Q. You don’t come from a family with a long history in the precast concrete industry. How did you find your way into it?
A. I had gone back to school after my husband passed away and studied accounting. I went to work for, at the time, one of the big eight accounting firms. I was there for quite a while, and one of the guys that I had gone through classes with at school left public accounting and went to work with his stepfather in a concrete ready-mix business. It kind of got to the point that he couldn’t do operations and finances, and so he asked me to come to work for him.
They did ready-mix concrete, but they were starting up a precast company at the same time. They were purchasing forms. At the time, I didn’t really think about it being concrete. It was just an opportunity, and I had picked up a lot of travel and my son was going to be a senior in high school. I didn’t want to be on the road that much, especially during his senior year, so it sounded like a great opportunity. So I took it, and the rest is history.
Q. You came in from the financial and accounting side, not the plant floor. How did your involvement in NPCA begin?
A. The company was a member of NPCA. We were still kind of growing. We were looking for a new software package, and they were having a committee meeting in San Diego to discuss IT for the precast industry. I had a double major when I went back to school – one was accounting, and the other was information systems. And so it was suggested that I go to it, and I did. We had a good meeting and kind of just went from there. It’s kind of like getting involved on a committee and then you just kind of get involved with everything else in NPCA.
Q. And then you ended up being chair of the NPCA Board of Directors. How did you find yourself in a leadership role?
A. Strange things happen, don’t they? What happened at the time is that they had asked me to teach. They were developing an educational program. I think they called it the Young Leaders Conference, which was the next generation of young people that were coming into the businesses. By now, those guys have been Chair of the Board, too.
They had put together a course at the World of Concrete in Las Vegas. They had a person come in to discuss marketing, and then I handled the financial, accounting and IT stuff. It was a big success in terms of plants’ participation.
That’s really kind of the origin of the Leadership NPCA course that they have now. It was the association reaching down to grab that next group of young people that were coming up through the precast industry, because the industry is such a family-oriented business organization. And it really grew into a lot of the educational classes that they have now. They took that and did several different accounting classes and several different financial environment classes. After that, one was like purchasing capital assets and budgeting and controlling your inventory costs and just using financials to manage your business.
In that process, of course, I was fortunate enough to come across an awful lot of these people, and not just the younger generation but also my counterparts. It was just a great opportunity for me to get involved in the industry, and it was a lot of fun doing it.
Your journey through life is probably a little bit about expectations, education and opportunity. And not everyone grows up with the same expectations. And so the association, I think, did a great job of identifying me and putting the education out there to help people have that opportunity.
I’ve always said whenever we get to the conventions or conferences or training sessions or committee weeks or any of that, we really kind of leave our competitor’s hat at the door, and we walk in as a group to better the industry.
I mean, look at everything that has happened. It’s been internal to external. It hasn’t been government regulations coming to us. It’s been us going, pushing it out there in terms of the plant certification program with a quality product.
Q. As the first woman to serve as NPCA Chair of the Board, did you run into any challenges in a male-dominated industry?
A. It was unusual in terms of that you have to be aware of the fact that you are a woman but, you know, it was a group of guys that elected me.
So how can you argue with that in terms of opportunity?
Not so much from the association standpoint, but from the industry standpoint, the people that I worked with took a little bit of kidding about working for a woman in the industry, and they handled it really well. And frankly, they made me look good every day of my life as I was working there. I had time to develop that trust with the guys that I worked with. It was unusual, I thought, for me to be able to have that opportunity when I had it. But as you know, the biggest debate was trying to figure out whether to call the chairman or chairwoman or chairperson. It’s funny how those little things like that pop up that you don’t really think about.
I had never ever felt among any of the association members that the fact that I was a woman had anything to do with it because like I said, those are the people that that put me in that position in the first place. So how could you question their motives? It never really entered my mind. I never felt like it was an obstacle. And I think that’s because I was with a great group of people.
