By Kirk Stelsel, CAE
Anyone who has hosted guests knows doing it well is no easy task. It requires planning, more planning, thoughtful execution and follow up. While hosting takes time, when done well the results are worth the effort.
With NPCA’s support at the national level, nearly 30 plants across the country hosted their communities as part of NPCA’s inaugural Precast days in October. NPCA worked with the Canadian Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute, who shared information and best practices from the Precast Days event it has conducted for years.
The results are impressive. Plant participation far exceeded the original goal of 10. As a result, more than 1,400 teachers, students, engineers, contractors and specifiers visited a precast concrete plant and left more knowledgeable about the industry and solutions it provides locally.
When Allen Lee of Lee’s Precast committed to participating in Precast Days, he knew the company would need to work hard getting the word out. A cursory glance at a map reveals that Aberdeen, Miss., where the plant is located, is far from any major cities.
As a board member of the local chamber of commerce, Lee knew the power of local connections and sought to use them as a springboard. He started by having employees personally invite local specifiers and reached out to his chamber cohorts and invited them to come see the plant.
The personal invites were well received. Chamber members felt a connection with two career tech centers in the county would be fruitful and facilitated the introduction. Leaders from those schools took their own tours. They, in turn, went back and met with their teachers who set up trips to the plant as part of Lee’s Precast Days event.
Lee decided to split the event into two days, one focused on students and teachers and the other on designers. In two days, the plant hosted more than 70 individuals. He said the engineers were impressed by not only the complexity of manufacturing quality precast concrete products, but also how easy it is for a precaster to change a product to meet a need they had. After teaching them about the plant and the products, the conversation centered around questions about how to handle unique situations on site and Lee’s employees were able to address those.
“They didn’t realize the flexibility of the design, they thought it would be a lot harder,” Lee said. “They had maybe been by plants, but they were shocked by what we all do and how easy concrete can be adapted to work in different projects.”
On the student side, the big takeaway was future employment opportunities. Jeff Brooks, director of the Monroe County Career and Technical Education Center, said students were surprised there is a thriving industry right in their county. He said when arriving at the plant they thought concrete was only used to make sidewalks, but the tour showed them the precast industry is much more. They saw the industry included engineering, welding and many other skills they were learning in school.
“We showed them submittals and a takeoff from a project and talked about the engineering, the plans and job sites we see, and what the structures look like on the ground,” Lee said. “They saw how big the products are, how deep they can go, how they protect us, and they were impressed. We also gave them some historic facts on concrete from a construction standpoint and that was big for them.”
The visit led to talks of ongoing relationships and ideas for enriching partnerships further, including not only welcoming students in once or twice a semester, but potentially creating a competition between the two career tech centers. A goal for the future is to get more collegiate students involved. Lee said he was glad it worked out the way it did.
“We love the fact that NPCA is putting a big emphasis on this because it’s good marketing for everybody involved in the industry,” Lee said. “It’s a great opportunity for local schools to get their students involved and for kids in our community to come in and look at our operation, and the same goes for the engineers. We don’t have lunch and learns like this once a month like some plants and we figured once we’ve done it, we’ll want to do more of it, which we do.”
While this was Lee’s first time conducting an open house, other precasters who had experience conducting open houses also participated.
“It was exciting that we had both companies experienced in hosting these types of events participate, as well as a number of plants that were newer to open houses,” said Marti Harrell, vice president of technical services and professional development for NPCA.
Different Cities, same results
Approximately 2,500 miles away, Ron Sparks, general manager of Columbia Precast Products in Woodland, Wash., held a two-day Precast Days event of his own. As immediate past chairman of NPCA’s Outreach Committee, which conceived the idea, it was a no brainer
for his plant to be involved and opening their doors to specifiers is something they have done many times in the past.
“We had a day that was focused on high school and college-level students and then the second day focused on a hot topic in our market, microbial induced corrosion, or MIC,” Sparks said. “We geared our second day around that with an educational seminar and we focused on local specifiers, mainly cities. Sam Lines with Concrete Sealants came out to speak and we also got BASF and Master Builder’s here to do presentations on the basics of concrete for the students.”
The company had 70-plus people come through, thanks to its sales team “going out in force” to promote the event. The team met to decide who was talking with whom, and then put the plan into action. Sparks said the key is putting in the effort to get the word out. Like Lee, he feels it’s a grassroots, boots-on-the-ground type of event.
For the students, the company’s primary goal was to teach them what can be manufactured in a precast plant and to let them know the plant employs a wide variety of positions. For the engineers, the message was focused on solving their problems and being a partner, not just a supplier.
“We wanted them to know there’s more behind the curtain,” Sparks said. “There’s a lot more than meets the eye for any company, precast or not – you only see the sign out front and don’t really know what’s going on behind the sign. The employees get some ownership in it and are proud to show off what they do for a living.”
On the East Coast, Mohamed Mahgoub, Ph.D., P.E., FACI, associate professor and program director for the School of Applied Engineering and Technology (SAET) at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, took 15 students to Garden State Precast for its open house and they all walked away impressed. The students are all a part of the Concrete Industry Management (CIM) program at the school.
“I always promote the precast industry to my students and was looking forward for them to see how precast is manufactured,” said Mahgoub. “The big takeaway was that they were impressed by how everything was so precise and according to the plan and they wanted to know about internships. They also liked that in the precast industry they finish things very fast.
“For example, they can pour 100 panels in a day and take them to the site. I am telling everyone that the future of the industry is precast. Expedited construction is the future.”
Mahgoup said Garden State Precast had all of its employees available and made the attendees feel special by breaking groups into about five or six each to personalize the experience. He said they discussed every detail and answered all questions with a smile on their faces.
Joel Sheets, vice president and general manager with Tindall Corporation and current chair of NPCA’s Outreach Committee, is pleased with this year’s results and excited for the future.
“This event was all about outreach to the community, including students and educators, engineers and other specifiers, and owners, and to educate and open our doors to them to see what we’re about,” he said. “Our goal as a committee was simple, to ensure more people out there are familiar with what we do and what we have to offer. It was outstanding for the first year with nearly 30 plants participating and we hope we top that by a longshot next year.”
Creating a lasting impression
For the plants that put in the work to get the right people to their event, the opportunity to educate community members and show them first-hand what the plants do was invaluable. The participants in the 2019 Precast Days event are now more knowledgeable about the industry and its products, and understand why precast concrete manufacturers are able to provide quality products, how those products can meet their needs, and that their local precaster will work hard to please its customers.
“If you’ve never done this before and want to do it in the future or for next year’s event, utilize the tools the outreach committee is providing you,” Sparks said. “It’s really not that difficult, you just have to put effort into getting the word out. If you’re willing to get out there and tell people about it, you’ll get people to your plant.”
Kirk Stelsel, CAE, is NPCA’s vice president of communication & public affairs.