Since its beginning, Pre-Cast Concrete Products of Maine Inc. has challenged the norm and ventured out front in the industry with its entrepreneurial spirit.
By Ron Hyink
“My wife thought she married a teacher,” said Terry Gray, reminiscing how he got his start in the precast business before he founded Pre-Cast Concrete Products of Maine Inc. “I taught vocational courses for five years, and during the summer, in order to afford the luxury of teaching, I had to work.”
He and a friend of his who was teaching the same schedule would get together to build houses during the summers and remodel homes during school vacations in the winter. “It turned out that I liked doing contracting work and carpentry and so forth, so I decided that’s what I’d do,” Terry explained.
Out of one classroom …
“One September, I decided I didn’t want to go back to school, and I bought a set of concrete form panels for residential foundations,” recalled Terry.
He poured these foundations on site for several years until one day, while pouring foundations for a large 100-unit housing complex, he realized the need for doorsteps for that project. He rented a garage, bought a two-bag mixer and made the steps. “So that piqued my interest in precasting,” Terry recalled.
In 1972, Terry joined the National Precast Concrete Association to learn more about the industry – two years before setting up shop as a full-time precaster. He then established Precast of Maine and started making septic tanks, but it wasn’t long before he added products such as well tiles and manholes to his lineup.
It was also the leaching chamber that helped him prosper as a precaster. “In those days, the state of Maine Division of Health Engineering was out front in leaching chamber technology,” said Terry. “Our state had approved them, and next to septic tanks, precast concrete leaching chambers were the largest part of our sales.”
Staying in the leaching chamber business was not so easy, though. In the mid 1980s, a plastic leaching chamber arrived in the market. “I could see right away that it had some competitive advantages over our precast concrete leaching chambers and would have worked well with our precast concrete septic tanks. The owner of that company had his own marketing plan and would not sell to precast concrete manufacturers,” said Terry.
“He wouldn’t have to do anything but operate from his kitchen table and arrange shipments,” said Paul Beers, a salesman with Precast of Maine for the past 15 years. Paul is a certiﬁed soil scientist and licensed site evaluator with the State of Maine who came to the precast industry from a consulting business for wastewater system design. “But this fellow decided that he wouldn’t sell to precasters. So it left them without the ability to sell plastic chambers at the time.”
That’s when Terry once again put on his entrepreneur’s hat and rolled up his sleeves. Unable to land a franchise for the leaching chamber, he started on a path to design one of his own. He took his design to two of his precast competitors in the state and offered them an interest in a new company called PSA and launched the BioDiffuser. “Among the three of us, we had enough market share, so we could afford the expense of making a mold, and we went into business,” said Terry.
So the three competing precasters wound up in business together. “And it worked out well,” said Terry. They finally sold the technology to ADS, which still sells the leaching chambers under the BioDiffuser brand. “That was just a really good experience for all of us.”
… and into another
Jim Burak, a three-year employee at Precast of Maine, enjoys working in the family-oriented environment that Terry and his son Ben have created. “They care about their people,” said Jim, who as production manager has a vested interest in taking care of the workforce. “We’re always working forward to the next thing, and they’re very good about understanding that we need to do certain things to move on in the company and move forward. If we need something and it seems like a good investment, they’ll invest in it.”
Ben has been sending his employees to educational courses at the NPCA annual conventions and to The Precast Show for that very reason, said Jim. It’s an eye-opener, he explained, when they attend the Production and Quality School (PQS) courses and understand the concepts behind their jobs. “They finally see the reasons why we’re trying to do the things that we do,” said Jim.
Jim has experienced the value of the PQS classes for himself. “Last year I took PQS III, and it totally blew my mind what I learned about management, management skills and people skills,” he said. “I was able to implement a lot of it as soon as I got back – and I still am.” Through these courses, he learned how to mold his crew, help improve productivity, manage their time and deal with the various attitudes. “I learned how to talk to different people in a positive way to get a better outcome than I used to. We’ve started employee evaluations to help grow our team and help guide our guys into roles that we want them to get into.”
