What’s life without a little fun?
That’s a question Mike Olson doesn’t want to know the answer to.
Don’t get Olson wrong. As president and owner of Olson Precast Company, he has worked hard building an organization that now includes five facilities in three states.
But showing up for work each day at a precast concrete plant that overlooks the famous Las Vegas Strip makes a person understand there really is something to work-life balance.
Olson makes it a priority to carve out time in his schedule to follow his passions. He encourages and enables his staff to do the same.
The result has been a successful business model with steady growth and low turnover.
“In today’s world, you can compensate people a lot of different ways,” Olson said. “There’s money, and that’s important, but it’s more than that. You give people responsibility and trust. You allow them to do their jobs and make decisions. And you let them live their lives and use their time away from work the way they want. That’s really the key.”
SETTING THE FOUNDATION FOR SUCCESS
Olson is a second-generation precaster and an entrepreneur. His father owned Arizona Precast Co. in Phoenix, where Olson worked summers throughout high school and while attending Arizona State University.
After graduating college, Olson went straight to work with his father, laboring in various areas to get an overall understanding of how the business operated.
“It was hard work, long hours,” Olson said. “I went through every division and went from not having a clue to really knowing the ins and outs.”
This was 1985 and, so far, sounds like the road many sons and daughters of precast take. But in 1989, Olson made a life-changing decision to leave his father’s organization and begin exploring ways to start his own company from scratch.
On what seemed at the time like a whim but looking back feels like destiny, he drove 4½ hours northwest to meet a friend who recently set up shop as a contractor in Las Vegas.
After a few meetings and getting a lay of the land, Olson knew: This was it.
“I went home and told my wife, “Honey, we’re going to Vegas,’” Olson said. “Two weeks later, I had a handshake deal with a ready-mix guy and a $50,000 line of credit. I had a couple of guys, a boom truck and not much in the bank, but it was Las Vegas. Anything could happen. I never looked back.”
A GROWTH OPPORTUNITY
The timing could not have been better – for Olson and his business venture. The Mirage opened in 1989, kicking off what is considered the “modern” era of Las Vegas hotels. With tropical landscapes, waterfalls and eruptin volcanos, it set the stage for a string of high-priced, themed hotels along the Strip.
With contracts starting to come in almost right away, Olson and his crew stayed busy. Meanwhile, he was literally building his facility while helping build up the Strip.
During the day, his crews produced and installed sanitary and storm sewer manholes throughout the city. At night, the team returned to the shop to construct the plant. Olson Precast started out pouring ready-mix for the first three years while the batch plant machinery was purchased and assembled.
The long hours could be a grind, Olson said, but the aesthetics had no equal.
“We had the most beautiful, unadulterated view of the Strip looking across the valley,” Olson said. “I still have great memories from that time. Those lights. Those sights. And year by year, it just kept growing and growing. And so did we.”
Starting with the Mirage and continuing with the Luxor (1993), Excalibur (1995) and Mandalay Bay (1998), Olson Precast supplied manholes for the city along with drop inlets, catch basins, sewer pump stations, storm drain junction structures, French drain structures and other products for hotel construction.
Olson’s big break came when a manhole contract expanded into a much larger opportunity with the Luxor. A local developer was unhappy with the pace of construction and turned to Olson for help. Olson believes two major factors played into the decision – the company’s reliability and the fact that Olson Precast was the only union shop in the city.
“We signed a $700,000 deal to build out the Luxor and, to be honest, that number doubled by the time the work was done,” Olson said. “If you’ve ever seen how casinos are built, everything is a rush because every day they are not open, they are losing money. And the liquidated damages were huge. So, they put down the infrastructure to meet deadlines but then they drove over half of our drop inlets and we had to replace them.
“That is the job that really catapulted us. In the end, we’ve done much of the infrastructure, whether it’s manholes, storm drain manholes, whatever, for every hotel on the Strip since 1991.”
EXPANDING EAST AND WEST
With business booming at the Las Vegas site, Olson Precast soon began expanding.
Olson’s first target was a precast operation in southern California in 1999, located today in Rialto, Calif. Then came Olson Concrete Structures in Tuscon, Ariz., and most recently a production facility in Phoenix and a steel fabrication facility in Las Vegas called Tri-State Steel.
Olson already was spending about half of the year in Phoenix coaching high school football, so establishing plants there seemed a natural fit.
Each fall, Olson built his work schedule around the football season, balancing his two teams in much the same way.
