A routine December 2005 transaction will effectively complete the consolidation of three independent operators in the Buffalo, N.Y., market that began in January 1998. But contractors who had dealt with CB Concrete, Frey Concrete, and Stone Concrete have long since become accustomed to their successor, United Materials LLC, based in Lancaster, N.Y., just east of Buffalo.
Capital investment, data mining and smart procurement, coupled with vendor and customer patience and perseverance, have made United Materials a strong independent, suited to residential, commercial, industrial and infrastructure work. The transformation has been no easy task for the point man, Augie Iacovitti, that United's partners hired to right their ship. Awaiting him upon arrival 11 months after the CB-Frey-Stone merger were a 41-mixer fleet with average age of 20 years; a 4-in. stack of paperwork spanning a multitude of vendors used by each company, 27 of which were truck part vendors; three truck and plant parts rooms, none with tracking system; four plants with no central upgrade and procurement strategy; and, separate accounting systems at various levels of disarray.
The merger brought together three cultures and challenged us to overcome the we versus you and my territory attitudes, he says. But the most pressing matter was upgrading a fleet whose newest vehicle was five years old, and bringing maintenance costs under control. Our truck availability was in flux. Some vehicles were cannibalized for parts to keep other trucks running. The lack of any centralized parts procurement and inventory control had us in some instances incurring $35 total costs on a $20 item.
In seven years, United has built its fleet to 54 mixers and seen the average age shrink to 8.3 years. When he joined the company, Iacovitti was short on concrete industry exposure but long on trucking and operations experience thanks to 20-plus years with a large regional and then a multinational transportation, services and logistics company. United's partners knew how critical fleet investment was to keeping a ready mixed business viable, he recalls. When we began to develop specs for some sorely needed new mixers, the goal was to recognize that a truck is the driver's office. My aim was to make sure drivers' offices were at least as nice as any room in our headquarters.
We need drivers who are comfortable, ready and willing to work with customers, and do more on a job site than point the mixer chute. Many of our accounts specialize in decorative flatwork and do business with us because they know our drivers are well trained, know exactly where to position a truck and how to make things easier for the finishers.
In the nearly eight years since United's formation, more than a third of original pool of drivers remains. In addition to prioritizing an operator-friendly truck spec, the company has more recently adopted the Mentor Driver Top Drum training series, which was developed by Morse Bros. in Oregon, and distributed by the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association. United has also enrolled its staff in NRMCA's Certified Professional Driver and Certified Sales Professional programs, and received recognition in the group's Driver of the Year competition. In the past four years United Materials has won national recognition for its safety program culminating in a first place award in 2002.
In the fleet ramp up, United solicited proposals Û specs first, prices later Û for a vehicle with improved weight distribution, thereby allowing for a bigger drum than the typical 9-yd. model in its dated fleet. A 10.5-yd. London mixer on a Kenworth set back axle T800 model emerged as the United standard. Cab upgrades included air ride suspension; premium driver seats with lumbar support; air conditioning; heated mirrors; and, passenger door day light panels. The latter improve driver's view, as does the T800's curved, two-piece windshield, and sloping hood. The effective turning radius and ease of working the drop-down hood for daily oil and fluid checks caught Iacovitti's eye; if he could handle the hood, so could all the drivers.
United has since acquired 36 T800-mounted mixers. As he prepared for delivery of the initial six trucks in 1999, Iacovitti assembled a nine-member management team that met monthly at The Table, an unassuming fixture in a small conference room at the Lancaster headquarters office. The team included plant managers, who titles have since changed to site supervisors, and newcomers Jim Pierce, operations manager, and Roger Ball, chief financial officer. That latter two remain on the team, which now meets weekly and has four members. The team reduction reflects new operating procedures and reassignment of certain staff Û critical to implementing those procedures Û to areas where they are best suited.
Pierce spearheaded a shift from individual plant to central dispatch, setting up shop at Lancaster. He opted for Command Alkon's Commandseries dispatch system, more recently adding the GPS-enabled Commandsignal truck-tracking platform. The technology has greatly improved communication with customers and provided tools to educate them on lowering costs and boosting site productivity.
We show customers how they can help us help them. We suggest how to plan orders better and smarter, and use software-generated reports showing where customers can work on improving efficiency, says Pierce. Those who are most receptive to information tend to be the most loyal. They realize it's a partnership.
At least once a year, our salespeople review with their accounts the past 12 months of orders and sundry charges, says Ball, whose responsibilities include information technology systems. Customers can see what their unloading times are and how they compare against other contractors. Our message is clear: We are trying to create value on both sides of the table.
Customers see United Materials as a company with much improved delivery times than its predecessor operators, and one that provides better customer service and more value-added products to offer contractors and homeowners. United has evolved from businesses whose lack of leverage would make it difficult to compete in the Buffalo market of 2005. When measured in ready mixed plant ownership terms, Buffalo has proved the most dynamic Great Lakes market during the past decade, with 80-90 percent of production capacity changing hands. If investment in rolling stock, plant and human capital are any indication, the assets that formed United wound up in the right hands.
Many people outside New York see Buffalo as a place that receives the occasional 7-foot snowfall. Few in the concrete business know it as a forerunner market in decorative slabs on grade. Prior to United Materials' formation, area producers established Western New York Concrete Promotions to support decorative flatwork market development. The council staged box lunch and related educational events for architects, and placed driveway, walkway and patio slabs in parade of home-type projects. United continues to support the council, along with Buffalo's two other major players, Lafarge North America (formerly Pine Hill Concrete and American Ready-Mix) and Riefler Concrete Products.
United is an L.M. Scofield distributor and has installed the company's automatic Chromix pigment dispensing equipment at two of its transit mixed plants. It inherited from Frey Concrete Û one of three predecessor operators Û a sizable decorative concrete garden area at the home office to merchandise colored, stained, or pattern-stamped slabs. The landscaped, multi-slab area lies at the end of the entryway, easy for premium-flatwork prospects to drive up and see options for their own driveways, patios, pedestrian areas and flooring.
More recently, United decided to extend the decorative-concrete display with placement of a parking lot island, which subsequently became a flagpole base. The slabs were finished by a customer and included an artistic buffalo imprint. A larger copy of that image is currently being considered for a City of Buffalo entryway. As the decorative and stain market offerings expand, United uses new designs and products to upgrade its own facilities, thus creating marketing tools for its customers.