Seven decades and two generations in, Monarch Precast is thriving with a focus on quality products and its employees.
By Kirk Stelsel, CAE
When the world emerged from the chaos of World War II in 1945, it was a markedly different place. Some countries found themselves rebuilding both physically and economically, while others were adjusting to redrawn borders or finding their way as newly sovereign nations.
But in the U.S., things were looking up. The post-war economy was humming and veterans were putting down roots. One of those veterans, Paul Stein Sr., did exactly that in 1949, moving 90 miles from a small town outside of York, Pa., to the Lehigh Valley to start a small business.
Monarch Precast Concrete Corporation in Allentown, Pa., is now run by Paul Sr.’s son, Paul Jr. The company celebrated 70 years in business in 2019.
Small shop, big thinking
According to Paul Jr., his dad was self-taught with an “engineering mind.” Although he did not have formal education beyond high school, he learned through reading and experience. In fact, Paul Jr. recently came across a set of small engineering books dating back to the ‘50s that belonged to his father.
The construction and concrete industries were not foreign to Paul Sr. After the war, he worked for his brother-in-law as a masonry contractor, and his wife’s relatives were already producing concrete septic tanks near York. However, it was now up to him to succeed on his own.
Early on, he was a one-man show, casting and delivering 360-gallon septic tanks by himself. The family – mom, dad, grandma and three kids – lived in a two-bedroom apartment above the shop, so home was where the heart – and the company – were.
Over time, Paul Sr. added employees and an outdoor crane, and in the ‘60s he purchased a vacant plant complete with aggregate bins and a mixer. As Paul Jr. thinks back on what his father accomplished in the first few decades, it’s not only the hard work that stands out, but also his dad’s ingenuity. For example, in the ‘60s, manholes were an in-demand product line as municipalities shifted to central sewage.
“He started dry-casting manholes,” Paul Jr. said. “He was pretty innovative because nobody else in the area was doing that.”
Together is better
In addition to equipment and product lines, two key additions were Paul Jr. and his younger brother, John. Paul Jr. had worked summers in high school and joined the company full time in 1974 right after graduating from college with an engineering degree. By that time, the company had grown to nearly 30 employees.
He loved working with his dad, who was happy to consider any idea and either encourage it or gently redirect. Together with the employees, the three continued to expand the company’s product lines and customer base. But when the time came to pass the torch, Paul Sr. didn’t hesitate.
“My dad rounded up my brother and me, and we went up into the Pocono Mountains to see a job,” Paul Jr. said. “We stopped for lunch, and that’s when my dad made the announcement that he was retiring. I remember the feeling – it was a little bit of a shock, and it was a little surprising.”
There was plenty of carryover as Paul Sr. kept an office and still came around every day, albeit with limited hours. In addition, his tradition of retaining long-term employees is still thriving today.
There’s Charles Dixon, who Paul Sr. hired in the ‘70s and is still driving trucks, and Joe Penchishen, who Paul Jr. says is “one of a kind” and has been with the company for 50-plus years. Jill Kratzer started with the company in a secretarial role 37 years ago and now holds a leading role in daily operations.
“Jill, Joe, and Charles are three of the most dedicated, hard-working people I have ever met,” said Paul Jr. “That is just to name a few. I am very fortunate and proud to have so many dedicated long-term employees.”
Perhaps the most well-known employee in National Precast Concrete Association circles is Eric Lasko, a Master Precaster and Leadership NPCA graduate.
“When I started here in 1998, I was young, freshly married and didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Lasko said. “I didn’t really know about precast, but once I got into it, I loved it. Every day, it forces you to be at the top of your game, and there’s not a day that I think I don’t want to be doing what I’m doing.”
While straightforward in methodology, Paul Jr.’s employee philosophy is admirable in practice. His focus is on listening to people and giving them the opportunity to grow along with the company.
From Lasko’s perspective, it all comes down to respect and communication. He said Paul Jr. has emphasized that the way you communicate with someone makes a big difference. Just as Paul Sr. allowed his son to bring any idea to the table, Paul Jr. tells his people there is no such thing as a bad idea.
