NPCA Chairman Brent Dezember has a calculated vision for the future
|NPCA Chairman Brent Dezember
If four words could sum up the chairman’s acceptance speech Brent Dezember delivered at the National Precast Concrete Association’s Annual Convention they would be: endeavor, change, improve and focus. While describing his agenda for the coming year as NPCA’s chairman of the board, those same four words have permeated his entire career.
Dezember has enjoyed a diverse business career. Along the way, he has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. He has seen business booms that set a new standard for high and busts that redefine the meaning of low. He has taken advantage of funding streams while they flowed and watched them dry up. He has found new opportunities when others have faltered. And he has taken on large chunks of new business by embracing the best principles of being a small business.
Change has been a way of life for Dezember, but there have always been constants, none more important than his wife of 34 years and business partner, Anna. Together they have faced challenges, endured failures, and celebrated successes as a team. He will now call on the business acumen gained in banking, land development, ready mixed concrete and precast to further enhance the NPCA mission.
A cursory glance at Dezember’s resume reveals he’s a businessman, entrepreneur, calculated risk taker and seizer of opportunities. But beneath the lengthy business profile there is something more important to him and it can be summed up in one word: family.
Both Dezember and his wife Anna were born and raised in Bakersfield, Calif., and while it can’t quite be categorized as a sleepy little town with a population of more than 500,000, to them it represents what small-town America is all about. The draw of working and raising a family in Bakersfield caused him to turn down an offer that would have furthered a promising career in the banking industry. While working in Los Angeles, his boss offered him a job doing non-banking acquisitions in San Francisco, Tokyo or Berlin. That was on a Friday. On Monday—after he and Anna spent the weekend talking through their goals and vision for the future—he knew his next move. He resigned on Monday and two weeks later they were back in Bakersfield ready to start anew.
It wasn’t that Dezember was opposed to new challenges. It was that he and Anna knew they could endeavor for more without losing sight of their core goals. It didn’t take long before opportunity came knocking in the form of the availability of Resolution Trust Corporation funding during the first savings and loan crisis. Acquiring foreclosed apartment properties, rehabbing them, and then selling them became a way to both revitalize the city they love and make a living. The business grew into land acquisitions and subdivision development.
Similar to those early years in business, Dezember sees ways NPCA can endeavor for more without losing sight of its core mission. Among the items on the list is a strategic partnership with the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI) that starts with a gradual joining of efforts at association’s annual The Precast Show. “There’s very little risk and great rewards there for all NPCA and PCI members,” he says. “This is the best greenfield development we can make for The Precast Show that I can think of. It’s just a win-win all the way around.”
The next step is a universal certification program that will make the industry as a whole stronger and eliminate confusion among specifiers. Several meetings to figure out the logistics of harmonizing the two precast plant certification programs have taken place with more planned for the future. “The more members we get involved, the more we’ll all understand and come up with the best way to make a universal certification program that helps everybody equally,” Dezember affirms. “We have certification so these specifiers—DOTs, architects and engineering firms—will look to somebody as the source they can trust. If we were together, there would be a lot more teeth in the program and it’s the next step of credibility for the certification programs.
“We’re both doing fine, but boy, can we be great by combining on some of these issues.”
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The real estate development business was going great for the Dezembers until the banks slowly started getting out of that type of lending. What could have been a major setback was simply an opportunity to adapt, so that’s what they did.
Dezember’s grandfather and father had been in the ready mixed business, so the industry was in Brent’s DNA. But ready mixed in Bakersfield had become dominated by three producers under large, multi-national cement companies. Knowing he needed a functioning business to be able to borrow money, and seeing an absence of locally owned operators, Dezember found his next opportunity.
He started with six employees, leasing a ready mixed plant from one of the large companies, and rehabbing four delivery trucks they were going to scrap. The first year ended with 10,000 yd. sold. When he and Anna sold the business 14 years later, those numbers had grown to 100 mixers, 150 employees and 200,000 yd. What happened in between those years was a willingness to constantly change.
Each year, key employees would get together and talk about how to grow the business. One year, when it looked like the company had reached a peak, an idea came from a dispatcher that fundamentally altered the business. Discussing the future over pizza and beer he said, “You know, ‘on time’ in the ready mix business is 50 percent. If I were your customer, I don’t think I’d be very happy unless you guys were on time all the time.”
The company changed its objectives and everyone got paid an incentive to be on time. A new goal was established to be on time 90 percent of the time, which required a 30 percent increase in equipment expenditures. The first year was a wash financially, but sales increased 50 percent, so they pushed the concept further. Drivers carried credit receipts for refunds if a customer wasn’t pleased and handed out business cards with their home phone numbers. The customers liked the attitude and sales continued to grow.
Looking at NPCA and its members with the same change and growth ethic in mind, Dezember places an emphasis on building the association through the education and marketing programs. The NPCA education program has significantly expanded over the years, including the creation of Precast University and the Master Precaster designation, which offers a high level certification for precasters and a clear path for production workers to move into management positions by advancing through the curriculum.
