Leesburg Concrete Company’s willingness to embrace change helped pull the company through the recession and into an entirely new line of business.
By Mason Nichols
Change can be extraordinarily difficult. As humans, we tend to get comfortable with the status quo, accepting routine and the comfort that comes with knowing what to expect. Our love for stability extends into the world of business, where reliance on the practices that have previously led to success often dictate our strategic planning.
But what happens when the bottom falls out? How do we react when things fail to go as planned?
In the late ’90s, author and management consultant Spencer Johnson published a best-selling business book titled “Who Moved My Cheese?” The book is a parable that describes how two mice and two people react differently when confronted by unexpected change.
Johnson’s book teaches that while it may be easy to rely on the same resources for success, change will inevitably occur. At the risk of being left behind, we must be ready to embrace this change in pursuit of new ventures.
Kirk Rouse and Shawn Thomas, co-vice presidents of Leesburg Concrete Company in Leesburg, Fla., took this message to heart when their mom, Sue, purchased Johnson’s book for them in 2007. Today, after powering through a difficult recession that significantly impacted the entire precast concrete industry, the company continues to thrive. A significant portion of the company’s success can be attributed to a willingness to envision change as an opportunity for diversification rather than a barrier to success.
A family thing
Rouse and Thomas have a unique relationship. In addition to being business partners, the two became stepbrothers in high school when Rouse’s mother, Sue, married Thomas’s father, Lannie. When Rouse and Thomas graduated in 1983, their parents purchased Leesburg Concrete, a 2.5-acre precast concrete plant, which at the time primarily manufactured split-face block.
Lannie and Sue grew the business by expanding into product lines that continue to play an important role at Leesburg Concrete today. First, they partnered with Unit Step to begin manufacturing precast concrete steps. Then, when Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, they created a wheelchair ramp product line. They again worked with Unit Step to fabricate the forms that needed to meet strict code requirements. This product line was especially lucrative for Leesburg Concrete because portable classrooms were popular and required wheelchair access.
Steps and ramps served Leesburg Concrete well for many years, but in 2000, the family came together to discuss the future of the business. Rouse and Thomas signed on to see what they could do to help the company grow even further. Thanks to their efforts, the company grew its customer base. For the first time, Leesburg Concrete began selling steps and ramps outside of Florida. Demand was so high that production sometimes ran 24 hours a day so the company could manufacture enough concrete to satisfy orders. Things were getting so hectic that the family decided more space was needed in order to keep up with the frantic pace. As a result, Leesburg Concrete bought additional acreage and built a new plant.
“We bought the additional property really to satisfy the need to make (ramps and steps),” Rouse said. “Our main focus was being able to continue keeping up with demand. But then, the bottom fell out.”
In the parlance of Johnson’s business book, someone had moved their cheese.
The same product lines that had been so crucial to Leesburg Concrete’s growth were now struggling mightily. According to Thomas, the company lost between 60 and 70% of its market thanks to a mass exodus out of Florida. Earlier projections for wheelchair ramp needs at schools were completely reversed, eradicating a large portion of the company’s business.
To make matters worse, the owners had decided to expand operations by purchasing a new batch plant to meet the exponential growth of their main product lines. They signed the contract for the new equipment just before the recession took hold of the economy. Thankfully, the family was prepared.
“Our folks had lived conservatively and saved their money,” Rouse said. “When they had those good years, they didn’t go and blow it. When we built this plant, we were able to do it and stay out of debt.”
Thomas echoed Rouse. “We built the plant on success,” he said. “We didn’t borrow money against future success.”
Remaining debt-free was essential to pulling through the recession. As Thomas explained, while the company took the necessary steps to minimize damage brought on by reduced business, it was Lannie and Sue’s financial resourcefulness that ultimately kept Leesburg Concrete on track.
“If we were carrying any debt, we would have been gone a long time ago,” Thomas said. “And I think that was a deciding factor of whether we were going to stay in business or not.”
Mixing it up
With the recession taking a stranglehold of the precast concrete industry and having a detrimental effect on Leesburg Concrete’s product lines, the company was faced with a major dilemma. Even with no debt to contend with, major questions still remained. How would the company survive until the economy improved? What products could Leesburg Concrete produce that would differentiate them from the competition? Change was needed for survival, and it was needed quickly.
Besides being frugal, Lannie and Sue are also known for being research-oriented. As such, the decision to purchase a new batch plant came only after significant exploration into all of the possible options. Leesburg Concrete, which has been a National Precast Concrete Association member since 2004, used The Precast Show as one of its primary research tools.
“For years, we’d go to the trade show and talk to all of the batch plant manufacturers,” Thomas said. “We knew them all by name and spoke with all of them.”
After much deliberation, Leesburg Concrete chose to work with Advanced Concrete Technologies. According to Thomas, a major factor in the decision was ACT’s hands-on work with Leesburg Concrete throughout the entire process.
“They came in and I took four of my guys, and together we built the whole plant out of the box,” Thomas said. “We bolted it all up and then brought in the guys to hook up all of the electronics. ACT then spent a couple of days showing us how to run the mixer.”
Adding the new batch plant was the perfect opportunity for Leesburg Concrete to reconsider its business strategy. As Rouse said, having the system in place meant the company could begin manufacturing “pretty much anything.”
