For this issue’s Then & Now feature, NPCA caught up with Dale Godwin, who has been employed at a Phoenix, Ariz., facility operated by Smith Pre-Cast, then U.S. Concrete and now Jensen Precast. He was part of a story in 2004 following the transition from Smith to U.S. Concrete. A lot has changed at that facility over the years, and Godwin has been front and center for it.
By Joe Frollo
Q: What is the evolution of the facility where you work from Smith Pre-Cast to U.S. Concrete to Jensen Precast?
A: This plant started about 70 years ago as Smith Septic Tanks way back in the day. In 2001, U.S. Concrete acquired the business as tenants, and we became known as U.S. Concrete at that point. Then Jensen bought out that business in December 2012.
Q: What has your role at the facility been throughout the years?
A: I started out as a boom truck driver. That was 25 years ago. I did that for about three years, and then I moved into the field installation side of things. Back then, we were a contractor as well. We did a lot of manholes. That was our primary business, so we had crews that would go out and cast in place manhole bases while we made the manhole itself in the plant, then went out and stacked it the next day.
I took over as the field operations manager and ran those crews for quite a while. From there, I transitioned over to operations manager. I was responsible for everything that occurred inside and outside of the plant.
When the facility transitioned to Jensen Precast, I spent about seven years in various roles, including plant manager, quality control and safety manager. Then an opportunity came to become general manager, and I have been in this position as GM of Jensen Precast-Phoenix since February 2020.
Q: What are some of the projects you’ve worked on over the years that you look back on and smile?
A: One was years ago with U.S. Concrete. We were part of the largest phase, Phase 1, of the Phoenix Sky Harbor Sky Train project. The project extended the light rail – which is still expanding to this day – to the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport Terminal 4. We produced 130 prestressed girders suspended throughout the east portion of the airport on piers elevated as high as 110 feet. I was very involved as project manager, and we were responsible for construction and installation of the girders, which ranged from about 65 feet to 100 feet in length and weighed as much as 140,000 pounds. The erection of the girders had to be done at night to avoid the busy congestion of the airport during the day. We’re kind of used to everything we produce being buried underground, so we don’t typically see our products after they get backfilled. That’s one project that is very visible to this day, as the airport Sky Train rolls over it many times a day.
As for more standard-type products, I’ve driven over hundreds of grease interceptors at fast-food restaurants that we’ve manufactured over the years. My wife always rolls her eyes when she hears me say, “Hey, there’s our precast.” My whole family is very familiar with me looking at the ground and saying, “We put this tank in. We did that there.”
We’ve done a lot of larger projects in terms of electrical vaults or other products where you are getting into the bigger size of the products and/or projects themselves that are memorable. South Central Light Rail is one of those large projects that comes to mind. We’ve supplied a lot of large pipe, box culvert material and pipe fittings on Central Avenue in the middle of Phoenix for that project in the last year or so. That particular project was also unique in that it was only about two miles from our plant. That proximity to our plant was a good thing, as there were a lot of moving parts with box culverts, pipe and wet well installations that had to be coordinated during the project.
Q: Shortly after becoming general manager, COVID-19 struck. What was that like?
A: They say timing is everything, right? The time since that, and not long after that, set off a chain reaction in the business world in general, and precast was no different in that we were reacting to all the different things occurring. Fortunately, we were deemed an essential business here as part of construction in Arizona, so we’ve stayed open.
A lot of people thought COVID was really going to slow down the work, and people were forecasting pretty dire situations. If anything, we’ve seen business increase during the pandemic, though we obviously had to change how we did some things.
So now you have more business coming at you and opportunities for the company. On the other hand, we are in a situation where it is really hard on people and has been for more than a year. That makes it tricky when it comes to staffing. While the work was picking up, we had fewer people coming through the door to apply for positions. I guess most of it was people didn’t want to work outside the home, but we were constantly looking for people to fill positions throughout the plant.
We feel like we’re just now starting to come out of that and starting to get good candidates again. We are working hard to identify and find those people and place them where they can do well.
Q: How does your facility deal with the heat and high temperatures of the Arizona climate?
