For 44 years, the Michie family has been working to perfect its business. Now, the next generation will take its turn at the wheel.
By Matt Werner
What does it take to start, grow, run and maintain a successful family business? The answer, of course, is it depends. There are constants: hard work, dedication and risk-taking, to name a few. But variables such as location and personal decisions added in end up producing a completely unique end product.
The Michie family has spent the past 44 years refining their version of the family-run precast concrete company and today they have a thriving business situated on nearly 50 acres in Henniker, NH, to show for it. It has taken ingenuity and perseverance on the part of Al and Pamela Michie to position the company for future success. Now, as their kids, or G2 as they have collectively become known, get ready to lead the company forward, all eyes are on them to see how they will take it to the next level.
Business grows, evolves
When Al talks about the history of the family business, it’s a hardscrabble story not all that unlike the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities. However, from the grin on his face and the pride in his voice as he recalls what it took to get here, it’s easily apparent the “worst of times” are easy to remember, but they really are part of the “best of times” and he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Could he have done with a few less bumps in the road? Of course. But seeing the results of decades of toil he, his wife and their employees have put in is worth the sweat equity.
“You can sit here and talk about it and go on and on forever, but it’s kind of a blink of an eye,” he said. “It’s been a lot of trial and tribulation, but with the people we have and the people we have had, that’s what’s made the place a success. Everybody holds up their end and everybody participates – everybody has to be a part of the game.”
A demand for precast
The company’s roots are in ready-mix concrete, but today precast makes up 75% of the family business. Back in the 80s, Al saw a market for precast in the area and knew Michie Corporation could provide it.
Longtime employee Steve Gard went from driving a mixer truck to a boom truck to the sales office as his role with the precast operation picked up. Today, he not only heads up the precast division, he is as close to a member of the Michie family as you can get without actually having the last name.
“Steve is always leading by example, which was sometimes hard to follow because he’s very thorough and honest about what he does,” Al said.
Michie Corporation started off in precast producing items like septic tanks and manholes. At the time, it was really just to “keep the lights on,” Al said. However, as they built relationships with customers and agencies, they started getting requests, so they began manufacturing products such as box culverts. Gard said the company has never been afraid to tackle any job, but as he recalled the company’s first bridge project he can only laugh at bidding a 40-foot skewed bridge with parallelogram shaped sections. The company has worked incessantly to not just grow their portfolio of products but to also establish the connections they needed to be successful.
“It’s amazing how you develop these relationships,” Al said. “This whole industry – the precast and the people in highway construction – to me, they’re the greatest people to do business with. They’re all hard working and just good people.”
As the operation grew, Al played a lot of roles, from building forms and pouring concrete to running the company. But at the end of the day, he said he has never really seen himself as anything more than a truck driver.
“That’s who I am, and that’s what I do,” Al said. “I’ve done some other stuff along the way, but that’s what this whole place was made out of.”
Perhaps it’s that humble mentality that has helped the company not just endure but thrive. It has trickled down into his kids and his employees along the way.
“He’s instilled a drive in this company for just taking pride and ownership in what we do,” Gard said. “We’ll all jump in and do anything because that’s what he’d do. That’s the way he is.”
“You have to clean the toilets every once in a while,” Al added with a chuckle. “Never think you’re too good to clean the toilets.”
The next generation
Al and Pamela Michie have a lot to be proud of, but at the top of the list are their three children – Jason, Jessica and Johanna – who have now all taken an active role in the company. Al said he never forced his kids to go into the family business and all of them did, indeed, do other things earlier in their careers before returning to take a role with the company.
“I never tried to influence them or tell them what they ought to be doing,” Al said. “The decisions they’ve made are decisions they’ve made on their own.”
Each of their children brings his or her own expertise and perspective to the family business. Jason, much like his father, is more than happy to get his hands dirty building a form and started hauling deliveries for the company as soon as he turned 18. His focus on production and efficiency ensure the company is firing on all cylinders in the plant. Jessica, the resident optimist of the family, has a vision for the company that centers on culture and an endless drive to make Michie Corporation “a great place to work.” Her energy, passion and enthusiasm clearly rub off on those around her, including her siblings. Johanna is keenly aware of the role the family plays in the success of the business. And when she talks about family she means every employee.
“We met with a bunch of our managers and told them we’re a family here, not just a business,” she said. “That’s what we strive for, to make everyone feel a part of the family.”
