Rialto Concrete Products' Jerry Cowden Chairs American Concrete Pipe Association
By Steve Prokopy
While all arenas of the building industry continue to wait for the much-needed surge that has been repeatedly forecast and then delayed because of the lagging economy, the American Concrete Pipe Association (ACPA) continues its internal efforts to streamline its operations with the goal of cutting costs while making its research, experts and technical archives available to its members at a moment's notice. However, one particular technological advancement has some pipe manufacturers abuzz, for both its business and product quality potential.
In terms of new research, the association has entered into the early stages of testing concrete pipe that features strength-enhancing steel fibers embedded in it, rather than welded wire mesh. "This is fairly new in North America, and we've started talking to AASHTO [American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials] about it and had manufactures make some of this pipe," explains 2011 ACPA Chairman Jerry Cowden, executive vice president of Rialto Concrete Products. "We'll likely be writing a new specification for this type of pipe through ASTM in the next year or so,"
"They have been using this type of fiber in flatwork concrete paving for several years, and it does a good job with crack control while giving a big slab more strength," Cowden continues. "This is a different type of fiber, originating in Europe, which helps lock the concrete together and make it stronger from a crushing standpoint, which is what we're concerned about. It's exciting because we have all been used to the O1 crack in concrete. We test it, and if it meets the strength without an O1 crack, life is good. That's been the gold standard since reinforced concrete was started. Now, we have to look at a new way of promoting a pipe that moves away from that and takes into consideration the ground we're laying it in. It's a break away from the old style of design. The next year or two will be very interesting."
Cowden says the pipe has been produced in four different areas of the United States, and so far initial results are going well. Although he admits it's too early to know for certain, Cowden believes the introduction of this type of pipe into the market has the potential to lead to sweeping changes in terms of what type of pipe is specified for certain jobs. "It's a product that is used almost on a daily basis in Europe, but that won't necessarily translate with North American engineers and manufacturers. So the next steps are more testing, design work with the product and specifications that engineers can lay their hat on in order to use it for a project. I expect you'll see some pilot projects going in the next year or two, and shortly after that it may become more prominent."
SEPARATING FACT FROM FICTION
Cowden emphasizes that ACPA continues to work hard to get the point out to the industry and the worldwide community that concrete pipe truly is a green product. "There are some recent studies coming out of Europe showing that when you look at the overall picture, concrete pipe is a green product, even though everyone would like to beat up the cement industry," he says. "That seems to be all you hear. I think we're trying to enlighten the engineering and environmental communities that our products have a lower carbon footprint than you might think."
By staying on top of the current data, Cowden and his team have discovered that much of "green research" used to prove or disprove concrete environmental validity are what he politely refers to as "subjective." He continues, "I think there are a lot of slanted studies out, and it's up to our industry to help sort through those and make sure that we have the best studies out that are the most honest and represent the products properly."
ACPA continues to rely heavily on the local marketing of concrete pipe through the addition of regional engineers and affiliation with local concrete pipe associations. "In many cases, we're trying to integrate the state and local associations as an affiliate to ACPA," Cowden explains. "That started a couple of years ago, and it's rolling right along; in fact, it's growing. And that's saying something in a bad economy. People are happier with it, and I think it's because it's a type of networking situation where our regional engineers can work with the local guys and pass on any information they need.
"There's a regular call-in meeting during which representatives from each local association get a chance to talk about whatever crazy thing is going on in their territory, so they can share it with people. It has helped us move our industry forward faster than our competitors over the last two or three years. In fact, we're seeing continued growth in concrete, and we've slowed down the growth of our competitors' products."
Another way ACPA is getting the word out on important issues while still saving money is web-based education sessions and webinars, which the association has been ramping up in the last two years. "I think most businesses are taking this approach, but we certainly jumped right into it early," says Cowden. "We have monthly webinars with a substantial base of people that call in. We try to cover different topics, and sometimes we invite outside engineering firms, agency people or DOT representatives to talk about particular topics. Other times, if the subject is more from a manufacturing standpoint, it may be open to mostly our membership and production people. We give continuing education credits, and we think that's helped out a lot."
