Columbia Precast Products’ Sustainable Path to Success
Columbia Precast Products takes environmental sustainability to the next level by becoming the first precaster in the U.S. to be awarded the SMaRT Certification.
By Bridget McCrea
Five years ago, Ron Sparks, a former vice president and general manager for Hanson Pipe & Precast (now Forterra) on the West Coast, picked up on a market shift that led him down the entrepreneurial path. Still feeling the impact of the Great Recession, many precast plants in Washington and Northwest Oregon had either shut down or greatly reduced their capacity. This, in turn, resulted in diminished capacity in the market as a whole and created new opportunities for someone looking to fill in the gaps.
Sparks decided to start his own company and saw the best opportunity in Clark County, which didn’t have a precast plant at the time. The company, Columbia Precast Products, opened in Washougal, Wash., with a 10,000 square-foot plant on 3-1/2 acres of land and saw immediate success in the precast-depleted market.
Now firmly established and experiencing extraordinary year-over-year sales growth, Sparks is looking to sustainability as the next evolution of the company and a key to maintaining the sharply upward trajectory Columbia Precast Products has experienced since it opened.
Through the roof
To say Sparks, general manager at Columbia Precast Products, was in the right place at the right time would be a major understatement. As the economy began to turn for the better in 2014, Columbia Precast’s business “went through the roof,” he said. Within one year of opening the doors, the company had outgrown its capacity.
“At the time, it felt almost like a ‘once in a career’ opportunity to take advantage of what was going on in the marketplace so I went for it,” said Sparks.
In 2013, Columbia Precast had six employees and 12 forms. By contracting with a local ready-mix manufacturer, the firm was able to start producing smaller-diameter drainage products, such as 72-inch and smaller manholes and catch basins. After posting 400% growth during its first year in business, the company began buying additional forms and equipment.
“We started spreading our wings a bit and got into the utility vault business and began making larger-diameter manholes,” Sparks said.
By late-2014, Columbia Precast’s plant was running at full capacity and was in need of more space. Not able to find ample land in its direct vicinity, the precaster expanded its search criteria and found a 23-acre property situated about 10 miles north of Vancouver, Wash. Deciding that would be his company’s new home, Sparks kicked off a building process that would take two years.
“The market was hot during that two-year span, so we spent 2015 and 2016 really capped out at our previous facility,” he said.
The manufacturer’s capacity crunch eased last April when it moved into its new plant.
“We just hit the ground running as soon as we got here,” said Sparks, whose firm has been posting 100% year-over-year sales growth since 2014. “We’re expecting another 100% increase in sales for 2018 because we now have more capacity and have been able to push out more product as a result.”
Sparks credits the firm’s employees, its new production capacity, investments in equipment and the overall market conditions with driving the precaster’s consistent triple-digit growth. The fact that so many other precasters either scaled back or shut down during the down economy didn’t hurt either.
“Five years ago, about half of the total market capacity in our region was decommissioned,” he said. “The plants that were shut down in the Portland metro area were literally handling about 60% of the market capacity. Fast-forward to 2018 and our ability to hire experienced employees, put in machinery and help fill in those gaps as the economy improved have also helped drive company growth.”
Along this path has been a focus on sustainability, which Sparks hopes will play a significant role in the company’s continued growth pattern.
Precast: Pretty darned sustainable
Situated in a region where environmental consciousness is highly valued and often seen as a “must have,” Columbia Precast places a heavy emphasis on sustainability certifications. This includes both U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability’s Sustainable Materials Rating Technology, or SMaRT, certification.
Sparks was attending a Pacific Northwest Precast Concrete Association meeting in Portland, Ore., listening to a discussion about the pros and cons of using concrete versus clay pipe, when he heard city engineers tell the audience they were seeking more sustainable materials to build into their infrastructure. One product the engineers mentioned they were considering was SMaRT-certified.
“I’d never heard of that certification before, so I started researching it and learned everything I could about it,” said Sparks.
SMaRT is the world’s standard for sustainable product development and manufacturing. According to MTS’ website, SMaRT signifies a company’s bottom-line commitment to being environmentally friendly.
“Once we made the decision to build a new facility, we knew that we wanted to pursue SMaRT certification,” Sparks recalled. “It was important to the City of Portland, which is a big client of ours, so it became important for us.”
Directly related to LEED, which covers the manufacturing structure itself, SMaRT covers the products that are made in that certified structure. Columbia Precast is currently in the process of getting its facility LEED certified, and the more he learned about SMaRT, the more it became obvious to Sparks that precast was a good match on the merits of sustainability, lifecycle and environmental responsibility.
