Panhandle Concrete Products carves out a niche on the high plains of Western Nebraska.
By Bob Whitmore
From near the top of the 800-foot elevation at Scotts Bluff National Monument, looking north past a small lake, you can see a collection of buildings and a yard filled with precast concrete. That’s Panhandle Concrete. Craig and Cindy Hayward’s precast plant is solidly placed on 23 acres fronting Highway 92 on the western edge of the Nebraska panhandle.
Zoom in a little closer and you’ll see forklifts moving pipe, a fleet of delivery vehicles, a U.S. flag and a second flag with a big red N – the banner of the University of Nebraska.
The majestic bluffs and spires that punctuate the landscape like exclamation points were formed 3 million years ago when the Platte River and its tributaries began to erode the high plains, creating wide canyons and fertile land. During the Gold Rush, Chimney Rock and the Scotts Bluff formations served as landmarks on the Oregon Trail as settlers poured through the plains on their way West in the mid-1800s. Panhandle Concrete doesn’t go back quite that far, however, dating to 1946 when it started as a ready-mix facility. The site where Craig, Cindy and their sons, Andrew and Chris, now work also once served as a truck shop and a bottling plant.
Craig and Cindy came to town in 1997 after separating from Colorado Precast, the family business in Loveland that started in 1975. However, they weren’t thinking about precast when they uprooted and moved 180 miles northeast to Scottsbluff.
The farm was gone
“We came here to buy a farm,” Cindy said.
But they were 12 hours too late. The farm sold, and they were left empty-handed and in need of a new plan. Fortunately, their realtor knew one of the owners of the local ready-mix plant and introduced them. Craig leased some of the equipment and started making pipe and other precast concrete structures. Over the next few years, all but one of the ready-mix owners bailed, leaving the Haywards with one partner. Then he left 11 or 12 years ago, Craig said, giving the family sole ownership.
“It was a little scary when we sold off the ready-mix,” Craig said. “The partners had always blamed the precast operation for losing money.”
But Craig knew precast, having manufactured everything from pipe to high-end architectural products. And he knew how to make forms. As an experienced welder, he could fabricate just about anything and figured the company could carve out a specialty niche providing custom products requiring special formwork that he could fabricate. However, the transition was a little shaky at first.
“There wasn’t a lot of preparation before the sale,” Cindy said. “We were going to continue as Panhandle Concrete, but we didn’t have any of the books or any of the operating documents. Luckily, one of our truck drivers and his wife were pretty savvy with bookkeeping and taxes and we basically went in and made sure we had all the proper documents we needed to get started.”
The timing was just right. Sons Andrew and Chris were ready to take on more responsibility. Like his grandfather, Andrew graduated from the University of Nebraska in 2007 with a civil engineering degree and has since earned his P.E with licenses in Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota and Colorado. While he was in college, he did CAD drawings and other long-distance work for his parents. He then started working full-time at Panhandle after graduation. Chris took a more circuitous route.
“I think in high school, the last thing I wanted to do was precast concrete because I had been around it my whole life,” he said. “I wanted to be a diesel technician.”
Chris learned of a technician program through John Deere and earned an associate degree. He then went to work for the company for a year in Kansas before moving back home and starting full-time at the plant. The brothers are integral to the plant’s daily operations and keeping the work flowing with the company’s 21 employees.
Loosening the reins
Craig and Cindy are still heavily involved with the company but are loosening the reins now and giving Andrew and Chris more control. Andrew has taken over about 20% of the bidding from Craig, and Chris is assuming some of the human resources and safety duties that Cindy has always managed.
“We needed them back here, and we’re glad to have them,” Cindy said. “As far as the business goes, we’d like to pass it down to our sons. We’d like to make the transition and see them step in and work together so there’s no friction.
“Brothers getting along has been a challenge since biblical times.”
The brothers are ready for the challenge and are confident they can make it work.
“We get along better as time goes on,” Chris said.
“It depends on if he gets his breakfast, lunch and dinner at 6, 12 and 6,” Andy joked. “We’re trying to find our little niches and not step on toes. And that’s kind of what family business is.
“Everyone wants to succeed so much and sometimes you do step on people’s toes. We’re trying to find the areas we want to focus on. We’re having more managerial meetings where we look at long-term goals.”
Not that Craig and Cindy are going to retire.
“I never see them fully out,” Andy said. “We see them always being here two or three days a week, if not all five. But we’re slowly moving toward a transition.”
