In July 2007, Owell Precast announced it was opening a state-of-the-art hollow core production line using Spancrete technology as part of a licensing
In July 2007, Owell Precast announced it was opening a state-of-the-art hollow core production line using Spancrete technology as part of a licensing agreement with exclusive rights to the process in Utah and Nevada. The move comes as yet another example of how determined company leadership is to grow business at an almost unfathomable rate.
According to Ryan Balls, general manager of the Bluffdale, Utah-based Owell Precast, the company has seen at least 50 percent growth every year since it was founded in 1991, largely on the strength of product line extension. Situated on 240 acres in the south of Salt Lake Valley, the company’s single plant is home to many related businesses that work together to support each other.
WINDOW WELL TO THE FUTURE
Originating in 1991 as a Salt Lake City ready mixed operation under founding partners Brent Baker and Dave Balls (father of Ryan, the oldest of six siblings), Owell Precast began as something of an afterthought. In 1993, the pair went on to acquire a bankrupt sand and gravel pit south of the city, and the idea of housing multiple construction materials units under one umbrella company began to take root. The move to Bluffdale soon followed.
After Baker and Balls felt certain that business was stable, they noticed that many of their mixer trucks were returning from job sites with unused material still in the drum. The owners were looking for a creative way to use the leftover product, and it was decided that it would be poured into a window well mold, with the resulting product sold as a side business. Sales for the precast window wells eventually took off, and demand quickly outgrew the availability of returned concrete. Soon Owell developed a vertical gang form for precast fence. This system was so successful that it was patented and is now sold under a sister company, Verti-Crete. Today, Verti-Crete is licensing this technology all over the world, according to Balls. Sales of both window wells and fences have grown rapidly in past years, making Owell Utah’s top seller of both products, a position it holds to this day.
Owell Precast was sort of the red-headed stepchild of the company in the beginning, explains Balls. Now it’s the largest division of the group and PCI certified. Even the name sounds like it was an accident Û ‘Oh, well.’ That’s actually where the name came from Û the original name of the company was O Well.
Owell’s fencing business now makes up about 60 percent of the company’s total revenue. That will go down as new products are introduced, such as hollow core, Balls says. In addition to Verti-Crete, sister companies in the group include Valley Ready Mix, Salt Lake Valley Sand and Gravel, and Valley Crane and Rigging (an offshoot of the precast business).
Pulling from a talented and experienced family, Dave Balls’ older brother, Dan, was brought in as a partner, while their cousin Reed is in charge of the Owell fencing division. The entire group of companies has roughly 200 employees.
Ryan Balls estimates that the plant ships about 60,000 pieces of structural and architectural building components per year, with a product line that includes 4- to 10-ft.-tall decorative fences in various styles, retaining blocks, wall panels, wainscotting, and, of course, window wells. Owell also makes stadium risers and bleachers, as well as smaller bridges with spans of less than 25 ft. We’re a single plant with goal and aspirations to become a force outside of Utah, says Balls when discussing the addition of hollow core products to the company’s offerings.
One major learning experience for Owell took place during the ramp up for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Owell Precast simply wasn’t ready to contribute a significant amount of product to any of the building that took place around the Games, admits Balls. However, other precast companies leased land from us, and our mold-building and ready-mixed businesses did really well during that 2000-02 period. Our precast division did provide many precast flag pole bases for the Olympics, so we did help in that respect.
What Owell Precast did do during that time was watch how more-established precast companies handled such large orders. It was a time of watching and learning for us. But what has always driven business for us is product innovation. We’ve been on the cutting edge of mold and form development, especially for our fencing products. We have eight stone patterns currently; our closest competitor has two. And the Spancrete agreement is a big part of staying innovative.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
Although the 125,000-sq.-ft. structure that houses the hollow core line is still being erected, production on roof and floor planks commenced in June. We began the company with a 2,500-sq.-ft. building and later added a 25,000-sq.-ft. building, which now houses our architectural precast product. So, to have a dedicated place to manufacture hollow core is a major commitment on our part, explains Balls. Fully enclosed facilities are essential in year-round production of any precast product, he says, especially during the notoriously brutal Utah winters.
To date, most of the plant’s hollow core product has been shipped to multi-story commercial projects, including condominium and hotel work. We do get some residential work, like panels for a suspended garage floor. But the residential market is down just about everywhere, says Balls. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve always had one side of the company that’s doing well and helps carry the rest of the divisions.
Balls says Owell has been working on the Spancrete franchise for years leading up to the licensing agreement. There are not many hollow core providers in the area. Few precasters have the means or space to produce plank. But it was another product line that we’ve wanted to add for a while, he says. We anticipate it becoming our flagship product and eventually doing more for us than even fencing, particularly in Nevada and Phoenix, which is also one of our markets.
The hollow core addition required a new batch plant with a 4-yd. pan mixer. Three silos feed the mixer cement (from Holcim’s Devil’s Slide mill), with admixtures provided by Sika. Aggregate is delivered to the plant from sister company Salt Lake Valley S&G; a feed hopper charges a conveyor feeding the batch plant’s four-compartment bin. Mixes are delivered by a bucket-bearing fork lift to the Spancrete machine, an 8-ft.-wide gantry slipformer currently running at 11,000 sq. ft. per day to produce 4- and 8-ft.-wide floor plank that can span up to 44 ft.
The planks are produced on three beds in 430-ft. runs. Typically, the facility gets between 12 and 20 planks per bed. Curing is presently done with just ambient air, which takes anywhere from 18 to 24 hours. But, Owell is currently installing a steam curing unit, which Balls says will speed up the process, especially during the colder seasons.
Two bridge saws work to cut the planks to length, after which two 25-ton P&H overhead cranes move the finished product to driveways in the building for loading onto flatbed trucks. We don’t keep much inventory in our yard, says Balls. If you do see anything stored there, it’s likely sold product that just hasn’t been picked up yet. We do have an 80,000-lb. gantry crane and a couple of 70-ton conventional boom cranes working the yard, but really the only product we stockpile is our window wells.
When we started production, we were expecting to have time to grow into the new line, but the day we turned on the machine, we were producing at capacity. The hollow core business is growing so fast, we already know we can’t keep up.
Balls believes that what makes Owell and its sister companies unique in Utah is the one-stop aspect of the company. What makes us unusual in the marketplace is that we have all of these divisions under the same ownership. Mining, ready mixed, precast, a full-service crane company, mold building. It separates us from other precasters. And, if our plans stay on track, we’ll have a more permanent presence outside of Utah.