Story and photos by Ron Hyink.
Practically since the day John Olson stepped into the plant at Huffcutt Concrete Inc. in Chippewa Falls, Wis., the company has been all about relationships. Henry Huffcutt, who founded the business in 1945, hired young man John in 1956 and quickly took a liking to him. As the bonds developed, Henry, who had no children of his own, began to treat John as a son. John became Henry’s foreman and eventually purchased the company from him in 1968.
From there the company began to grow and prosper, and it was all based on the bonds and friendships that had been formed among employees, customers, suppliers and even other precasters.
“We’re essentially a relationship company,” confirmed Steve Olson, John’s son who now serves as president of the company. “You’re selling yourself and your company and the products that come with it – they just gain that trust. So that’s what we’re about around here.”
Through the years, Huffcutt Concrete has added products to serve the needs of the community and to provide a source of revenue as the demand for other products fluctuates. “We’re basically a three-legged stool here,” said Steve, referring to the three main products the company offers: septic tanks, agricultural products, and modular vaulted and restroom buildings.
Henry originally made concrete blocks and sold them to contractors, who built septic tanks with them. Along about 1957, after Henry hired John, they started making their own septic tanks, and the company has continued to manufacture them ever since.
The second main product has to do with geography. “Here in northwest Wisconsin, we do an agricultural business – bunker silos, manure transfer, manure storage products,” added Steve.
Both the septic tank and ag products are tied to private development, and so demand comes and goes with the robustness or flatness of the economy. The market for vault restrooms, on the other hand, typically relies on federal, state or municipal contracts, and that coincidentally has helped Huffcutt Concrete through the depressed economy.
“We got into the vault toilet business in 1987,” said Steve. The area’s power company owned the local dam and was required by the federal government to provide recreational facilities, which had to include a new vault toilet for their park. “At that point, they asked me if we’d sell them a septic tank, and they were going to get somebody else to build a block building. And I said, ‘You know, we can just do the whole thing.’ And so that’s how we really got started,” he said.
“That was well before I moved back,” said Bill Olson, vice president and another of John’s sons. Bill had worked out of state until 1993 when Huffcutt Concrete expanded to the point where he was certain he was needed. “They had always wanted me to come back, but I never really saw that the business was large enough to accommodate me,” he added.
At first the restrooms were very simple structures and assembled on site. Huffcutt Concrete would manufacture and set up the walls and hire a carpenter to build a wood roof and do the finish work inside. “It gradually moved to where we started making the roofs out of concrete, and then precasting the modular buildings where they were completely assembled before they left the plant,” Bill explained.
The company’s vault restroom enterprise grew as customers, particularly the Department of Natural Resources, looked for something different or something bigger. “We started to accommodate them, then that created a market to sell to other people as well,” said Bill. “It’s been more customer-driven.”
Growing up and growing out
When Henry first started making concrete block in the back of his house, the business grew to the point where the neighbors expressed their concern. “So then he purchased some land about a mile from here and had a nice little shop,” said Steve. As the business grew, so did the manufacturing facility. “And then they literally built a shop over the top of that little wooden structure.”
The business continued to grow and more additions were built, but once again space was getting small and cramped. “It was kind of a pie-shaped lot and started out with a small building, and we bought out a small block plant next door that went out of business,” said Bill, adding that even the extra property soon became too small. “We had the plant space, and across the road we had some storage, and down the hill some more storage. We were scattered all over – it wasn’t very efficient.”
Finally, in 2004, the need for more expansion dictated a better strategy. “That’s when we moved out here and started from scratch, which was kind of nice to be able to do that,” said Bill. “It changed our company considerably. We were able to put in larger and more overhead cranes, and increase our production and efficiency.”
The difference between the old and new facilities is dramatic. “We had a 1-yard turbine mixer over there, and so to turn out 10 yards was 10 batches, and that might take an hour,” said Bill. “Now we can turn out a 10-yard load in one time.” At the old plant, they partially relied on a local ready-mix company, but the new plant offered new solutions. “We decided to batch into our own ready-mix truck and make our own concrete, so it was considerably cheaper. We doubled up on our efficiency and cost effectiveness, so that was a great addition here at this plant.”
The good news is that the new plant allows a lot more production space indoors. At the old plant, a lot of the work had to be done outside – forming, handling rebar, pouring, stripping. “And if the weather was bad, you didn’t do it,” said Bill. The bad news, if you can call it that, is the increasing demand for bigger restroom buildings. “So we’re producing them in the plant, but we assemble them outside to where we can bring a crane in, lift them up, drive a truck under them and ship them out. Everything got bigger and heavier.”
Milking the system
Huffcutt Concrete experienced enormous growth starting in 1996. “Then the great recession came in 2008,” said Steve. “Our sales dropped 42% in 2008, and they actually dropped a little more than that in 2009. But by then we knew the rules, and so we closed our satellite plant and everything’s been consolidated here. So we’re fighting the fight pretty good now.”
