Industry Influencers is a series in Precast Today in which we talk with people who are looked to for guidance and advice by NPCA members across generations.
This article originally appeared in the Precast Today Q1 2023 edition.
By Heather Bremer
A. I’m the executive vice president of sales for the Forming Systems Division of Afinitas. And since Oct. 1, my responsibilities are special projects, largely focusing on automation working with Weckenmann of Germany, for whom we are the manufacturer’s representative in the United States and Canada. But that doesn’t preclude possibly other special projects that might develop again in the U.S. and Canada.
Q. The Coons family has a long history in the precast industry and NPCA. What can you share about the early days of your parents’ company and their involvement in NPCA?
A. My parents bought what was then called the RL Spillman Company, effective Jan. 1, 1958. My father came from a retailing background. Although pre-World War 2, he had a three-month engineering education. My mother majored in math and physics and actually was a physicist before she married and became a mother and worked with my father in the business. So, I remember discussions around our kitchen table, beginning in the early ’60s with other people who became founders of NPCA, particularly with Robert and Jean Yoakum. My parents were among the co-founders of NPCA, and Spillman, celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2023, was one of 41 charter companies.
Q. How did you become involved in the family business? Was it simply following in your father’s footsteps, or did you discover a real interest in the industry?
A. I did OK, or better than OK, in math and sciences in high school, and attended a summer camp for two weeks at Union College between my sophomore and junior years, which was called Junior Engineers and Scientists Summer Institute. General Electric was one of the sponsors. We toured the GE research facility, and, at that point, I made the decision that I was going to get an engineering degree.
I would have been 15 at the time and went on to get a degree in civil engineering, majoring in structures, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1972. I had taken the EIT (Engineer in Training) tests when I was in senior, so I got my EIT certificate and my graduation certificate on the same day. So I came into the family business in May 1972 full-time, having worked many summers at the company.
My father (William) passed away when I was a senior in college in the fall of 1971. So, my mother was running the business. At that point, I was working directly for her. Then she passed away in January of ’78, and I became the principal owner and president, what we now call CEO.
I made the decision to go to college to train in the business. I took courses in both steel and concrete design, prestress design while I was in college. So, I clearly had the intention to prepare to be in the industry and then went forward with that plan.
Q. When you took over the business, how does your career evolve from there?
A. Well, it was a family business. My brothers and I shared ownership. They chose not to become active participants. And so I, over the course of the early ’80s, purchased their shares. I became the sole owner.
Spillman had been a standard form fabricator and supplier. We had a catalogue that had grown to 48 pages. At one point, it was considered the SEARS catalog of the concrete industry, and I saw an opportunity for us to branch into custom forms to get into both larger precast forms and prestress forms. I began to hire engineers and sales staff to promote that. So, we moved from standard forms that were off the shelves, that were mail order to custom forming, beginning in the mid-70s. I would say we were fully transitioned in that by the early ’80s. We went from basically making small forms to making forms as big as 40 or 50 or 60 feet long.
Q. Spillman Company recently became part of Afinitas. What prompted you to take that step?
A. We have three children. Our son has his own venture capital private equity firm. Our youngest daughter is a teacher in New Haven. Our other daughter lives in Columbus and worked for the company for a couple of years but decided it wasn’t something that she wanted to do full-time. So I sold out to Afinitas on Oct. 1, 2018. I have a five-year contract with them, which will expire Sept. 30 next year.
Q. What kind of challenges do you see ahead for the industry?
A. There has been some consolidation of the industry over the past 20 or 25 years, most notably on the precast side related to Oldcastle, which has purchased 70-some firms. I think there’s a real opportunity for privately held firms to continue to meet the demands of the industry and to thrive meeting the customer demands.
The flip side of that is labor has become a significant issue for companies across the U.S. and Canada. And I think it’s going to take a certain amount of significant capital investment and automation for companies in certain markets to survive. Which basically means the capital requirements in our industry are likely to grow over time, not get smaller.
The No. 1 question that I get from my colleagues when we sit down face-to-face with a customer: “What can you do to assist me to reduce the amount of labor content in the products I’m producing today and the ones that I want to produce the future?”
My work today, in terms of special projects, is all focused on process improvement and automation. Our association is historically multi-generation, and whether the next generation or the generations that are coming up now are going to want to work in industry and the businesses remains to be seen.
Q. What kind of opportunities are waiting for industry in the next few years?
A. The reason the precast industry has grown over the past 50-plus years is precast continues to take a greater share of the concrete construction dollar, and it takes it away from cast-in-place concrete. So, those producers that have been most successful are able to look at a project that may or may not have been designed in cast-in-place and converted it. We as an industry have done a terrible job getting specs written to precast as the prime versus the alternative. It is still incumbent upon the individual producer to do most of that legwork. When they do that, they open up a huge market.
It’s harder and harder for their customers to do site-cast work. I’ve read any number of stories in a given month where a producer is promoting and acknowledging the fact that they’ve got this big structure that they converted and they’re delivering to one side or another. And the amount of powder cement that the industry uses today is probably at least two, maybe three, times what it was in the ’60s. It’ll probably go up another 50% the next 10 years. And so producers have to get smarter about how they use their available production labor, but they’re just increasing opportunities to convert what has historically been cast-on-site to factory-made-under-quality-conditions precast.
Q. You’ve been going to The Precast Show since 1973. What would you tell people is the benefit of going to The Precast Show and being on the trade show floor?
A. The No. 1 value of attending The Precast Show beyond seeing what’s on the show floor is the networking that occurs. The NPCA staff are careful to pick sites that the exhibitors want to go to and to provide for networking opportunities – which translates, in NPCA terms, to how big is the bar? Literally!
Being a 50-year observer, we’re now on the third generation of owner-operators. And that hasn’t changed the preferred beverage – it’s still beer.
I’ve planned events, and there are certain things that are routinely done now that are no different than what we did 25 or 30 years ago. When an event opens, a social event opens. The staff makes sure that an attendee can get a drink in one hand and a bite to eat in the other hand in the first five minutes.
I think we always have a good mix of exhibitors at The Precast Show. Typically, somewhere between 5% and 10% are new to the show. That’s important, but the networking part of it is really the greater part of it.
Q. You won the Yoakum Award in 1988, two decades after the Yoakums were seated around your kitchen table with your parents. What is your role as the senior active winner?
A. When I chair the (Yoakum Award) committee as the senior and we have a new recipient, I have an introductory speech. I happen to have talked to (2022 winner) Lisa Roache yesterday and congratulated her and gave her a synopsis of what is happening when we get to Columbus.
But of the people in the room today, I’m the only one that knew Bob Yoakum personally. And sometimes we get to a discussion of a candidate, and it becomes incumbent upon me to say, “Yeah, I don’t know whether this person does or doesn’t match the kind of ideals that Bob Yoakum would have espoused.”
So, I’m the current link to those early days.
Q. What is the legacy you hope to leave with the industry?
A. I was fortunate to be able to give back early and continuously. One of the unique things about NPCA is the open relationship between Producers and Associates. I want people to have mutual respect. I mean, we all have business interests to be involved in NPCA. But I would say the majority of my personal friendships today are people who I have worked with and been around on both the associate and producer side. And I would hope that that would continue.
That you have to support NPCA, you have to support ASCM and do those things that help move the industry as a whole forward and then do what you can to get your share of that but not the other way around. Not be interested in what you could do first, but if the industry moves forward, then you and your company and your associates will move forward with it. And to bring young people in and to mentor them.
Heather Bremer is the digital content director at NPCA.