Story and photos by Kirk Stelsel.
That’s because the building that now houses the company’s office staff was once the Feuerstein family’s home. Leo’s office was his grandmother’s living room, and the drafting room was the family’s living room.
Whether intended or not, the symbolism is incredibly apt, because Leo and David strive to ensure that every employee feels as though they are a part of a family – a family that was started many decades ago.
Western Precast’s patriarch
Leo and David’s memories of their father, Robert (Bob) Leo Feuerstein, are limited. Bob, founder of Western Precast in El Paso, Texas, passed away in 1971 while working at the business he loved. He had just come into the office from working in the yard and collapsed.
To understand that moment, however, requires one to look back 25 years earlier to the year Bob started the company – 1946. After leaving the military, he saw an opportunity in the concrete pipe industry and started what was then known as Western Concrete Works. Bob’s company manufactured 3-ft sections of pipe that ranged in diameter from 4 in. up to 15 in., as well as a variety of ornamental products.
There were no quality control protocols, crane trucks or office staff back then. In David’s office hangs a sign that says, “Out in plant, come on out” – the actual sign Bob hung on the office door while he worked in the yard.
When the company’s one-line rotary phone set off a buzzer installed in the yard, it would often ring 20-plus times before Bob could finish what he was doing and go take an order. The company’s biggest asset was a leader who worked hard and cared deeply. According to Leo, his father worked from sunup to sundown six days a week, so it was never a surprise to find him working in the yard, which is where he was on that April day in 1971.
The day started no differently than any other, but an Army service injury – suffered during WWII and long since healed over – aggravated a blood clot that broke loose, went up and stopped his heart. Bob was just 58 years old. Leo was in third grade, David in pre-kindergarten, and their mother instantly became a widow with sole ownership of a company she knew little about.
From mother to sons
Mildred Feuerstein-Kramer didn’t know how she was going to run Western Concrete Works, but the one thing she knew was that she had to keep the company in the family.
“When my dad died, she very quickly had to just come to work and figure it out,” Leo said. “She spent the next 15 years keeping the gates open. It was a small operation, but she kept six or seven men employed and it was enough for her to be able to make a living.”
When Mildred remarried, her husband John Kramer stepped in to help run the business as general manager, and as Leo and David grew up, they grew within the family business as well. It started as early as grade school with tasks like pulling weeds and picking up trash. As time went on, both got into pouring, learned how to run the batch plant, and worked as welders and crane operators. John Kramer managed the business as general manager for the next 15 years and now serves as president of the company.
Leo joined the company full time after he graduated from St. Mary’s University in 1984, and David joined soon after in late 1987. Together, they began taking the company to new heights. When Leo and David took over, they started phasing into heavy underground industrial, including manholes up to 12 ft and then utility vaults for electrical and telecommunications and drainage inlets. The company was finding its niche in underground infrastructure.
The decision has proven to be the perfect sector for the company. With the City of El Paso, TXDOT, New Mexico DOT and Mexico all within range, along with the second-largest Army installation in the United States, there’s no shortage of work. About 1990, the company did its first storm/sewer project for the City of El Paso and was so proud of the results it was soon bidding state work. Prior to that point, all city and state sewer inlets had been cast in place. Over the past 20 years, the company has trained the highway department and the City of El Paso that precast is the better choice.
Growth has not always been easy, but it’s always been done together. When Leo started, there were two other precasters in El Paso. Over the years, Western Precast emerged as the only one to stand the test of time. “I’d like to think we’ve survived because of our tenacity, our hard work and our dedication,” Leo said. “Things like improving our quality by being a part of the NCPA Certification Program, while the other two plants did not become a part of NPCA and didn’t follow a certification program.”
As the company progressed, Leo and David purchased newer equipment, and the manufacturing process became more and more refined. It started with quality trucks that would enable them to transport larger products. “Buying our first QMC crane truck was a major milestone,” Leo said. “We now have five QMCs, two Manitex and one JLG crane truck operating full time, but I remember the day we got our first QMC. It enabled us to build bigger products and set them at the job site for the customers, and being able to offer the full service was big.”
Along the way the company also purchased forms to get into new product lines and to replace old, worn-out forms that, as David put it, “just didn’t work.”
“About four or five years ago, we went to Marks Metal Technology and bought several 10-ft ID and 12-ft ID manhole forms,” Leo said. “We’ve been very happy with Marks Metal Technology and their forms.
“We also acquired our first 6-by-12 form last year for the electric and telephone company work from Quinn (now a part of Besser). They make fantastic forms. If you have a quality form, it’s a lot easier to make a quality product.”