To accomplish this, Johanna said as people left they started focusing on personality in new hires. The goal was to hire people who will not only excel in their positions but who are also happy and easy-going people – people who want to be there.
In the office, Jessica and Johanna, have spent countless hours putting together a benefits package that shows their employees how much they care and how important they are to the company. They also plan fun all-staff outings to develop bonds between employees.
On the production side, Jason and Gard have been working to show employees just how important their jobs and the products they manufacture truly are. Seeing a set of plans or pouring a product doesn’t tell the whole story, so they take employees out to job sites to see the finished product. These field trips create a sense of ownership and pride and encourage employees to strive for the best quality and efficiency.
Together, all three have made a hard push for safety as well. Employees wear shirts with safety messaging emblazoned on them, the staff holds regular safety meetings and it’s a continuous topic of conversation.
“We’ve really worked hard on it the past few years, getting people to understand how important it is,” Jessica said. “It matters that people are safe and that they leave the way they came in – they have kids, grandkids, wives.”
“And it’s not just tooting the horn, it’s taking action,” Jason added. “It’s proper equipment, inspections and making sure everything is in top working condition.”
Although it requires a lot of time on their part, all three have seen the fruits of their labor.
“We’ve got the friendliest people working here right now – the best,” Jason said. “We’ve got really good people in every part of the company.”
Something else Michie Corporation prides itself on is providing outstanding customer service. Jessica said they always keep their word and follow through with a job, even after products leave the plant. This includes providing field assistance for its products as needed to ensure the pieces are installed properly and fit together correctly.
“You can’t just send the thing down the road and say, ‘Here it is; have at it!’” Jason said. “A lot of guys don’t know how to put the stuff together, at least at the frequency we do it, and you’re able to troubleshoot it and pick up little tricks.”
Gard said they have very loyal customers, and Michie Corporation does its best to show their appreciation. For example, the company manufactured a precast concrete sound wall panel for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation that had the state of New Hampshire’s outline as well as the iconic image of the Old Man of the Mountain etched into it. Gard said that the DOT currently uses precast sound wall posts and wood for the panels. Michie Corporation provided the precast panel as a thank you to the agency for the jobs it has awarded them throughout the years with the thought that these decorative precast panels may be used in other locations throughout the state.
As part of their company service model, quality is paramount as well. Michie Corporation has been an NPCA certified plant for 26 consecutive years and thrives on hearing customers, especially those who have seen thousands of precast products on jobs over the course of their careers, compliment their products’ appearance.
“NPCA plant certification has been a wonderful guidance to where we’re at today in many ways,” Jessica said. “We had to do a lot of things a certain way, and then it just became a part of our culture. We want to hold our industry to a high standard, and NPCA helps us do that.”
The net result can be simply summed up as pride. The Michies are proud of their company, their product and their service. So proud in fact, that when they celebrated their 40th anniversary a number of years ago, they invited the entire town because they wanted people to come see what they do. Jason gave tours of the buildings and talked about how the products that leave their yard go all over New England.
“It’s pretty impressive that what we do here can end up in a bridge near the Canadian border or the tunnel sections that are going into the Scarborough toll booth,” he said.
As far as what’s next for the company, the Michies are simultaneously attentive to the present and future.
“We want to focus on what we do now and do it really well,” Jessica said. “If there are other opportunities that come by and make sense, we would certainly look at that.” “We’re paying attention to what we should be moving towards and what we should be pouring less of or shedding,” Jason added.
The three are in the process of buying the company and have hired a consultant to help with the transition. Between that work and the day-to- day of the business, they spend a lot of time together these days. It would be easy to develop family fatigue but, in fact, the opposite has happened. It has drawn them closer than ever and their time together at work is only a part of the story. Their families vacation together and they hold regular Friday night family pizza parties. The importance of getting along so well at work and in their personal lives is not lost on them.
“We’re like every family and have ups and downs but it’s pretty amazing,” Jessica said. “Most families are shocked that we spend that much time together and still like each other. I owe that all to my mom and my dad.”
“Even the guy we hired to handle the transition has been blown away that we get along this well, and he’s seen it all,” Jason added.
So what will keep the company growing into the future? Perhaps Al’s view of where the company has been and what has kept it successful so far contains the answer.
“It was all done through hard work and dedication,” he said. “What keeps it going today is our people, attention to service and a quality product. I don’t know how everybody else does it, but that’s how we’ve done it.”
Matt Werner is the managing editor of Precast Solutions magazine and is NPCA’s communication manager.