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The Future is Bright

Jon Ohmes is the 2019-2020 National Precast Concrete Association Chairman of the Board
Jon Ohmes

Jon Ohmes

Standing 630 feet tall, the stainless steel Gateway Arch monument is internationally recognized as the symbol of St. Louis, Mo. Its representation as a bridge between East and West, engineering and art, past and future has been well documented, and the arch is widely known as the symbol for the state.

Jon Ohmes, owner of St. Louis-area-based precast concrete manufacturer Champion Precast, wants to build more of that same kind of brand awareness for the National Precast Concrete Association (NPCA) and the precast concrete industry during his time as Chairman of the Board. His vision includes boosting marketing efforts to increase both specifier education and outreach to students to show how precast concrete can enhance a project or open the door to an enriching career. He also envisions a day when every department of transportation, architecture and engineering firm, and design office across North America will know what it means to be NPCA-certified.

It’s a passionate agenda that stems from his lifelong captivation with the precast concrete industry and his appreciation for the countless opportunities it has offered him.

PRECAST BEGINNINGS

As a third-generation concrete products manufacturer, Ohmes developed a love for the industry from his family. In 1946, his grandfather, Frank Kirchner, and grandmother, Nell, purchased a hand-operated block mold from Sears and Roebuck to build a chicken coop while Frank was laid off from the local General Motors plant. Their plans were to produce the block they needed and sell the rest until the lay-off was over.

Word spread about their blocks and orders started flooding in. In fact, business was so good that Frank decided to not to return to GM when he was called back. He grew the company until 1972, when he retired and Ohmes’ father and two uncles took over the business. Over time, the company acquired other block plants in the St. Louis area, but the key purchase came in 1979 with an operation in Wentzville, Mo. This was a pivotal point because the company not only manufactured block, but also had ready-mix concrete operations and a small precast concrete plant. It’s where Ohmes’ love for the precast industry began.

“When I worked in the block business, I was working on the assembly line, and it was repetitive, oftentimes boring work,” he says. “So what excited me and made me interested in working with precast concrete was [that] it was different work every day. Plus, the size of the products amazed me. I recall one of the first tanks we made was 2,000 gallons, and it was huge at that time.”

Ohmes worked several summers at the precast concrete plant during high school. He said those summers helped him gain respect in the office since he knew the business from the bottom-up. “You always hear the rumblings, ‘Well, he’s here because he’s family,’ but that always made me want to do more,” he recalls. “I always tried to outdo everyone else by staying later or volunteering for more work.”

After graduating high school, he stepped away from the business and earned an electrician degree. Shortly after, though, he received a call asking if he’d like to come back to the plant to work dispatch, which eventually led to sales. “I had another great job opportunity to consider and had to make a tough decision,” he says. “In the end, I am glad I came back to the precast industry. All I know is it did turn out good in the end.”

His electrician skills also weren’t wasted when he returned to work. Since the company was small and everyone had to do multiple jobs, he was able to help save the business money by fixing lighting, vibrators or mixers. The work was never the same from one day to the next, which always has been a big reason Ohmes remained in the precast concrete industry.

Early on, the precast sales were minimal, and Ohmes was given concrete pavers to sell. However, selling the new product presented an opportunity for him to meet NPCA member Jim Barbour of Barbour Concrete Products and catch a glimpse of how a successful precast concrete plant looks and operates.

“We were sharing some molds at the time, and it was obviously more cost-effective for one of us to buy and share with the other,” Ohmes explains. “My job was to run the molds back and forth and, in the process, I got to know Jim. During my third trip over, he offered to take me on a tour of the precast plant. That was my first eye-opening experience of being wowed by what other manufacturers were doing.

“From there my dream began, and I wanted us to emulate those precast operations. But it wasn’t just their buildings or equipment I wanted to emulate; it was also the atmosphere they presented. I kept telling myself, ‘We can get to that point.’”

POWER OF CONNECTIONS

Around the same time, Ohmes started attending more NPCA meetings and trade shows. He said what he has gained the most from having an active presence in the association are trusted relationships with other precast producers across the country. “Before NPCA, I never had anyone I could call to ask about a piece of equipment or new process before,” he notes. “So, it was great to get their honest opinion before making a decision. Now, relationships have taken a 180-degree turn and members are now calling me for advice.”

Since joining NPCA, Ohmes has contacted his peers about crane trucks, software, hydraulic mud buckets and more. The advice shared from other precasters proved valuable when Champion Precast considered installing solar panels on top of its production facilities. He had considered adding the panels for some time, but hesitated until a conversation with Greg Stratis, president of Shea Concrete Products, who had installed an array at his plant in Amesbury, Mass.

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Champion Precast bollards sit outside the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis to obstruct vehicular traffic and protect pedestrians.
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Champion Precast installed a large outfall structure for Black Shire Distillery in Hermann, Mo., in one afternoon.

“We wanted to install the panels two years before we actually did,” says Ohmes. “I talked with Greg and asked him, ‘What’s the good, bad and the ugly.’ And he told me it was all good.”

The decision ended up being a great investment for the company, he adds: The installed system will generate more than 255,000 kilowatt-hours per year, reducing energy costs at the plant by more than 75 percent and placing the company at the forefront of sustainable technology.

“What I have grown to love most about this industry is the way we lift each other up,” Ohmes affirms. “NPCA meetings help build relationships. My family has always taught me the importance of giving back, so I was deeply honored when the time came [that] I was asked to serve on the Board.”

CONTINUING THE MOMENTUM

Since Ohmes has joined the Board in 2013, the association has made great strides in its efforts to increase outreach to specifiers and students, provide top-notch industry education, and administer a certification program that is valued and used by members to elevate the production of quality precast concrete.

His goal as Chairman of the Board is to keep this momentum going by increasing marketing efforts to build a powerful brand identity for the association. Doing so helps specifiers and members understand that NPCA is known for providing premier technical expertise and resources for the whole industry to use.

Ohmes also believes that there is a reason why things happen in life. In 2019, he was asked to serve on the search committee to identify a new president to succeed Ty Gable, who retired from NPCA at the end of 2019 after nearly 26 years. He was honored once again to give back.

“This is the third time I’ve been on a search committee for different associations and non-profits I’m involved with,” says Ohmes. “So, when the opportunity came, I felt very comfortable since I’ve been through the process before.”

He said the committee received a number of good candidates for the position but in the end the choice was clear. The Board of Directors hired Frederick H. Grubbe, MBA, CAE, to lead NPCA’s professional staff. His tenure began on January 2. Grubbe is the fourth NPCA president and brings more than 25 years of non-profit leadership experience in associations, foundations and government. Ohmes says he knows Grubbe is going to do an outstanding job and is confident that his passion, skills and talent are going to take the association the next level.

With an engaged and devoted board beside him, the head of the professional staff in place, and the industry surging forward as it continues to innovate and evolve, Ohmes is excited for his year at the helm and optimistic about what will come next. “I see a lot of upside in the industry,” he affirms. “I see no end in sight and a bright future ahead.”

Sara Geer is National Precast Concrete Association’s Communication Manager and Managing Editor of Precast Inc.


CHAMPION PRECAST At-A-Glance

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Champion Precast installed 628 solar panels on two production facilities, generating more than 255,000 kilowatt-hours per year. The company produces utility, sanitary and storm structures, water and wastewater vaults, plus detention and solid separator chambers. PHOTOS: Champion Precast

National Precast Concrete Association At-A-Glance