Story and photos by Ron Hyink
If we were to take a blank canvas and portray the precast industry in the years leading up to 2008, we would paint mostly lush forests with crystal streams, green shards of grass, bright blue strokes of sky with dabs of puffy white clouds and plenty of sunshine. It was a beautiful sight to behold indeed.
Unfortunately, sometimes even attractive pieces of art hang unnoticed and underappreciated. We just didn’t know how good we had it. Once the cloak of the Great Recession fell down around us, we watched with trepidation as the leaves in our glorious painting first faded then dried and curled up. An angry wind rose up out of the plains sending dust a mile high over the scene. The ground could hold no root but could only watch as the tumbleweeds of the times skipped across sparse vegetation. Call it The Grapes of Wrath of a much more recent economic desolation, if you will.
It was a time when precasters withdrew into themselves, becoming smaller physically and fiscally, some shuttering their doors for good or selling out to other companies with deeper pockets. Those who survived clung almost entirely to DOT, state or local work, as private development was suddenly gone with the wind.
That was then …
Some states suffered far worse than others, and Florida was one of the hardest hit. But somehow, the Sunshine State has been among the first to see private construction return, even along the coastal areas of southwest Florida where it probably shouldn’t have because of the lack of any meaningful industry.
“This area had always seen such a huge residential boom, as there had always been an overwhelming amount of people who want to move down here,” said Buddy Hume, vice president of operations and controller of Coastal Precast of Florida Inc., a Fort Myers-based manufacturer of underground stormwater and wastewater products. “But what happened is, when we got into the 2004-2006 range, they were building way beyond demand, and so the inventory of housing had reached a very high level.”
And then we all know what happened: The economy went from boom to bust in a blink of the eye. Florida’s prosperous construction activity became impoverished, and only a few morsels of government work were available for so many clamoring for it. Residential work simply stopped in its tracks. “Especially in Charlotte County, you could see the utilities were put in, and they started with maybe one house or guard gate, and then they just quit right where they were,” said Kathy Pawlowski, office manager. “They put in the utilities, or partially put them in, and maybe got the drainage structures and the manholes out there, and then they just sat there.”
With so much home building and so little industry in southwest Florida, it was the first area to get hit. “It hit us extremely hard,” said Mark Henderson, a salesman with the precast company. “I know of one shopping center that was built just before the bust that was totally complete. They keep the landscape nice, but there is not one tenant in it.”
Coastal Precast reduced its work hours and work days per week, and the number of employees dipped to 18, about half of what there had been. For a time, all the local trades became dependent on what little the government could offer.
“Normally in a situation like this, where things become stagnant and slower, you would expect to lose some competition,” said Buddy. “Not that I wish ill will on anyone, but just naturally that’s what happens, and the cream rises to the top and they keep going. But that didn’t happen. So everybody was fighting for that smaller piece of the pie.”
But then things really got ugly when an underground utility contractor from a large national company came into the area and severely undercut all the bids. “It was a situation where nobody could figure out how that could continue,” said Buddy. “A lot of our core customers were being impacted by this, because they were losing work to it. This company ended up being less than honest.” This they endured for nearly four years, but the rogue company finally met its doom. When it could not complete a large state job, it was fired. “Once they finally took that action, the company ended up going out of business and liquidating.”
… and this is now
By the end of 2012, things began to look up for Coastal Precast. People looking for second homes or retirement homes were starting to trickle back into Florida, explained Buddy. “It was the first time we really started to see it, so we knew we had some momentum,” he said. But with very little industry in the southwest part of the state, the east coast of Florida was the first to greet the returning investors. Buddy noted that from West Palm Beach south to Miami, affluent buyers were snapping up real estate. “Over there, the market’s a lot different, because it’s a lot more competitive,” he said. “Those people aren’t looking to buy houses in southwest Florida – they want more of a bigger city-type lifestyle.”
The rest of the hopeful homeowners would soon follow them southward, however, since nice, warm beaches on the ocean will always be a draw. Buddy stated that it was a matter of people gaining the confidence to buy again. “You reach a point where the inventory is depleted and the demand comes back, and I think that’s what we were seeing,” he said.
