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Champion Of Change

The National Precast Concrete Association is anything but stuck in concrete, as it restructures to seize opportunities and respond to competitive challenges

TOM KUENNEN

The National Precast Concrete Association is anything but stuck in concrete, as it restructures to seize opportunities and respond to competitive challenges in the marketplace. Staffing changes, rescheduling its annual meeting, reordering member committees, and extending the terms of its current chairman, officers and board members to accommodate the new calendar are only a few of the shifts NPCA has undergone as it retools for the future.

Any organization that is afraid to change will eventually atrophy and die, contends NPCA president Ty Gable, CAE. To make a difference in the precast concrete products industry, we have to change. We have to concentrate on marketplace obstacles and opportunities, putting our members in a position to take full advantage of the opportunities and completely vanquish the threats.

As bureaucracies, however, associations can be resistant to change. Some associations spend too much of their time defending tradition and the status quo, Gable tells Concrete Products. Defending the status quo won't get the association anywhere Û no one benefits by circling the wagons and shooting inward. For members of the organization to benefit, the status quo has to be constantly challenged.

Agreeing, NPCA Chairman Joan Blecha, president of Hanson Pipe & Products Southeast Inc., adds, The reason we changed our governance model in 2005 and our structure, including product-specific committees, was to respond more nimbly to threats and opportunities. [See also Blecha interview, Gaining ground as the go-to group, Concrete Products, February 2005 or view the article online at http://concreteproducts.com/mag/concrete_gaining_ground_goto/]

NPCA's mission is dictated and reinforced by a dynamic and innovative industry, featuring a constant stream of new products and robust competition. Yet, Gable feels competition is not unique to precast concrete. In every industry Û whether it's widgets or concrete products Û somebody out there wants your market share and will try to get it, Gable observes. A competing material may be well-known, like plastic, fiberglass or steel; or, it could be a product not yet invented. Even manufacturers in the same industry from any number of countries that can make something out of concrete and conquer the shipping barriers are a source of competition.

IDENTIFYING THREATS

According to Chairman Blecha, board brainstorming in spring 2004 inaugurated NPCA's active engagement with industry challenges and opportunities. Our board meets every spring, and in 2004 we spent two days concentrating only on the threats and opportunities that face our particular industry, she reports. That endeavor resulted in a realignment of committees and a rebranding campaign to create a new look and logo for the association's publications and materials. In May 2005, the committee realignment was fine tuned and has since taken off.

Analyzing the threats and opportunities, we determined what our industry's response should be, Blecha says. Right now, our industry is confronted with the claim by competing industries that precast is ÎoldÌ technology Û low-quality and low-performance.

Precasters know that concrete products are the best solution for many applications, Blecha asserts, but quality control must be maintained and reinforced to weed out underperforming products that give competitors ammunition. Accordingly, NPCA is working to push high quality standards through the industry and provide technical education for precasters at all levels. We are focusing on the health of the industry and the health of member companies, Blecha affirms. Our emphasis is on education, expectations and opportunities.

NPCA's plant certification program is one tool that precasters can use to ramp up quality within their plants and maintain that level. Through an education and consulting process leading up to certification, plants learn how to reduce waste, streamline work processes, and ultimately manufacture consistently high quality products.

Quality and long-term success go hand-in-hand, Gable tells Concrete Products. Making substandard products will lose market share, he emphasizes. You can make junk and price it low, but over the long term, it has to perform or you'll be out of business. And, when it comes to public health and welfare or protecting groundwater or a building's structural integrity, you can be sure that quality matters.

Precast is the best solution for most applications, Gable opines. It is far superior to plastic, fiberglass and steel, but only if the quality is good. Generally, even when not made well, precast performs better than most materials, he maintains. But, that jig is up. We've got to make our material perform even better and make every piece the best it can be. Complacency will hurt the industry most of all, Gable adds, making it fail to respond or even recognize that precast's share of the market is under siege.

MEETING THE CHALLENGE

While competing with other materials, precast is making inroads on other concrete sectors, among them cast-in-place. Some trends are working against our friends in the poured-in-place sector, Gable says. One is the availability of skilled labor to form and finish a field-cast product. Finding good labor is a real challenge now. Due to tremendous variability in temperatures and curing times, workmanship, and costs for poured-in-place, on-site conditions are as challenging Û or more challenging Û than they've ever been, he contends. By contrast, precast provides a quality-controlled, factory-made product that can be delivered to the job site when it's ready to be installed. Our modularity saves a lot of time on job sites, and time has become an important commodity as construction schedules have tightened.

As significantly more construction now takes place in winter, precast has a further advantage. We are now in the 14th year of the largest construction expansion in U.S. history, Gable notes. That you're seeing construction throughout the winter is largely a reflection of much more volume and opportunity. We've also learned how to construct better in the winter, including enclosing a project faster.

And, precast is one of the things that's helped accomplish that, because on the front end of the job, when you're in the ground, you want to progress through that part of the project as quickly as possible, getting it covered so you can build above ground, Gable explains. Since they're modular and can be delivered when needed, precast components allow builders to get above ground quickly.

