By Bridget McCrea
How to position precast concrete as the material of choice for architects, engineers and other specifiers.
With the U.S. demand for precast concrete products expected to grow steadily through 20181, a wide range of architects, engineers and designers will be incorporating these products into their commercial, residential, industrial and government projects. For some, the choice will be clear-cut because they’ve used precast in the past and understand its many benefits. Others will need some additional education and nudging to make that move.
To reach the latter group, a growing number of precasters are putting time and effort into campaigns that help spread the word about the material’s ability to reduce project time and cost, enhance quality and incorporate aesthetic finishes and designs. National Precast Concrete Association’s Stormwater Management Committee spreads the word to specifiers through a free webinar that allows specifiers to obtain two continuing education hours. In addition, NPCA’s Building Product Committee helped design a rendering where online visitors can navigate a business park and house to discover all the possible precast elements.
These efforts not only help spread the word about the value of precast, but also support the fast-track project schedules that everyone in the construction industry is working with today. As a result, specifiers lean toward choices that they’re familiar with. And if precast isn’t on that short list, it can be overlooked in favor of an alternate material.
“The challenging aspect of reaching specifiers is making the time to get out there and talk to them, and then getting them to make the time for it,” said Greg Stratis, manager at Shea Concrete Products in Amesbury, Mass., and current NPCA Board of Directors Chairman-Elect. The good news is engineers and designers are receptive to the idea once they realize how beneficial precast can be for their project(s). “Overall, I find that engineers are very interested in what we have to offer.”
Stratis recently conducted a professional development day addressing the importance of taking the time to reach out to specifiers. In many cases, the in-person or phone meetings he has with specifiers turn into educational sessions.
“It’s surprising to me that not all engineers are familiar with what we would consider everyday precast knowledge,” Stratis said. “They’re generally pleased when we take the initiative and time to help them find innovative ways – using precast – to solve the difficult engineering problems that they’re dealing with.”
Helping them do their jobs
Stratis pointed out that reaching out to specifiers can be a time-consuming activity that doesn’t always fit into the typical precast manufacturing firm’s day-to-day agenda. However, it is a vital process that supports both company- and industry-based efforts to position precast as the building material of choice on many different types of projects.
In many cases, manufacturers assume engineers already know enough about various products to make a decision. Or, precasters think that specifiers are “way above them,” and unreachable, Stratis said.
“They think the engineer is going to stump them with a question or a request, so they shy away from taking the proactive step and reaching out,” he said. “They feel that engineers aren’t folks that can be communicated with easily, but this is an incorrect perception.”
Based on these apprehensions, Stratis says precasters will often avoid going into the field to meet with engineers.
“Occasionally, you might run into one engineer that might be set on a certain material type, and it’s sometimes hard to convince him or show him that precast might be a better material for the project,” Stratis said. “There are also times when precast isn’t exactly the right fit for a certain application.”
In many other situations, precast concrete is the right choice. The only way to determine this – and to get specifiers thinking along these lines – is to sit down and talk to them about possible solutions.
“A lot of times they’re just looking for reinforcement and maybe for you to do a little bit of the work,” Stratis said.
For example, an engineer might say, “Hey, I’d love to put this structure on this job site. What can you guys offer me?” Once Stratis and his team lay out the options, the engineer may turn around and ask them to draw up the plans and send over the AutoCAD drawings, which, in turn, can be dropped right into the specifier’s plans. The engineer may also ask for facts, information, pictures and other supporting materials. Whatever the request, Stratis said his company will usually fill it, knowing it will enhance the chances of the engineer specifying its products.
Breaking the commoditization mold
According to Greg Roache, president at Gainey’s Concrete Products in Holden, La., the best way to sell products in the precast concrete industry is by having the products that specifiers need.
“When you can do that, good things happen to your company as a whole,” said Roache, who would like to see more precasters adopt that mindset.
Over the last seven years, Gainey’s has incorporated engineer/designer outreach into its go-to-market model to drive specifications. As part of that effort, Roache said the company was approved by its local engineering society to offer professional development hours. Engineers are required to earn these continuing education hours in order to maintain their licensing statuses. Gainey’s then developed about 10 different learning modules/subjects that it offers to engineering firms via one-hour sessions that include lunch.
“By giving these talks, we help engineers get their professional development hours and in return they’re listening to our infomercial,” Roache said.
He said sessions are given by interesting and fun speakers who talk about subjects of relevance to engineers. In addition to these talks, the company also holds annual wastewater and stormwater conferences and has invested in a state-of-the-art training room that can accommodate up to 150 people.
“We hold all-day seminars in that room and engineers walk away from the experience having earned almost all of the PDHs that they need for the entire year,” Roache said.
Inviting specifiers on site allows Gainey’s to reach a larger audience and vastly expand its specifier agenda. In fact, Roache credits the latter with helping to boost steady, double-digit company growth over the last few years.
“Until you can truly differentiate your product line, why would anyone specify it?” Roache said. “You have to find a point of differentiation and start educating specifiers on that point.”
Take manholes, for example. At Gainey’s, points of differentiation on otherwise commoditized products include three different types of corrosion control and a number of unique features that make in-ground installation faster.
“It’s about how our products go above and beyond the typical spec,” he said.
Getting the word out
Today, precasters have many different tools for spreading the good word about their products and about precast concrete in general. Websites and social media, for example, are just two channels for disseminating information and reaching engineers, architects and designers. Project success stories, case studies and customer testimonials can go a long way in helping specifiers select precast concrete as a material of choice.
“We’ve started using more case studies showing how our products are being used out in the field, and that’s helped get more engineers looking at what we’re doing here,” said Cyndi Glascock, design manager at Gainey’s Concrete. “When someone has already heard about you – or read about your work – it’s easier to get them on your team.”
Ultimately, Glascock said any precaster’s focus should be on educating and sharing information versus just selling product.
“Manufacturers can get so busy making products that they forget that they have to understand their target audiences – and then let those audiences know why their products are the best choice,” Glascock said. “If you don’t put the time into this and help others understand what differentiates you, it won’t really matter how good your product is. It won’t get specified.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.