Then & Now is a new series for Precast Inc. magazine this year. Each issue, NPCA will catch up with companies previously featured in what was then called MC magazine.
For this issue’s Then & Now feature, NPCA caught up with Mark Thompson of Jefferson Concrete in Watertown, N.Y. In that 1997 article, Thompson described the challenges of operating a facility in upstate New York, just minutes south of the U.S-Canada border. In 25 years, not much has changed. Jefferson Concrete’s diversification remains the major counter to rough weather and sparsely populated surroundings.
For this issue’s Then & Now feature, NPCA caught up with Mark Thompson of Jefferson Concrete in Watertown, N.Y.
In that 1997 article, Thompson described the challenges of operating a facility in upstate New York, just minutes south of the U.S-Canada border. In 25 years, not much has changed. Jefferson Concrete’s diversification remains the major counter to rough weather and sparsely populated surroundings.
By Joe Frollo
Q: Can you believe it’s been nearly 25 years since that 1997 article?
Oh, absolutely not. And I’m pleased to say that we would not have been in that article if not active with the National Precast Concrete Association back then.
I had a lot of exposure to NPCA from the late ’70s forward. At that time, I worked for a man who saw the annual meetings as a vacation trip and frankly didn’t glean much from what NPCA could provide us. I read publication after publication, and I still have many of them. I learned a lot about the association as it grew.
All I knew early on was names, and I connected names with companies. In the mid-’90s, I finally was in a position that I could become active with the association, and that led to the original article. We were pretty gratified at the time that people were just talking to us.
I felt like a little fish in a pretty big pond at the time. But I also felt that opportunities were unlimited. I was active with the education committees in the ’90s, when a great NPCA education department started to take shape. I was happy to be part of that growth and development. I come from a family with quite a lot of academics – and that doesn’t include me – but one thing that I was very, very sure about is we really have to focus on educating our employees in the industry.
We stumbled. We walked along. But both Jefferson Concrete and NPCA are doing pretty good now.
Q: The focus on that article was diversification. How has your business model grown or evolved since then?
When I look at the last 25 years and think about the industry, we’ve had to change. The thrust of that initial article was diversity, and still the thrust of our strategy today as we see new products evolve. That set the path for us.
In 2013, we ventured into prestressed box beams for the highway industry. At the time, it was a pretty significant investment for us. It’s had a good place in our business ever since. It can generate 17-18 percent of our sales.
For us to grow our business, we’ve got to travel south on I-81 and get into that Central New York corridor. That takes trucks and gas, and that’s a monetary investment right off the bat, so when we try something new, we’ve got to be committed to it.
Like many precasters, we started with burial vault product lines and grew from there. Is there any chance we can solely focus on the funeral home industry today? Absolutely not. We were probably doing around 50 percent in sales in the funeral business when I started in the 1970s. Now it’s 3 percent.
Then we were in the residential septic tank business. But we’ve always got to be looking at what’s next.
Nowadays, we are competing with steel, plastic and other alternative products. As an industry, our biggest competition back then was poor quality. That’s also had a lot to do with the last 25 years with the NPCA Plant Certification program. They keep elevating the program, and that transmits into quality.
As we look around and talk about sustainability and recyclables, those will be our new opportunities and challenges … things we are going to have to constantly deal with as an industry.
Q: What do you say to precasters who are new to the industry and looking for a mentor?
I keep hanging my hat on NPCA. They have helped us producers understand the need to hit these challenges head on. Precasters are only limited by our imaginations. You just have the equipment that’s big enough to do what you dream of doing as stuff gets heavier.
It’s absolutely amazing what we’ve seen since I’ve been exposed to this industry in terms of what engineers are willing to try within precast on their jobs. It doesn’t take long to understand that the opportunities change year to year in terms of where people are going.
The No. 1 thing I talk about with others – especially in our region – is the potential in utility infrastructure as towns, cities, counties and states start to upgrade what they currently own. There is reason for optimism there.
Q: What is a project, new equipment or innovation that stands out most in the last quarter century?
