Story and Photos by Mason Nichols
Piedmont Precast’s forward-thinking mindset and ambitious outlook create a recipe for success.
Running a successful precast concrete plant requires mixing a few key ingredients: a line of exceptional products, superb customer service and a commitment to quality. Most companies are happy with this standard formula. It’s a battle-tested approach that has proven lucrative through the years. But as the landscape of the construction industry evolves, companies seeking future business will need to pepper a little something extra into the mix.
The owners at Piedmont Precast of Atlanta, Ga., know this all too well, which is why their forward-thinking mindset functions as the driving force behind business operations.
“Ten years from now, there are going to be products that we will be saying we don’t know how we ever lived without,” said Frank Bowen, plant manager. “We just want to be there when they are discovered.”
With a strong core product line in place and an eye on continued diversification, Piedmont Precast possesses all the ingredients needed to build on a legacy that began nearly a century ago.
Construction plays an important role in the Bowen family. For Frank and his brother Glen, president of Piedmont Precast, it’s the reason the company is in business today.
In the 1920s, Frank and Glen’s great-great-grandfather, Caleb, worked as a general contractor in Atlanta. Caleb worked on many projects, but his involvement in the construction of the H.M. Patterson & Son Spring Hill funeral home changed the lives of the Bowen family forever.
After the funeral home was completed in 1928, Caleb’s health began to decline. To make matters worse, the Great Depression was about to send millions of Americans scrambling for work. Recognizing an imminent slowdown in the construction industry, Caleb advised his eldest son, Frank Bowen, Sr., to stray from pursuing a career in construction and take a pending offer for employment at H.M. Patterson & Son.
Shortly before Caleb passed away in 1930, Frank Sr. secured a funeral director position at H.M. Patterson & Son. There, he discovered his new line of work was resistant to the severe economic downturn brought about by the depression. Also during this time, many cemeteries across the U.S. began requiring the use of outer-burial containers to prevent “sunken graves.” After discovering a waterproof precast concrete vault developed by Wilbert Haase, Frank Sr. applied his background in construction and concrete to start the Wilbert Burial Vault Co. of Atlanta, Ga., in 1937.
For more than three decades, Wilbert Burial Vault Co. – through a licensee relationship with Wilbert W. Haase Co. – manufactured concrete outer-burial receptacles from the company’s original location on Mecaslin Street in Atlanta. In 1972, the company moved operations to a new location outside of downtown Atlanta. That facility is still in operation today.
Through the years, Wilbert Burial Vault Co. witnessed many crucial events in U.S. history, including World War II, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and many others. No matter what was happening at the time, customers remained in need of interment services and products. This allowed the company to operate regardless of the events of the day.
Still, ownership knew they could expand their business beyond the death care industry. And when Glen joined the company in 2003, the outlook shifted from focusing solely on funeral products and services to seeking new product lines.
“With regard to business development, Glen has always had a clear understanding of the importance of diversification,” Frank said. “He recognized the need to expand very early and said, ‘We need to try some new things. We need to find what’s out there.’”
At the same time, a new precast retaining wall system developed in northern Michigan by the Manthei family was just beginning to penetrate the market. The system – known as Redi-Rock – sought licensing partners with the capacity to expand into producing and marketing precast modular block. As such, the Manthei family included burial vault manufacturers like the Bowens in their list of target companies. This led to the decision for Wilbert Burial Vault Co. to expand their product offerings and diversify their customer base.
The following year, Wilbert Burial Vault Co. secured a subcontract with Suhor Industries of Overland Park, Kan., to supply precast lawn crypts to the new Georgia National Cemetery in Canton, Ga. At the time, the project – which required roughly 18,000 double-depth lawn crypts – was the largest ever undertaken by the National Cemetery Administration. To meet the needs of the project, Wilbert Burial Vault Co. required a large plant expansion. After nearly a year of work, the company’s new manufacturing halls, warehouse and batching facilities added the necessary capacity for the national cemetery project and long-term growth projections.
Owners rebranded the company as Piedmont Precast in 2005. Glen also sought the aid of his brother, Frank, to help get the new Redi-Rock line off the ground. Frank agreed to assist, and though he didn’t plan it at the time, the two have worked side-by-side growing Piedmont Precast ever since.
The old standby
Convincing local specifiers to embrace the Redi-Rock system as an optimal solution took time. However, through a concentrated effort which included many presentations and outreach endeavors, contractors, specifiers and project owners began to see the benefits. But just as the new line started to gain traction, the Great Recession slowed everything down.
Thankfully, the Bowen family had seen this before. And though the economic effects of the Great Recession didn’t reach the lows of the Great Depression, the company once again turned to its core product – burial vaults – to help carry it through tough times.
“During the recession, our cement salesman came to me and said, ‘Look, you guys have always joked about how small you are, but I can’t tell you how important accounts like yours are right now,’” Frank said. “There was nothing special to what we were doing. Funeral products and services just happen to be more resistant than most other precast products in an economic downturn.”
After the worst effects of the recession began to fade in 2009, Piedmont Precast continued to grow its Redi-Rock line. Today, it represents more than 20% of total business. A variety of the company’s Redi-Rock projects can be seen around town, including in high-profile movies filmed in Atlanta.