“I found out early on – and this was emphasized for a lot of people during COVID – that I could do my job from anywhere as long as I had communication lines open,” Olson said. “If I could handle things by phone or the internet, we’d do that. If I needed to be in Vegas, I’d catch a 5 a.m. flight, check in with everyone, then be back out before noon to Phoenix.
“Whether it was football or construction, the key is finding people who can execute a plan and trust them to do so. Bosses don’t need to be hovering over everything if there is a good staff in place.”
Coaching and community involvement were important to Olson. They still are. He was an assistant coach for 20 years at three schools before taking over the Scottsdale Coronado High School program, where he turned around a struggling program to go 16-12 in his three years as head coach.
He continues to volunteer with a program called Young Life that brings athletics and ministry to inner-city kids.
“I made the time to enjoy my passion,” Olson said. “I do the same for the people who work here. If there’s something they want to explore – be it coaching or volunteering or even something like extreme sports – if adjusting their schedule doesn’t cause a conflict, we will find a way.”
LOYALTY WORKS BOTH WAYS
Dak Spears is an Olson vice president based out of the Las Vegas facility. He started as a union carpenter in 1998 and worked his way up from there, first as a project manager, then estimator and now his current position.
Spears said Olson sets the tone for how the company operates – hardworking and fun. For Spears, that means getting up early every day, putting in a full day’s work, then spending much of his free time building drag racers.
“I used to race when I was young, but then I got married and had a kid and had to put it aside,” Spears said. “In 2003, I decided to tinker around and build a vehicle. Then another one. Then another one. I still race that first car, and it costs more than any prize money we earn, but I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”
As a carpenter, Spears worked short six- to 18-month contracts, many with the casinos. When a job ended, he’d go looking for another one. He took the job at Olson Precast to find some stability.
That’s the same pattern Frankie Pelton followed. Starting in construction right out of high school, Pelton found himself with a steady flow of jobs and ability to set his own schedule.
After 20 years of that, Pelton met Olson and started talking. It took 20 minutes for Pelton to give up the nomadic life for a full-time gig.
“We were both coaching high school football, and we started out by talking about that,” said Pelton, who has been the Las Vegas plant manager for the past three years. “I was at a point of my life where I felt stagnant. I had been doing the same jobs for two decades. Meeting Mike, I was ready for some new challenges, and I liked the way he approached things.”
PROJECTS TO BE PROUD OF
Olson Precast not only produces the precast concrete products but installs them as well. Both Pelton and Spears like that start-to-finish aspect of the job.
“We’ve got a precast crew and a field crew, so we work hand-in-hand with everyone from the shop to the site,” Pelton said. “When you hire us, you get the complete package. We don’t subcontract anything out, and I think we do both things well.”
As a result, Olson’s stamp is found on many projects throughout the southwestern United States, including:
- The largest grease interceptor at the time under the Venetian hotel. At 150-feet-by-80-feet-by-12-feet, it holds 1 million gallons.
- More than 18 miles of sound wall from the Las Vegas airport toward the cities of Henderson and Las Vegas.
- A picturesque pedestrian overpass over Interstate 215 outside Las Vegas designed to highlight the mountain view behind it.
- The sewage pump stations and sewage ejector vaults for SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.; Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders; and the new Los Angeles Clippers stadium currently under construction.
“We are at a point where we build nearly everything to order,” Spears said. “We supply the electrical vaults for the local utility company, and those are going out every day. Specialty precast work, odd sizes … we accommodate whatever a customer wants or needs.”
FOCUS ON CUSTOMER SERVICE
The companywide attention to customer service is what builds pride and loyalty, Spears said. Between that concerted effort and the union wages, Olson Precast has never had difficulty finding and retaining employees.
“I’ve found that if you treat people right – both your workers and your customers – things tend to work out well,” Olson said.
At the end of 2018, Olson sold 49 percent of the company to his employees to give them stock in the company’s success, adding another investment in personnel.
Olson also credits his coaching experience and how it translates to the business world. Being able to talk to people from different backgrounds and experiences is an asset when it comes to recruiting managers and seeking out new markets.
“You’ve got to be able to identify and acquire talent when it comes to the people who work in your organization,” Olson said. “It’s rare for someone to quit my company, but people retire or get an opportunity somewhere else, and you have to replace them.
“I expect a lot of my team members because they have sweat in the game. We love each other. We respect each other. And as a result, I’ve found I’m surrounded by nothing but the best people.” PI
Joe Frollo is director of communications and public affairs at NPCA.