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New England Foundation

When Ernie Shea founded his precast concrete company back in 1949, building foundations were still made with concrete block. That was Ernie's primary

Steven Prokopy

When Ernie Shea founded his precast concrete company back in 1949, building foundations were still made with concrete block. That was Ernie's primary market for years, and with wife Mary and son Ed by his side, he soon earned a reputation for being an honest, easy-going businessman who was good to his customers, his employees and fair with his competition.

Four generations and 60 years later, E.F. Shea Concrete Products is now New England's largest precast producer specializing in everything from septic tanks and culverts to high-tech Shea Block wall systems. Ed and Judi Shea now operate his father's company, which, at its peak, has 120 employees, with help from his four daughters, three sons-in-law, and two grandchildren.

Although the offices and plant in Wilmington, Mass., still function as E.F. Shea's company headquarters, most of the active production has been moved to its newly overhauled facility in Amesbury, Mass., about 30 miles north, on the New Hampshire border. Not quite 10 years ago, E.F. Shea's great expansion began with the purchase of a retiring competitor's plants in Amesbury and Nottingham, N.H., roughly 30 miles north of Amesbury. The acquisition, which included employees as well as facilities, enabled explosive growth. We doubled our employees, and soon doubled our sales, says Amesbury Plant Manager Greg Stratis.

Still, Stratis and Bob Flores, a general manager who has been with the company for nearly 40 years, agree that the plants' success probably would not have been possible were it not for the core values of its owners. Despite the tremendous growth the business has experienced, it has remained a very close-knit operation with the same values that Mr. Shea instilled when he started, says Flores. That being quality products, competitive prices, and unparalleled service.

The 30,000-sq.-ft. additional production line at Amesbury, with three new 25-ton cranes, allows the company to fabricate and maneuver larger products more efficiently. Rather than build an entirely new batch plant, the plan was to reuse the existing aggregate bins and split cement silo, while adding a new mixer and controls. In addition, a third cement silo was added, plus an automated flying-bucket concrete-delivery system, with all new equipment supplied by New Hampshire neighbor Advanced Concrete Technologies (ACT). Once the new mixer was ready to go, the old plant was shut down, and ACT engineers installed the new aggregate conveyor and cement screws during a brief shutdown window. The resulting new layout has six separate concrete call stations to divide the production area into independent working zones.

The original thought was to bring the products indoors from outside, explains Stratis. But, once we finished erecting the new building, we pretty much filled it with products we were casting the most of in prior years Û a lot of retaining wall block, box culverts, and a few new and bigger products like transformer boxes. We thought we'd be adding more large products to our work, but we ended up filling our production schedule with more of what we'd been doing.

Stratis adds that provisions were made in the design of the new structure to add another 15,000-sq.-ft. building and extend the traveling bucket and new cranes into that space as well.

ADJUSTING FOR THE TIMES

Competing against four or five precasters in New England that even come close to the production levels of E.F. Shea, the company is the area's largest supplier of septic tanks in the Northeast, and is one of only a few operators that use the special water-tight monolithic forms required by many municipal governments. The producer also sells manholes, box culverts, precast curbing, residential stairways, and bulkheads. We take pride in the fact that if a customer is putting an entire residential development in place, we are a one-stop shop, says Stratis.

One of the company's newest product lines is Shea Block, a wet-cast block retaining-wall system that has been in high demand. Retaining walls have become very important, Stratis explains. Land is at a premium right now, and many of the sites being considered for development aren't flat. Wetlands are often involved.

Shea Blocks are durable and offer the necessary flexibility. Place just one block and you have installed 5.33 square feet of retaining wall. Because these blocks are installed with machinery, the back-breaking manual labor associated with a traditional segmental retaining wall block is eliminated.

When the traditional small block walls exceed 4 ft. in height, they generally require geo-grid reinforcement and excavation behind the wall, adding installation costs, creating property encroachment issues, and raising the prospect of large tree removal. In contrast, Shea Block walls can go as high as 10 ft. 8 in. without geo-grid reinforcement, saving trees and helping property owners who have lot line concerns.

With a nearly 30-truck fleet, E.F. Shea does its own deliveries. We don't do excavation, since we sell to excavators, but there are certain products that we will install on prepared footing, Stratis says.

He admits that in the last year especially, the economy and resulting slowdown in all areas of construction have taken a bite out of business. The economy has definitely cut our production quite a bit, Stratis says. We usually have layoffs in the winter anyway, but this past year, we did them in November and December 2008, and more in January; and, we still haven't called back everybody. I don't expect to see a turnaround for at least 10-12 months.

Stratis estimates that the Amesbury plant is running at 40 percent capacity. We could easily double that when the market turns around. When we built the new plant, I was expecting to run it about 75 percent, he explains. Right now, most production is coming out of Amesbury. The Nottingham plant is shut down, while the Wilmington plant gets a lot of yard business, so we keep up our inventory there, but that is primarily an engineering, accounting and sales office. Continued, pages 18-20.

Stratis says that one bright spot has been an uptick in green building. We offer fly ash in our mix as standard, 15-25 percent, and obviously we are well within the 500 miles that would qualify us for producing with local materials, he says. Also, 10 percent of water used per yard is reclaimed from our washout. So, contractors looking to gain LEED points love us.

This attention to detail and advanced planning brings customers to E.F. Shea's door. We pride ourselves on customer service, says general manager Bob Flores. There aren't too many places where you can order a septic tank and have it delivered an hour or two later.

Employees take personal pride in the company's National Precast Concrete Association (NPCA) membership. E.F. Shea has achieved NPCA certification at its Wilmington and Amesbury plants, required for Department of Transportation projects. This is important because the process involves close scrutiny of the quality of our products, our safety procedures, and the service we provide, explains Stratis. Ed Shea is very conscientious about the upkeep on our equipment, for example. We have a fleet of well-maintained delivery trucks, and keep a large inventory to provide our customers with a quick turnaround time, from order to delivery.

In addition to customer loyalty, E.F. Shea enjoys the benefits of employee fidelity as well. The average employee has been working 10 years, and the company just celebrated its first employee retirement after 40 years of service. Stratis says, Employees appreciate the fact that Ed Shea is still here every day. Sometimes, he's actually in the production area pouring concrete with the guys. He may even take his 1952 GMC Tractor out on a delivery every once in a while.

Adds Flores, Ed Shea is the type of guy who seems to know just about everyone. He is well respected in the industry. People know what he stands for. Anyone would want to work with him with just a handshake. And although this business is very competitive, we have a great relationship with our competition. Our open-door policy has paid big dividends, as many of our competitors purchase products from us that they don't manufacture.