“You see the growth in those who pursue NPCA education, because they’ve learned some things and go to other people for ideas,” says Dezember. “We need to take advantage of those great class offerings and not take them for granted.”
Marketing has also played an increasingly important role for the association in recent years. By using the tools provided by NPCA, Dezember anticipates that producer members will improve their focus on their customers and product lines, and get better information on their markets. To him, it’s a great way to find out what the customers really want and to adapt to meet those needs.
“Change is very challenging and status quo is very comforting, but status quo is where you die,” he contends. “There will always be people telling you not to do it, but the same old way just doesn’t work.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
After selling their ready mixed business in 1999, Brent and Anna Dezember took some time off that included a trip to Europe. Having observed new ways that precast was being used overseas, they shifted the focus of their precast company, which was then called Bakersfield Precast and focused on manufacturing houses. The Bakersfield Precast venture was doing OK, but it was tough sledding selling to contractors. The houses cost about 5 percent more than a conventional model to construct, but would save buyers about 25 percent annually on their homeowners insurance. The additional cost nullified the premium in one year. It seemed like an easy concept to understand, but as it turns out, Dezember had missed a few key pieces.
The long-term savings, “meant zero to homebuilders and I missed that piece even though I was in the industry,” he notes. “Also, homebuilders don’t build houses on plans. They’re just general suggestions, and a precaster has to build things on plans. So we missed two great dynamics because I got focused on the precasters’ perspective.”
Dezember’s first foray into precast left room for improvement, but the trip to Europe that triggered the move into structures and the rebranding to the StructureCast name has been much more successful. That same willingness to seek improvement and make bold moves can come to NPCA and the precast industry in many ways. Dezember would like to further cultivate the volunteer base and expand the certification program, for starters.
“As we get more people on the committees and they’re asking to do more things we need to make sure we hear them,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes, we’re just going to be a lot better at it if we get the voice from the members. If we get that voice, then deal with facts and come up with measurable objectives, we will provide true member value.”
When it comes to improvement in the industry, Dezember has seen the role certification has played in upping the ante on quality and wants to keep that momentum going: “Concrete is incredibly versatile, incredibly durable and it’s just really tough to say there’s a peer. When I think of all our producer members you’re going to be hard pressed to find a product that’s going to beat what they have to sell but each one of them has some level of difficulty selling their product against competing products and lesser quality. And hence, the greatest asset NPCA has by far and away, I think, is certification. If we can learn to market and certify people at higher rates every year it’s going to be great for the industry.”
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While Anna has been a constant force throughout his career, Dezember has another constant that stays with him: a sharp focus on accurate information, solid goals and constant measurement. It started with his banking background and was solidified by an accountant he worked with early in his career who stressed the need for having and using accurate financial information. The practice has been set in stone by success when he did set and measure goals and failure when he did not.
At StructureCast, each manager must have goals for his or her area, but no more than five and preferably four or three. The company also has four key goals, and employees are coached to “focus on those with a vengeance.” The goals are measured continually. “In the years I’ve been in business, when I’ve not focused on the goals and we’ve taken our eyes off the mark, we have failed,” he says. “That’s not acceptable. There’s too much effort and energy invested not to succeed.”
Dezember strives to gather accurate, realistic information. Looking back at past mistakes, he sees a pattern of either poor information or a lack of focus, which often go hand in hand. Accurate information is not always easy to find, though, and it takes more effort than some are willing to put forth. “In group settings, people go along with what somebody says and don’t get their own information because it’s easy,” he adds. “When you dig into the facts that’s where the money is, in the arbitrage between the people who have the facts and the people who don’t have the facts.”
Technological and ideological shifts such as resilient construction, modularization and continued growth of Building Information Modeling (BIM) appear to Dezember to lend themselves to the attributes and benefits of precast. But to take advantage of these shifts requires setting the proper goals, potentially to include seeking new products, making quality improvements, or striving for faster installation—and then remaining focused on those goals.
“As a precaster, if you tell them you’re going to bring a better looking, better lasting, faster product then you have to perform and do that,” he says. “We need the fact that we produce great products fast, with great design and longevity, to be the forefront of who we are.”
The same approach goes for the association. In his NPCA Convention speech, Dezember laid out some clear goals for the group moving forward. They included leadership in certification, increased specifier outreach, proactive marketing, improved member service and value, and alignment with related industry associations.
“NPCA provides industry leadership by promoting precast concrete, identifying opportunities, addressing challenges to the industry, and supporting and developing member success,” he said. “It is my goal to focus on that mission for the next 12 months and do what I can to help advance the industry within the boundaries of that mission.”