HANDICAPPING THE COMPETITION

A lack of skilled laborers also favors precast products over plastic competitors. Plastic components initially may be cheaper, but they have to be installed perfectly to perform as specified, compared to underground concrete products, which are more forgiving with respect to errors in placement. Gable points out that contractors sometimes focus on purchase price, forgetting to analyze installed costs.

With plastic and fiberglass products, performance really depends on the quality of the bedding envelope, or backfill and compaction, in which it's placed. It's highly dependent on the installation: backfill and compaction have to be perfect just for it to have a fighting chance, Gable elaborates. And, in many cases, it's not. Contractors are always under strict time constraints in physical conditions over which they have limited control. They've got to get out of the ground, sometimes plastic isn't installed properly, and then, improper installation makes the whole system fail.

Not only plastic products fail to measure up to precast, Gable asserts. In hurricane areas, a lot of utility switch gear, located traditionally in above-ground metal or wood structures, is damaged and suffers water incursion. Where precast structures are used, the housing remains standing, no water infiltration ruins the equipment, and cell phones continue to work in emergency situations. Not only does precast go in quicker, he continues, but it provides the structural integrity needed to resist wind loadings and inclement weather.

PRODUCT-SPECIFIC COMMITTEES

With product-specific committees in two categories Û aboveground and underground Û replacing more general multiproduct committees, NPCA is now better equipped to target product strengths and weaknesses. The underground division includes committees for grease interceptors, manholes, box culverts, stormwater treatment, septic tanks, pipe and utility vaults. Comprising the aboveground division are committees for architectural components for buildings, median barrier, and retaining and sound walls.

As we have restructured our governance model to create product-specific committees, Gable says, one will concentrate on utility vaults, for example, while another targets septic tanks in that market. Technical components of committee work include writing standards and working to improve product acceptance. Subcommittees, furthermore, will determine how to best promote the product.

The creation of a promotional tool that precasters can use to educate the construction industry on the benefits of precast concrete has been one of Joan Blecha's priorities as NPCA chair from February 2005 through October 2006. The road show, as she calls it, will be introduced in spring this year.

We are ramping up promotion of precast more aggressively, Blecha affirms. The road show will highlight for specifiers and users the benefits of precast as a whole, with modules for specific products. Support from NPCA technical and marketing staffs will enable individual producer members to customize the road show and modules for their regional markets. At national venues, association staff will present the standard road show in conjunction with national associations such as the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO) or the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

The road show is a kit, explains NPCA Director of Communication Bob Whitmore. It will be packaged in a DVD case with a handbook describing what's on the DVD and how to use it. We'll also include text on presentation tips, or how to give a brown-bag luncheon for specifiers. The kit will include a general video on precast and a series of PowerPoint presentations that can be customized by the user. Themes will be based on our product committees; so, for example, we'll have a septic tank PowerPoint along with septic tank promotional material that can be printed and distributed at the presentation.

The road show kit will include 17 of these product-specific modules, Whitmore adds. The local precaster can add his own product information and logo to any of the PowerPoints, and then give the presentation to groups or individual specifiers, complete with a video and handout material.

Gable also highlights the kit's value, especially in terms of its adaptability to particular markets. This product will be most advantageous for our members, who will use it locally at a regional AIA chapter, for instance, or engineering association. Marketing is most powerful when it's localized, he emphasizes, and the ability to customize presentations will give each one a local look and feel when the precaster adds his own photos, logo and product information.

EXPANDING THE MCPX SHOW

Providing precasters the opportunity to encounter new technology in order to capitalize on the benefits of automation, NPCA's Manufactured Concrete Products Exposition (MCPX) is proving a big draw. Co-sponsors of MCPX 2006, scheduled for Feb. 23-25 in Anaheim, include National Concrete Masonry Association, Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute, American Concrete Pipe Association, and Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute. Concurrent with the trade show will be association-specific training, meetings, and other programming for organization members.

The main focus, however, will be an exhibition filling 250,000 square feet of the Anaheim Convention Center with the latest in equipment, supplies and services for all sectors of the manufactured concrete products industry. MCPX is arguably a key event for any company wanting to stay competitive in the future.

Completely automating your plant is a substantial investment, Gable tells Concrete Products. But over time, the efficiencies produced from automation pay off. The MCPX trade show allows our members to see and touch the latest products and technologies Û both European and domestic Û in order to make decisions about the future of their plants.

Additionally, more than 100 hours of technical training classes will be held in conjunction with the trade show, including tracks on production and quality, finance, management, and advanced technical training. NPCA also will be sponsoring an AIA-accredited course on precast for architects and a septic tank course for regulators. The MCPX educational series complements the association's publications, which include MC Magazine and Precast Solutions, newsletters, technical bulletins and best practices manuals.

While NPCA traditionally has held its annual convention in conjunction with MCPX, it will no longer do so. Instead, the association is moving its meeting to fall. The trade show, MCPX training, and all the related events make for a full three or four days, Gable notes. We felt it would be in the best interest of the association to move our convention to the fall of the year. Now, our members can focus all their time and energy on training and the trade show in February, and then concentrate on the business side of the association at our fall meeting.

To help make the transition, NPCA board officers are extending their usual 12-month term to 20 months to synchronize the passing of the gavel with the new fall meeting schedule. Board members elected at that time will return to 12-month terms.