Precasters are using lunch and learn events to reach out to, interact with, and educate specifiers, engineers and students.
By Bridget McCrea
You know you want to develop a better connection with your existing customers and establish relationships with prospective customers, but you’re not quite sure where to start. Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone.
One option is the lunch and learn approach, a versatile tool that precasters can use to train employees, introduce new recruits to the precast field, share industry knowledge with customers, or provide professional development to engineers and specifiers. Regardless of its end goal, the lunch and learn is generally a one-hour event offering lunch in a relaxed setting that encourages learning, collaboration and networking.
For precasters like Gainey’s Concrete Products, lunch and learns serve as the perfect medium for delivering valued education and messaging to a wide variety of audiences. For high school students, for instance, the company hosts events that help introduce new generations to the benefits of a career in precast.
“We show them some of our interesting projects and explain the importance of math in our field because even out on the production floor, you need to understand math,” said Lisa Roache, vice president. “Overall, we’re just looking to open students’ eyes to the different opportunities that are available.”
Gainey’s has done about eight such events in 2018 for a variety of audiences, although in some years that number can reach as high as 50-plus – or nearly one per week. To increase attendee participation, Gainey’s puts a bowl out at its engineering trade shows and asks engineers who are interested to drop their business cards in the bowl.
“We try for a prize – usually something kind of ‘gadgety,’” Roache said. “We usually come away from the events with more leads than we have time to follow up on.”
Spreading the word
When he thinks about the value that his company gets from hosting lunch and learns, Greg Stratis, president of Shea Concrete Products, said the events help to break down the age-old walls that exist between manufacturers and engineers/specifiers. After all, when you’re sitting down at a nice lunch while learning about the latest developments in precast concrete manufacturing, the chances to form relationships, network and collaborate with one another increase dramatically.
“In general, engineers are much smarter than I am,” said Stratis (who’s also an engineer), laughing. “However, it consistently amazes me just how much engineers don’t know about precast.”
For example, Stratis said he’s worked with engineers who, when specifying the materials for a septic tank, don’t realize that a standard, 4-inch opening for a pipe can easily be expanded to 12 inches without much problem.
“For a precaster, that’s a no-brainer,” Stratis said. “But engineers will say, ‘Oh wow, you’re kidding me. You can do that?’”
To further maximize outreach efforts, Shea Concrete hired a staffer last year to manage the lunch and learns held at the engineer’s or contractor’s office and seminars that take place at the plant.
“Since we brought him on board, we’ve been doing a few lunch and learns a week,” Stratis said.
Ninety percent of those events are specifier-focused and center on persuading attendees to think about precast first when selecting project materials.
“It’s basically free advertising for us because in many cases, exposure to precast through our lunch and learns equates to precast concrete being put in his or her plans,” Stratis said.
Shea’s lunch and learns typically last 30-40 minutes and are based on a single presentation that’s stored on a thumb drive.
“A lot of the firms that we go to already have the equipment that we need to do the presentation,” Stratis said. “Past that, it’s basically just paying for lunch.”
Once the presentation wraps up, the precaster opens the floor to the engineers and specifiers who are in the audience, which often leads to new business for the manufacturer.
“A lot of times what comes out of a lunch and learn are specifiers who immediately want us to look at their projects to see what we can help them with,” Stratis said.
For precasters who want to position themselves as the go-to resource for specifiers, engineers and designers, Stratis suggests practicing public speaking and selecting topics that hit home with the intended audience.
Don’t be intimidated by the questions that the audience poses, Stratis said, adding that his team is usually able to address all such queries.
When they can’t, it opens the door for a follow-up call and even more outreach and education about the value of precast.
“The biggest benefit comes when your company’s name gets put on the plan, and then later when you get the phone call when the project goes out to bid,” Stratis said. “That means we don’t have to work as hard to find work to bid on and/or get in front of contractors who are bidding on jobs.”
Making the case for precast
Most specifiers in El Paso, Texas, and the surrounding area are eager to have Western Precast Concrete come in and talk with them about its business and share successful project stories in order to better understand how precast can fit into their own projects. Using lunch and learns as the platform, the precaster primarily targets civil engineers.
“Our goal has always been to try and get out in front of those engineers before the actual plans are drawn,” said Leo Feuerstein, operations manager. “By making those connections ahead of time through lunch and learns, a lot of the plans that come out will actually specify Western Precast as a source for underground precast products.
When we see that, we feel as though we’ve accomplished what we’re trying to do.”
In some cases, Western will send a presenter right to the specifier’s office with a lunch and a short list of topics to discuss. A maximum of 60 to 90 minutes is allocated for the event, during which time the participants enjoy a lunch and hear a live presentation.
Feuerstein said Western focuses on its status as a certified plant and what that means to the specification process.
“In addition, we talk more specifically about our products and about what we can offer to that individual specifier,” Feuerstein said.
Reaping the benefits
Calling its lunch and learn events energizing for the Gainey’s team, Roache said being able to introduce young students to the precast field – both for job opportunities and in terms of introducing them to precast concrete – over a light lunch and informal venue sets the manufacturer apart.
“We get to talk to them before they even get into their engineering or construction programs,” Roache said. “That’s invaluable.”
And while the payoff may not come immediately, Roache said the gratification comes when someone calls and says, “Hey, I thought of you guys because 10 years ago I was at a University of New Orleans event where you spoke.”
Gainey’s is also set up to offer continuing education credits to some of its lunch and learn attendees. This perk often makes the difference in whether someone attends the event or not. The credits include PDHs for engineers or CEUs for maintenance operators, the latter of which must be approved by the Louisiana Department of Health. At its annual wastewater conference, Gainey’s typically has 200 people in attendance and offers eight PDHs and eight CEUs.
Gainey’s also tailors the event’s content around its attendees’ needs. In September, for example, it did an “Amazing Uses of Precast Concrete” lunch and learn for a multifaceted engineering firm that works with wastewater, stormwater and architectural products.
Tips for success
When hosting lunch and learns, Roache and her team stay mindful of their audience’s time, usually limiting the events to 50 minutes.
“Right in the beginning, we tell them that they don’t have to watch the clock because we are,” Roache said. “We keep it on target and even if we don’t finish all of the PowerPoint slides, we wrap it up in 50 minutes.”
Precasters should also choose interesting topics that are tailored to the specific audience. For example, a group of 12 specifiers may want to know more about the successful role precast played in your most recent heavy construction project, while a roomful of college students will be interested in internship opportunities with your company. Hand out a schedule in advance and pick a speaker who is both dynamic and engaging.
Location also matters. Your plant may seem like the most obvious choice, but understand that if you pick a place that is located closer to your target audience, you’ll probably get better attendance. Even better, find somewhere that supports both dining and training.
When developing a new lunch and learn topic, Gainey’s gathers a focus group comprised of individuals from several different departments.
“We talk to employees, managers and interns who we know are going to be super honest with us,” Roache said. “We then do a dress rehearsal with them just to see how the material flows, and what kind of questions and feedback we get.”
Roache sees this as a good strategy that other precasters can borrow. She suggested that companies can also simply videotape a practice run of the entire session, and then go back, review it and adjust as needed.
“You can be much more critical and honest with yourself, even if you’re watching a video versus just doing it live for the first time and hoping for the best,” Roache said. “The added benefit is that you’ll get much more comfortable with the presentation and delivery.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.