By Sara Geer
Standard Precast’s can-do culture and experience help it meet customer needs.
When a customer calls a precaster about a construction project, they are generally directed to the sales department. If the problem is urgent and sales cannot provide a quick solution, it can leave the customer feeling uncertain. At Standard Precast in Jacksonville, Fla., this is never the case. About a half dozen or more office employees are ready and willing to help a customer in need, no matter the level of complication or the timeline involved. Providing quality customer service has always been top of mind for every staff member and has helped maintain the company’s position as a leading manufacturer of stormwater, utility and sanitary precast concrete structures in northeast Florida. The company has established the reputation that if a product can be made from precast, they will pour it.
“One thing that makes this company different than our competitors is we’re unique, quick, can build our own forms and always adapting,” said Russell Smith, president. “And we’re very customer oriented. I tell all our people that the customer is always right, unless they aren’t, but that rarely happens.”
Expanding the mom-and-pop business
Carl Peterson, a pipe salesman, and his wife, Barbara, opened Standard Precast in 1965. Peterson was already familiar with the products and wanted to find a way to standardize the structures, since everyone at the time was building them out of brick. He teamed with an underground contractor to start the business until he was able to own it outright.
Smith said he joined the business around 1970 when his brother introduced him to the Petersons. The first precast product poured was a 48-inch-diameter manhole on a 14-foot-by-20-foot pouring slab. About seven years later, Smith and Peterson built a precast plant on two acres of undeveloped land along Phillips Highway south of Jacksonville. The plant had state-of-the-art equipment and production could pour about 30 yards a day. Smith said operations went smoothly until early 2005 when the property became too expensive for the company to stay. Carl Peterson had retired, so it was up to Barbara Peterson and Smith to make an urgent decision to either move or sell the business.
“It took about 3 or 4 months of intense discussion, but we decided to build our current plant,” Smith said. “We moved out here July 2005. Around that time, we also successfully completed the biggest box culvert job we’ve ever had.
“Everything went so well that we held a big party for everyone and fed the entire neighborhood.”
Standard Precast now employs nearly 100 people and can pour a maximum of 300 yards of concrete a day.
Due to Barbara Peterson’s recent health issues, Smith had to once again think hard about the company’s future. In 2013, he picked an employee board to run the company, which freed him to spend time on big projects. One recent project was picking the right partner to buy the company – someone who shared his business values. Smith and the board sorted through about 50 interested buyers and eventually chose to meet with Sam Seraphim of New York City-based private equity firm WoodLake Group. The firm and its partners, Aavin and Diamond State, officially acquired Standard Precast in December 2016.
“Standard has a great management team, but Russell also runs a very tight ship,” Seraphim said. “I’ve seen other precast companies, but was impressed with how well he runs the company and the teamwork that is in place.”
Far from being ‘standard’
The “standard” in Standard Precast applies to the company’s continued efforts to simplify all drainage and sanitary infrastructure standards and specifications in Florida. Standard Precast played an active role in the formation of the Precast Concrete Structures Association of Florida, a non-profit group that unites local precasters and department of transportation officials toward this goal.
According to Chip McGehee, sales manager, the only standard products poured are 4-foot-diameter manholes, riser and cones. Otherwise, every component manufactured is customized to fit the project need. Customers regularly contact the precaster to manufacture specialized products with unique configurations and dimensions due to the company’s ability to solve problems and perform in-house steel form fabrication.
“For the most part, if the job is complicated, has to be right the first time, the timeline is short, we’ll do 80% to 90% of that work,” McGehee said. “We often do the stuff the other precasters won’t touch.”
These advantages not only benefit the customer, but aid in the creation of new products. For example, Standard Precast built 80 custom precast bridge barrier wall tops for Florida Department of Transportation to place on the Interstate-295 Beltway project between the Buckman Bridge and I-95 in Jacksonville.
“You’ve seen them on bridges, the barrier is in the center dividing northbound and southbound traffic and in between you have a 3-foot or 4-foot concrete barrier,” McGehee said. “Underneath those, there are inlets and, historically, the DOT poured them within about 2 feet, 18 inches on top because the slats on each side will be different.”