It was a very humbling experience for the company during 2009, Steve added, because the mindset for the previous 20 years was, “Build it and they will come.” They had to freeze wages and the management took pay cuts, but they made a lot of adjustments to become leaner in production and inventory. “I wasn’t going to expect anything from our employees that we weren’t going to do two-fold,” said Steve. “And that helped everybody understand how severe this was and how we were committed to fighting through it.”
Steve gives most of the credit to management staff Marc Rowe, operations manager; John Cook, sales manager; and Ted Roshell, plant manager. “Credit also goes to all our employees for their commitment to make this work,” he said.
Those relationships with the employees kept the company intact during those trying years, although the economic struggle continues. “Everything is down,” said Bill, adding that some sectors come back in stages and fluctuate.
“Agricultural was down, and then the milk prices went up and that boomed. There were a few years in a row when the milk prices were down – they were getting paid 1980 prices on their milk, and that wasn’t even covering cost in some cases. So they were not spending any money.”
The dairy farmers’ desire to build and expand was there, but they couldn’t justify it because of the economy. “And then all of a sudden, the milk prices climbed – and they were actually fantastic for a while, and we saw a huge flurry of work,” said Bill. From a broad perspective, it seems odd that higher milk prices can actually spill over into the need for precast concrete, but money is funny that way. “There was work that people had been waiting to do and they caught up a little bit, and so we’ve seen that. It’s been pretty good.”
As Huffcutt is a family-owned business, John’s sons Steve and Bill started working in the plant during their teen years. “We all grew up in the plant,” said Bill. “In high school, as soon as we were old enough to get a work permit, that was our summer job.”
Work started the day after school let out for the summer, and continued right up until the new school year started. “We didn’t ask what hours to work or what our schedule was – it was whenever we were told to go to work and whenever we were told to go home,” said Bill, noting that such a work ethic was expected at that time.
“Back in 1976, we were a union shop, and they took a strike – and we were a small company,” said Steve. “For 13 weeks during that summer, I’d deliver tanks with my dad, my mom ran the office, my sister was 16 – my sister was the mixer person. My brother-in-law helped us out that summer as well. Bill and my youngest brother, Scott, set up forms, and we continued the business.”
Eventually the strike was settled, and in the mid ’80s, because of the positive relationship the company had with its workers, the employees voted to decertify the union. “So there again, it goes back to relationships,” said Steve.
There are no sons to take over the business in the future the way Steve and Bill took over from their father, although Steve has four daughters – and all of them have worked in the plant. “They were actually general labor in the plant,” said Steve. “I wanted to teach them, first, a work ethic, and they were also getting a paycheck, so it supplemented their college education.”
Working on the production floor rather than in the office was by choice. “When my oldest daughter started working here, she said that’s fine but I want to wear a hardhat, I don’t want to work in the office,” Steve explained. Daughter No. 2 worked for four years and actually is still connected with the business. “She was our first quality control manager when we became an NPCA certified plant in 2006. She is ACI Level 2 certified.” The second-oldest now serves as marketing director from her home in California, where she established and still maintains the company website and puts together marketing material.
As with any family business, John owes a lot to Virginia, his wife of 61 years. Steve also is thankful for the support he gets from his wife, Deb. “My wife helps me keep perspective during the good and the bad,” said Steve.
Eau de Angora
“With a lot of our buildings, we call it putting perfume on a goat,” said Steve, explaining how they can manufacture a concrete vault or restroom facility and make it more aesthetically pleasing, depending on the purpose of the building, its surroundings and the desires of the customer. “When we sit down with our customers, they want precast concrete structures for all the right reasons – for storm resistance, for vandal-resistance, for longevity. But they also want it to aesthetically look like it belongs in whatever setting it is.”
If the building is to be set in a scenic wooded area, as in a park, it should blend in with the background. Then they’ll look at more of the exposed aggregates or the natural colors. “If we’re putting it in as part of a playground centerpiece, then we’re going to dress it up and make it more colorful,” said Steve.
Schools have caught on to the benefits of precast concrete buildings, and so Huffcutt Concrete has taken orders for high school sports settings, such as concession stands, equipment storage and restrooms. “You might see a building come out of here that’s purple and gold and all kinds of weird colors, but those are the school colors,” said Bill. “They send us a paint chip, and that’s what we make. We don’t pick the colors!”
Another high school built a new football field and needed restrooms and ticket counters. “Their school mascot is the Railroaders, and so we actually designed their building to look like a railroad depot,” said Steve. “We can offer a lot of flexibility. We’re not a cookie-cutter company, so to speak, so we can give them some uniqueness.” Clients can come in at the planning stages to explain what they want and pitch their ideas. “Then we try to incorporate that into something with practical use.”