“We realized precast concrete was a pretty darned sustainable product,” said Sparks, adding that the certification process delves into a company’s supply chain, vendors and product lifecycle analysis – all of which is handled by a third-party certification firm. “It’s a pretty rigorous process. In the end, we became the first precast plant in the U.S. to achieve this certification.
“We are in the category called ‘Buried Infrastructure Products.’”
Columbia Precast received the Platinum designation, which is the highest level achievable in the buried pipeline products category. It manufactures its concrete pipe and precast products using completely natural and raw materials that are chemically inert and free of volatile organic compounds. Its products boast the longest lifecycles of any products made for sewer, water, utility and storm drain systems, and the company itself has been certified sustainable to the triple bottom line, an accounting framework that incorporates three dimensions of performance: social, environmental and financial.
“As a company, we’re good for the environment, the economy and the global community,” said Sparks, who sees Columbia Precast’s SMaRT efforts as a true market differentiator. “The Northwest is a sustainability hotbed. Around here, it really means something.”
Columbia Precast is now seeking to parlay its SMaRT Certification into real business benefits. In January, for example, the company launched an updated website that features the certification. It also held an open house that attracted the attention of a Washington State Department of Transportation representative who specifically referenced SMaRT certification during a 15-minute presentation.
Timothy Buckley AIA, LEED AP, with Greenstone Architecture PLLC in Vancouver, sees SMaRT Certification as a market differentiator and said it will become even more important as a growing number of federal, state and local agencies seek out higher environmental standards for the products and services they’re procuring.
“That’s just the economic argument for stepping up and improving practices,” Buckley said. “On the other side of the coin, there are also economic advantages when organizations identify – through better environmental practices – savings that will be applicable to improving their bottom lines.”
For example, for the past 10 years the concrete industry has been looking for ways to reduce the impact of portland cement by replacing a portion of it with supplementary cementitious materials such fly ash and slag. The same mindset can be applied in the manufacturing environment, where reducing energy demand, water usage and waste can all help preserve the earth’s natural resources.
“When you can identify those opportunities to make changes to the way you run your business or make your products, it’s a win-win for everyone,” he said.
For precasters who want to step up their efforts in this area, Buckley said the first step is to evaluate your current operations – such as materials sourcing, plant energy usage and water usage – and then establish metrics and goals based on those existing processes.
Buckley sees SMaRT Certification as one way for precasters to drill down into their current operations and develop ways to work in a more environmentally conscious manner. For example, to attain the certification at any level, products must achieve 14 prerequisite points and score a minimum of 28 out of 162 points in the following areas covering all product stages across the global supply chain:
- Safe for public health and environment
- Renewable energy and energy reduction
- Bio-based or recycled materials
- Facility or company requirements
- Reclamation sustainable reuse and end-of-life management
- Innovation in manufacturing
“The SMaRT system really looks at that lifecycle analysis, plus all the embodied energy, water and other resources, and the impact on those resources,” Buckley said. “For any company that’s truly looking to improve in those areas, SMaRT helps identify the big picture opportunities that organizations can target to help reduce their environmental footprints and increase profitability.”
Writing the next chapter
As he surveys the industrial manufacturing environment in the Pacific Northwest, Sparks sees a lot of companies taking the lean manufacturing route and finding ways to work smarter, better and faster in the current economy. They’re paying more attention to detail, he said, and concerned about everything from inventory control to human resources to plant efficiency.
“We experienced a major market shift, and now that we’re on the other end of it, everyone is more focused on these factors, plus customer service and product quality, of course,” he said.
Focused on hitting another triple-digit sales increase for 2018, and reflecting on his 27 years in the industry, Sparks said the breadth of precast products being made by the industry as a whole continues to proliferate as market conditions and customer preferences change. Within the industry itself, he said precasters are being asked to provide more services, most of which can be traced back to quality and a lack of resources at the customer level.
“Ten years ago, you could hand a catalog cut sheet to a city engineer and it would get approved,” Sparks recalled. “Today, we’re giving the same engineer a full set of AutoCAD drawings and potentially engineered calculations to support our product, primarily because they don’t have the capacity to do that in-house. They’re relying on us to do it.”
Finally, Sparks sees the retirement of baby boomers and the influx of millennials into the workforce driving another shift in the manufacturing environment, where younger workers have different expectations and ambitions.
“It’s a whole different generation with a completely different set of values,” Sparks said. “If we want to keep the succession going in the precast industry, we have to embrace that reality and adjust to it.”