By Mason Nichols // Photos provided by Champion Precast
Editor’s Note: The “Chairman’s Choice” story features projects selected by Jon Ohmes, CEO of Champion Precast and newly elected NPCA Chairman of the Board.
Running a business requires establishing a delicate balance of hard work and dedication combined with flexibility and ingenuity. With these ingredients out of balance, operations can quickly go awry – but when you find the right combination, you’ll be well on your way to success. For more than three decades, Champion Precast of Troy, Mo., has provided a wide array of precast concrete products to customers throughout the Midwest. And while their commitment to providing high-quality solutions to clients has been ever-present, CEO Jon Ohmes understands growth only occurs when innovation and a forward-thinking mindset are included in the mix.
This mentality is exactly why Champion recently partnered with a local utility company to install more than 600 solar panels on top of two of its production facilities. Ohmes explained his company had considered adding the panels for quite some time. He even reached out to his network of precasters for advice, which included assistance from Greg Stratis, president of Shea Concrete Products, who installed solar panels at his plant in Amesbury, Mass., in 2013.1 With all the information collected, Ohmes decided to move forward. The installed system will generate more than 255,000 kilowatt-hours per year, reducing energy costs at the plant by more than 75% and placing the company at the forefront of sustainable technology.
But adding solar panels is only one way Champion is looking to the future. While the company has found its niche providing utility products that function as a single-source solution for customers, Ohmes has found extreme value in breaking down two barriers which have historically limited precasters’ ability to expand – transportation and product weight. As these two projects highlight, remaining nimble in the precast concrete industry means seeing a challenge not as a hindrance, but as an opportunity.
Precast concrete at the South Pole
More than a decade ago, a salesperson at Champion approached Ohmes with an idea. He wanted to ship a product from the heart of the Midwest to California. Ohmes was incredulous – he believed his company had no business dabbling in a project located so far away. But the salesperson convinced him to take a shot. Champion secured the work and successfully delivered on the project, reorienting Ohmes’ viewpoint.
“That job opened up my confidence,” he said. “I realized then that there’s no distance that can hold us back.”
From that point forward, he made it his mission for Champion to deliver to every state in the U.S. To date, the company has delivered to 37, including Hawaii. Yet even with Champion’s experience shipping products to unexpected locations, nothing could have prepared him for the request he received in 2017.
A salesperson reached out to Ohmes for help with bidding on what he claimed to be a unique project, but the products involved were standard. Ohmes questioned why the salesperson had contacted him for assistance.
“There were two different products on the project, but both were very simple,” he said. “So, I asked him, ‘What am I looking at here? What am I missing?’ and he goes, ‘It’s going to Antarctica.’”
Champion worked diligently to submit its bid, going up against three competitors to secure the job. Due to extreme weather in Antarctica, deliveries could only be accepted at certain times of the year. Champion’s bid on the project was the only one that would successfully meet the very tight timeline, and as a result, they were awarded the work.
Ohmes quickly realized in order to pull this job off, his entire team would have to work very closely together. He set the tone early.
“I’ve got a great staff,” he said. “With that particular project, we went through everything meticulously and looked at the dates. So it was, ‘Production, you need to be ready here, shipping, you need to be ready here,’ and so on.”
The team manufactured eight 4-foot-by-4-foot-by-2.5-foot precast foundation piers for the project, which involved the build-out of a prefabricated building located at the South Pole. Each pier weighed just less than 6,000 pounds. While the piers were simple in design, shipment required special packaging and custom pallets to ensure no damage occurred in transit. The piers were shipped in tandem with eight 600-pound precast grounding cylinders, each measuring 5 feet long and 1 foot in diameter.
Multiple steps were involved in the transportation process. Initially, the precast products were shipped via truck to Port Hueneme, Calif. From there, they were loaded onto a ship, where they made the 8,000-mile trip to the ice pier at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Finally, the 16 precast pieces were loaded into an LC-130 military transport aircraft, which was used on the final leg of the journey to the South Pole.
While Ohmes sought to deliver to all 50 states, never did he imagine his company would ship internationally. He continues to describe the experience as a dream. Since then, Champion has delivered to Antarctica one more time, working with the same client.
Big: The new normal
Years ago, Ohmes saw the trends in products getting larger. In response, he upgraded his equipment to enable Champion to handle products weighing up to 100,000 pounds. This decision has opened new possibilities for the business and has also helped the company become more competitive when bidding on projects. The result has also reconfigured what it means to have a big-pour day at the plant.
“On a regular day, we’ll manufacture pieces in the 40,000-pound range,” he said. “We don’t get too excited about it. We have to get to about 60,000 pounds before we consider it a critical load.”
That increased threshold was crucial for the work Champion secured with Black Shire Distillery in Hermann, Mo. The distillery, which is located about 80 miles west of St. Louis, required a large outfall structure capable of controlling the depth of an adjacent lake.
Champion worked closely with a local general contractor on the project, which originally called for a 24-foot-by-24-foot cast-in-place outfall structure. While the size of the finished product wasn’t an issue for manufacturing at the plant, such a massive structure exceeded maximum roadway weight limits. The team at Champion had to devise an alternative solution.
“To make it work, we proposed a double precast concrete 20-foot-by-7-foot-by-12.5-foot outfall structure,” Ohmes said. “The owner accepted it, but now we had to be able to connect the two pieces together for installation.”
To do so, Champion designed each side with matching penetrations. The final product, which weighs more than 50,000 pounds, is capable of storing 30,000 gallons. A portion of the structure is exposed to visitors, so the team also designed it with a decorative rock facing. This helps maintain the desired aesthetic of the distillery while simultaneously captivating visitors. The top of the structure doubles as the location’s patio area and features a broom finish.
Despite the complexities associated with both the design and transportation of the outfall structure, installation was completed in one afternoon. Ohmes estimated the original cast-in-place solution likely would have taken 1-to-2 weeks. The quick installation afforded by precast helped save the general contractor money and kept construction of the distillery on track. For Champion, the work again proved the team’s ability to successfully navigate a diverse range of work.
“We can precast anything,” Ohmes said. “Our ability to solve the width issue on this project opened the eyes of owners and general contractors alike. Thanks to our flexibility in design and our increased lift capacity at the plant, they understand that there are a lot of things we can do that weren’t possible 10 years ago.”
Champion of the people
While maintaining flexibility in design, production and transportation is important, Ohmes recognizes his people are his most important asset. He noted Champion Precast will only continue to evolve with the support and dedication of his team members.
“The people at Champion are proud of what they make,” he said. “It’s that family atmosphere – everyone knows everyone else – that continues to drive us forward, pushing us to continue to do more every day.”
Mason Nichols is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based writer and editor who has covered the precast concrete industry since 2013.
1 The solar panel system installed at Shea Concrete Products earned the company a National Precast Concrete Association Sustainability Award. https://precast.org/2014/03/sustainability-awards-2/