Nick Knobil, the controller, also places a high value on bettering oneself through education. He relates a story about two business partners contemplating the expense of sending employees to training venues. One of them asks, “What if we train them and they leave?” And the other replies, “What if we don’t train them and they stay?”
For the past few years, Ben has sent entry-level employees to the PQS I course “to introduce them to other precasters and other vendors so that they can see the universe of precast that we’re involved in,” Nick continued. “We hope these employees A, bring it back; B, stay here; and C, bring that level of excitement and raise the level of the game for everybody.”
Nick is not shy about confronting employees concerning their education, whether it’s a course in precast concrete or, in rare cases, to simply finish high school or even learn to read. “To make this company more attractive to our customers is to raise the level of the game,” he said. “And by pointing out to somebody that he can better himself – and that it makes the company better – it’s more than a pat on the back.”
As a teacher, Terry understands the importance of an education, added Nick. “It carries you through the rest of your life, regardless of whether you stay here at this company,” Nick explained. “I hope they do stay, but that’s a risk we’re willing to take.”
Timing, as they say, is everything
Ben Gray had no intention of getting involved in his father’s precast company in Maine. He had other plans that took him to other schools and other jobs in other states until he realized that Maine wasn’t such a bad place after all. When he finally came back home, he went to work for his father, Terry Gray, at Pre-Cast Concrete Products of Maine Inc., located in the pastoral town of Topsham.
“I was out in the shop four years before I got an opportunity to do anything in the office,” said Ben, “and the first thing I got handed was the safety program.” But something new was brewing in the State of Maine at the time. It had just changed its laws to allow self-insured group trusts as an alternative to commercially available insurance for workers’ compensation. It was a major turn of events in state legislation at just the right time for Precast of Maine, as the company is known.
“Dad had the opportunity to get involved with one of these groups that was forming,” Ben continued, explaining how they took that first uncertain step and turned it into a mechanism that resulted in fewer injuries, healthier employees and stoked morale. “To this day, we’re still members of that same group. It’s been one of the more progressive things that we’ve done along the way and has had some tremendous benefits for us.”
But the excitement didn’t stop there. Just in the past year, Precast of Maine started to participate in another change to state legislation. Officially dubbed MaineSense, it allows group trusts to also participate in health care coverage for their employees.
Nick Knobil, who serves as the company’s controller, is heavily involved in both programs. As is common in small companies, he wears many other hats including safety director, HR director, IT director “and chief bean counter,” he said.
What’s all this group trust business?
The Grays are obviously very excited about the program, as it has provided them with some tangible – and maybe some intangible – advantages. Follow this interview as they discuss their experiences. For more information about group trusts, see the article “Workers’ Compensation Trusts” in the March-April 2011 issue of Precast Inc.
Q: How does the program work?
Ben: The Self-Insured Group Trust is a group of businesses that have similar hazard exposures. They band together and form their own insurance company, essentially. They take on the responsibility, but they also take away the profit motive in the commercial market. The group has to write its own rules according to the state that you’re governed by.
You have to make rules for yourself to live by, and you have to fund yourself and organize your own program that you all have to live by. The good thing is you can control your exposure based on who’s in the group, so you can choose who you want to get in bed with.
Q: What has changed in the way you do business?
Ben: It puts a lot more responsibility on you to take care of your people when they do get hurt. You have to be a lot more proactive about avoiding injuries and plant safety. We were finding a higher frequency of soft-tissue injuries about 10 years ago – and by that I mean pulled muscles, strains, things that weren’t necessarily major injuries, but they were relatively minor. And the group came to the conclusion that a stretching program would help. They started looking at employees as some form of athlete as opposed to a worker. Athletes always prepare physically for practice and competition, and looking through that view, it made sense to have our employees – who do physical work – stretch beforehand. So it was required by the group that it was up to each individual company to design a stretching program that suited their particular work style or jobs.
