Becky and Ray Graf started S&M Precast in a lean-to on their farm. By always thinking ahead, the company has grown exponentially since its humble beginnings.
By Matt Werner
Henryville is like many small Indiana towns – farmland and basketball hoops attached to barns or driveways are common sights. A mere three square miles encompasses the entire town, which is the birthplace of Harland Sanders, better known across the country as “Colonel Sanders.”
But as you are driving along Interstate 65, you’ll notice something else – a yard full of precast concrete manholes, septic tanks, box culverts and more, and a building emblazoned with S&M Precast. The highway-frontage property is a great piece of free advertising if there ever was one.
There, you’ll find Ray Graf wandering the yard early in the morning with a cup of coffee in his hand, because he’s not much of an office guy, and his wife, Becky, making sure everything is running as efficiently as the hospital where she used to serve as a nurse.
S&M has made a name for itself in Southern Indiana ever since Ray and Becky started producing septic tanks in 1995, although they never would have guessed they would be where they are today.
It all started with a truck
When Ray was 23, he quit his job as a foreman for a commercial concrete contractor and start doing basement foundations. As time went on, he bought a small knuckle boom truck, affectionately called “Big Red,” to help move the panels.
“When we bought that truck, I thought it would be a great idea to have some septic tank forms,” Ray said. “Moving just our panels with that truck, it was just going to be a very limited part of the driver’s day. So, we wanted to fill the rest of his day with some activity for that truck.”
Utilizing an existing 20-foot-by-40-foot lean-to on the back of a pole barn on the farm, they started pouring. While some people may think they’d be at a disadvantage starting in the precast industry without any experience, Becky and Ray see it as a benefit.
“When we decided to do anything, we didn’t have any knowledge of how it should be done,” Ray noted. “So, our view of how it should be done could be different than others because we’re looking at it for the first time.”
In 1999, they moved to their current location right along the interstate and increased their plant size to 40-feet-by-100-feet. They even had an “office” – an 8-foot-by-20-foot shipping container they now use for storage.
Throughout the company’s growth, they continued to manufacture septic tanks and install basements until 2004 when they sold the basement business to two employees. But when the economy went south, they diversified and added new product lines.
“We had sales growth during those years,” Ray pointed out. “We were doing more products that we weren’t doing in the past, so we were able to keep our sales going positive.”
It doesn’t take long talking to Ray before you realize he sees the big picture differently than most, such as when they first built their plant in 1999 and installed their aggregate bins. At the time, they were pouring 10 yards per day, but decided to put in 100-ton aggregate bins in case the company expanded. They haven’t had to install larger bins even with all the expansions.
In addition, he thought ahead when they built their first office building, which could only be expanded vertically. He made the decision to have a roof that could unbolt if and when they needed a second level.
“We always take a lot of time to figure out where we’re headed,” Ray explained. “Because once you’re there, you don’t want to look back and think, ‘We should have done this,’ or, ‘Oh, we needed to do this,’ or anything. So, we always put a lot of time into the thought process.”
That ingenuity was on full display when they started planning the latest addition, which was completed in 2012. The additional plant was built as a single-sloped roof so another half could be added to the building if the economy continued to do well. They even put in a door to nowhere that would open to a new catwalk that leads to an additional second floor office should they build the other half of the plant.
“You always want to plan for the next generation, the next owner or whoever,” Ray explained. “It’s not just about today. If you put your infrastructure in, you have to put it in for where you’re going to end up, or you’re going to get lost along the way.”
Ray’s big ideas are all over the plant, too. Knowing how hard it can be to get rebar out of storage, he came up with a rolling machine that indexes rebar, so workers simply push a button to get the size they need.
Seeing his quality control technicians pick around their core samples on a normal shelving unit, Ray came up with one that would store them on their side and each day that sample would be next in line for testing. Also, he installed a ladder on their trucks that swings down to make it easier and safer for drivers to get up without having to step onto the tire.
Ray jokes that his ideas and attention to detail come from pure laziness and from filling in for other people and seeing how tough the work can be.
