David and Dan Zarraonandia, owners of Pre-con Products, choose to focus on enjoying their work and have reaped the rewards as a result.
By Kirk Stelsel, CAE
Do you ever think about the importance of enjoying what you do for a living? If your career spanned 45 years and consisted of eight hour days every weekday, it would add up to roughly 93,600 hours on the job. Looking at it that way adds perspective on the role our careers play in our lives.
This outlook is a driving factor in the business decisions David and Dan Zarraonandia, owners of Pre-con Products headquartered in Simi Valley, Calif., have made while running their family business. It’s incredibly important to them that working at Pre-con be enjoyable, challenging and rewarding for both themselves and their employees.
Walking around Pre-con’s property, it doesn’t take long to realize the Zarraonandias have a lot of irons in the fire and are constantly adding more. Directly behind the office is the dry-cast pipe plant they erected in the late ‘80s and the manhole production area. While these are standard precast products, nothing is basic at Pre-con. The company works with more than 20 cities in the Los Angeles area alone, and each has its own specifications. Understanding the idiosyncrasies of each agency has become a specialty of Pre-con, keeping its products in high demand.
Inside the pipe plant, you get a taste of the many upgrades the Zarraonandias have made in the past three years. A relatively new 3-yard pan mixer feeds an automated control system they updated for the first time since the plant was built.
“Last year, we upgraded our control panel to the new Besser control system,” Dan said. “This was the final step in a long line of improvements we’ve made to RCP production as we transition to rubber gasket pipe.”
Just outside the pipe plant, an employee fabricates pipe reinforcement on a cage welding machine they added last year. Next to him, an employee is busy coring manholes on yet another newer piece of equipment.
Beyond that, workers are manufacturing the company’s many different wet-cast vaults, pump stations and specialty products, including box culverts, precast paving slabs, stormwater filtration products and three-sided bridge structures. Pre-con manufactures pump stations as large as 12 feet in diameter monolithically and 18 feet as a segmented product. It has poured vaults as large as 11 feet by 26 feet. To lift the heavier pieces, the Zarraonandias invested in a 30-ton mobile gantry crane years ago and recently added a 50-ton model. To track all of this inventory, they also started using a bar code system in 2016.
These investments allow the company’s employees to work more efficiently and to work on challenging new projects.
The last stop on the property is a seven-acre parcel David and Dan recently purchased to add to their original 10 acres. They have big plans for the new property.
“Eventually, we’re going to collect 100% of our water from the facility using a large infiltration basin here with our new stormwater detention system,” David said. “We’ll be managing about two million gallons of water but we won’t have a discharge. The goal is 100% water capture and 100% infiltration or harvesting.”
Reading the market
The Zarraonandias have been busy adding land and equipment, as well as a second plant in Suisun City, Calif., but they have also been working on new product lines to meet the evolving needs of the marketplace. Some are one-off or have a limited market, but others will play a major role in the long-term success of the company.
For the past few years, the major focus has been on bringing its stormwater detention system called Storm Prism or SP360 to the market. They foresee exponential growth potential in the stormwater detention market and recognize that one job can require hundreds or even thousands of pieces.
“We designed the product and then we hired Delta to do the engineering and Marks Metal helped to refine the mold,” David said. “The goal was to make a really simple mold and have one mold that can be used for every piece. I don’t think we can say enough good things about the guys from Marks Metal and they’re just as excited about working on new and interesting projects.”
The low impact development or LID system is patent pending and has a variety of configurations, including heights from three to eight feet in a single setup. Stacked, the system can reach 16 feet. The floor can be closed or open, depending on whether the goal is detention or infiltration. Other configurations include baffles, desilting sections, oil barriers and individual cell isolation.
The Zarraonandias’ first underground installation was a test run at their plant following a successful 120,000-pound load test and engineering approval from Delta. Next is an installation at a local university and then they’d like to look at opportunities around the country.
“We have high hopes for this,” Dan said. “We’re going to be looking for precast partners around the country similar in size, culture and technical ability to join with us in taking this nationwide.”
San Nicolas Island
Many of Pre-con’s most innovative products have come as a result of its work with the military, particularly for the United States Navy on San Nicolas Island. The Navy uses the island for weapons testing and logistic support for the missile test range. Over the past several years, Pre-con has constructed missile launch pads, water tanks, water lines, buildings, paving and foundations.
