By Sara Geer
The Kitchener-Waterloo area of Ontario, Canada, is famous for its entrepreneurial success. Known as its Silicon Valley, the region has the second-highest density of technology startups in the world. Even large technology companies such as Google are building offices there to snatch up the talent coming from surrounding universities. This has been great news for the area in terms of providing new opportunities.
This entrepreneurial spirit, however, is not new to the region. Kitchener-Waterloo has long been an incubator for successful businesses across all industries, including precast concrete. Innovation and drive can extend to any field of work. It all depends on unique ideas, an individual’s passion for building something great and their willingness to push themselves to the limits to achieve big goals.
Forty-four years ago, Doug Robinson embodied these same characteristics. He founded Unit Precast (Breslau) at a young age with not much in his wallet, but a lot of innovative ideas for designing and manufacturing water and wastewater products. Doug’s son and business manager, Scott Robinson, said through hard work, long hours, faith, prayer and through involvement with different associations, including the National Precast Concrete Association, his father was able to continually evolve his company to remain competitive and meet the ever-changing market demands.
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS
Incredible things can happen when you’re in the right place at the right time. That was the case with Doug when a series of events led to him owning Unit Precast. At age 18, he started working for a septic tank manufacturer at the location where Unit Precast resides today. The owner asked him to purchase the business, but at that stage in life he could not afford it. A few years later, the business was sold to an accountant, Dave Butterworth, who was involved with four other partners who owned precast unit step businesses at the time and wanted to venture more into septic tanks. Dave took Doug under his wing and brought him along to tour other precast businesses.
“After a year of working for them and managing part of the business, the owner (Dave) said, ‘Why don’t we start up a partnership?’” Doug said. “Because he was an accountant and didn’t want to work here, he said, ‘We’ll start up a new company.’ That’s why we’re called Unit Precast (Breslau) instead of Breslau Precast or Robinson Precast, because of our association with unit step.”
A couple years after he set up the partnership with a buy/sell agreement, a serious car accident landed Dave in the hospital for nearly a year. Doug would often visit Dave in the hospital and they even designed a 5,000 IG tank from the hospital bed. The events of the car accident made Dave rethink the precast business and he sold his shares to Doug.
Doug became sole owner of Unit Precast and incorporated the business in 1974. The last step was to purchase the property that his first employer still owned.
“I looked at other plants around Breslau (a block plant) but realized it was going to be too expensive to change everything,” Doug said. “So, we decided that we would stay here and expand this company. It’s been slow growth, but it’s been good growth.
“That’s also when my wife (Rose) came on board. We built a little office that was not very big and eventually this became Scott’s playpen later when he was born.”
Scott said the first office more resembled a shed but remembers fondly growing up at the plant and working summer jobs sweeping the floors and doing other odd jobs. Helping around the plant provided good motivation for him to attend the University of Guelph and work hard toward a degree in business.
“The job market was a little tough after graduation, so I came on just to help them out with getting started with wastewater treatment systems,” Scott said. “Turned out I fell in love with wastewater treatment and the products and I’m still here.”
Scott officially joined Unit Precast in 2000 and spearheaded the next phase of the company’s growth.
TWO COMPANIES, ONE GOAL
While attending NPCA meetings early in his career, Doug remembered thinking very few members were involved with wastewater treatment systems. He thought it would be the future for protecting the environment and reducing pollution. That passion led him to partner with a U.S. product supplier to sell wastewater treatment systems in Ontario
“We got involved with that company for quite a while,” Doug said. “In fact, we sold a lot of units – more than 1,000 units.”
However, through servicing the units, they discovered the systems weren’t always meeting Ontario’s stringent regulations and performance criteria set by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment at the time. Regulations required that each effluent sample be taken from each system to a laboratory and the results submitted to the Ministry.
“Being a company that wanted to look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘We’re doing right for our customers and the environment,’ we needed to look at different technologies,” Scott said.
In an effort to improve its wastewater treatment products, Scott looked abroad to see what other countries were doing. He even visited Europe with his wife for their first wedding anniversary and toured Germany to bring back ideas. While abroad, he noticed rainwater harvesting systems were an improvement to the cisterns that the company sold and brought back these ideas.
“We started to get involved with organizations like NOWRA to continue to improve and educate ourselves on wastewater treatment and to understand where the market was headed,” Scott said.
Through continued research and education, Scott found a new technology partner and created a new company called RH2O North America.
“That was how we got involved in a new generation of wastewater treatment products,” Scott said. “That work really is what has been pushing our precast here at Unit Precast in commercial and residential sales.”
Now the two companies work in tandem. Customers are assured that Scott and his team understand every segment of service from monitoring the technology to building quality precast concrete tanks. Scott manages both businesses and said it has been a rewarding experience for him.
“We’ve actually worked with other precasters, and I like being able to help them out,” he said. “Because often they’re in the same circumstance or working with a system that isn’t meeting all the requirements. That’s been great for our industry.
