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Beginning life as custom home builders R&L MacLeod in 1988, MacLeod Construction Inc. of Denver, N.C. (just north of Charlotte) entered the concrete business

Steven Prokopy

Beginning life as custom home builders R&L MacLeod in 1988, MacLeod Construction Inc. of Denver, N.C. (just north of Charlotte) entered the concrete business in 1998 more out of necessity than an overwhelming desire to become a ready mixed supplier.

We had a small fleet of six trucks to service customers back in 1998, says company president Bob MacLeod. At that time, it was a producers' market, demand was high, and our suppliers could not deliver to our sites on time because they had much bigger jobs and clients than us. We had a heart to heart with our main supplier and told them that if they didn't take care of us, we'd build our own plant. They laughed.

Seven years, four plants and 53 trucks later, no one's laughing now. MacLeod Construction has grown at such a fast pace that the ready mixed business has surpassed the contracting work as the company's primary revenue stream, with only about 8 to 10 percent of what the company produces going to its own crews. To be honest, when we first started, we thought it would be more like 90 percent, admits MacLeod.

SEARCHING FOR THE MONSTER POUR

In fairness to MacLeod's original suppliers, one of the reasons cited for slighting their business was the company's use of all (mostly Oshkosh, some Advance) front-discharge mixer trucks. We did a lot of footing and curb work, and front-discharge works better, says MacLeod. But producers told us they were getting away from front-discharge due to height-clearance issues and the fact that those mixers load a little slower.

MacLeod wasn't geared to handle monster pours early on, so it sustained its ready mix business with smaller residential jobs, supplied from its first plant (built in 1999), an 80-yd.-per-hour unit in Denver. The amount of business we were doing as contractors gave us enough concrete work early on that we didn't have to worry about selling product, MacLeod adds.

But the demand for ready mixed grew beyond the company's ability to produce from one plant, and, in 2000, the South Plant was erected just over the border in South Carolina. The 130-yd.-per-hour Con-E-Co plant helped, but it still wasn't enough for big pours. A third plant was built in Mooresville (about 30 miles north of Charlotte), complete with a 200-yd.-per-hour Con-E-Co tilt-drum mixer, but even this wasn't fast enough for what MacLeod was interested in.

The newest facility in Harrisburg, N.C., which went online in early 2005, features a 400-yd.-per-hour, twin-shaft Simem mixer. This set up makes it possible for us to service large pours and still handle the demand from our smaller customers, says MacLeod.

Aggregate handling at the facility involves a series of underground bunkers, one for each material. Each bunker has individual scales and weigh hoppers, which can be charged in 15 to 20 seconds. A 200-ft. conveyor transports the aggregate to the mixer installation. We don't have to worry about material freezing because it's underground, says MacLeod. Our climate is such that weather is a concern.

A surge hopper for aggregate is mounted over the mixer, as is the water batcher, cement batcher, and admixtures. All materials discharge into the mixer at once in about 20 seconds. One of the aspects we liked best about the Simem design is that we can have three loads going at once: one weighing up, one in the hopper and one in the mixer. Absolutely no time is lost, explains MacLeod.

MacLeod Construction is the only ready mixed company in the Charlotte area that is all central mix. The aggressiveness of our mix, the fact that you can get a full mix in 20 to 30 seconds with good material dispersion, these are things that help us stand out from the competition, he says. Plus, the customer feedback regarding our mixes is great. If we have an idea for a new mix, we have the benefit of being able to send it first to one of our contracting jobs to test it out.

The Harrisburg plant was custom designed and built using equipment from various suppliers, put together like a big erector set, according to MacLeod. We did the concrete work ourselves, purchased Belgrade silos, acquired the conveyor built from a local company and hired steel workers to put the pieces together, he says.

There are few secrets left in the ready mixed business, so the key to bettering your business is how fast you can get a guy in and out of your yard. We're not a huge company, but we see savings in time management.

One of the lessons learned by MacLeod Construction in recent years has been not to rely on just one cement supplier in times of short supply. In 2004, the cement shortage was brutal, and we had to cut production 30 to 35 percent because we couldn't get the product, says MacLeod. Now we get cement from Giant, Essroc and a terminal in Port Royal, S.C.

The company also frequently includes fly ash in its mixes with product coming from several power plants run by Duke Power

PROXIMITY AND TECHNOLOGY

MacLeod Construction has approached the issue of time management from two fronts. The first is plant proximity to job sites. The company did not attempt to build a plant where work was already happening. Instead, it anticipated where work would be in coming years. Rather than chase work, we found area where we're counting on five to 10 years of relatively close work, at the outer edge of current Charlotte development, explains MacLeod. For example, I know where the I-485 outerbelt is going, so we know where business will be coming. And with land costs getting higher in some areas, selecting plant locations on the outskirts has its advantages.

MacLeod Construction has just purchased a self-contained Simem Moby Mix central mix plant with 10-yd.-capacity mixer for a single job, a two-year project near Charlotte. The company has a five-year, North and South Carolina exclusive with Simem on this portable unit, which sets up in about eight hours, according to MacLeod.

In addition, MacLeod's father (who came to work for Bob in 1999) wrote and designed a dispatching software program, which the company is currently marketing and plans to feature as part of the Simem exhibit at the 2006 World of Concrete in Las Vegas this month. Our central dispatch is out of the Denver facility, and each plant has a dedicated data line to send information and tickets back and forth, explains MacLeod. We may have an order coming from two plants. We can keep track of delivery times and do auto ticketing.

The company also designed a GPS-enabled tracking system that operates though Nextel. Drivers use their telephones to check in and out; and MacLeod believes that sometime in early 2006, the company should be able to manage its payroll using this system. The tracking software also prioritizes jobs based on the type of work and the customer, changes travel time based on miles and time of day, tracks historical data and customer history at each pour, and compiles driver profiles. Once our web site is finished by the end of 2006, we will pull up an order by phone to tell how far into a job we are. The sales guys love it, MacLeod says. We'll be able to track how many loads into a job we are, which trucks are being used, if they're on schedule. More importantly, customers will be able to place and check on the status of orders from anywhere in the country.

As a result of this high-tech approach to mixing, dispatching and tracking, time in the yard at Harrisburg is minimal. A truck can load, get its ticket and wash down in less than 10 minutes, claims MacLeod. Our goal is that the driver doesn't have to leave the cab, but our hitch is water demand.

Drivers do still have to leave the cab to use a hand-held hose to wash down their vehicle, but MacLeod insists he's seeking a way to clean the trucks automatically.