One of the most unique projects we took on was manufacturing floating docks for the Port of Oswego in 2010. We actually worked for a company that was based out of Finland that developed the concept and had done the engineering.
The docks were constructed with pretty significant Styrofoam voids in them to provide for the buoyancy. One of the real challenges during production was to hold those voids in perfect position because if they shifted even a little, it created a balance issue.
If you visit those docks today, you will see they are sitting as they should 22 inches out of the water just like they are supposed to and not listing one way or the other.
Q: What are your regular challenges, and how do you find solutions?
We are a small company. We are not connected to any metropolitan area, so our challenges are different than many precast companies. We have to travel to get work.
I always talk about December 1985. We had 10 feet of snow in the month of December but never lost an hour’s work. That speaks a lot to the people in our region.
Snow is a business expense to us, and this is snow country. I often marvel at the conversations with what people in the South have to deal with compared to what we deal with every year.
It was an easy winter this year, but we had four months’ worth of snow in February. Day after day, we did not have a truck leave here. That’s weather driven.
It’s all about having the right equipment and right mindset. You come up in our region and regions like ours, it’s having the right equipment to move snow. It isn’t unusual having two men focused solely on snow removal, and that’s all they do on some days. It’s a matter of dealing what we have to deal with.
Q: What’s the biggest day-to-day, month-to-month challenge?
Our biggest challenge today is finding and retaining labor, and I think that’s true across the industry. It’s hard, dirty work with long hours. In my lifetime of being in the precast concrete business, without question, that has evolved to be our biggest challenge. We’ve got a lot of good people here, but it’s a challenge to find them. When we find them, we want to keep them. Training is a critical part of that.
That leads back to my passion for education programs through NPCA. We usually bring 10 people to The Precast Show every year. That whole mission is to expose them to what NPCA offers and let them develop relationships with vendors, see what’s new and innovative. Then they spend Thursday and Friday morning in the classroom.
Q: How have your fellow NPCA members helped you along the way?
That’s the strength of NPCA. That is the uniqueness: the people.
I’ve said this time and again. I have friends from Maine to Maui. I have a group I will touch base with from time to time. We’ve been in each other’s plants. That is NPCA in my opinion. It’s producers, and it is vendors – people who can give you the guidance you are seeking or are calling you looking for guidance.
My best friends are in the industry. There’s no doubt about that.
I will go to my grave marveling about the relationships I’ve been able to make in this industry. It’s a unique situation for anyone who walks down this path.
Q: Where do you see the industry going in the next 5, 10, 25 years?
These aren’t new thoughts to be honest. We are in the infrastructure business. It’s roads. It’s bridges. It’s sewers. It’s water. It’s utilities. There are opportunities that I think are just unbelievable in the future.
So many of the dollars in our industry are taxpayer dollars. Two years ago, I hosted an engineering seminar. In my presentation, I talked about just how much of what we do ultimately is taxpayer dollars. They are our customers. It’s the towns and cities and counties and school districts.
In that respect, we as an industry have such an obligation to see that our customers get good, quality products that will stand the test of time. When this stuff goes in the ground, it will be precast built to last.
We have an obligation as fellow community members that they are getting what they are paying for. My biggest fear is greed and dishonesty. There’s no room for that when it comes to infrastructure work. It needs to be built right with an expectation to last.
Concrete has centuries of proof behind it. They will always have to build roads and bridges, take care of the water and sewer systems.
Concrete is high-tech, but it’s about to get much higher-tech. Before too long, we are going to be seeing even more integration, and it’s going to be fun to watch.
Q: How do you try to recruit young workers to the industry?
It’s a numbers game. I come from an agricultural background, so it used to be that farm kids would come looking for work every year when they got out of high school. Now, those kids are fewer and fewer, and many of them are moving away.
Your company is only as good as the people. But with the people we hire now, we have to be ready for many of them to leave after a year or two. We counter that by offering education that can lead to opportunities for long-term work and success. As tough as it’s been, my ability to offer NPCA resources to my workforce certainly has helped retain my workforce.
I talk to producers coast to coast, and I hear that as a resounding theme. That is something we need to figure out and resolve before too long.