The most recent addition was a brand-new batch plant from ACT. The quality control department is now monitoring materials down to a 1% tolerance level across the board, and they can track exactly how much material they’re buying. This is a stark contrast to earlier years.
“In the old days, we had a gentleman we called the ‘mix master,’ David said. “As the mixer would turn, he’d stick his hand in and get a little bit and look at it, taste it, hit it on a pole and then give it his approval that it was ready to pour.”
Today, Western Precast’s mixes are advanced and precise. Admixtures from Euclid are a line item on the budget, because with the proper admixtures the plant can be sure it gets the overnight and the seven-day breaks it’s looking for.
“The technology that we’ve been able to put in place has been amazing,” Leo said, “and going through the new batch plant installation through ACT, they were fantastic to work with.”
Through long hours and perseverance, Leo and David have grown their customer base and have enjoyed doing it together.
“I love my brother and I enjoy working with him and my family,” Leo said. “You feel as though you have a responsibility to your family to carry on a tradition, so it’s important to me.”
David agreed and added, “From where we started, Leo and I had the dirt we’re standing on and now we have a business that actually produces quality precast products.”
One way of showing their employees they care is a profit sharing program where long-term employees who retire can receive checks for up to $100,000. Another, the Motivating Employees Through Recognition Onsite, or METRO program, is used to reward, recognize and inspire employees. The program won the 2012 Pinnacle Award competition at The Precast Show in Orlando last March for the most innovative management program among NPCA member plants.
Leo and David acknowledge employees using an annual awards ceremony, wall of honor and monthly newsletter. The company also hosts a variety of annual events like its Halloween and Christmas parties and has regular catered lunches. Other benefits include flu shots, a $10 a month gym membership, bonuses and much more.
“My brother and I want to make everyone feel important,” Leo said, “to not only feel, but to know that they’re important. The staff that I work with are my brothers and sisters.”
The culture that Leo and David have instilled has created an environment conducive to long-term employment. In fact, a majority of the management staff has 10-plus years of tenure, some with many more.
General manager John Franklin came to Western Precast to “kill some time” while he figured out what he wanted to do with his life. Now, 17 years later, he can’t imagine being anywhere else. He has remained with the company for many reasons, but none are more important than the confidence Leo and David place in their managers.
“They don’t want rubber stamps here,” he said, “so they know that when you give an opinion, you’re not giving it to be a pain but because you believe in it. That’s the way I see family, I’m able to tell them what I think.”
Another employee who came to Western Precast with no intentions of long-term employment is quality control manager and assistant general manager Richard Alvarado. After five years as an Army Ranger and two deployments in Iraq, he decided his next move was a career in law enforcement. When he walked into Western Precast to apply while he waited to get into the police academy, he didn’t even know precast concrete existed. That was seven years ago.
Richard began in dispatch, but thanks to the empowerment given to employees, he began learning new skills and eventually found himself leading quality control.
“If you do your job well, they inspire confidence,” he said. “I’ve never been told I couldn’t go and start learning new departments, or start getting involved in aspects of the daily business that weren’t under my job title. I think that feeling like I’m part of a family is part of the reason I’ve stuck around.
“Genuinely, I can say that John, David and Leo are my friends and my family, and I care for them. I don’t know that you get that in a lot of industries.”
Western Precast’s other tenured employees include 27 years from production manager George Rodriguez, 26 from special box foreman Jesus Garcia, 21 from shipping manager Alfredo Torrez, 17 from manhole foreman Angel Najera, 16 from personnel and safety director Sergio Arvizu, 16 from box foreman Ruben Rodriguez, eight from office manager Paulette Brown and six from dispatcher Billy Watters.
“I have to believe that these guys are part of the family and that they have my best interest in mind,” Leo said. “When you talk about family, these people are my family.”
“I think, really and truly, we as a company have always pushed the family values,” David added. “We treat every employee here as an individual and we do consider them family.”
Growing the seed
For Leo and David, the opportunity their parents provided and the obligation they feel to their family – immediate and extended – drives them every day. A picture of their father that hangs just inside the front door is a reminder to both of them of where it all started.
“He left us the seed, the nucleus, to try and do something with it and it’s important for me to try and make him proud,” Leo said. “I want to believe that my dad would be proud that 41 years later we’re still here and we’re stronger than ever.”
“I think my father would be shocked to see how far we’ve come,” David added. “My feeling is that he would put his stamp of approval on the way the business has gone, and I think he would have enjoyed seeing that it’s stuck around this long and that family is still running it.”
Kirk Stelsel is NPCA’s director of Communication and associate editor of Precast Inc. magazine.