One thing they all agree on is Panhandle Concrete isn’t likely to go after any major growth initiatives. The plant is about the right size for the sparsely populated region.
So, the goal is to get more efficient.
“You can always add little product lines here and there, but we’ve got most of them covered right now,” Andy said. “We’re so diverse that there’s not a lot of product lines we don’t have. We’re pretty happy just upgrading equipment.
“We’ll try to do some more competitive bidding – going after some bigger jobs. If we get more efficient, we can bid differently and get more work that way.”
Much of the company’s work is outside of its home base of Scottsbluff, a town of 15,000. Because of the distances involved, the company runs a fleet of delivery vehicles that travel the region.
“We’ll be in South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, all of Nebraska, some of Kansas and a little bit of Utah,” Craig said. “We’ve shipped pipe to Tucson and cattleguards to California.”
“It’s really tough to make a living in Scottsbluff,” she said. “We have to make a little bit of everything just to stay alive up here.”
Custom work and smaller jobs that require labor rather than automation are the company’s forte.
“We found that the bigger guys are more into automation,” Craig said. “With anything that takes labor, we’ll have more of a chance.”
But this year, they’re manufacturing mostly pipe. Box culverts have been the go-to product in recent years, Andrew said, but this year for some reason everybody wants pipe.
So, they’re making a lot of pipe. In precast, you make what the market demands.
The NPCA connection
Connections with the National Precast Concrete Association have also kept the plant plugged in, even though it is physically isolated from other precast plants. While Craig and Cindy have backed off in recent years, Andrew and Chris have carried the mantle of NPCA involvement into the third generation.
Harry and Alice Hayward were icons in NPCA. They were integral to the association’s growth and the development of educational and safety programs, plant certification and the close-knit traditions that keep families involved.
“We’ve been going to precast shows since we were born,” Andrew said. “I think my first one was in Seattle in 1984. I was probably six months old.
“I have a daughter now and she’s been to several shows so we’re trying to keep that alive.”
“I’ve been going since I was a baby,” Chris added.
A former NPCA Foundation scholarship recipient, Andrew serves on the Foundation Board of Directors. He has also spent six years on the quality assurance committee, has been on the manhole committee and the boom truck task force and is starting a new term on the education committee. Andy also served on this year’s nominating committee.
He has made strong connections with other precasters – just like his parents and grandparents. NPCA members Deke Mader with Crest Precast in LaCrescent, Minn., and Aaron Ausen with Rosetta Hardscapes in Charlevoix, Mich., are two regular contacts.
“Deke, Aaron and I – we’re constantly texting each other,” Andy said. “At least once a week, but sometimes a couple times a day. Usually, they’re telling me about their big cool projects, and I’m sitting here saying, ‘Well, we’re just doing pipe this week – a lot of pipe, but just pipe.’
“A lot of times we’ll ask questions – whether it’s production-related or dealing with contractors or HR stuff. We throw those around at each other all the time.”
Chris has recently gotten more involved in NPCA and is working toward his Master Precaster certification.
“It’s not until recently that I’ve begun to appreciate what those connections are,” Chris said. “I used to go to The Precast Show just to look at equipment, but there’s so much more than that. I’ve been going to a lot of classes and committee meetings lately.”
Chris will be the second Master Precaster at Panhandle. The plant’s quality control technician, Alfredo Lara, received his certification in 2018.
Lara, who has a bachelor’s degree in construction management, came to Panhandle in 2013 after working for the Nebraska Department of Transportation.
When NDOT had a layoff, Lara found himself looking for work. He was hired at Panhandle Concrete and planned to work there as a laborer while he was searching for a more permanent job.
“I figured I would work there three months and leave,” he said. “After I graduated, I wanted to do anything in construction –except concrete. I did not like concrete.”
But that all changed after he was introduced to the Haywards, he said. Craig Hayward’s mentorship gave him a deeper understanding of the precast concrete side of the industry.
“I learned a lot from Craig those first two months,” he said. “His problem-solving skills are amazing.”
With large custom work, there are always questions about how to handle production, Lara said.
“Craig will come out and he’ll say, ‘We’ll just do it this way, or that way,’ and he figures it out. He has a lot of experience.”
When his three months were up, Craig offered Lara a crew leader’s position and he decided to stay. He started taking NPCA education courses as he was advancing in the company, and became Panhandle’s first Master Precaster at The Precast Show 2018 in Denver.