“We like to look at the safe way of doing things first and then making it convenient for everybody,” he explained. “Concrete is not that easy of work to begin with, but we like to make it where people can do any job here, where it’s not hard on the body to do them.”
Sometimes, Ray’s ideas need balance, and that’s where Becky comes in as she jokingly refers to herself as the “pessimistic one.”
“When he’s coming up with all of this, I’m coming up with the other list,” she laughed. “It’s not just financial, but it’s all the pros and cons of everything, too.”
Becky credits her background as a nurse for that. It’s not just about Plan B, but Plan C, D and E, too.
“He’s always thinking ahead of, ‘How do we create it,’ and I’m always thinking of, ‘OK, how do we deal with it,’” she said. “You just constantly need to be thinking. Some people don’t think past that day, and I’m always thinking three times past.”
All in the family
While Becky and Ray are proud of the work they’ve done building S&M into the plant it is today, their eyes light up when the conversation turns to their daughters. For the Graf’s, family is the most important thing and it’s right in the name of their plant – S&M was named for their two oldest daughters, Stephanie and Mary. And when they added a line of precast log cabins to their product mix, it only seemed natural to name it Big K Cabins for their youngest daughter, Krystal, who was not born at the time S&M began.
All three daughters can remember helping stamp envelopes, cleaning up the office, and, on the rare occasion, helping dad move products around the yard. Now, Krystal and Stephanie both work at the company while Mary is an elementary teacher. Krystal is the logistics manager, and Stephanie heads up the human resources department while doing a “little bit of everything” as she likes to say. And, the family ties don’t end there – Krystal’s fiancé and Mary’s fiancé also work at the company, both in engineering.
Becky and Ray are quick to point out that they never pressured the girls into entering the family business, but they are elated they came to work with them. Of course, the girls don’t see it that way.
“I mean when you work with your family all day, is it really work?” Krystal explained. “I feel like you can’t quite call it work when come up to your place of work and you’re hanging out with your parents or your sisters. You can’t really get much better than that.”
Stephanie likes hanging out with her family and not knowing exactly what she’s going to be doing every day, whether it’s inputting numbers, helping out with deliveries or running to grab spare parts. Ray jokes that she knows every parts store in the area.
Walking around with Becky and Ray, it’s obvious they treat employees like family as well. They are very proud of the fact they’ve never laid anyone off. Ray is always thinking of ways to make the job easier for staff. If employees want to come in early, work a partial day on a Saturday or need to adjust their hours so they can make a school function, they’re fine with that.
“They all have the same needs that we had,” he said. “As long as we’re matching our production with our sales and our customers are happy, that’s all we care about. It’s a balancing act, but we make it work.”
Ray is also quick to point out that their employees have other talents that don’t include driving a truck or pouring concrete, and the Graf’s try to put those talents to work in the plant.
“When we hire people, we always want to know what their hobbies are because that’s something you really enjoy,” he said. “When they get to do that at work, it’s better for everybody.”
One surefire way to know a workplace is healthy is when employees ask other family members to join them. S&M’s workforce has many such ties with fathers, sons, brothers and cousins all working alongside one another. And Ray makes it a point to always listen to everyone’s ideas, allowing employees to feel a sense of ownership with any changes.
“He’ll take their ideas and make it into something that’s workable, easy and beneficial,” Stephanie said. “Everyone knows they can voice their opinion and aren’t scared to say something could be better.”
Of course, one of his most popular changes was adding a soft serve ice cream machine to the plant’s lunchroom. Every Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., ice cream is available for the employees and customers. To no surprise, customer pickups around those hours have increased.
“We always try to accommodate what our guys want,” he said. “If you don’t give your people what they want, they will find it somewhere else. We do have very good people here, who we owe much of our success to.”
Walking around the plant and the yard, it’s obvious that family doesn’t end with their daughters for Becky and Ray but extends to their plant employees. And that’s the key to their success.
Matt Werner is the managing editor of Precast Solutions magazine and is NPCA’s communication manager.