Cowden notes that the green-themed webinars of late have experienced above-average attendance in recent months. "We had a fellow here about two months ago talking about carbon footprints and how they are calculated, which received very high marks. But we do try to mix things up. We don't want to do webinars where six months out of the year are for engineers, five months for salesmen, and one for production people," he says, adding that ACPA's website is on the verge of a major overhaul in September. The new site will be directed more at the engineering and agency communities to use as a resource, while still being useable for producers.
The site also will allow visitors to download entire papers rather than having to order them via mail. Cutting-edge Smartphone applications are under development and will be available online. ACPA is also using social and business media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.
ACPA began offering the Pipe Short Course in the days just prior to The Precast Show. Originally, the continuing education event was divided into a three-day production course and a three-day sales school. But when the economy conspired to make such "luxuries" cost-prohibitive, the association combined the two schools. There was initial concern that smaller plants would resist allowing the production manager and sales person to travel at the same time, but the association's most recent event—The Precast Show in Charlotte, N.C.—saw its highest attendance to date. The 2012 course will be held at the end of February, just prior to the March 1-3 Precast Show in Orlando, Fla. Cowden adds that with the National Concrete Masonry Association back in the fold as a co-sponsor of The Precast Show, the advanced exhibitor registration is up significantly.
STORMWATER RUNOFF FEEDBACK
In late August 2011, Jeremy Bauer, an environmental scientist with EPA provided an overview of the stormwater rule the agency planned to present to Congress sometime in September. The rule’s key provisions essentially mandate pervious pavement and water capture and collection rather than discharging to a distant site. Once the rule is presented, there will be a public comment period. EPA will respond to comments and can make modifications to the rule, with the final rule expected to be issued on Nov. 19, 2012.
While Cowden says this hasn't been a major topic of discussion among ACPA's member and leadership as yet, it's a major issue in California after legislation was passed that will help the storm drainage industry. "The legislation essentially brings California up-to-speed with Illinois and other states back east," he says. "For example, everyone in Illinois has a retention basin that catches stormwater for a certain length of time. They've expanded those types of rules and regulations in California, so we'll have more retention basins and ponds, underground storage, and storm drainage pipe. From where I sit, life is going to get better for us and give us a potential new market."
AREAS OF GROWTH
Cowden says one area in which he's seeing substantial growth is the box market. "In the case of Rialto, it's something new," he observes. "We're breaking into a market traditionally handled by contractors that were building either trapezoidal or square channels for drainage, or the work was going to an underground contractor that poured the concrete in place to make a box structure. We see that market growing every year."
He believes that on a national scale, the pipe industry is getting itself situated for the recovery, however it takes shape. "I think I speak for the industry when I say that we've pretty well bottomed out. Now it's a matter of what we do on the upturn," Cowden says. "When I took over as chair, I stressed that we need to be ready for the uptake, maybe not as fast as we'd like; but we have to get it into our heads that today is the new normal, and everything from this point on is upward.
"Part of our strategic plan is to get more people in place to get ready for the turnaround. Our association is pretty much a technical staff. Twelve of our 16 staff members are engineers. We're getting ourselves in a position so that when the economy grows, we're going to grow really fast. The other good thing is that our membership is larger today than when the economy started heading down. That's pretty impressive, when you think about it."
A few years ago, ACPA hired its first lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and although Cowden was understandably reluctant to discuss the specifics of what the new staffer was focusing his attentions on, he did say, "It's been a very good addition to our organization and it allows us to stay on top of what is happening in Washington. With the lobbyist's help, if there are people we need to talk to or if things are changing that might hurt our industry, we're aware of it in time to do something about it. In years gone by, the damage was done before we ever had the opportunity to curb it or offer rebuttal or take it on. It's been one of our best additions and it's necessary in this day and age.
"Many years ago, we were strictly a technical, engineering-type group. We have expended into a lot of marketing areas, trying to figure out what piece of the pie we have out there and how to make it grow. In the past few years, we finally figured out that we need to be political also. It's helped make us a more well-rounded association.”
