completely satisfied. And Bob’s preferred job? “A problem, an issue that I need to get solved.”
Value of NPCA certification and a flexible staff
A mechanical engineer, NPCA and ACI liaison and niece of Ron Kirchner, Lauren Sustic has been with ACP 26 years and handles all DOT projects as well as her largest (and favorite) project: replacing underground steam lines and electrical and communications vaults for the construction of the new FRIB2 at her alma mater, Michigan State University.
Though she is very busy with these projects, Lauren takes time to explain why ACP has a good reputation for quality precast products. “We believe everyone should be involved in quality,” says Lauren. “What NCPA certification does is increase our quality control, because everyone knows that an inspector can come in at any time.” ACP had two inspections in 2011. The company has been continually certified by NPCA since 1991 and was the first Michigan precast plant to receive the industry’s 20-year certification recognition.
Before she goes back to calling on customers to check on installations, Lauren explains why ACP is successful and a great place to work. “We have a versatile staff that is able to work in a variety of disciplines, from estimating and bidding jobs to CAD design and sales.”
While more comfortable in the field with hardhat and boots, when times were slow, Lauren “put on ‘the suit’ and went out talking with industry engineers and architects to hunt down work.” When pressed to say what is best about ACP, Lauren responds without hesitation: “Everybody in this company treats one another like family, and we treat our customers the same way.”
If money were no object?
You can feel the positive energy and optimism at ACP, from the hiring sign out front to the urgent pace of the production staff. But it’s tough to get an answer out of Rick when asking him what’s on the company’s forecast and where they hope to diversify and expand in the precast market. Rick is clearly a man who keeps things close to the vest and has his father’s strong will when it comes to hard work, a quality product and protecting the company’s excellent reputation.
Rick won’t say where he’s steering the company, but there’s definitely a sense of something big pending around the plant. “We don’t really know if this (increase in business) is a blip or a trend,” he says. “But we are going to make sure we are prepared for new state and industry investment in building and repairing Michigan’s deteriorated infrastructure.” ACP has a strong working relationship and reputation with MDOT, ODOT and INDOT.
The play’s the thing
These frank dialogues from the company’s star players open the curtains on ACP’s secret to success. Not unlike an award-winning Broadway play, ACP delivers a quality performance. Beginning with Ron Kirchner’s careful direction during the company’s opening “scenes” and continuing with the delivery of its flexible, multitalented “actors,” ACP’s story is based on the custom casting of both people and precast concrete products.
While giving nothing away, Rick sums up the company goals: “We don’t want to be the biggest. We want to be an exceptional precast producer, ethical and trustworthy.” As the curtains close on this Precast Inc. viewing, this company really is its people, and as the economy brightens, ACP intends to be ready.
A Better Way to Treat People
When asked about Ron Kirchner, the founder of Advance Concrete Products, there’s one consistent response. “My dad put the employee before anything else in the company,” said Steve Kirchner. During one hard stretch, Ron took out a note on his car to pay employees. This business philosophy took root when Ron was young and worked as a superintendent of about 200 employees in two precast plants. “Dad saw how other companies would hire people when they were busy and then lay them off during slow times,” explains Rick Kirchner, “and it didn’t set well with him. He felt that’s not the way to treat people.”
“Dad liked to work,” says Steve, “and he was always an entrepreneur who wanted to start his own company.” In 1966, Ron began ACP on 10 acres in Highland, Mich., with his partner, Tom Engle. Starting from scratch and a lot of sweat equity – with only himself, Engle and another man – Ron began producing precast concrete septic tanks. Even after Ron built up a successful business, “he drove a beat-up, four-cylinder Pinto with a stick,” remembers Steve, laughing. “He wasn’t concerned with outward appearances.”
“But Ron made sure his salesman had a new Oldsmobile Toronado,” recalls Gregory Pollard. “He was always ahead of the curve.”
Sue McCraven, NPCA technical consultant and Precast Solutions editor, is a civil and environmental engineer.
1“MacGyver” is a resourceful troubleshooter, named for a television series character famous for solving complex problems with everyday materials at hand.
2FRIB stands for Facility for Rare Isotope Beams; MSU outcompeted MIT and other premier universities to be named by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science as the site for the $550 million project. The FRIB is expected to create
$1 billion in economic activity and 400 new jobs for Michigan.