Gillespie Precast is all about high quality, high standards and high customer satisfaction.
Gillespie Precast has incorporated the big red G as part of their logo, which is prominently displayed on its trucks and precast structures that can be seen in the Mid-Atlantic region, including Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, D.C., Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Photos and Story By Sara Geer
Gillespie Precast is a family-operated company manufacturing and selling concrete products that can trace its origins back to 1922. The company began on the Sudlersville, Md., dairy farm of George Gillespie, President Jim Gillespie’s great-grandfather, when George began making blocks to build a milk house from a machine purchased from Sears, Roebuck & Co. The demand for blocks, especially from local farmers, led to the beginning of the operation. With the help of George’s son, Victor, Gillespie & Son Inc. was established. Shortly after World War II, Jim’s father, Edward, joined his father and grandfather in their growing business. Ready-mix concrete was added in the 1950s. Jim and his brother, Todd, became the fourth generation, joining the company in 1983 and 1993.
Block to precast
The family’s first precast product line was burial vaults, with septic tanks following. In the 1970s, when steel septic tanks were outlawed in Maryland, the precast business began to boom, allowing the family to build their first precast concrete production facility in Chestertown, Md. Jim Gillespie said his father claims the company manufactured the first concrete septic tank in the state of Maryland.
“I’m not sure how we can substantiate that claim though,” he laughed.
Over time, more precast products were added, including steps and catch basins.
After several years working for his father, Gillespie was told that “growth is in the precast. Go to the precast convention and see what’s out there.”
The precast convention was the National Precast Concrete Association’s 21st Annual Convention held in Columbus, Ohio, in 1986. He returned home with numerous ideas and was ready to set the world on fire. With advice from a local contractor, Gillespie began making square boxes and structures using Symons panels. Gradually, this line expanded due to the relationships and reputation the family had with ready-mix and block customers who were now seeing the advantage of using precast concrete.
As business continued to flourish, Gillespie saw the opportunity to expand the product division to include custom precast structures. Continued growth in the precast concrete market led to the establishment of Gillespie Precast LLC in 2004. Gillespie built another facility in Chestertown, Md., to keep up with growing product lines and production demands. In 2013, an additional precast plant was acquired in Greenwood, Del., as the company continued to expand in the mid-Atlantic territory.
Much of the company’s success can be attributed to NPCA. Gillespie, Vice President Jim Talbott, Operations Manager Jude Mandes and members of the staff are very supportive of the association and regularly attend the annual conventions, trade shows, plant tours and educational seminars for training and networking.
The company manufactures a wide variety of products from its three NPCA certified plant locations. Talbott said the company has a reputation for producing unusual pieces. The team thrives on analyzing project plans to find ways to build special products.
In 2012, Gillespie Precast was awarded a milestone project. Contractors contacted the company in October to precast a trench for the Delaware City Refinery that had been designed as cast-in-place. The trench measured 6 feet wide, 7 feet deep and 1,470 feet long and housed a 24-inch pipe to unload crude oil from railcars. The project consisted of 176 pieces, each weighing approximately 17 tons. Manufacturing was completed in a two-month period and installation took less than one month.
“We were at the precast convention in New Orleans when we got the order. The contractor wanted to know how many pieces he could have the first week of December; and that we had to be done by the end of the year. At first we told him that was an impossible schedule. We were all sitting around brainstorming, figuring out how we could do this,” Talbott said. “We first had to re-engineer this to be precast, then work seven days a week, including two shifts, to meet their schedule.”
Gillespie Precast delivered the last piece 11 days ahead of schedule. The project owners were so pleased with the results that they contacted the company the following May to produce a second trench and later that year, a third. From then on, the owners have specified precast concrete in many other project designs.
A unique project the company is proud of is a gasketed box culvert job completed in 2015. Talbott said when the project description arrived, it had attached joint testing requirements that needed to be met for compliance under ASTM C1677, along with an accelerated production schedule.
The project called for the replacement of an existing 7-foot-by-3-foot box culvert that had joint failures. The company had experience with gasketed box culvert joints but had never done extensive in-plant testing before. Gillespie Precast called fellow precasters and Hamilton Kent, the gasket manufacturer, for advice. The precasters suggested to set the sections in a worst-case arrangement for all three required tests (straight alignment, maximum-deflected position and off-center alignment) rather than doing each individually. The gasket manufacturer said no precaster had ever asked them about doing all three tests.
After completing each test to the staff’s satisfaction, a project engineer witnessed the official testing, which successfully passed. The contractor told management that other precasters bid on the project but that Gillespie Precast was the only one willing to meet the testing and scheduling requirements.
