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. For the Q4 2023 issue, we spoke with Mark Thompson, vice president of Jefferson Concrete Group.
Q. Your career path started in banking. How did that lead you to the precast concrete industry?
A. As a very young man, I was working for a local bank. I had been hired to work in agricultural lending. The farming industry was certainly my background, the dairy cattle business.
And even back in the ’70s, employers were challenged with people, and I got detoured coming out of my training program at the bank. Instead of going into agricultural lending, I got planted as a branch manager when I was 22 years old, which I was totally unprepared for, but sometimes immersion is a great education. And, boy, I got thrown to the wolves and relocated to the Watertown, N.Y., area, which is where Jefferson is located. It was a great learning experience, and I met a lot of people. I learned a lot of the things about business, banking and life in a hurry.
I never was real content in the branch manager’s chair. I had gotten to know one of the owners of Jefferson Concrete back in the day through Kiwanis.
He and I were sitting at Kiwanis meeting, and he was lamenting about where he was at with the man who was running his office and doing the accounting.
I said, “Well, could I do that job?”
And he said, “Surely, so.”
That became the impetus for me to come aboard in September 1977. I knew nothing about the precast concrete industry. I certainly had some familiarity with a smaller precaster 60 miles north of here, a precaster who is still in business and certainly a good friend of mine today.
Q. What was Jefferson Concrete like when you started?
A. We were much smaller company back then. We do in a week now what we used to do in one month or one year back then. We were a company of 11 people, and our product lines were burial vaults and residential septic tanks.
We did some agricultural products back in those days. We had more cattle than we did people in this region.
Q. How did you come to be involved in NPCA?
A. The man that I worked for was kind of active in the New York state and national concrete burial vault associations. Herb, the man that I worked for, went to an NPCA convention in Columbus in late ’70s. Alan Chase followed Herb back from the NPCA show in Columbus, Ohio, and stopped at our office and encouraged us to become members of NPCA. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the early ’90s that I was able to get active in NPCA.
But to this day, I still have many, many, many of the publications, the newsletters that Ted Coons generated back early on. So, I learned a lot about the industry, and I learned a lot about people just because I had access to any information that filtered out of NPCA headquarters in Indianapolis. When I finally was presented with the opportunity to get involved with NPCA, I felt like I knew much of the history. I felt like I had met many of the people and I hadn’t. I felt like I knew them just because there were some pretty good publications as the association grew back in the ’70s and ’80s.
Q. You had an interesting encounter with some industry pioneers in those early days of NPCA involvement.
A. One of the men that I was working with, he and I were in Denver in the mid-’90s. We walked into the first breakfast, and I recognized faces, but they were people I didn’t know. Tim and I walked by a table that had two chairs empty. The fellas at the chairs said, “You guys looking for a seat?”
I said, “Absolutely.”
He said, “Well, join us.”
We sat down and it was Roland Lindsay and Joe Wieser. We couldn’t have landed in a better place.
Things just evolved from there, and I’ll never forget it. Wieser looks at me and he says, “Watertown, New York. Roland and I were near your yard a month ago. We were out toward the northeast and pulled off Interstate 81 on a Sunday morning. Nobody was around.”
He said, “We looked through your yard. You guys make some pretty nice looking products.”
That was our introduction to really get involved. I cherish that memory because I became very, very good friends with both Joe and Roland through the years. That’s part of the joy of the involvement with NPCA.
Q. What, aside from the relationships, have you gained from being involved in NPCA? Or are the relationships the core of what leads to everything else?
A. I think relationship is exactly what’s at the core of my involvement with the association. Personally, I am gratified and thankful of the visions of that time. It was Ty Gable and the visions of the boards that I worked with over the years.
I’ll never forget sitting in Seattle. This was the late ’90s. There was a tremendous concern throughout our industry about the plastic septic tank business. We all sat in a room in Seattle, and there was a whole series of questions that were asked, and we all had clickers in our hands to say yes or no. The message that came out of that session was we recognize this plastic septic tank evolution is happening before us. But we also have to recognize that probably our greatest competition is our own poor quality. Tremendous eye opener.