I had the feeling of an obstacle at times in my career. You had to keep proving yourself through different situations. You had to be almost a little bit better. You had to be a little bit more aware that your bad decisions were judged a little bit more than your good decisions by some people. But I never had that with the association or any of the membership that I worked with. It was one of the highlights of my life quite frankly. It was one of the greatest honors of my life.
Q. One of your many notable achievements as Chair was the modernization and expansion of the certification program. What was your approach to raising its prominence?
A. The certification program was alive and kicking. I just happened to come at a time when we were really pushing the expansion. What comes to mind is a conversation I had about plant certification, and my comment was we’re never going to get the plant certification program to grow where we want it unless we hire someone specifically trained to go out there and sell the certification to the industry regulators and professionals. And that’s when we brought in a position into the association specifically designed to do that.
There had been tremendous work done on it in terms of the technical ability. But what putting that guy out there selling the program did was it changed the way we think about it. It was us saying, “Look, we’re going to put these additional requirements on ourselves in order to make sure that you get a quality product.”
All you have to do as the DOT or the specifiers is say, “Yeah, these people have already taken on the burden voluntarily to do this for a quality product. Therefore, we want to make sure that you’re one of these people that’s doing a quality product.”
When you do that, it raises the level of the quality of the stuff that you’re shipping, and it’s certainly a better quality product. But also out of that you get the evolution of the safety program with the employees and everything else. So it’s just raising the expectations of the industry in terms of what it means to be a precaster. That’s when it took off from being just a handful of plants to I think it’s around 400 today, which is phenomenal.
It was a thought over a drink late at night in a bar in Indianapolis, because it was to me the obvious next step. The membership and the Board trusted me enough to say this is probably a good idea and create that position. So it always comes back to respecting all the thoughts and the efforts of everybody that’s out there. The technical guys had been back there slugging their way through this for years, but not necessarily thinking in terms of marketing the product that they produce Rhode Island recently became the 41st state to recognize NPCA certification. That’s incredible progress.
That’s phenomenal. I don’t remember how many states there were in 2005, but it sure wasn’t 41. That’s a situation like we got the product now. We just got to go market it. You either sell to satisfy demand that is already out there or you create demand in order to be successful. I think the certification program was a little bit of both.
Because we were going to the specifiers and the regulators and saying, “Wow, don’t you want this?” So in that particular case, I think the association created that demand.
Q. You’ve talked about the importance of marketing or selling the certification program. How would you sell membership in NPCA to someone who hadn’t yet become a member?
A. I had a speech professor in college who said if you want to be an effective speaker talk about something you’re passionate about. So they could probably talk to a lot of people in the industry that have that passion, explaining what they’re going to get from being a part of the association.
I couldn’t sell a glass of water to a man dying of thirst in the desert. But I could talk about the precast industry endlessly. So, I think it’s the passion. It needs to be there.
How could you walk around the trade show floor and look at it and not say, “Man, I want to be a part of this.” That’s the passion coming from the staff.
You can’t be peripheral and reap the same benefits in this industry that you can by being a part of it. You can’t be as good a company. You can sell precast for really low prices and maybe get some work, but you’re not leading. That’s not a long-term solution. I think to be a quality precaster and be competitive, you got to be part of this group. You can do a lot on your own, but you can’t do everything. And so the association fills in the everything. Once again, it’s about expectations, education and opportunity. And NPCA is creating those.
Q. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people in this industry adore you and value your leadership, your input and advice. What would you like them to know?
A. I think that I would say to them that they couldn’t possibly adore me any more than I adore them.
They’ve been a large factor in my success in life. And I am thankful for that every morning when I get up.
It’s obviously mutual. The NPCA staff is a very special group of people, a special culture. (NPCA Chair of the Board) Joel (Sheets) and I talked about it a little bit. And I met (NPCA President and CEO) Fred (Grubbe) for the first time and had a delightful conversation with him. I just I would tell you that it’s mutual. That’s, that’s about all I could say.
Heather Bremer is the digital content director at NPCA.