Armed with more than 30 acres of production space and a new, more versatile batch plant, Leesburg Concrete was now positioned to attack the recession head-on. The only question was how.
For Rouse and Thomas, reorienting the business strategy wasn’t just about making it through the recession, it was about developing a sustainable plan that could take the company to new heights once the economy recovered.
Central Florida is home to many large-scale precast concrete manufacturers that produce large quantities of standard utility products, including culvert and pipe. The result is stiff competition and thin margins. Realizing this, Rouse and Thomas chose to focus the company’s efforts on custom work instead.
“When we lost the market, we came up with a strategy,” Thomas said. “We didn’t just scramble. We sat down and looked into other products to build on. We planned.”
That planning opened up the possibility for Leesburg Concrete to manufacture a variety of specialty products at a much higher profit margin. And while the company still produces stairs and ramps, this new direction defines the company today.
Thanks to this new direction, Leesburg Concrete now touts an expansive product line. In addition to ramps and steps, the company manufactures precast concrete floor-to-floor stairs, boardwalks, Easi-Set & Easi-Span buildings, SlenderWall, custom architectural panels, architectural bridge sections and other custom products.
Additionally, Leesburg Concrete’s metal fabrication division produces custom railing, gates and stairs. The company recently completed production and installation of over a mile of high-end Florida Department of Transportation architectural pedestrian railing for SunRail, central Florida’s light train rail system.
Made to order
In the years since the recession, Leesburg Concrete has worked on custom jobs for projects in a wide variety of locations. The company has shipped custom products to California, Texas, Maine, Canada and the Bahamas.
“Generally, you have a circle of around 100 miles for your customer base,” Rouse said. “But because these projects have a different flavor, look or feel, we have been able to expand beyond that circle.”
Last year, Rouse and Thomas secured work on two large-scale precast concrete cladding jobs, one for Tyndall Air Force Base east of Panama City and one for Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville. The job at Tyndall Air Force Base was won proactively by combing through search engine results. Thanks to the high quality of the finished work, Rouse and Thomas were able to establish key relationships, leading to the second large project at Mayport Naval Station.
The work at Mayport Naval Station required a high level of attention to detail. Leesburg Concrete manufactured more than 100 architectural exterior and structural precast panels, each weighing approximately 45,000 pounds. Project owners specified 30-foot tall panels with three different integral colors and four different finishes, a difficult task for any precaster. Thomas admits that it was the most complex project Leesburg Concrete has tackled to date.
“It’s a matter of resourcefulness,” Thomas said. “It’s about what you can pull together and make happen. You can get the work, but can you do the work?
“Projects like these push you on every aspect of the job.”
Ultimately, Leesburg Concrete decided to cast monolithic panels rather than pouring the panels in separate pieces. Although the work tested the company’s capabilities, the project owners are happy with the result. This led to even more business for Leesburg Concrete – a large, three-section Easi-Set terminal building to be placed on site at the naval base.
Custom work is powering Leesburg Concrete’s expansion. However, the complementary skillsets of Rouse and Thomas enable the company to thrive. The stepbrothers benefit greatly from what each individually brings to the business.
“Shawn and I have a unique partnership,” Rouse said. “I’m able to work on the business and revenue creation side, and then when we get custom projects, Shawn takes that on and figures out how to get it made. It would be really difficult for one person to do all of that, so we complement each other well.”
Although Rouse and Thomas each bring something unique to the company, both agree that it is a commitment to satisfying the customer – no matter what challenges may arise – that sets the company apart.
“Every construction project has challenges,” Rouse said. “You can draw it all up on paper, but at some point, you will encounter a challenge. But no matter what happens, we work through it and solve the problem.”
Thomas agreed with Rouse, noting that manufacturing a great product and working closely with a customer through the entire course of a project are key to success.
Both of these philosophies worked well for Leesburg Concrete in the work they performed with Disney World. Leesburg Concrete got its foot in the door following a steps project in a multi-unit housing community. Pleased with the company’s work, Disney contracted Leesburg Concrete to replace a series of octagonal park benches originally manufactured and placed inside of Disney World in 1971. While creating a bench isn’t anything out of the ordinary, the level of detail Disney required certainly was.
“We had to match – and I don’t use that word lightly – substantially match all of the benches we were replacing in Tomorrowland.”
Since that time Leesburg Concrete has produced several products for Disney, including Easi-Set buildings and custom stairs.
A premier precaster
Running a business can be tumultuous. Subtle changes in the marketplace may snowball into larger, more complex issues. For companies that fail to adapt, this can spell disaster. But for companies with a willingness to find new cheese, a difficult situation can be transformed into an opportunity for growth.
“There are no guarantees,” Rouse said. “Life changes. Things come up. The rules change. You’ve got to adapt.”
No matter how much Rouse and Thomas acclimate to the world around them, the company will continue its commitment to hard work and a desire to never be satisfied with “just good enough.”
“I think we still have a lot of work left to do,” Rouse said. “I want Leesburg Concrete Company to be known as the premier architectural precast producer down here from a quality standpoint.”
On the strength of a close-knit family and an ultra-resilient mindset, Leesburg Concrete is poised to do just that.