Second-generation precasters Chuck and Ron Babbert have carved out their niche in the Central Ohio market
This article originally appeared in the Precast Today Q1 2023 edition.
By Joe Frollo
Nestled on the southeast side of Columbus, Ohio, E.C. Babbert Inc. has been doing its thing for more than 60 years.
For Chuck and Ron Babbert, second-generation precast concrete producers, that means waking up early, working hard alongside a dedicated staff, laughing at and with each other and manufacturing products for projects found throughout central Ohio.
The Babberts have built a solid niche in residential and municipal underground products, something Chuck, Ron and their team work daily to maintain. They take pride in their work, and it shows with the repeat customers that come back to them year after year.
They also take pride in their relationship with NPCA. As the president of sales, Chuck has been part of nine NPCA committees, subcommittees or task forces. He served on the Board of Directors and was the Robert E. Yoakum Award winner in 2015, NPCA’s top annual award. His father, E.C., also won the Yoakum in 1977. As president of production, Ron makes sure Babberts’ two facilities operate to NPCA’s top standards.
NPCA members got an up-close look at the Babbert operation when it hosted The Precast Show 2023 Plant Tours. Chuck, Ron and the staff spent the first two months of the year “putting some spit and polish on the place,” according to Chuck, but really, what’s a little aggregate dust between friends?
“We put out a good product, and we take pride in what we do,” Chuck said. “It’s why my father first got into business for himself way back when, and it’s why we come to work every morning now.
“It’s exciting to have a couple hundred precasters walking around and asking questions about how we do things. Kind of pumps us up a little around the chest. We’re proud to be precasters, and we are proud to show how we do things.”
Hang Out Their Shingle
E.C. Babbert Inc. was founded in 1960 with a truck and about $80 in savings. From those humble beginnings, it has since grown to include two manufacturing facilities covering 42 acres 15 miles apart.
“My father was working as a plumber and one day he decided he was finished working for someone else and instead wanted to go out on his own,” Chuck said. “He gave his notice, and they told him he could leave that day. So he got home and told my mom, ‘Well, we’re officially in business.’”
With Bonnie serving as secretary, treasurer, scheduler and business manager, E.C. went out each day to find and fill orders.
The Babberts began by working with wells and water systems but also installing septic tanks, pumps and residential water softeners on the east side of Columbus. City water and sewer lines were starting to make their way into the area, so private housing jobs became the company’s bread and butter.
In 1963, E.C. Babbert purchased his first monorail boom truck. He worked with three local precast concrete manufacturers that produced the tanks of the ATU systems that Babbert installed.
“That approach eventually took off to where he got busier,” Chuck said. “Eventually, my father got so busy that he hired another truck and a few fellows to run the wells and water.”
Eventually, E.C. got out of the plumbing side of the business entirely, giving it over to the workers under his employ.
E.C. saw more future in hauling and installing precast concrete tanks constructed by others. Soon, though, history would repeat itself and the Babberts slowly stopped relying on others and instead began producing the products they installed.
A D.I.Y. Attitude
E.C. Babbert spent many hours hauling and installing precast concrete tanks in Columbus and the eight surrounding counties. These long days often turned into longer nights as after the manual work was done, he shifted into sales mode – typically with Chuck and Ron in tow.
“He was burning the candles at both ends to put it mildly,” Chuck said. “I don’t know if he thought of it or if someone suggested it to him, but the idea of making his own tanks lit a fire within him. He was going to make that work.”
In 1968, the Babberts bought a house and 15 acres of land out on Route 33 in Canal Winchester with easy access to the highway. The company purchased ready-mix concrete to fill its forms, but once again, that didn’t last long.
E.C. wanted complete quality control from pour to install.
Soon, with a mobile batch plant on site, E.C. Babbert finally was start-to-finish producing the products that it also installed.
“We eventually got good at making the stuff we needed,” Ron said. “We’d buy our forms at first from other people, but we’ve found that a lot of jobs don’t fit squarely into the one-size-fits-all approach.”
By outsourcing specialty forms and tweaking the ones they already had, the Babberts rose to every challenge brought to them. The father and sons were cut from the same cloth in that they relished finding the answers as much as anything else.
“I can’t count how many times we’d have a job where we say, ‘How the heck are we going to do that?’” Ron said. “Then, we’d create something cool and different, and all of a sudden we can replicate it for others.”
Before the Rooster Crows
Ron rises between 3 and 4 a.m. every workday to open the Canal Winchester facility. Chuck typically arrives an hour after his younger brother, though still long before the sun is up.