And that’s a hard thing for people sit and look at themselves and say, “Huh, is that true?”
But I think if you talk to people, you’ll find that really was the impetus to really allow the plant
Certification program to get more traction. It became a basis to develop an education program.
We put together an education committee, and I chaired it. We had a wonderful, visionary working committee. And one of the things that just seemed to resonate was we really need to find a way to train our people.
And that got the ball rolling. We started back far enough that there was no internet. We did it over the telephone. We had opportunities to listen to speakers over the telephone in our conference rooms and actually did some classes. And then that was the evolution of classroom training at The Precast Show.
I know we were in Indianapolis when I went before the Board of Directors, and we had started working on the concept of Precast University. That was the meeting that I introduced the notion of Master Precaster to the board of directors. And the rest is history.
I’m so gratified at this stage of my life and with the involvement that I had. With the help of many other people, I think we just have made tremendous strides within our industry as it relates to classroom training as it relates to the numbers of precasters.
I like to think that we’re providing a path that this can be a career. I’ve had three people retire since last October. Two of them were Master Precasters. I think I’ve got six or seven other Master Precasters, and the plan is I’ll have two more in Denver. I really hope that this program helps them to have the vision to make a lifetime commitment. The fact that any employee in our association can take PQS I for $99. What a deal. I probably don’t utilize it enough, but it certainly is one heck of an introduction into our industry and hopefully help spoon feed people’s desires to have that thirst to learn more about the whats and hows of precast concrete.
Q. You said you’ve had one, maybe two vacations since you started working and that you’re still wearing a lot of hats at Jefferson. Do you see yourself slowing down at all?
A. I’ll be 70 this year. I’d like to start doing maybe a little less. Seventy-hour weeks aren’t unusual for me, but I am getting tired.
It’s a unique industry that has the benefit of a lot of good, hardworking, honest, visionary people. And I think that’s what I enjoy the most.
Q. What does the industry need to do in the next few years, in the next decade or so, to keep it viable to keep it moving forward?
A. Things are changing. We as an industry have got to roll with the changes. That’s much of the focus of what’s going on within the association as we deal with the development of new cements, the carbon footprint issue, the people issue. I think these types of concerns are going to be a real challenge in the next few years.
My greatest concern up close is how long can this frenzy out of Washington last? And I’ll include Albany, N.Y., also. The monies that are being expended. How long can this last? That’s my greatest concern today.
Coming out of COVID, I think most companies have experienced some pretty positive times. We certainly have. I think it gave us a chance to look at ourselves and say, “You know, there’s no reason we can’t be more profitable. And we’re going to be and we are.” And, and I think, perhaps a lot of businesses made that assessment coming out of COVID, but I’m fearful. I remember the Carter years. I remember the early ’80s. It wasn’t long after I left the banking business. As I’m getting closer to retirement years, I worry about what that impact could be on small business.
Q. If you found yourself sitting at a table at The Precast Show or Annual Convention and you offered someone walking by a chair to sit down, what would you tell about why they need to be a member of NPCA?
A. Well, the first message I love to distribute is this is a great industry. We’re in an industry that has plenty of opportunity. What we do, it’s chemistry for a good future. It’s storm and sanitary and it’s roads and bridges. And funerals. I tell customers we’re going to get you one way or another. I love to tell them we’re gonna be the last to let you down.
If you really want to go places with this industry, get involved with NPCA, because NPCA is about people. I think that there’s right back to the basics. They have so much to share, so much to offer. A staff that has all the resources you need.
I love to get my people on The Precast Show floor, and I want them there for two reasons. I want them to see and know what’s innovative, what’s changing and what’s available in our industry. No better place to do it. No better place. But when I take people, I expect them to give me the bulk of their time on the show floor because I want them to develop relationships. Relationships are how I grew up in this company, and that’s what I want my people to do. I want them in these booths getting to know these people from all these vendors that we deal with.
And the more that they do that, the closer these people are to being a phone call away. Because there’s days that you need that phone call away for guidance, or you need something desperately because somebody didn’t tell you we were out of that pallet of sealer. That’s what’s allowed me to grow within this industry are the relationships that were gleaned from NPCA.