Upward Mobility

Uneven terrain, makeshift crane rigging, trailer accommodations for office and production staff, and a shipping regimen with loaded trucks backing into

Don Marsh

Uneven terrain, makeshift crane rigging, trailer accommodations for office and production staff, and a shipping regimen with loaded trucks backing into traffic were a way of life for land-locked San Diego Precast. The company closed the doors on operating limitations with a late-2007 move from a 7.5-acre site in Santee, Calif., to an 80,000-sq.-ft. office and plant on an 18-acre plot near the tightly monitored U.S.-Mexico border.

The new quarters represent the precast business flagship of Houston-based parent company, U.S. Concrete Inc., the move transitioning San Diego Precast to U.S. Concrete Precast Group, San Diego Division. The rebranding befits a once-local, ornamental concrete specialist whose order log includes such recent entries as a three-piece, 12-ft. _ 26-ft. precast tank shipped to Antarctica under contract with Raytheon.

[Old site owner] San Diego County set a February 2008 deadline to vacate an operation we had long ago outgrown, based on storage requirements, production capacity, and handling of larger components and structures. We had been scouting suitable replacement sites for more than three years, finding only two- or three-acre pockets available, says U.S. Concrete Precast Division Vice President Doug McLaughlin. Limited availability of pricey land and building a new plant accessible to much of the veteran production staff were but a few relocation challenges, he adds. San Diego County now has environmental, traffic and impact fees that can amount to $20/sq. ft., which could have added $1.6 million to the cost of our new facility.

A year of negotiation with a contractor/developer led to a plot with reasonable impact fees and ample building and yard space to allow for growth. Compared to the Santee property, the new operation is closer to home for 60 percent of San Diego Division team members Û U.S. Concrete’s enterprise-wide staff designation.

With neighbors including three ready mixed plants (Associated, Robertson’s, Superior), the facility is located in the Otay Mesa area of unincorporated San Diego, sandwiched between Brown Field Municipal Airport and Tijuana Airport. U.S. Concrete Precast Group/San Diego took occupancy in November 2007 under a 20-year lease with Hamann Cos., a tilt-up concrete contractor for whom San Diego Precast began supplying small utility boxes in the 1970s. In nine months, the contractor delivered a facility with two-level office space and adjacent quality control lab, team member areas and two-bay production enclosure, plus five acres of concrete pavement.

Under its company-wide Winning the Game effort, U.S. Concrete management is open with team members about production volume and financials, and encourages candid feedback on plant- and safety-improvement matters. That mind-set played in the Otay Mesa facility design.

The process kicked off in January 2007 with a series of weekly planning sessions involving operations, IT and office management, says San Diego Division General Manager Todd Ebbert. We then showed production team members what were fixed stations and invited suggestions on how they would be designed. The guys on the floor were much involved in the final layout. A February groundbreaking, he adds, took place with 35 of their team members; some of them, or other colleagues, visited the site during construction to monitor progress of what would be their new working home by 2008.

Construction flowed like a normal design/build project. As the contractor was casting tilt-up walls for the office and production areas, we were configuring the batch plant and working out a material- and truck-flow plan, explains Ebbert. There was a lot of new indoor and outdoor space to consider. At the old plant, parking was along the street in front of the property. Here, we have an acre of car parking offset from truck routing and product storage.

Steel fabrication and production stations were assigned to optimize overhead lifting capacity and place large-product formwork Û utility vaults and tanks Û closest to mix chutes fed by the new batch plant’s 1-yd. and 2-yd. pan mixers. Production is split in two bays: 1) 80- _ 510-ft. with six 5-50-ton cranes for vaults and tanks; and, 2) 60- _ 340-ft. with four 5-10-ton cranes for architectural panels, signage, and site furnishings such as fence products, decorative planters and waste receptacles, park benches and picnic tables. Architectural and site products are fabricated closest to a 24- _ 50-ft. sandblast booth.


The U.S. Concrete Precast Group flagship has evolved from roots more humble than most operations that opened shop in the 1960s to chase opportunities in septic tanks, manholes and other small utility precast. San Diego Precast began producing ducks, birdbaths, and other ornamental novelties on a ∫-acre El Cajon, Calif., site in 1975. Beginning in 1979, a lease on the larger Santee site positioned San Diego Precast to move toward larger products. The company solidified a stake in mainline architectural precast by landing a 200-piece wall and canopy panel contract for the 1983 expansion of San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium, now Qualcomm Stadium.

During the 1980s and 1990s, San Diego Precast gradually expanded beyond ornamental items and small utility boxes Û which alone amounted to a catalog of hundreds of miscellaneous pieces Û but was limited to products under five tons. The Santee site had just enough room for an outdoor 60- _ 100-ft. production area served by a 5-ton crane. That equipment ushered casting of larger architectural panels and utility products that were a logical extension of bread-and-butter meter box and transformer pad offerings.

In an interim move, to bridge production between the original plant and what became the Otay Mesa property, San Diego Precast leased 2.5 acres in Lakeside, Calif. Equipped with a 20-ton crane, the operation proved sufficient for the company to continue thinking bigger, especially in underground product capabilities.

The main Otay Mesa production area includes a 50-ton crane to support stepped up pursuit of larger vaults and tanks. We are considering other product markets and geographic areas to enter. This plant has the equipment and productivity potential to make that happen, says Doug McLaughlin. U.S. Concrete has enabled us to look longer term. Under our old partnership, we used think mostly about the next month. Now decisions factor five- to 10-year periods and out an economic cycle or two.

The San Diego Division is U.S. Concrete Precast Group’s second major overhaul. It follows a new batch plant and dry cast line built in 2005-2006 at Phoenix-based Smith Pre-Cast, whose manhole, utility box and related service business have grown nearly threefold since the company’s acquisition by U.S. Concrete in 2000. San Diego Precast, which had been acquired in fall 1999 from partners McLaughlin, Todd Ebbert, Tom Vildibill and Bob Vildibill, exhibited growth similar to the Phoenix business. Market opportunities, scope of overhaul, and the time required for a new San Diego plant prompted a first move for Smith Pre-Cast.