Since no one was pouring the product for FDOT at the time, local general contractor Superior Contracting contacted Standard to do the job. Now, the company sells the product everywhere.
“We invented our own product and the DOT loves it because they can precast it and move on,” McGehee said.
The precaster’s quick thinking also resulted in adding a simple 2-foot-by-2-foot precast concrete area drain to its drainage product offerings. Local contractors and apartment complex developers wanted an alternative to plastic. The plastic drains were being destroyed prior to installation from construction forklift and truck traffic. The high replacement costs spurred the need for a product that was durable in this specific work application. Listening to customers’ concerns, Standard Precast custom-built a form to produce a precast concrete alternative. Now, the demand is beyond what they expected.
“It’s actually created a problem for us,” McGehee said. “We custom-built the one form and now we could use three or four more forms for it. It’s becoming very popular.”
Similarly, the company has also seen a spike in demand for square manhole grade rings, another recently added product. A contractor contacted the company in early 2016 to first manufacture the product as a favor. Other contractors saw it and requested it as well. Standard Precast’s Superintendent David Orbe said for a while production could not manufacture the product fast enough.
“We had four little forms just to do this one,” Orbe said. “So, we custom-built a form that produces 20 a day – 10 4 inch and 10 3 inch. Now we can keep up with them.”
This adaptability helps them to sell new products ahead of the competition, which is the ultimate advantage. However, this wouldn’t be possible without the high-caliber people employed.
Built to last
According to multiple staff members, finding quality workers who have a desire to embrace a career in the precast industry is a constant battle. Yet, when a person is paired with the right job and given the proper tools and creativity to grow, great things happen. Many employees at Standard Precast have remained with the company for 30-plus years, some even longer, and most started from the bottom.
Dennis Effinger, maintenance, is the brains behind the company’s ability to do in-house form design and fabrication. He learned his welding expertise from another employee, who is now retired.
“We had a worker that was the best welder anyone had seen and he taught Dennis everything he knew,” McGehee said. “Now, Dennis can weld just about anything and he also knows the math behind designing the forms using CAD.”
The production team couldn’t be happier to have Effinger’s skills because he helps make their jobs easier and more efficient. His most recent fabricated form is an 8-foot-tall hydraulic mono form for producing a 72-inch-diameter manhole structure in one piece. The form includes adjustable extensions and inserts. Orbe also wants him to build a 60-inch mono form.
“Dennis made my life easier building these forms,” Orbe said. “He uses antique machines to do incredible things to roll the steel. He believes in getting all the use out of a piece of equipment.
“That’s the way we do it here. If the contractor needs it and it’s going to be a commodity, we’ll build the forms for them.”
As a result, the company saves money and sells more product. His innovative spirit helps improve day-to-day production processes as well. The company owns four Tucker trucks ranging from 8 to 12 years old. According to Orbe, the older trucks initially didn’t come with a lid to hold the batched concrete and engine protection to keep concrete from seeping in. After learning about production’s problem, Effinger figured out a solution and fabricated a steel lid and engine hood.
“I try to fix things before they break or build things when needed,” Effinger said. “We think outside the box here when we can and try to do things the other precasters sometimes don’t.”
The next step
All these components – long-time workers, in-house fabrication and problem solving – have not only kept Standard Precast strong for 52 years, but are also the foundation for the company’s bright future. The new management is already searching for acquisitions to expand the company by 2018.
“The plant is in good shape and we are ready to take the next step,” Seraphim said.
Smith said the company never entertained the thought of expanding more because it was content with its current size. The new outlook means the doors are opening to even greater possibilities, new products and new work, all while maintaining its status as a great place to work.
“It’s hard to get a job in this office or even outside,” Smith said. “I have many people who drive an hour or more just to come to work here. We have great employees.
“So hopefully, if you check back in a year, we’ll be expanded. I’m excited to see what happens when we do.”
Sara Geer is NPCA’s internal communication and web manager, and is managing editor of Precast Inc.