How innovation and old-school business practices have rocketed Locke Solutions from a start-up company to a successful precast concrete producer in Houston.
By Matt Werner
When it came time to make a career change, the decision was easy for Asher Kazmann. He was ready to do things differently, and he knew what needed to be done. However, seven years after starting his own business, Locke Solutions, the company has outperformed even Kazmann’s strongest projections with little slowdown in sight.
Kazmann came into his plan with deep industry experience, having spent his entire career in precast concrete, including as a plant general manager where he made profit and loss (P&L) decisions including marketing, accounting, engineering, operations and cost decisions. That role prepared him well for developing a business plan and starting his own precast operation in 2013.
“I realized if I wanted to run a business centered around our customers and employees, I wouldn’t be satisfied unless I started something new,” Kazmann said.
While the decision was easy, the capital required to create a quality precast business isn’t a low-cost endeavor with start-up costs for equipment, material and supplies. Throw in that the payment cycle for construction projects isn’t immediate and cash flow concerns become very real.
“It’s difficult to get a bank to loan money to a business when there’s no business before it has built or sold anything,” Kazmann said. “They must make a decision based solely on their trust in the people and the plan proposed to them. It’s a difficult sell.”
Despite the start-up struggles, Kazmann considers himself fortunate for the support he’s received from landlords, family, and a bank that agreed to loan him the money. Most importantly, he’s thankful for the trust of the first employees willing to take a chance with him and join a company that is statistically bound to not make it.
“Those first employees took a huge risk wanting to come work for a company where there’s a good chance it’s going to fail,” Kazmann said. “They believed in the same business as I did and were willing to risk a lot to do business ‘the right way,’ as I like to say it.”
Power of small business
With a loan from the bank and some very basic equipment, Locke Solutions started up, adding about one employee per month for the first couple of years. Kazmann attributes the company’s steady, continued growth to the power of being a small business.
“We work with a lot of other small businesses,” he noted. “They want us to succeed just like we want them to succeed. When we were initially thinking through the competitive advantages we could utilize as a small business, I underestimated the power of the small business community working together to help all of us succeed.”
There are a number of other benefits too that only a small business has, like being able to make decisions quickly and locally, which offers Locke Solutions more flexibility and options to meet customer needs, Kazmann stated.
Kazmann takes a lot of pride in being a small business. He wanted his company to not only be considered leading edge when it came to its technology, but he also wanted to be “a company that does business the way your grandparents did business.”
“ the type of business where you give a handshake and it means something,” he said. “That’s always been our goal.”
After a couple of years, Locke was already growing out of the warehouse space it was leasing. While many small businesses fail within two years, Locke was expanding, which Kazmann admits was an even bigger leap of faith for the bank.
“Fortunately, they saw where we were and saw where the business could go,” he said. “The work was there, the business model was there, and we’ve continued to prove it to be successful. We were fortunate they were willing to take a chance and give us the funding needed to continue growing our capacity.”
Primed for growth
Finding or building a new facility wasn’t a simple process as the leadership team at Locke wanted it to be optimized for space and be able to expand if the need arose. At their original facility, the flow of trucks coming in and out caused constant traffic jams for getting products out and materials into the plant. Some of the first people they spoke with were truck drivers to get their thoughts on how it would be easiest to improve the flow of traffic.
They also talked with people on the plant floor to see how best to lay out the production space and with vendors about how to make it easier for them to do business with Locke.
“It was very much a joint effort to set this building up,” Kazmann noted. “At the end of the day, we just wanted to get the best input and have the best layout we could. We didn’t have an ego of how to do it, we just wanted to build the best facility possible. We also put a lot of effort in the design process of the building, looking toward the future of the business.
“Phase 2 of our expansion plan at the new facility is already laid out and ready to go as soon as we’re ready to pull the trigger.”
One of the core values of Locke is taking care of its employees, and the new facility has touches throughout to make employees more comfortable like an expansive break room with large tables and chairs for the workers to have a cup of coffee or eat lunch. There are even plans for an outdoor patio area since many workers like to eat lunch or hang out outside.
“We wanted to make it a place that people were proud to come in and work here,” he said. “For me personally, the plant is where I spend the majority of my time, so I wanted it to feel comfortable for people to be here.”
Arlana Roberts, who serves as the company’s human resources manager, said she could tell the employees were close with each other before she started and liked that family atmosphere.
“I wanted to be a part of that,” she said. “I had no precast experience, but I decided that it was an organization I wanted to be a part of.”
Kazmann credits his employees for a lot of the company’s success as they see Locke as more than just a paycheck and want to see the company grow and be a part of its success. And grow it has, since Locke now employs more than 70 people.
Prior to becoming the operations manager, Joseph Christoferson had served in a variety of roles for the company and takes pride in the growth the company has had and the growth of the plant’s employees as their duties expand and change.
“It’s been stressful, there’s no doubt about that,” Kazmann noted. “But it’s rewarding. It’s amazing to see how many people and families are counting on this place.”
From the start, Kazmann wanted his business to be focused on the customer and being fair, honest and doing the right thing for them. It’s that mindset that’s pushed the company forward.
Starting out, engineers, specifiers and others didn’t know who or what Locke Solutions was. Luckily, many of their first customers went to bat for the company with little to gain.
“The credibility of our business was one of the most difficult things to establish,” Kazmann said. “We want to do large projects and work for the Exxon’s of the world, but when you’re a new company and yet have a resume to show them, it’s hard for them to trust you.”
Michael Luck, vice president of sales, noted that the customers are the reason the company continues to flourish.
“Our customers are everything,” Luck said. “They have taken really good care of us, and they want us to succeed. This company’s growth is proof that if you take good care of your customers, they’re going to take good care of you.”
As more customers started spreading the word about the work that Locke was doing, Kazmann could see the power of word of mouth advertising. In his mind, it wasn’t Locke Solutions or the leadership team pushing the company into a new building, it was the customers.
And seeing that come to life has made overcoming the challenges worth it.
“Sure, you’re doing this for yourself and for the people here, but you have all these external parties that have shown faith in you,” Kazmann explained. “I see this business growing because our customers continue to grow and push us to grow, and that’s exciting.”
Matt Werner is the managing editor of Precast Solutions magazine and is NPCA’s communication manager.