By Kirk Stelsel, CAE
Nestled in southern Wisconsin, Dalmaray Precast Concrete Products keeps a lean staff and modest production facility, but has grown into a significant player in the industry thanks to its core values.
Those close to the Ausen family would likely not hesitate to describe them as humble. The Ausens are selfless and praise-deflecting, proud of what they do but far from boastful. They are also forward-thinking and have no fear of change, yet so understated you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
Similarly, their business, Dalmaray Precast Concrete Products, is an inconspicuous building on a quiet street in Janesville, Wis. But behind the front doors, all of these preconceived notions give way – assuming you can get the Ausens to break from the even-keel demeanor that belies their energy and ambition, of course.
Combine all that with an unrelenting insistence on the highest quality and a customer-centric focus and a much clearer picture emerges of who the Ausens are and what Dalmaray Precast is all about.
Rob Ausen and sons
When Aaron and Kyle Ausen talk about their father, Rob, the admiration is palpable. True to Ausen form, they don’t use flowery words or shower him with compliments, but you can clearly see on their faces and hear in their tone that they are proud of him and honored to be working alongside him. Both Aaron and Kyle have always been enamored with the family business, as exemplified by their vivid memories.
“I think it’s the coolest thing in the world,” Kyle said. “Most people think it’s just a piece of concrete, but one of my earliest memories was kindergarten when my dad brought one of the boom trucks. We had all the kids out there looking at it and everyone was oohing and ahhing.
“I’m generally just proud and always just want to show everyone what we do and what we’re about.”
Aaron also recalls the boom trucks impressing the neighbor kids when his dad would bring one home.
“That was the first time I was like, ‘I want to be a part of this,’” he added.
With that, both were bit by the precast bug. Aaron and Kyle – Rob’s third son works outside the family business – started in the plant working on tasks like cleanup or bending rebar. Next came operating the dry-cast machine, something Aaron calls a “promotion” with a sly grin on his face.
Similarly, Rob remembers the hard manual labor he did as a kid after moving from Ohio to Wisconsin so his dad, Bob, could take over the business from his wife’s aunt and her husband. Bob didn’t have any industry experience – he managed a fertilizer plant prior to the move – but he saw the promise of the industry then and that optimism never faded. In fact, he shared his enthusiasm for the industry and the family company during an interview for this story just four weeks before he passed away at age 93 on January 15, 2018.
“I didn’t know a thing about fertilizer, so why should I know anything about concrete?” he said during the interview. “It kind of comes natural once you get going on what you can do with it. I say the future is wide open for precast.”
Despite facing significant health issues, Bob came into the office to open mail and write checks every day right until the end. That work ethic and optimism flowed down to his son and his grandsons.
Kyle now leads the septic tank side of the business, Rob serves as president and Aaron is vice president. Together, they work closely to grow the business through the core principles of hard work, quality, never saying no and always being on time. They all acknowledge the hard work and long hours – and the disagreements – that go into making a family business successful but cherish the process.
“Anybody who tells you a family business is always great and everything works smooth all the time has some serious problems, but this business has served our family well,” Rob said. “All three of my sons have college degrees and it’s basically all been through working here to fund it. That alone to me is immeasurable.”
“I think we’ve had days we want to throw tools at each other,” Aaron added with a laugh. “It’s part of it; you don’t always see eye-to-eye but at the end of the day we are doing pretty well and you take pride in that. You can see the hard work from everybody – everybody believes in it.”
Growing, growing, drawn
Every growth story in the precast industry has its own twists, turns and anecdotes. A poignant and crystalizing moment for Rob and Aaron came in 2002 when they purchased their batch plant at The Precast Show. Armed with pens and any scratch paper they could find in their hotel room, including napkins, the two drew up their vision and took it out onto the trade show floor the next day. One of the exhibitors, Advanced Concrete Technologies, had what the Ausens wanted.
“We drew it up on a bar napkin and a year later the batch plant was completely put together at the Salt Lake City show and then it was brought here,” Rob said. “Our experience with ACT was incredible.”
“Those experiences, you can never forget those,” Aaron added. “It’s so cool.”
Simultaneously, the company doubled the size of its plant, marking it the biggest transformation since Rob and his father moved the company off the original property and into a brand new plant in 1994. Over the years, the family has added bigger forms, panel forms for custom products, bigger boom trucks, new products, more employees and various other equipment. It’s a process that requires careful consideration, and a willingness to take a chance, something Bob felt his family had done particularly well.
“You can pour concrete any place, you can pour it in a tire if you want, but is there a market for it?” he said. “If you’re going to do only septic tanks, chances are you aren’t going to make it. You have to diversify.”