“And, for the most part, our business has grown organically and we’re really happy how it’s taken off.”
Tim Hortons, the “Dunkin Donuts of Canada,” is the largest customer. Unit Precast has worked with Tim Hortons throughout Ontario and RH2O has supplied systems for Hortons’ stores across Canada. Unit Precast even installed a rainwater and wastewater system for its own staff and office building. This supports their goal to improve the environment and helps them to understand fully how their system will work in the field.
IMPROVING SEPTIC TANK DESIGN
Since the decision was made to keep the company on the original property, the amount of available land made it difficult to diversify product lines. The company didn’t see that as a hindrance, however, and instead used it to reevaluate its current products and become experts in the field of residential and commercial wastewater treatment.
“We didn’t get into retaining walls or high volume, low margin products because we didn’t have space for it,” Scott said. “The move to commercial wastewater was to maximize the value added out of the concrete boxes we could produce.”
The move was a smart one, since in recent years the residential market in Ontario is shrinking due to the government’s desire to focus on urban centers to stop urban sprawl. Due to the recent boom in the commercial market, the company is now sending product farther than ever.
“A residential septic tank may only be cost effectively delivered within an hour, a residential treatment plant can go 2-3 hours, yet for a commercial treatment plant we’re going 6-7 hours away completing those projects,” Scott said. “So, we’re going all over the place with commercial wastewater. We’re also the only precaster in Ontario that does a full design, build, install and service.”
Unit Precast was the first precaster in Canada to have its septic tanks be Canada Standards Association (CSA) certified. The company also changed other septic tank design elements that started to become standard among other precast concrete manufacturers in the area.
“I was one of the first precasters to put the manholes over the inlet and outlet baffles,” Doug said. “Often, they were either in the center or to the side, which was too far from the end of the tank for installation and service. And, it wasn’t long after that others started doing it too because it was a good thing. Something that should have been done years ago.”
Scott said the company was also one of the first to start using plastic risers and flexible boot seals on its tanks. They are always looking to improve the product that they are selling.
One thing the company is taking a serious interest in is improving septic tank and wastewater treatment design by actively researching and testing ways to eliminate microbially induced corrosion (MIC) that occurs with a small percentage of tanks.
“My dad would try and speak with different cement suppliers and was told, “It is just a little segment, don’t worry about it,’” Scott said. “But there was always something that we’ve tried to do different, whether it would be changing mix designs or using a special spray above the waterline, but in each case, we found different issues.”
Scott joined the NPCA Water and Wastewater Product Committee because of his dad’s passion for solving MIC in tanks. He’s also seen the same passion from other NPCA members he served with on the NPCA MIC Task Force.
“I’ve been an active member in testing a lot of septic tanks,” Scott said. “I had the NPCA sensors here for a number of tests and then was able to get the local CPA (Concrete Precasters Association of Ontario) to purchase two sensors for me to use. I continue to do testing and I’m really excited about the information I’ve been sharing back with many other precasters.”
UNITING ONTARIO PRECASTERS
Unit Precast has always been a company open to helping other precast concrete manufacturers – even its own competitors – succeed. In an effort to work toward improving the quality and perception of precast concrete septic tanks, Doug joined with other Ontario precasters to create the CPA of Ontario.
“I think one of my dad’s biggest fears back in the day was that plastic tanks were coming in,” Scott said. “They had a huge marketing effort and, coincidently, they came in and were having lots of problems that actually helped concrete septic tanks in our area become the go-to standard.”
Since CPA of Ontario’s formation, Doug has served as president and Unit Precast has remained an active member. The group is close. They often call each other for guidance about unknown situations or concerns.
“At first, when precasters started getting together we didn’t like sharing too many secrets, but gradually people came around in an effort to ensure we were all making precast tanks the right way,” Doug said.
The company’s love for helping has also extended into the community. The staff at Unit Precast had fun one day playing with glass-reinforced-fiber concrete and donated a precast ping-pong table to a local park.
“We’ve always wanted to give back to the community, but most people don’t raise their hands and say, ‘Can I have a septic tank?’” Scott said. “So, we were able to give back a ping-pong table which was a really cool project for us.”
PLANT ADDITIONS AND FUTURE GROWTH
Unit Precast recently completed its fourth addition to its plant. The addition brought with it more room for a 25-ton capacity crane, new forms and automation, including a new batching control system.
“One of our most recent purchases was an automated turning bar,” Scott said. “Before this our guys actually had to turn the product by hand. We also found that the wastewater treatment systems were taking off so much we needed another form and needed to expand our production facility.”
With dreams of potentially expanding more, adding new product lines and updating equipment in the future, another big goal for the company is to one day have the plant be NPCA certified. Scott sees the opportunities available for his company and is working hard toward making those goals a reality, like his dad did before him.
“Through NPCA and all they offer – networking and staff training that we are able to implement back into our business – the return investment is helping our company be the best it can be,” Scott said.
Sara Geer is NPCA’s communication manager and is managing editor of Precast Inc.