Two other specialized jobs that the company worked on in 2015 included manufacturing a precast concrete architectural boat ramp with varying sized pieces measuring 15 to 24 feet and Wave Attenuation Devices, which are artificial reef barriers that prevent shoreline erosion. Gillespie Precast is the first precaster to manufacture the WADs for the licensed dealer, Living Shoreline Solutions Inc. They manufactured 500 WADs and delivered them to the Delaware coastline in the summer.
Box culvert business
Gillespie Precast’s introduction into the box culvert business came as a surprise. Shortly after Talbott returned from a class at the 2000 NPCA Precast Industry Leaders Conference, a box culvert job came up for bid. The project included building a tunnel under a roadway to link a parking lot to a golf course. He said the company bid on the project as a broker for another precaster since it did not manufacture box culverts or products over 10 tons at the time. Gillespie Precast was awarded the bid but the other precaster backed out due to the tight schedule. Gillespie was a little skeptical about building something of that size, but that did not deter Talbott from trying. He immediately started calling fellow NPCA members he met at the meeting for advice. Talbott said fellow member, Kevin Camp of Camp Precast, directed him to a used form listed for sale in New York. Gillespie and Talbott drove up, purchased the form, built the pieces and completed the project on time.
In 2002, the company had just purchased land to build its new precast facility when a project surfaced that required 14-foot-by-12 foot, three-sided, post-tensioned box culverts. Talbott said construction on the plant had not yet started, so a concrete pad was poured for outside production. During this project, the company also made the decision to purchase modular box culvert forming systems from Cleco Manufacturing.
“Once we did that job and the plant was complete, we could handle any box culvert size,” Talbott said. “Projects only got bigger and bigger. And now we had the plant to build them. We were ready for whatever opportunities presented themselves.”
While other precasters were scaling back during the Great Recession, Gillespie Precast added an additional 22,500 square feet to its plant. The expansion not only increased production floor space but also increased the overhead crane capacity to 50 tons.
Another key decision was the implementation of Titan II Precast Management Software. Gillespie said the company was among the first to integrate Titan II after receiving word of its success from Garden State Precast.
“We studied different options before choosing Titan II,” Gillespie said. “This was a big advantage because it has helped us track materials and monitor other important aspects to smooth the work flow.”
A beautiful product
In addition to choosing the right technology and time to expand, choosing the right person to manage plant operations has also been key. Jude Mandes, now an NPCA Master Precaster, joined the company in 2002 after Gillespie had purchased the land to build the new plant facility. Mandes had experience managing highway construction crews, but had no knowledge of precast concrete before starting the job.
Mandes’ initial responsibility was to make sure the proper structure was in place at the new plant to facilitate a smooth transition as product volume increased. Past managers told him he’d grow complacent working under the same roof day after day. Thirteen years later, no two days have been the same, he said.
“Jim Gillespie is a visionary. He envisioned this new facility being top notch,” Mandes said. “He also has a knack for placing the right people in position to do the job right. I came here to build, direct and operate this new facility.
“Now, we have a team of 30 working here at this plant alone. It’s been amazing to see how this plant, and our other two, have grown.”
Mandes also oversees operations at the Greenwood and the second Chestertown plant.
One accomplishment that he is especially proud of was achieving 100% on both Chestertown facilities’ NPCA Plant Certification audits in 2014 and 2015. Mandes doesn’t take the credit personally, recognizing the feat was a team effort.
“We have a great group of people here that take a lot of pride in their work,” Mandes said. “We get upset when our product doesn’t come out the way we planned. When it works, everyone says, ‘That’s a beautiful product,’ and we make a lot of beautiful products!”
Gillespie Precast also won the 2015 Pinnacle Award for the Pocket Pull, a tool they designed to remove the rubber recess forms cast in concrete in order to create bolt pockets. This was a creative solution for a daily precast plant challenge.
Beat the odds
Jim Gillespie said the company has continued to beat the odds from one generation to the next as each has taken the business to the next level. The fifth generation is ready to take the reigns as Gillespie’s son, Andrew, officially joined the company in 2013 and his younger son, Patrick, may join as well in the future. Todd continues to manage the ready mix company, Gillespie & Son. Gillespie takes great pride in his company and the work ethic of his 100-plus employees, who he describes as extended family. The key to their success is producing high quality products to ensure complete customer satisfaction, something made possible by a dedicated team.
Sara Geer is NPCA’s internal communication and web manager, and is managing editor of Precast Inc.