Lara’s graduation was a big deal at the plant. The Haywards chartered a bus, shut down the plant for a day and bused the entire staff to Denver to attend plant tours and the graduation luncheon and then spent time on the trade show floor.
“It was pretty cool when they called my name and I could hear the whole plant cheer me on,” Lara said. “The guys were nothing but supportive.”
That supportive culture starts with the family. Like most precast plants, it’s a demanding workplace.
“But when it comes down to it, they treat us like family,” he said. “They’re very understanding. They’ll help with whatever you need – even outside of work.”
It’s part of the company’s effort to build a positive culture at the plant. When the total solar eclipse of Aug. 17, 2017, passed right above Scottsbluff, the Haywards shut down the plant for an eclipse party, inviting all the employees’ spouses and children to view the eclipse, have lunch and take plant tours. Chris also led a float-making event where employees helped decorate a boom truck for the town’s Christmas parade. It was the hit of the parade and a photo of the float landed on the front page of the local newspaper.
Nearly all construction companies are struggling to find and keep workers, and Panhandle is no exception. So, the extra touches are important, Andrew and Chris said.
“We’re trying to make it somewhere they want to be and are happy to be,” Andrew said.
“I’ve been trying to make them feel like they’re part of the family,” Chris said. “You guys help take care of us, and we’ll take care of you.”
The writer Poe Ballantine said, “Western Nebraska is the only place where I’ve seen the dust blowing and the rain falling at the same time.” It can be a harsh environment, but the Hayward family has made it work.
“It’s a super area, but it’s just hard to make a living here,” Cindy Hayward said. “They make you earn your living around here and watch your pennies.”
That conservative approach helped the company manage through the Great Recession in the mid-2000s without the difficulty faced by many construction firms. The economy is like the state’s culture. Other than for the beloved Huskers football team, most Nebraskans typically stay on an even keel.
“In Nebraska, we don’t have the highs and lows,” Cindy said. “It’s just been steady.”
Bob Whitmore is NPCA’s vice president of communication and public affairs.
They Made Us Work
It was 1997 when Craig and Cindy Hayward moved on from Colorado Precast Concrete, a plant that has a long history with NPCA. Craig helped his father launch the plant in 1975 and even suggested the name.
“They were going to call it Loveland Precast, but I said, ‘We’re in Colorado, we want to be known for the whole state.’” So, Colorado Precast it was.
Craig worked alongside his parents, Harry and Alice Hayward. They started small and kept a close watch on expenses.
“Harry was pretty humble and frugal,” Cindy said. “He wouldn’t let a scrap of steel or a block of wood go to waste. It was something to see him dumpster diving on Saturday and Sunday, making sure they didn’t throw anything out,” she said.
That frugal nature came from his meager beginnings. Harry grew up dirt poor – literally.
“He lived in a sod house until he was 6 or 7 – dirt floor and everything – up in South Dakota,” Craig said.
He may have started with nothing, but Harry was smart and a hard worker. He went to the University of Nebraska and earned a degree in civil engineering, then went to work for Safeway and traveled around the Midwest, before settling in Loveland to launch Colorado Precast.
“They started with $10,000 and an old truck,” Craig said of his parents.
Craig worked at a fertilizer plant during the day and put in nights and weekends at the plant. Eventually, Harry acquired two more trucks, and Craig went to work full-time. The orders for precast were coming in, but the trucks couldn’t keep up.
“When they went down, we might only have one truck and we’d run that truck 24 hours a day,” Craig said. “This was before log books. Sometimes we’d work three-straight days with no sleep.”
The headquarters was a single-wide trailer with a desk and an old door that Harry used as a drafting table. Alice kept the operation running.
“She was the backbone,” Cindy Hayward said.
Alice did the books and ran the office while Harry and his small crew made the precast. “Craig’s mom and dad were very instrumental in forming Craig’s attitude toward precast,” Cindy said.
History repeated itself when the Haywards took over Panhandle Concrete and turned it into a regional precast operation. Cindy ran the office, Craig made the product and worked pretty much all the time.
“If we wanted to see dad, we’d have to go down to the plant on weekends,” said Craig’s son Andrew. “Dad was always working.”
It all started with Harry and Alice Hayward, though.
“I’m just grateful for the guidance Craig’s mom and dad gave us,” Cindy Hayward said. “Yeah,” Craig nods in agreement. “They made us work.”