One of the political areas ACPA has been working on is the continually nagging issue of whether the EPA will eventually classify fly ash derived from coal as a hazardous waste. "My own feeling is that because of the green aspects of fly ash, sooner or later we'll get favorable rulings on it that won't make our lives any more difficult than they already are," Cowden predicts. "If their ruling were to go the wrong way, it would be such a sad thing to see. If we couldn't afford to use it because of all the requirements and unnecessary specifications heaped upon it, that would be terrible. EPA officials have had meetings all over the country to get input, and we've had either [ACPA president] Matt Childs or some of the regional engineers at two or three of those meetings to voice their opinions. Everyone is taking EPA seriously, but everyone is also in agreement that we need to keep using fly ash."
The association's readiness to respond to any pipe-related movement in Washington is so finely tuned, its software triggers an alert whenever the phrase "concrete pipe" or any type of pipe shows up in a bill from state or federal legislators. The ACPA's rapid-response team immediately investigates to determine if anything needs to be addressed.
As his predecessor, Mark Omelaniec, president of The Langley Concrete Group of Companies, did before him, Cowden views the use of untested alternative pipe materials arriving from outside North America as a major threat to both business and safety. "We continue to investigate and study the engineering behind these materials, because some of them have come to market so fast," he explains. "Some are claiming to be 'the greatest thing ever made,' and before you know it, it's in your backyard. We feel it's our obligation to look at these because we're an established product.
"At one time, we had a product come into North America from half way around the world that had a type of cellular fiber in it. We investigated it and came to the conclusion that it was not a product that could compete with concrete pipe. We got the word out, and in a matter of two or three years, it was no longer being manufactured in the United States. I'm not saying we killed it, but we looked into it and saw that it wasn't comparable to our pipe.”
Cowden looks specifically at the High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) market as one his association has targeted because it is constantly changing.
“One thing we've been looking into lately is HDPE with a thin steel band wrapped around it, which is supposed to make that plastic pipe stiffer, like a corrugated metal pipe,” he says. “The easiest way for folks manufacturing it and bringing it into the United States is to say it works like a metal pipe that won't rust, with all the positive attributes of both steel and plastic. But we concluded that the basis of the product was a plastic pipe reacting one way and a little bit of steel reacting another way. So it's a hybrid pipe, which should stand on its own merit from both a material design and installation design. So do you install it like metal or plastic? We've had a chance to discuss this with people, and many engineers have told us we're right to question it."
LOOKING, MOVING FORWARD
Cowden makes clear that the primary goal of his one-year term as chairman is to make certain the association's recently expanded strategic plan moves forward. "We've had one or two planning sessions. As we finish projects, we'll meet and decide if we're still on track," he says, explaining that ACPA has scheduled an interim strategic planning session before year's end that will bring many of its key people together to review wins and losses and determine direction. "I feel like we'll be setting our goals for the next three to four years by the end of this year."
One area he is glad to see expanding and getting more organized certification through the association's Q-Cast program. "We put a rigorous certification program together for producers, and the firm of WJE [Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates] handles the auditing process," he recalls. "A company can get certified through the association for storm drain pipe, box culverts and sanitary sewer pipe. Recently, TxDOT decided it wanted to have a certification program for all concrete pipe producers in the state of Texas. They chose the Q-Cast program. We're seeing a lot more of that come to the forefront these days because a lot of DOTs are wondering how they can afford to go to pipe plants and do the testing and make sure they're happy with everything pipe plants are doing."
Like many other chairmen of construction-related industries, Cowden sees his markets improving slowly over the next two years. "When I came into office, I had to make a speech," he recalls, "and I thought I was going to catch hell for telling our members that are backing the pipe association that times are tough, but we're making it through it, we're going to be better, and now you need to spend some money. You need to start hiring back some of the technical sales and engineering people and get them positioned where they know the contacts, the DOT and agency people. When this starts turning around, this is going to be the time to hit the ground running.”