Never lost in the growth cycle, however, are quality and meeting deadlines. These are hallmarks for the company and have earned it business as far away as Mississippi through nothing more than reputation.
“What gets me up every morning is being able to haul that piece of precast to the customer and having them say, ‘Wow, does that look nice,’” Rob said. “It may be going underground but it’s going about 100 miles down the road first. If you keep doing that and spreading and growing, customers will talk to each other.”
Other changes have allowed the company to be more visible and able to deal with last-minute requests, urgent orders and customizations. For Kyle, the addition of a production board has helped them be more organized. Every Friday, he, Aaron and the plant manager meet at the board to plan the week ahead.
Aaron has led the charge with marketing, constantly working on the company’s online presence whether it’s their website or social media channels. All this, along with an insistence that the word no is never an option when a customer asks, “Is it possible to make this?” have been key.
“When other people tell them no, we say, ‘Sure, we’ll do that for you,’” Aaron said. “Sometimes you go home and you think, ‘What I did today was pretty amazing.’ That’s one of the greatest parts of the job.”
The Ausen family is a tight-knit bunch, but their alliances extend well beyond a last name. The company has a number of long-term employees and others with shorter tenures but no less impact. If an employee invests in the company with energy and commitment, the Ausens will invest right back. For example, Justin Weberg, plant manager, graduated from National Precast Concrete Association’s Precast University as a Master Precaster in 2017 and recently completed the one-year Leadership NPCA course.
“He’s brought a lot of aspects from that as far as conflict resolution and how to convey yourself as a leader,” Aaron said. “There’s a lot I’ve learned from him. It’s grown him to where he is and where he’s going.
“If you have a good employee, you have to hang on to them. You need to listen to your people, what they’re doing and what they’re dealing with.”
Fellow precasters have also played a major role in the company’s history and will continue to be important in the future – including its competition in Wisconsin.
The Ausen family has ties to the Mader, Olson and Wieser families that span generations. Joe Wieser, whose picture hung proudly behind Bob’s desk, sponsored Dalmaray when the company joined NPCA in 1973. Aaron considers Deke Mader a close friend and reaches out to him often, making it a third-generation friendship.
“Wisconsin is a very tight-knit precast community and always has been,” Rob said. “I am 100% comfortable with calling one of my competitors to ask how to do something and he’ll give me an honest answer and it’s the same the other way. We’re competitors, but we also get along.
“It’s actually more like a family. I still talk with Steve Olson every Friday at about 5:00. It used to be, ‘How was your week?’ and it’s changed now that he’s sold the business, but we still talk pretty much every Friday.”
Rob cited a recent instance at Wieser Concrete’s plant in Maiden Rock, Wis., as a perfect example. The plant hosted a Crane Institute Certification training course and the written exams never arrived at the plant. He recalled how the Wiesers and their employees bent over backwards to get approval for an electronic exam and then got all hands on deck to get everyone on a computer.
Through NPCA, the family has met many other members. Aaron still recalls meeting the Wegner family from New Hampton Metal Fab as a kid during his first-ever trade show in about 1993 and how awesome it was to see the connection between members.
The Ausens are also quick to point out how crucial vendors are to the company’s success. Whether it’s showing up at the plant, answering calls late at night, or the president of the company being available on The Precast Show floor, the relationships and results of the knowledge sharing are invaluable.
“Scott Grams with MAPEI-GRT has been pretty much a part-time employee for us,” Aaron said. “Helix was a game changer for the septic tanks and manholes for us, and from what we’ve been doing recently with Seaman Corporation, it’s going to find its home very quickly, just to name a few.”
In the office Aaron and Kyle share, it’s not uncommon to find Aaron’s wife, Ashley, helping out as one or more of their sons plays nearby. Just by being present at the office and forming early, vivid memories of their own, the youngest Ausens are already a part of the Dalmaray legacy.
Rob’s goal is to fully retire from the company when the time is right and Aaron plans to continue to take an ever-growing senior leadership role and would love to see his sons become involved, just as he did many years ago.
“The way I think now is I want my kids to do that because that was a pretty good path that we walked – to be able to admire what your dad and grandpa did and be a part of that chain,” he said. “You want that legacy to continue.”
Still waters definitely run deep in the Ausen family. If you dig down far enough, you’ll find relentless passion for precast, the family business and success. And that will be what propels the business and the family forward and creates opportunity for the Dalmaray story to continue in the years, decades and generations to come.
Kirk Stelsel, CAE, is NPCA’s director of communication and marketing.