Each goal will require accurate information, clear tactics and measurement if they are to succeed. Anna Dezember has no doubt her husband is the right person to lead the charge, noting “Brent’s a person with vision. He’s not afraid of change, or evaluation. He gives of his time very selflessly and at the highest level so whether it’s as a business or community leader Brent is a very inspirational person.” — Prepared by NPCA Staff for Concrete Products
STRUCTURE CAST AT A GLANCE
The company named StructureCast was an evolution, of sorts, that Brent and Anna Dezember established after a number of years in the concrete industry. It began with a ready-mix company in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1985, and in just a few short years several satellite plants sprang up along the central valley of California.
“Our next foray would be a company called Bakersfield Precast,” says Brent Dezember, adding that it was a structural prestressed plant they operated for six or seven years. But then their focus shifted solely to the precast business, and they sold the ready-mix company in 1999. “We changed the name to StructureCast, because we started selling more product outside of Bakersfield and Kern County,” adds Dezember. “Now our sales in our geographic region are slim to none.”
A little more than half of StructureCast’s business goes to architectural precast cladding and wall panels, while a little less than half is structural concrete products, including prestressed beams and girders and some large custom underground vaults. Its employees numbered from 65 to 70 before the Great Recession, except for a two-and-a-half-year period when its ranks swelled to about 150 employees during two large prison projects.
The recession hit them with a dizzying blow in 2008, however, as the construction business dried up in California. “From the end of 2008 to maybe the end of 2009, our business declined about 60 percent,” notes Dezember. “We had three very large projects that cancelled, which accounted for about 60 percent of our backlog at that time. So we shrank pretty rapidly. It was the first time we’ve ever had to lay off in the history of our company.”
StructureCast then developed what Dezember calls a “bunker mentality” and did as much work as it could with as few workers as possible. “And now the fruits of that: We’re still here!” he affirms. With a lot of determination and a viable skill set, the company is now back on track with its pre-recession backlog of products and 65 to 70 employees. At the close of 2013, it appeared that sales would be 50 percent ahead of where they were for 2012.
But things are decidedly different now, and it’s not just their concerted attempts at lean manufacturing. Things are different in the way they handle sales and the way they work with general contractors. “You definitely have to be more aggressive,” says Anna Dezember, who heads up the sales division. “Back in the earlier days, you could wait for the phone to ring, take an order, pour some concrete, and put it on a truck and deliver it. That just went away.”
Now, StructureCast does more partnering with general contractors in design-build projects, she notes, adding, “One of the key aspects that helped us through the recession was some of the strong partnerships that we had with general contractors. Fostering those relationships has been very important. Also, expanding our product line helped smooth out some of those peaks and valleys.”
Two of those expansions were a StoneTree franchise for concrete fence walls, and an Easi-Set franchise for portable buildings. StructureCast added the StoneTree franchise during the first year of the economic downturn. So far, all of the jobs have been custom, but the company hopes to grow that line of business into an inventory product. The producer added the Easi-Set franchise about two years ago, and so far 90 percent of structures have also been custom work. The two new product lines now account for 15–20 percent of sales, which helps keep the production crews busy.
“We have a great sales team on those two product lines,” says Brent Dezember, “and we see them doing nothing but growing in the next three to five years. We’re making inroads with the Easi-Set franchise in California.”
While StructureCast’s 2013 performance is still being assessed, 2014 goals are now on the slate, and management is focusing on product quality and company growth. “For 2014, we want to be able to fill our backlog, which is going to mean bringing on some more skilled help and training them,” says Dezember. “I think we have a lot of room to grow to improve our quality and a lot of room to grow to become more lean. We’ve tried lean programs about every year, and something always interrupts us. Most of our jobs are ‘hurry up and wait’ and I think that interrupts the lean process, so we really need a fulltime ‘lean’ person to keep us focused on that. That’s the next step.”
Founded in 1965, NPCA has grown to become an international trade association representing 900 companies and suppliers that manufacture hundreds of precast, prestressed and reinforced concrete pipe products for underground and above-ground applications. NPCA member companies manufacture products that create and rebuild infrastructure, protect the environment and offer modularity, customization and infinite creative design possibilities across all sectors of the construction industry. NPCA provides members with the latest technical and industry information through a host of publications, educational seminars, product committees and conferences. The association promotes high quality standards and safety through its education component and ANSI-accredited plant certification program.
NPCA President Ty Gable, C.A.E., has led the association staff for more than 19 years. During that time, NPCA has built a team of technical experts and has grown the Plant Certification Program to more than 365 plants. In 2009, NPCA launched The Precast Show, the largest trade show specifically targeting the precast concrete products industry.
NPCA is located near Indianapolis, Ind., at 1320 City Center Drive, Suite 200, Carmel, IN 46032. Phone and fax numbers are: tel.: 317/571-9500 or 800/366- 7731; fax: 317/571-0041; e-mail: [email protected]; website: precast.org.
IMMEDIATE PAST CHAIRMAN (2013)