Cowden offers the example that when times were good, Rialto was probably 90 percent private and commercial work. So when the housing industry collapsed, the company was virtually paralyzed. But after redefining its base, Rialto is now about 90 percent public agency work and 10 percent subdivision and commercial projects. "We're servicing a market we weren't three years ago," he says. "I was beating the drum to get people to look at markets people gave up on in the past. They're going to carry us through the downturn. When the housing market picks up, we should be on fire because we've got a new base with new products. Rialto still has a long way to go to return to the levels we reached in the good times, but we're optimistic. We've all downsized as low as we can go, and now we're starting to bring people back."
Rialto Concrete Products at a glance
When Rialto Concrete Products started operations in 1988, it was the new kid on the block with packerhead pipe technology. Located about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, it was the smallest pipe producer in the Southern California market and competed with seven other pipe companies. Today, according to Jerry Cowden, executive vice president of Rialto, because of a number of factors, including the poor economy and reshuffling of other companies, that number has dwindled and now Rialto is one of the largest.
With its roughly 20 delivery trucks, Rialto is one of the few pipe companies that does all its own trucking. "Our competitors in Southern California in the late 1990s and into the 2000s got rid of most of their trucks and went to outside haulers," says Jerry Cowden. "We wanted control, but it turned out to be a better way to service our accounts, too. So we got deeply involved with trucking."
At one time operating two California plants, including one in Rialto, the company was forced to mothball its Palmdale facility in early 2010 due to the poor economy. While the company saw virtually no business growth in 2009-10, it is expecting double-digit production increases for 2011 by changing the focus of its markets to include a significant amount of public agency work. "A fair amount of business is coming because we are into precast boxes, which we weren't five years ago, due to lack of recognized specifications," says Cowden. "About a year ago, we finally got that specification written and published through the Green Book, the contractor and underground construction bible for Southern California. Once we got it published, the local engineers jumped on that and they saw our boxes as a viable option."
The company is also finishing up a highway project in San Bernardino, located only 10 miles from the Rialto plant, that was partially funded by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) dollars.
Current pipe offerings include flush bell mortar joint, rubber gasket, elliptical reinforced concrete, precast reinforced concrete boxes, and a range of special products. Other products include PVC-lined and unlined manholes and structures, flared-end sections, wet wells, cast iron frames and covers, and reinforced precast and polymer manholes.
A member of the KTI, Inc. Pipe Group of Companies, Rialto shares a parent company with Conroe (Texas) Pipe; Johnson County Pipe, Texas; AmeriTex Pipe & Products, Texas; Pipeline Carriers, California; T&T Rock Distribution, Texas; and U.S. Composite Pipe, Texas.
Executive Vice President
Rialto Concrete Products, Inc.
IMMEDIATE PAST CHAIRMAN (2010)
The Langley Concrete Group of Companies
Langley, British Columbia
Geneva Pipe Company
For more than a century—its Centennial was celebrated in 2007—the American Concrete Pipe Association has provided a voice for concrete pipe producers in matters affecting the industry's welfare. In return, ACPA members contribute to the improvement of our environment by producing quality concrete pipe, engineered to provide a lasting and economical solution to drainage and pollution problems.
ACPA was conceived in 1907 as the Interstate Cement Tile Manufacturers Association in Ames, Iowa, by a small group of concrete farm drain tile producers. The organization was established as a vehicle for exchanging ideas and establishing high-quality, standardized products. In 1914, the organization was renamed the American Concrete Pipe Association.
Throughout the 20th century, the concrete pipe industry experienced tremendous growth. As people migrated in ever larger numbers from farms to cities, demand increased for concrete sewer and drainage products. With the introduction of the automobile and subsequent development of the highway network, use of concrete pipe storm drains and culverts grew exponentially.
Today, more than 400 plants are operated by ACPA members in the United States and Canada. More than 40 countries are represented in the membership of the American Concrete Pipe Association. ACPA's international headquarters are located at 1303 West Walnut Hill Lane, Suite 305, Irving, Texas 75038; tel.: 972/506-7216; fax: 972/506-7682; e-mail: [email protected]; website: www.concrete-pipe.org.