A: You would think in our market that summer should be a slower time. If anything, it is busier during the hot summer months. The benefit of that, of course, is you have more daylight, but, of course, safety is huge for us. Within our company, from the president on down, the message is, “If we need to do something to make us safer, make processes safer, no matter the cost, let’s do it.”
We have open-air production areas in our plant where the hot wind blows right through. Even in the shade it can get to 115 degrees for 10, 12 days in a row, so you’ve got to take precautions and prepare with things like annual training about heat illness prevention and hydration stations. We tell the staff and all our personnel to look out for each other. We also make sure everyone drinks water when they need to, and for new people that can be intimidating to take extra water breaks.
We constantly reinforce that people hydrate themselves 24/7. Then we encourage conversation. If you need a break, don’t wait until break time. Take a little break. Take care of it when it’s small, so it doesn’t become something big.
Q: The feature article in 2004 focused mostly on the opportunities that come with change and how change is a constant throughout the precast industry. Does that still hold true?
A: Yeah, about the only thing that is constant is change, if that makes sense. I feel that way about the industry in general. We have always been active with NPCA education, conventions and trade shows, and we still are. We want to expose ourselves to what’s new out there, because it seems like in our industry there are always new methods. A lot of people probably still do stuff the old-fashioned way, and that’s great if it works for them. But little by little you have to take advantage of new ideas, new equipment, new processes.
By attending events like The Precast Show, you go on plant tours and see what other people are doing. How are they solving the same problems you are facing? I’ve probably seen 20 or 25 other precast plants in my career, and no matter what size it is or what they produce, there will be something you can pick up. “Wow, that’s something we haven’t seen before,” or “That’s a good idea. We didn’t realize that tool was available.”
At Jensen, we are typically very quick to react when old equipment needs to be replaced or a process can be improved with a little investment.
Q: As general manager, you no longer are on the front line. It’s your responsibility to ensure everyone else has the equipment and knowledge to succeed. How has that role been?
A: Everybody needs the right tools to do the job. And it’s a little bit different in philosophy from when I started. Back then in the old days, you had to figure out how to do something with what you had and get it done whatever it takes kind of a thing. In some ways that may have led to more innovation but wasn’t necessarily the optimal way of doing things.
Today, we have newer form systems and equipment that really works well for precast. The end result is so much better, but it takes planning and budgeting to have the right equipment in place to do the job. Doing that work in advance makes it easier when the job is underway. This also lets us tackle more complex jobs than we would have imagined 25 years ago. A little investment and planning goes a long way.
Q: What about the personnel end of your role? You talked a little about the challenges to find staffing during COVID, but what is your strategy moving forward?
A: Without the right people in place, no equipment in the world will get the job done. As GM, you try to find good people and find the right fit for them. They may not even see themselves doing what you envision, but you trust them, you teach them, you empower them and you let them grow. It’s not 100% guaranteed, but good people tend to do good work.
I’ve always considered myself someone who can get along with anybody, someone who can communicate with anybody. But it takes more than that. You have to be constantly present. That’s not just people who directly report to you. You have to be available to everyone. Stop and chat with and listen to people so they know they are important and you are there for them.
Everybody has somewhere to be and something they can be doing, but I like to take a minute, stop and say “Hi” or ask about their families. “What did you do last weekend?” Those kinds of things build relationships, which I think is important for having and retaining good people.
We grow together as a company. That’s why it’s important that everybody on the leadership team is doing it. I want to have a relationship with every person in our plant. I don’t want to be a stranger to them. I know their first names. People generally want to know that you care about them, that they are part of the team.
Q: You’ve pretty much been and seen it all during your career. How do you keep improving at what you do?
A: Jensen Precast management as a whole has given us the tools and support we need to succeed. I have a great direct supervisor, Josh Myers, who is the vice president of operations. He supports me and challenges me constantly. It can be quantified in a lot of ways, but if we’re not improving then something is wrong. Overall, Jensen Precast has the support structure in place that makes it possible to keep improving on what we do.
An example of that would be the property our plant sits on. It has been here about 70 years operating as a precast plant, but since the Smith days it has been leased. Jensen recently purchased the property, which besides being a big commitment for our market, it is allowing us to do a lot of things with the property that will help us continue improving our capabilities. I’m grateful to be part of it and look forward to what’s coming next. PI
Joe Frollo is the NPCA director of communications and public affairs.