“I have a great mentor in Paul,” he said. “As I look at our employees here, everyone is treated with respect for what they bring to the table. I think that’s why we have the long-term dedication we do.”
Another constant that has been with Monarch Precast for decades is NPCA. According to Paul Jr., his mom and dad would go to the Conventions and were always enthused about the great people. Paul Jr.’s first meeting was in the fall of 1974.
“I remember my very first Convention, and there was just a world of knowledge right at our fingertips,” Paul. Jr. said. “It could have been a simple matter like a buckle on a form or seeing information that I wasn’t even aware existed.”
Today, the tradition has been passed along to other Monarch employees. Lasko has been to many Precast Shows and has built his own network. He said after a year or two, people know him by face, and soon enough, he earned lifelong friendships.
“To me, it’s still a family-oriented industry,” he said. “That’s really what’s made this industry unique – that we can have those relationships.”
Paul Jr. could not be more pleased with the relationships and knowledge transfer. Lasko was the company’s first Master Precaster and another is on the way. It ties back to his philosophy of giving his employees the opportunity to grow alongside the company.
“I just see the potential with every one of them,” Paul Jr. said. “I’d be neglectful not to nurture their interest in precast and their desire to learn. It’s refreshing to me that people take that kind of interest in their education. “That education and what they bring back to help the company is invaluable.”
Today, Monarch Precast is thriving. In 2003, the company built a plant based on growth-minded decisions. Manholes and other products manufactured at Monarch Precast can weigh as much as 60,000 pounds per piece, and the new plant has the cranes to handle them. The company’s mindset is, “We can tackle just about anything that’s transportable.”
The company has also made a name for itself in the specialty products arena. With an in-house engineer and a knowledgeable and experienced team both in the office and in the plant, Monarch Precast manufactures packaged pumping stations, packaged water meter chambers and a variety of custom products. Paul Jr. also increased the company’s capabilities in the custom market by switching from steel panel forms to aluminum.
“The weight aspect for the employees is much less strenuous,” he said. “It was in the interest of safety, productivity and quality. Every year we’re adding some new forms, and a few years ago, we had a job so custom that Precise Forms made some one-off forms just for that specific job.”
Another major emphasis is quality control, which has long been a top priority for the company. Paul Jr. said some of the critical factors were batching and mixing.
“We put a brand-new batch plant in that is state-of-the-art,” he said. “Back in the ‘70s, my dad replaced our mixer with a TEKA mixer, and when we put the new plant up, we put in a larger TEKA mixer because they are so reliable. We use a combination of different admixtures that are metered into the mix, and depending on specifications, the mix may also include two types of Xypex additives which enhance the watertight properties and corrosion resistance of the product.”
Lasko said the focus on quality ensures customers know they can install products with no concerns, an approach that has solidified their relationships. One recent endeavor helped further deepen those relationships. The company participated in NPCA’s inaugural Precast Days event in October 2019, and the return on investment played out right before their eyes. Lasko said they hosted engineers, contractors and individuals from municipalities.
“The one common response was, ‘Wow, we didn’t know what it took to make the product’,” he said. “For the guys who see the end product, to hear them say that is wonderful. Engineers learned more about the precast industry, and we are working one-on-one with them on certain products, so it really ties all of us together working as one.”
“What I saw here as the owner of the company also was the enthusiasm among the employees, who were excited about doing something like this,” Paul Jr. added.
The right way
Carrying the growth mindset and employee focus into the future, Paul Jr. sees a lot of good yet to come for the company his father built seven decades ago. He has always been cautious to grow in logical ways. Rather than adding a product line just to add it, he focuses on enhancing current lines, which will continue to be the case. Lasko appreciates this focus.
“We have the formula,” he said. “If the wheel isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Make it better.”
For Paul Jr., the success is sweeter because the employees he cares so much for are succeeding right alongside the company.
“Our team of dedicated employees realizes the emphasis we put on quality, and they understand the value of customer service,” he said. “That’s what makes us unique and has given us the success that we have. I enjoy helping them see their potential; to give them the realization that they have a future with the company and a vested interest in the company.”
Kirk Stelsel, CAE, is NPCA’s vice president of communication & public affairs.