“Precast concrete has been the key to our success on San Nicolas Island,” David said.
Due to its remote location 61 miles from the coast, it’s a challenging place to work. Contractors must barge all materials at a hefty price tag and it’s difficult to account for potential challenges, let alone deal with them. Yet Pre-con found a niche working in these conditions and has proven to be a valuable partner for the Navy. The jobs helped carry the company through the recent recession and will continue to play a big role going forward.
One product Pre-con has manufactured for the Navy is the Hexa-Block foundation system it conceptualized for United States Marine Corps communication towers. As it turns out, Hexa-Block lent itself to use on the island as well. The blocks are cast with conduits for threaded reinforcement that is post-tensioned to create a monolithic footing structure. The threading allows the owner to disassemble the system and relocate it in the future. For this project, each of the seven hexagonal sections weighed in excess of 40,000 pounds – for a total weight of more than a quarter million pounds.
“The Hexa-Block product was developed as a modular foundation system for 200-foot-tall lattice towers in the remote deserts of Arizona.” David said. “For this project, we told the Navy, we can take that same concept, make the blocks bigger, put all the close tolerance bolts into the center Hexa-Block and the adjacent post-tensioned perimeter blocks are additional counterweight.”
Pre-con has also manufactured unique precast windmill tower bases for the island. The bases are 16-foot, tube-type footings with 100 post-tensioned bolts passing through two pieces of concrete. The tower sits on top and everything is bolted together. David and Dan continue to look for anything new or different – especially projects that are normally poured in the field – for both the challenge and the higher profit margin. Some may develop into long-term products, others will just be one-off projects.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time so we’re looking for something that’s going to be both entertaining and challenging,” David said. “I’ve been doing this for about 38 years and I’m just as excited every day to come into work, but a lot of it’s because I’m trying to create a new, challenging thing to work on. If we can make a profit and have fun doing it, that’s great.”
Paying it forward
Speaking with employees like Ruben Garcia, an 18-year veteran of Pre-con who was critical in getting the company into products beyond pipe and manholes, it’s clear the ideal of making the work fun and caring for each other is pervasive. The respect everyone holds for the industry, the company, each other and the customers comes from the top down and was passed along to David and Dan by their father, Don, who started the company in 1963.
“As I think back about our father, he had a real affinity and respect towards the underground contractor, his customers he worked with,” David said. “What we got from our father is how to deal with people. That’s tough – you can’t get that education from going to school and Danny got the same thing.
“We watched our father and how he dealt with employees and customers, and how he solved problems and challenges.”
This mindset pervades many of the business decisions the brothers make. They recognize making a profit is the difference between providing a living for themselves and their employees and closing the doors, but it’s not the only factor.
“We like what we’re doing, we’re respected in the industry, people like us and we make great products,” David said. “There is way more to this game than just the profit. We could have made choices all along the line that would have been more profitable but it wouldn’t be the same type of business, it wouldn’t be the same interaction and we wouldn’t feel the same about going into work.”
This attitude extends to their interactions with fellow precasters. Dan is the former chairman of the California Precast Concrete Association and sees a strong precast industry as a benefit to all producers. This mindset is, again, passed down from their father.
“Growing up, we had two or three competitors when we were just making manholes and I never remember my father saying one negative thing about any of those guys,” David said. “He was always friendly with them and we’ve always gotten along with our competitors.”
“You’re better off having good companies in the industry that are doing well to protect the industry because that makes the industry better,” Dan added, repeating something his father once told him.
Time well spent
The musical “Rent” is famous for quantifying a year as 525,600 minutes. That’s the allotment. Nothing changes the rate at which those minutes are spent and there’s no way to save them. The Zarraonandia brothers have chosen to try to make the most of their minutes for themselves, their employees and their customers by doing quality work and enjoying the process.
“If you focus on quality and doing good for your customers and your employees, good things will happen over time,” Dan said. “You have to love it just for the industry you’re in and the people you’re around.”
Love for the industry, their company, their products and their people – that is the legacy the Zarraonandias choose to leave.
Kirk Stelsel, CAE, is NPCA’s director of communication and marketing.