Industry Influencers is a new series for Precast Inc. magazine in which we talk with people who are looked to for guidance and advice by NPCA members across generations.
By Joe Frollo
For the first Industry Influencers article, NPCA caught up with Mel Marshall of Mel C. Marshall Industrial Consultants Inc. Mel received the Robert E. Yoakum Award in 2007 and was one of the original designers of the Production and Quality School courses currently taught during The Precast Show.
Q: How did you first get involved in the precast concrete industry?
A: After I graduated from college in 1960, I moved east to Hamilton, Ontario, and worked in a steel mill for a year. From then on, from 1961 on, I have been involved with reinforced concrete. At the beginning, it was pour-in-place, but I got involved with precast and pipe soon after. I did my first design for concrete pipe in 1963, and then I ran a concrete pipe operation. Eventually, I came back west to build a wire mill for other people. Then I started on my own in 1980.
Q: How have you seen the precast industry evolve throughout the years?
A: Products change. Processes change. People change. What has really changed is the emphasis on education and trying to make people throughout the industry more knowledgeable. The Wiesers are a great example. Joe and Mary started the company in their backyard, but then like all the other people in their generation, they sent their kids to college either to be engineers or for management and sales training. We’ve got a really good professional group now spread out throughout the companies. But at their cores, they’re still down-to-earth, ordinary people.
This second and third generation have moved in to expand the product lines, and they’re doing things that are more technical. I look at the articles NPCA publishes about the projects that these companies and these people have initiated. It’s amazing. It wasn’t like that when we started. Years ago, people would get a call and make a septic tank or a manhole riser. Now, they’re out generating new markets and opportunities.
Q: Why do you devote so much of your time to NPCA education?
A: It’s a very special industry. NPCA members are fabulous people. I belong to a lot of different associations and have worked with a lot of diverse groups, and the precast concrete community is the best. The NPCA membership is, pretty much, still family-owned companies. That’s what makes NPCA different. They bring their families to the annual meetings and you get to meet what’s important to everyone. Then you get to see those kids grow up and become part of what we are doing.
Q: How did the Production and Quality School go from idea to what it is today?
A: We started the education program about 30 years ago. All NPCA had at that time was something called Fundamentals of Concrete put on by the Portland Institute, and that’s all our members had to go to. That course was about ready-mix, not precast. So, when the NPCA hired its first engineer – a guy named Bob Austin – about 30 years ago and when they started to talk about having a certification program, Mark Thompson brought to the board the idea that they should start some sort of an education program on their own. Bob Austin called me, and we put together what we now call PQS I. We used to teach that once a year at a place on the outskirts of Chicago. It was popular but not everyone could join us, so we wanted to expand our reach. We took it five, six locations at first, then a few more as the years went on so we could offer it from coast to coast. In 2008, when the economy went bad, we downsized it where we just offered it at The Precast Show, which is where it primarily is taught – in person at least – to this day. But in narrowing, we expanded it to include PQS II and PQS III and everything that goes into those.
Q: Why do you remain involved with PQS I?
A: I still like being associated with PQS I, because it is so much fun. It’s designed for new people coming into the industry. Sometimes, it is new owners who just bought a company. Sometimes, it is workers. But no matter who it is, they all start out on the same footing in the class, and they want to learn about precast concrete.
Q: How has NPCA’s educational approach changed through the years?
A: The biggest change with NPCA education is the wider variety of classes that are taught. It’s practical education. The advancement of technology has gone a long way in developing our industry, but a big thing to not overlook is the initiative that NPCA members take to educate themselves and their workforce. This opens the doors to going back home to develop new products and new services while expanding their markets.
Q: How do you enjoy being a classroom teacher?
A: I love it. I love the connection it gives me with people. I regularly receive calls from the people who have taken my classes, literally hundreds of them over the years. I tell everyone in my classes, if you have a problem, I’m there to help you troubleshoot. We may not get to everything during the time we’re together, so I make myself available whenever they need me.
I really enjoy doing that, and I don’t charge for it. I’ll work with them until we’ve got a solution. But that’s a pretty basic thing, and it doesn’t sound exciting – except for me. I really get a charge out of helping people solve their problems.
Q: Do you see your classroom teaching as an extension of the role you’ve taken as a mentor?
A: I try to mentor the younger generations in any way that I can. They all know that I am here for them … at least, I think they do. It’s not just younger people who need help, though. A lot of middle age and older people will reach out and say, “I’ve been in this business 25 years, and I’ve never seen this. What do you think?” We are never too old to learn something new, and that is always fun and encouraging and exciting to me.
I don’t pretend to know everything. I just love the challenge of working together with people. Usually, they end up solving their own questions. I just give them ideas to work with them.
Q: You’ve gone from small companies to big companies back to a small, family company. Why?
A: I decided long ago in my career that I didn’t want to be a president of a larger corporation anymore. I wanted to get small again. So I started a new company in 2007 and just started consulting. And the more time I spend on the consulting side, I realize it is what I truly love doing. I still get involved when we go into a precast concrete plant, but the day-to-day stuff like septic tanks and manholes, my son, his wife and my grandson take care of that, and that gives me the opportunity to do what I really love, which is working with people and helping them tackle their issues.
Q: Where do you see the future of precast concrete?
A: As this next generation grows up and starts taking leadership positions, they have a lot of ideas. Every year it seems, there are pour-in-place products that are getting replaced by precast products, and that’s something that can continue. Precast concrete is here to stay – with the speed and the cost and the durability. Other products can’t beat that. As the industry develops new mixes with the lower carbon cement, that’s another avenue for opportunity. I’ve spent a lot of time with companies who are doing a good job of reducing carbon emissions. It’s fun to watch people take new ideas and insert them into tried-and-true practices to make a new process that really vaults the industry forward.
Q: What was it like winning the Yoakum Award?
A: You go to the convention not knowing who is going to get it, and I almost missed it. I was sitting at the table, and a guy was talking to me, and I was trying to hear what they were saying on stage. Then, all of a sudden, somebody was standing up at the podium, talking in front of a picture of me teaching. I thought they were talking about the education classes and hadn’t started the Yoakum presentation yet. That was my introduction. Nowadays, they play a video and they ask you to come up after. And that time, you were supposed to stand there while someone talked about you. By the time I figured it out and got on stage, it was about over. I had no idea what going on. Still, it was a thrill.
Q: Have you thought about your own future?
A: As far as retiring, I always say, “If I love it, don’t leave it,” and that I’ll be retired when you see my ashes floating in the ocean. That’s when it truly will be over for me. I like this stuff. I’m still passionate about it. I’ve got no problem finding projects and people to meet with, and if it doesn’t feel like work, why walk away? In the end, I’m just happy doing what I do. I’m kind of embarrassed talking about it because in a selfish way, I do it because I really, really, really like to. And fortunately, it helps a lot of other people along the way. Sometimes, I’ll be walking down the hall at The Precast Show or the convention, and someone will come up and tell me, “I was in your class 10 years ago.” I had a person come up to me a few years back and tell me he was in the very first class I taught, and he still remembers me. That’s really satisfying.
Joe Frollo is the NPCA director of communications and public affairs.