“We’ve gotten several jobs for private communities that have come here to Fort Myers and Lee County,” said Kathy. The renewed confidence with the home buyers begat more confidence in businesses that wanted to build or renovate restaurants and shopping centers, and slowly the two sides of home building and business building began to play off each other. “We put a lot of underground in for Dollar General and Dollar Store. Chase Bank has put up a lot. We’ve had several restaurants out here at Gulf Coast Town Center,” she added, referring to a fairly recent shopping development.
For Coastal Precast, restaurants mean grease traps. “A lot of the grease traps we build are for new restaurants, but there’s also a lot of redevelopment of existing restaurants, and they’re putting new grease traps in them too,” said Mark. “A majority of them are 750-gallon or 1,250-gallon grease traps. If it’s a restaurant of any size like Longhorn or Olive Garden or Cheddars, they have three, four, sometimes five 1,250-gallon grease traps in them.”
And with the new shopping centers came the need for new drainage structures. “You’re looking at anywhere from three to eight drainage structures and three to four manholes at the most,” said Mark. “Now you get into a residential community, there will be 150 to 250 drainage structures and anywhere from 12 to 35 sanitary sewer manholes. A lot of these communities have two, three and sometimes even four lift stations. So it’s really helping.”
And so the long-awaited economic upturn along the left coast of Florida has finally become a reality. “January 2014 was our best month that we have invoiced since the middle of 2008,” said Buddy. “So we’re definitely starting to get back to the production levels where we need to be.”
As more forms are being filled, the company has hired more people to fill them, including a new salesman and a new production manager. “We also added another guy in the plant,” said Buddy. “So with the increase in business we’re getting, after we weathered the storm and cut back in all the areas we could, we’re now starting to fill some positions again to keep up with the demand.”
It’s all about the people
Driving the momentum of Coastal Precast out of the sour times and into the sweet can be laid at the feet of its people. From the owners to the production workers and everyone in between, it’s a pretty close family – and the word “family” is not so far from the truth, as several of them have been working together for many years. “We don’t have a big turnover of employees here, we never have,” said Kathy. “We’ve all been here a long time.”
Each employee seems to have a favorite reason for staying with the company. Kathy talked about job satisfaction and enjoying what they do. Mark mentioned the benefits. “I guess you could consider us a small company, and I’ve never seen a company this size contribute to your 401K,” he said. “That’s unheard of.”
Rick Letcher, drafting manager, has longtime friends here. “I like coming to work, and I like the guys I work with,” said Rick, who had doubled as production manager until recently when the company started hiring again. “There are four or five of them I’ve worked with anywhere from 20 to 32 years.” Rick, who has been in the precast business since 1981 and with Coastal Precast since it started in 2001, said he and some of his friends had worked together for other precast manufacturers until they came home to Coastal.
It was this same core group of production workers who brought the company through the lean times, when management was forced into a decision to reduce the number of employees. You can’t get rid of your core people even through the rough times, Buddy explained. “Our staff was about half of what it was, and most of what was impacted was plant labor,” he said. “The problem is, to run an effective organization, you can only cut so much. There are certain people you can’t do without, because you have to have a certain amount of knowledge and a certain amount of people to perform the functions.”
But Coastal Precast is also blessed with having dedicated employers. “We’re fortunate to have a very solid ownership,” added Buddy. “The people involved with the ownership have various backgrounds and areas of expertise. So we have a lot of depth to draw upon here, and we have a lot to fall back on when we need it.”
It’s a recurring theme throughout the company: good employers, good employees, good friends, and a good place to work with good benefits. Tim Durban, project manager and salesman, is one of the more recent hires, and he is already seeing the light. “I think this is a great company,” said Tim. “One of the things that people ask me when I go home is, ‘How was your day?’ I tell them every day is like Christmas morning when I’m working here.”
The first colorful strokes of art are already being applied to a fresh canvas in the precast industry.
Ron Hyink is NPCA’s managing editor.