By Sara Geer
Dura-Crete continues to hold tight to family values, but isn’t afraid to manufacture new products and go beyond market boundaries.
Traditions passed down in a family are important to maintain because they help the next generation understand beliefs, values, practices or rituals. Some are passed along, others are used as a foundation for making new ones. The same holds true for a family business. As ownership changes, established operation methods can continue to be used or new ideas can emerge that help the company evolve and embrace change. At Dura-Crete, each generation has added integral components, and the current generation is ready to take things one step further.
Keeping a good thing
Dura-Crete, based just outside Salt Lake City in West Lake City, Utah, has seen many changes in the precast industry over the decades. The company was among the first group of precasters to join the National Precast Concrete Association in 1966. Founder Frank Moeller, NPCA Board of Directors chair in 1971, like many early members manufactured the Unit Step product, as wells as septic tanks. As the first Utah producer member, Moeller set the bar high for competitors in the area since membership gave them an advantage for acquiring bids on submitted project drawings. While the company no longer manufactures steps and family members have retired, NPCA has remained an important partner for each generation. From networking with other precasters to providing updates on specifications or standards that directly impact how they manufacture, deliver and install precast concrete products, NPCA has always played a significant role.
“At first, we were going to the conventions; back then it was more a social event,” said Chris McKean, company president and Moeller’s grandson. “But now we can actually keep up with the standards that are important to us. NPCA helps keep every precaster on the same playing field.
“Even when you are not a member, you are still held to the same standards that we are.”
Along with keeping their NPCA membership, third-generation owners McKean and his wife, Brittney, have preserved other “oldschool” practices, including providing hand-drawn blueprints and tracking company drivers using a clipboard wall organizer. According to McKean, the personal aspect of the drawings is important since it shows the customer specifically what is in every precast box manufactured.
“For instance, there are certain jobs that need specific rebar spacing, or have a hole located in a different spot on the box,” he said. “It’s actually pretty simple. We also keep that personal aspect since it feels like we took the time to follow the needs for them.”
Additionally, searching for a software that works to keep operations organized has been challenging. Rapid changes in technology happen too fast and too sudden to justify making some significant changes said Brittney, Dura-Crete’s accounts manager.
While the company has kept these methods, enhancements in technology have helped it better meet customer needs and demands. Scott Morse, general manager of sales, has worked with every owner. He remembers when customers used to visit the office holding large project plans. Today, the plans are sent by email and the size of the prints are smaller. In addition, communication changes allow the company to receive project bids requiring custom work unlike anything it has done before and send its drivers to locations Frank Moeller wouldn’t have dreamed of.
On the road
Dura-Crete has been a stable community neighbor, having remained on the same 15-acre plot of land since it was founded. Brittney said keeping the business small and family-oriented has resonated well with their customers and employees.
“A lot of our customers know right away who to go to for the information they seek,” she said. “I would even say while the economy was low, we haven’t really changed, maybe just increased our prices here and there.
“We try to see how we can reach a middle ground with each customer and treat everyone equally.”
The company focuses on maintaining high-caliber customer service. Most customers know the staff on a personal level and have remained loyal through each generation of ownership. However, staying competitive has always been the biggest challenge.
“There are about 30 precasters in our area, used to be only six, and now they are all big,” McKean said. “We have customers that will tell us, ‘We’ll probably go with you, but we have to get bids from other companies.’ So, there is definitely tough competition out there.”
One advantage Dura-Crete offers customers is it can deliver, organize off-loadings and set the product at the job site. Many of the drivers in the company’s fleet have been employed for 20-plus years and are familiar with every stage involved in the manufacturing process – from building the forms to placing the product on-site. Having an expert present in the field has also recently been very beneficial since the company has made many deliveries to job sites outside of Utah – even as far as Louisiana. According to McKean, the drivers are often the first point of contact for customers and are knowledgeable enough to find a solution without sending the product back to production.
“They will also be proactive and follow up with the customer after installation to see how our product is meeting their needs,” Brittney said.