Chuck and Ron started working for their father while in high school. Along with some pouring and installing, they would recruit friends to gather patio stones, curb stops and small landscaping products that they then transported to garden outlets.
“We all played sports, and we all were good students, but I can’t tell you the amount of hours my buddies and I spent at the plant working nights and weekends,” Chuck said. “We’d come in, load the truck, take everything out then come back and do the same thing again. It was hard work, but we made good money for our age.”
That work ethic remains. With about 75 employees between the two facilities, it’s not uncommon for Chuck and Ron to chip in where needed because of vacations and sick days. Chuck has filled in at the reception desk and isn’t shy about getting his hands dirty, while Ron regularly drives the water truck through the yard to spray down the dust that builds up.
“They take a lot of pride in the work,” said Babbert Safety Coordinator Justin Conrad, who has been with the company for 20 years. “A lot of people here do multiple jobs when others are out or on vacation. It is not unusual to see Chuck and Ron filling in at dispatcher, handling walk-ins or estimating.
“They set the tone for the camaraderie we feel around here. They let us do our jobs and go home to our families and kids. That’s important to why people like working here.”
From Residential to Commercial to Municipal
The company’s first big break came in 1975 as the result of hard work and a touch of luck.
The Babberts’ focus on wastewater packages for residential jobs slowly grew to include some commercial work, including small shopping centers.
With a solid foothold and increased work orders, the Babberts soon found themselves with an opportunity to expand into municipal projects thanks to a technological glitch. The Babbert trucks just happened to share a radio frequency with a local contractor who was looking to subcontract some precast manholes for the City of Columbus.
“That pretty much opened the floodgates for us,” Chuck said. “We purchased some used forms, set up the manpower and off we went.”
There was a slight hiccup early on with the seals Babbert employed within its manhole design, but a relationship with fellow NPCA member Press-Seal helped smooth that out.
With sanitary contracts in hand, next came stormwater systems that connected to city utilities. All of a sudden – at least to the young Babbert brothers – they were full-steam ahead in the underground business just as the city was moving its preference from cast-in-place to precast.
“From there, things started moving a lot faster,” Chuck said. “We are now 90 percent underground products with a little architectural. Anything precast that digs down, we can go with it.”
No Barrier to Success
With the company now a known entity around the city, the Babberts took on a large aboveground job that has stood the test of time.
Hotel owner and real estate developer Jim Trueman headed a group that brought auto racing to Ohio’s capital city, and in 1985 when the Columbus Ford Dealers 500 needed barriers to set along the track, they turned to Babbert.
“I’ll be honest, we had little to no experience in making barriers, but we had a lot more experience building precast than the other bidders,” Chuck said. “That’s what won us the bid in the end.”
Like many things in the sports world, the job was slow to kick off then fast-tracked as deadlines approached. To prepare for an around-the-clock workforce, the Babberts purchased a boiler to steam the different types of barriers that were required.
“That was the first time we ever went to three shifts,” Chuck said. “But when they started blocking off the streets and installing the barriers that we built, it was neat to see.”
The Columbus 500 was short-lived because of Trueman’s death, but the Babbert barriers did not go to waste. The Truemans also owned the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, and Trueman’s widow had the barriers shipped 60 miles north, where more than 1,000 feet of barriers are still in use today, including Turn 5 and the last half of the back straightaway.
“They certainly got – and are still getting – their money out of it,” Chuck said. “It’s a testament to precast concrete that something we built in the ’70s is still going strong now nearly 45 years later.”
The Best is Yet to Come
With 2.1 million permanent residents, Columbus is the 14th largest metropolitan area and one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. Amazon, Google, Intel and Facebook all have major facilities there, so opportunities are growing for E.C. Babbert and other industries in and around the area.
Between large private projects and billions of dollars expected to improve Ohio’s infrastructure over the next five years, Chuck and Ron are anticipating a full workload for the foreseeable future.
One project involves a sanitary system where the base alone will weigh 55,000 pounds with 18-inch walls. The work will involve securing an outside gantry crane during Ohio’s snowiest months.
It is a project the Babberts have been training their whole lives for. The plan is set. The materials are ready. All that is to come is pour and install.
“Everything moves faster these days, and projects seem to get bigger and bigger then move down the tracks at quicker paces than ever,” Chuck said. “But in the end, it is precast work, and that’s what we know how to do well.”
Joe Frollo is the director of communications and public affairs at NPCA.