Eight months to 45 seconds
As part of Piedmont Precast’s work with the Redi-Rock line, Glen and Frank had collaborated with Thomas Rainey, P.E., of Earth Wall Products. The brothers were both pleased with the design work Rainey and his crew had done to help make Piedmont’s Redi-Rock projects a success.
While Rainey was assisting Piedmont, he was simultaneously developing a new retaining wall system. The new solution, which contractors can install to specification using on-site soil as backfill, is named Gravix. To take the system through a trial run, Rainey built a wooden form in his garage and sent it to Piedmont Precast. From that first form, the company manufactured more than 100 units for a medical facility project.
Glen and Frank grew increasingly excited about adding another product line. As a result, Piedmont Precast purchased a set of forms which would allow them to manufacture all of the Gravix product types: standard, top, leveling and traffic barrier.
The traffic barrier unit was of particular importance, as Piedmont Precast and Gravix sought to achieve a MASH TL-4 crash rating in 2013 from the Federal Highway Administration. Testing required 19 traffic barrier units to be shipped to a facility at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in Bryan, Texas.
The test entailed crashing a 26,000-pound truck traveling nearly 60 mph into a series of Gravix units. To pass the test, the units had to prevent the truck from jumping over the barrier, which would equate to protecting the passenger, if one were inside. Jason Sailers, business development manager with Piedmont Precast, summed up the gravity of the situation with a simple statement.
“What took eight months of preparation, manufacturing and logistics came down to 45 seconds of pass or fail,” he said.
To the delight of Rainey and everyone at Piedmont Precast, the Gravix barriers passed the test. As a result, Gravix became the first precast unit to achieve the MASH TL-4 rating and can now be specified for transportation projects in every state.
“After the successful crash test, our entire team beamed with a proud sense of achievement,” Frank said. “We were thrilled, to say the least, about the performance of this product. We saw the potential in the system and realized – especially after our history working in geotechnics – all the places where Gravix would be applicable.”
View videos of the MASH TL-4 crash test at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute below.
Grow or die
With burial vaults continuing to perform well and new product lines being added, Piedmont Precast was beginning to develop the kind of diversification Glen and Frank had first envisioned nearly a decade earlier. Now, the company faced a new problem: they were running out of production space.
Although the facility they had moved to in 1972 had performed well for 40 years, as Frank explained, it no longer offered the capacity needed for Piedmont’s growth. As management explored expansion options, they did everything they could to optimize workflows in the limited space.
“We were standing on top of ourselves,” Frank said. “We climbed up the walls and had more organized work stations that you would typically find in large-volume production facilities that are more autonomous.”
Even with the accommodations made, Glen knew operations were reaching a breaking point.
“Plain and simple, we were out of space and constraints at our primary manufacturing facility were inhibiting our growth,” he said. “Grow or die.”
Many considerations factored into the decision of whether to expand the facility, construct a new one or purchase an existing building. Ownership considered crane heights, the production equipment, yard space and more as they mulled over their decision. Eventually, a 102,000-square-foot facility that met the criteria became available just around the corner. Piedmont Precast had found its answer.
“Over the next few months, there were a lot of late nights,” Frank said. “I would get calls from Glen in the middle of the night and he would say, ‘You know what we can do?’ We’d meet the next morning, review the plan and then try and explore the problems in it.”
Eventually, Glen, Frank and the rest of management decided on a plant layout that maximized production and allowed future expansion. Today, the new facility is set up with more than 700 linear feet of construction space across two production bays. Piedmont Precast transferred burial vault production to the new facility. This allowed workers at the other building to focus on the company’s construction products, including Redi-Rock, Gravix, Sub-Mar and custom solutions. According to Glen, the move expanded production by more than 50%.
The Bowen family is always thinking about what’s next. It’s not just about, “How did we perform today?” but also “What can we do to perform even better tomorrow?” That’s why the company keeps track of numerous statistics like the number of zero-defect products manufactured per man per day – a metric that has improved since moving burial vault production to the new facility.
It’s also why the company is considering establishing satellite locations as business continues to increase. Frank said he feels confident this type of expansion can succeed with the correct approach.
“As long as the communication is solid and the management structure is in place, you can reduce potential hiccups when establishing satellite locations,” he said. “But you must be goal-oriented and stick to your business plan.”
The company is also looking to manufacture more product lines and is excited to take on custom projects. As Frank explained, no project is out of the question.
“When a customer presents challenges, it teaches you about future opportunities and your own ability to produce something new,” he said. “I like taking on that challenge and working with it to satisfy the customer.”
Glen and Frank dream big, and the two have developed a chemistry that provides the extra surge needed to help Piedmont Precast reach the next level. Sailers explained this insatiable desire to advance is felt throughout the management team and reverberates throughout the company.
“There’s a hunger here,” he said. “We’re all at a point in our careers where it’s time to dig in. Everyone is excited.”
Frank agreed, noting with the right planning and processes in place, anything is possible.
“Precast is about finding solutions for construction economy,” he said. “It’s about having a creative idea that is always in consideration of throughput. If we keep looking for new ways to develop construction sites, we will continue manufacturing precast products that go viral.”
Mason Nichols is the managing editor of Precast Solutions magazine and is NPCA’s external communication and marketing manager.