A Florida precaster navigates a rough start and a tough economy through perseverance and personal relationships.
Story and Photos by Ron Hyink
Bob Snowe reflects on his beginnings as a precast manufacturer with a mixed bag of amazement and amusement. After all, he did have a particularly meager start back in his 20s, and the peculiar events that suddenly propelled him into prosperity come as a mystery to him to this day. But even after building up American Concrete Industries Inc. of Fort Pierce, Fla., through the years into a reputable and successful manufacturer of sanitary and stormwater products, he still misses the daring and adventurous days of his youth.
Angling for business
Looking out at a relative calm ocean from the cozy cabin of his deep-sea fishing boat, Bob weaves together his story with an occasional stitch of humor. Above the drone of the vessel’s dual diesel engines powering up to search for a more promising fishing spot in the Gulf Stream, he talks about the time when his first and only product was a 20-in.-square precast yard drain box wrought out of wooden forms.
He had no money for a precast shop of his own – Florida considered it heavy industrial and wouldn’t allow a startup precaster to set up in a back yard. And besides, even if he had his own shop, nobody would bother to deliver the trifling 1 or 2 yds of concrete he needed per day. So to get started in the business, he was relegated to leasing a small patch of real estate in the back lot of a ready-mix plant, where he could get all the concrete he needed when he wanted it.
A small patch of land was all he got – nothing else came with it. All he had in the way of an office was a log to sit on. “I didn’t even have any chairs out there,” recalled Bob. Whenever his clients dropped in for a visit, they would sit on the log and chat with him as the clouds drifted along overhead. “Most of the companies seemed intrigued by it, and they’d come out to see how I’m doing on such a small budget,” he said. “They liked the product and all, and that’s what sold it to them.”
His new enterprise really did look rather spartan. The ready-mix yard sat right next to a marina, so Bob started to make friends with some of the boat captains who would come over to visit with him on his log. None of them could figure out how he could make a living at what he was doing, so they joked that someone should give him some fish at the end of the day.
One day the big boss of the ready-mix company came all the way from England to visit the plant, and soon came out to have a talk with Bob. They sat on the log and talked for a while, and then the big boss asked him to lunch. “We went to lunch, and some of their employees resented it and wanted to know why I went to lunch with him,” said Bob. They thought Bob was spying on the company, because surely he wasn’t doing this job for a living. “It was like, ‘You’re not fooling us!’” Bob recalled, laughing.
Working half a day (“I considered it full time, but it’s all the work we had,” explained Bob), he and a helper had to make do with what they had. With nowhere else to work but the great outdoors, work had to be done even on dismal days with misting rain. “We’d be out welding in the rain and getting shocked,” recalled Bob, adding that when one got zapped, the other would take over until he got zapped, then they’d trade places again. Not exactly OSHA-compliant by today’s standards. “But you know, you’re going back in time, too, when rules weren’t so stringent.”
And yes, Bob looks back on those days with great fondness. “We were happy back then,” he said. “We didn’t realize it at the time. Looking at it now, those were pretty good days.”
Not a fish story
Bob grew up working at his father’s precast plant of the same name in Maine (no current affiliation), so he could have dived right into the deep end of the industry. Instead, he slowly tested the waters in the shallow end after landing in Florida.
With no ill feelings toward his father or the company, Bob wasn’t really happy in Maine. Had he stuck it out there, he likely would have taken up the reigns of his father’s company at some point, yet he made a conscious decision to leave it behind for a different path in life. And so, he became successful in the precast industry by first walking away from it.
Armed with an engineering degree and a little money to live on, Bob landed in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to link up with some college buddies. It didn’t take long for the money to run out, and he still had no job. He found work at a small precast plant and really enjoyed his job of inside sales and helping convert paperwork into product. But after a few months, he realized the company was not interested in growing. “My future was very limited there if they wouldn’t grow,” said Bob. So he gave them a three-week notice – and ended up staying 10 more weeks, because the company kept asking him to stay a little longer, and besides, he had nowhere else to go. “But finally it was time to move on,” he said.
Bob found work at another precast plant, but he stayed only two weeks when he decided to strike out on his own. He still had no money, plus he was from out of state and he had no real contacts in the industry to help him get started. But he did have some smarts and the determination to succeed, and that’s how he ended up in the back lot of the ready-mix plant with a log for his office.
Bob really wasn’t making any money with the small yard drain boxes, “but I liked going to work every day, I liked the few people I dealt with,” he said. For a time he had to supplement his income with a part-time job that paid cash at the end of the day. After a few years, he finally had enough money to buy a couple of steel forms from which he could make a few small catch basins and sanitary manholes.