Q: So the other companies in the group are doing similar programs?
Ben: It’s mandated. They gave us a drop-dead date, and it was two years out. They said by this date, everybody in your company has to be stretching on a daily basis. That was eight years ago. We’ve been doing it a long time.
Q: How do you determine which exercises are appropriate?
Ben: You have an outside consultant come in and spend a few days working alongside or observing your guys to find out what specific tasks they have, and they develop a stretching program. We actually had them come in and present it, and not only do they show your crew how to do the stretches, they tell them why and illustrate the importance of it. It was kind of interesting.
Q: What was the reaction from the employees?
Ben: I was scared to death of putting it together, because it was such a paradigm shift from the way we’ve been operating. But I was amazed at how well the guys took to it. There was a little bit of resistance here and there, but we didn’t have any choice – we had to do it.
Q: What has been the result?
Ben: The stretching prepares the guys for work, and has had the effect that it reduces the frequency of injuries. It helps limber the guys up so that if they do experience some stress or strain in the course of the day, they bounce back from it more quickly.
Nick: From a practical standpoint of injury reduction, it makes good sense. But what else? We talk about safety, we talk about what we’re going to do for the day, we get to see who’s here or who’s not here. I’m sure you’ve experienced a lack of communication where people don’t talk to one another – you get paranoid! As George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Can I quantify it? No. Does it make a difference? Yes. People have a lot of fun, there’s a lot of laughing that goes on around here.
Health insurance too?
After the State of Maine initiated new laws to allow for group trusts to cover workers’ compensation, it more recently passed laws to allow for group health insurance. Terry and Ben were excited about the work comp program when they joined a group trust, and they were even more excited about the health insurance program. Here are their thoughts:
Q: What else is happening in the group trust program?
Ben: One of the most recent and most exciting things is health insurance. We got involved with something called MaineSense. The state legislature just two years ago passed a law that allowed the formation of a pretty similar style of providing health insurance that we had success with in the workers’ comp arena to provide health care coverage away from work for employees and their families. So it’s real exciting to have better control in the way that doctors and employees and procedures and policies get determined for your health care coverage.
Q: That seems really outside the box. How does it work?
Ben: Imagine being able to set your own deductibles and decide who you go to see and how. We have input with these other businesses that we’ve joined in this group on how we want our health care delivered. I think that puts us in the forefront of where health insurance delivery is going to end up in this country. You’ll be hearing more about it, because we’re doing something here in Maine that nobody else is doing anywhere else in the country. It’s experimental, it’s on the edge, but it’s got an excellent chance for success, especially in this volatile environment of health care delivery.
Q: What changes do the employees see?
Ben: We had guys that avoided using their coverage. It’s gotten so bloody expensive and so intimidating that the guys weren’t using it. So we were paying all this money for a benefit that the guys weren’t using. And now we’ve got an opportunity to have it our way. It’s really exciting. We’re business owners, and this is an important part of our business.
In order to prosper as precasters, we’ve got to have happy employees – happy, healthy, motivated employees. I can’t have them distracted about worrying about where their health insurance is coming from – I need them focusing on precasting.
Nick: Imagine I can call my health insurer, and a real person answers the phone – and they’re right here in Maine. The billing is simple and easy to understand, and our employees have been encouraged to participate not only in the health benefits that we’ve purchased, but also in a raised awareness of the value of protecting their own well-being.
Q: What happens if the unmentionable happens?
Nick: Let’s say you had to have a surgical procedure (under the old system). Once you were out of the hospital, you’d get a bill from your doctor, your surgeon, the hospital, the anesthesiologist, the pathologist, etc., and then you’d get some more bills from your insurance company. None of these bills are reconcilable to one another. We decided that this kind of wasteful confusion had to stop. When you have that same surgical procedure as a member of MaineSense, you get a single bill from MaineSense. MaineSense pays all the health care professionals, and you get a single statement showing all the details.