Since the drivers are the most visible aspect of the company and act as the face of the company, each truck is professionally painted with Dura-Crete’s branded yellow. In addition, each driver is allowed to design their own truck, which helps them add a personal touch.
“For example, the son of one of our employees plays baseball, so the employee had a baseball design added to the truck,” Brittney said. “Some added the American flag or fly fishing. It’s to show that we care about them and that they are not just drivers, but integral to the success of this business.”
Along with making their drivers feel special, the owners have made a push to improve employee morale by celebrating everyone’s birthday and organizing a large Christmas gathering at the end of the year. According to McKean, celebrations have always been a big part of the company in the past and future, but initiating a culture change has been a slow process.
“We used to just celebrate birthdays in the office, but this year we gave everyone a birthday card with a small incentive,” McKean said. “That was something that needed to change. We’ve also mixed up the Christmas party a bit by adding our own touches and keeping ideas from the past.”
Along with changing the work culture, the company has also started to slowly expand its product lines and accept more custom projects. According to McKean, Dura-Crete offers a wide selection of underground precast products such as septic tanks, holding tanks, grease interceptors, dry well sections and catch basins. Above-ground product lines such as parking bumpers and landscape pavers have also been added due to the recent rise in commercial and residential construction.
“Pavers, spectic tanks and grease interceptors are in high demand because of the residential and business economic growth,” McKean said. “Our stock is always low since it’s a high commodity.”
Recently, Dura-Crete was hired to manufacture new precast park signs for Salt Lake County. The project required the company to create the product drawings and design the custom wood forms used to cast the signs. McKean said he especially liked this project since it allowed the company to show its creative side.
“This project has been fun to work on and drive around and see,” he said. “The best part is they want us to do more.”
Another unique project the company worked on included manufacturing several items for the 2002 Winter Olympics hosted in Salt Lake City, such as grease interceptors for temporary parking areas and signs for the Olympic Park. It has also manufactured several red bollards that were shipped to Oregon, test barriers for an army base in Fort Polk, La., and wall caps that were shipped to Hawaii for use on the new Hawaiian temple.
However, while the company is not afraid to work on challenging, creative projects, it continues to refine its production processes for its precast concrete septic tanks. Septic tanks are a high commodity product in Salt Lake City and surrounding areas, so much so that the company is finding it hard to keep the product in stock.
“Spring and summer are usually the time when we start getting calls for septic tanks,” McKean said. “We build septic tanks every day to try and keep up with the demand.”
Dura-Crete was recognized by the Utah Department of Transportation for complying with its certifications and standards. Brittney said the company also keeps up with Utah’s environmental laws and each city’s specific manufacturing requirements.
“Each city here has their own engineers employed that want a septic tank or box to be built a specific way, but all are state certified,” Brittney said. “For instance, on certain boxes the holes may be moved up slightly, but we stay on top of all information and the needs of our customers.”
Along with keeping up with standards, Plant Manager David Frye holds weekly training and safety meetings with production staff to ensure the products are manufactured accurately and efficiently. Dura-Crete takes pride in providing a quick production turnaround time for all customer requests – within 5-to-7 days at the maximum – and ensuring staff members are well trained so they can succeed. For example, Dustin Wagstaff, Dura-Crete’s new quality control manager, has jumped right into learning and attaining the needed QC qualifications laid out by the American Concrete Institute, UDOT and NPCA Plant Certification.
“We ensure our employees get a mixture of different training from hands-on exercises to brief huddles to remind them to stay hydrated during the summer heat,” McKean said. “Also, during production, the quality control manager may find something and bring it to our attention and the general manger will then discuss it with everyone as a learning opportunity.
“We’re continuously working to make our products better than before.”
Beating the odds
It’s rare to see a company survive through three generations, let alone remain at the top of the competition, but that’s exactly what Dura-Crete has done. And while operations, technology and quality have improved, the goals of the company have remained the same throughout each generation: stay competitive, grow with the economy and remain family-oriented. Staying true to these has helped Dura-Crete thrive by simultaneously cherishing traditions and embracing change.
Sara Geer is NPCA’s internal communication and web manager, and is managing editor of Precast Inc.