And then something bizarre happened. A man from one of the other established precast manufacturers came to Bob and offered whatever amount of money he needed to move, wherever he wanted to move, in an irrational effort to eliminate the competition. Bob at first had no idea who this person was or why he thought Bob posed a threat. “Here’s a guy making yard drain boxes, and you’re that worried about him?” Bob asked incredulously. Bob shrugged it off, and then things went to a whole new, crazy level. Unbeknown to Bob, the company went out to all its contractors and declared that if they did business with Bob, then the company would refuse to sell its products to them.
Well, it backfired. Orders came to Bob from out of nowhere. “I had more sales than I could deal with,” he said. People would come out to see who this person was, this big threat to the other company, to see for themselves that such a person actually existed. “They wanted to know who I am,” he said.
The other manufacturer eventually went out of business, most likely from having lost so many of its contractor customers. From that, Bob quickly built up his business and soon had the financial backing he needed to buy 10 acres of property and to put up a precast plant of his own – a real office with a real desk and chairs. His built a 50-ft by 100-ft shop with overhead cranes, then doubled its size after a couple of years.
Closing in on a new fishing spot, the 56-ft craft made a small course adjustment as Bob continued his narration. Although he had grown up working in a large precast plant, Bob had never gone out to a job site. That all changed as he was building his own company up from its bare roots.
As he went out to the job sites and got to know the foremen, Bob began to learn how the product is installed. He became aware of the difficulties they ran into, and gained some ideas for making the whole process easier for them. Bob explained that a manhole may seem like a basic item – everyone makes them – but they can be customized for each customer. “Some foremen like a bigger hole, some want them really tight,” he said. “Some people like lifting holes in the manholes, some people want the lifting hooks in the bottom.” Some want the base and riser in one piece, while others can’t handle the weight. “So it seems important to me, once you get the order, is to sit down with them and go over how we’re going to do it.”
Bob would learn what the different foremen were like so that when he got a job, he would ask to speak with the foreman to go over the shop drawings. “And boy, they loved it!” he said. Now the foremen were getting the holes where they wanted at the angles they wanted and at the sizes they wanted, he said. It paid off not only in terms of a customized product, but he was forming strong bonds that continue to pay dividends today.
“It made a huge difference, the loyalties I built up with those foremen,” said Bob. “I built a lot of relationships with people that were young foremen for contractors at that point who are now running the companies that we sell to today, which is really key to why we’re doing well today. In today’s market, you can order from at least three or four companies that do what I do, and there’s no good reason to buy one over the other.” But the difference for Bob goes back to the time he spent early on in the field. “Those personal relationships matter a whole lot.”
All that loyalty coming back to him now is the sustenance that has been getting him through since the high-revving economic engine threw a rod. While he did have to downsize and let some people go, he kept as many employees as he could. He is still very cautious about investing in more equipment or new technology and what it would mean for his employees. An example is his decision to stick with conventional concrete rather than putting his money into self-consolidating concrete (SCC).
“SCC is a very good product. It cuts down your labor significantly – it’s very quick and easy,” said Bob. “But it does cost more money, and when you’re trying to retain employees, you’re better off, we felt, to stay with the regular concrete.” In a tradeoff between technology and employees, it is the employees who win out. “So we were able to keep more employees without having to do additional layoffs.”
Fortunately for Bob, he had little debt when the economy cracked. “When this downturn happened, we didn’t have a lot of loans out,” he said. “Everything we had we could cover. If we did have them, I’d have to shut it down.”
Another business decision that has helped keep American Concrete Industries afloat is sticking to a quality control program to make its operations more efficient. The rapid growth began to create new issues that had to be dealt with. “The pieces weren’t all fitting together at a certain point,” said Bob. “We had a hundred little problems.”
Signing up for the NPCA Plant Certification Program was the first act Bob took on a mission to eliminate wasteful production practices. “It went very well for us – eventually,” he said, remembering what happened at his first inspection. “We failed miserably. I think the inspector was fairly kind with us. He gave us not a passing score, but an encouraging one, like ‘If you try you’ll get there’ kind of score.”
They did try, and it paid off. “That program took all the little fire drills out of our company,” said Bob. “It made a huge difference for us. The quality was back up, all the fire drills were going away.”
One of the major factors of the program for Bob was putting together his own plant-specific QC manual. “We’ve written and rewritten it several times over the years. It works, it’s continually being revised as products change,” he said. “But that program really brought all the pieces together for us.”
Catch of the day
Arriving at the new fishing zone, the big diesel engines scaled back to trolling speed and the drag lines were cast out again. But alas, there was not much happening here either – a few “inquiries” but no serious offers. After some time of inactivity, Bob reluctantly made the call to head back to shore.
It was a disappointing day for a fishing expedition, yet at the same time it was a gratifying experience. Bob sees life as being a lot like that – the exhilaration of getting up early in the morning and starting a new day doing something you love. That’s what keeps him going, and you might even say it’s what keeps him in business.
Ron Hyink is NPCA’s managing editor.