It’s all about relationships
The relationship precept extends even to other precasters. Steve and Bill have made many acquaintances in the industry, and many of those were handed down from their father who made his own acquaintances whose sons also took over their respective businesses. “Obviously we’re competitors,” said Steve. “We will compete daily like it’s nobody’s business. But we all have that same common denominator, and so we’ll look out for each other a little bit.”
For a small company like Huffcutt Concrete, competition can be intense, but the pride and integrity they invest into everything they do places them on a par with other, larger companies. “At the end of the day, I don’t care if we are selling widgets or precast concrete, a lot of it has to do with the relationships and the trust that we build with our customers and employees,” said Steve. “With our septic tank business, for example, our customers trust that we are going to stay ahead of what the industry is doing and provide them with not just the septic tanks, but the accessory products that go with them, so they stay on the front of that curve. And so there is a trust there, which we value.”
Even a brief conversation with John Olson brings on a nostalgic rush that makes you long for the good ol’ days. His generation represents a time when customer service likely would have meant the difference between keeping or losing a customer’s business. Workers were grateful for what seems today like pocket change after a hard day’s work, and still they would bend over backward to earn your satisfaction. Though limited to the technology of the day, they set the bar for integrity very high – where there was a will, there was a way.
The will, resolve and values his generation represents and the ones preceding it carried them through enormous obstacles. Take, for example, the engineering feats of the Empire State Building and the Hoover Dam from the 1930s – built during the Great Depression. Consider also the major accomplishments in aviation, electronics and automotive styling, not to mention the war effort that propelled them into global recognition. It was all monumental stuff, and those at the forefront were pioneers in their own right.
That same mentality permeated across all industries, so the precast concrete industry was not without its own pioneers. Precast concrete was not widely used in North America until the ’40s and ’50s, and then the industry itself started to come together. It was during this time, in 1956, when John began his employment with Huffcutt Concrete Inc. “At that time we were making block septic tanks,” he said, when contractors would buy the precast block to build the structures on site. “Then in about ’57, we started making precast septic tanks. We first started making a 500-gallon septic tank, then started making larger ones.”
Precast tanks, compared with those made of block, were no doubt of better quality and less labor intensive to install, although at the time they didn’t necessarily equate to less labor. “In those days, we welded up our own boom trucks and we welded up our own forms,” added John. More improvements came after John bought the company from Henry Huffcutt, the original owner, in 1968. By that time, the National Precast Concrete Association had been established to pull together all producers and suppliers and put some meat on the bones of the newfound industry. In 1970, John stopped in to visit Joe Wieser, founder of Wieser Concrete Products Inc. in Maiden Rock, Wis., who convinced him to join NPCA, which opened up a whole new world for Huffcutt Concrete and put him in touch with his longtime vendors including Spillman, Concrete Sealants and New Hampton Metal Fab.
John quickly made new friends with others in the industry, including Harry Hayward, E.C. Babbert, Frank Mader and William Coons to name just a few. “All pioneers in there,” said John. “Those were the days we went to the post-conventions – they were as big as the conventions.”
Post-conventions occurred in far-flung places such as Hawaii, Mexico City, Cancun, Jamaica, “and all over,” said John. Socializing and traveling together became a part of their culture. “At 7 o’clock, we were down for breakfast and we were all dressed in sports coats and ties and wore them all day.”
Time has drastically changed the industry since then, but certainly not for the worse. “It’s amazing the progress that’s been made from the time that I started and now, not only in products and so many different technologies – it amazes me what the guys do now,” said John. “And the way they pour concrete now, it runs like water but they still get the strength. In our day, when it was more watery, you lost strength. And it’s changing in every facet. They’ve really improved products – the quality of them is so much better.”
A newer generation has its hands on the rudder of the precast industry now, but thanks to the pioneers who went before them, they are on firm ground and establishing new boundaries. “It’s in good hands,” said John.
1 The Empire State Building held the record as the world’s tallest building for more than 40 years. The Hoover Dam held the record as the tallest dam for 22 years.
2 Joseph Wieser established Wieser Concrete Products Inc., Maiden Rock, Wis., and served as chairman in 1985 and was named the Yoakum Award winner in 1981. Harry Hayward established Colorado Precast Concrete Inc., Loveland, Colo., and served as chairman in 1995 and was named the Yoakum Award winner in 1998. E.C. Babbert established E.C. Babbert Inc., Canal Winchester, Ohio, and served as chairman in 1976 and shared the Yoakum Award in 1977. Frank Mader established Crest Precast Inc., LaCrescent, Minn. William Coons was president of Spillman Co., Columbus, Ohio, and was named the Yoakum Award winner in 1972. The Yoakum Award is the highest honor NPCA can bestow on its members.