AN INDEPENDENT HOLDS ITS OWN IN ONE OF THE MOST DYNAMIC MARKETS FOR READY MIXED CONCRETE
by Don Marsh
Most raw material suppliers and concrete contractors wouldn’t mind a few more operators like family-owned Best Redi-Mix: Three plants running 10-15 mixers each; dedicated dump and tanker fleet; financial stability from a history of sound pricing and current accounts; and, honest delivery scheduling.
“We manage to a pretty high standard,” says Best R-M President Roger Bertling. “Some competitors overbook badly and do not always show up for a job. We are a responsible supplier known for being on time, standing behind our product, and not taking on more work than we can handle. My reputation is the main thing I can lean on and the reason people choose to do business with us.”
He runs Best R-M with his wife Catherine, brother Kevin, and recent addition to the staff, daughter Katie, plus a host of loyal office, plant, dispatch and driver staff with tenure as long as 25 years. They have seen the Houston market through thick and thin, weathering peak to trough cycles where the spread, measured in concrete output, is likely in the 6 million to 8 million yd. range.
Best R-M was founded in 1980, at the dawn of Houston’s worst post-war business cycle. A market tethered to declining oil prices, and fertile ground for speculative residential and commercial development, became known for see-through office buildings and vacant tract-housing projects.
More than 35 years on, Best R-M is again observing oil price volatility, but the market effect is far less as Houston’s economy is greatly diversified from the 1980s. The metro area’s population growth, sprawling development and strong adoption of concrete for mainline, municipal and parking lot pavement fuel annual ready mixed demand comfortably north of 10 million yd. At peak season in recent years, some Houston concrete contractors have had to look weeks out for even mundane pours.
Best R-M is well positioned for commercial and residential work in points north of downtown Houston. It operates three plants about 25 miles apart. Two are within the inner and outer loops, Interstate 610 and Beltway 8/Sam Houston Parkway and Tollway; the flagship Kindred plant is northeast, the Hockley plant northwest. A third plant is due north in Conroe, near the Dallas-Houston Interstate 45 corridor. The Best R-M fleet spans 42 10.5-yd. McNeilus mixers, primarily mounted on Kenworth T880s or T800s, plus two Putzmeister 38-meter and one Schwing 39-meter boom pump trucks. Sister company BRM Transportation runs 19 tractors, mostly T880s, hauling end dumps and pneumatic tankers.
Best R-M began as an offshoot of Best Sand and Trucking as it approached depletion of a leased-site deposit near Lake Houston, on the east side of Houston. “My dad had a successful business, and at 19, I was driving trucks and working in the shop,” Bertling recalls. “He saw an opportunity in ready mixed, bought a new plant and three trucks, then gave me the keys to the office and said, ‘now go run it.’”
|The BRM Transportation dump and tanker fleet serves the Kindred flagship (shown here), plus Hockley and Conroe satellites. Best Redi-Mix thrives on stability and loyalty, keeping materials hauling in house and maintaining a 25-year relationship with aggregate suppliers. Port of Houston terminals, closest to the Kindred plant, ensure stable cement supplies.|
Selling, batching and delivering concrete, he adds, “I grew up fast. As a company, we took our time and I learned everything about the business. We grew from three to 10 mixers, and expanded from the single site into the portable plant business, handling local contracts and moving onto Austin and Dallas for 30,000- to 40,000-yard jobs. We got out of portable production in 1998, just as Texas environmental law changed. Operators who had not been required to issue public notice prior to opening portable plants suddenly had to wait six months for a permit.”
Before exiting portable concrete production, he bought out Best R-M from father John Bertling who moved about 100 miles northwest to Iola, Texas, where he continues to run Best Materials, a three-plant ready mixed operation.
Taking stock of Houston market growth patterns, Roger Bertling determined that a fixed northwest satellite would be the logical step after portable production. In 2001, he opened a plant in Hockley, close to U.S. 290/Northwest Freeway, growing a 10- to 15-mixer fleet to match that of the Kindred headquarters. In 2007, Best R-M bought a 38-meter concrete pump to support a limited placing service. The move was partly to curtail what had become a scheduling and quality control headache: Drivers encountering unexpected delays due to breakdowns in a Houston boom pump fleet past its prime.
|In a market where business cycles foster a transient element in ready mixed production—new operators arriving from other markets, or contractors trying their hand in running a plant and fleet—few independents have shown staying power comparable to Best Redi-Mix. It has proved that through the opening of satellites serving markets northwest (Hockley) and north of Houston (Conroe).|
|Best R-M is nearing 10 years in concrete pumping, running three trucks, including the Putzmeister 38-meter model shown here. With three plants sited about 25 miles apart, the producer can tackle peak periods on sizable commercial projects, including a Kroger-anchored shopping mall (top) amid new subdivisions to the northeast of Houston. Like many nonresidential developments across the metro area, the project has a significant concrete parking lot component, in addition to slab on grade and—in this project—tilt-up walls.|
Equipment and fleet age are top of mind at Best R-M. The entry into pumping services, which followed with the addition of two more boom trucks, overlapped a normal cycle of turning mixers so that the average vehicle age in the fleet is under seven years. Like many peers, however, Best R-M opted to sit out the 2007 phase of Environmental Protection Agency-mandated diesel engine exhaust treatment specs.
Post-2008 market conditions, coupled with anticipation of improved engine and exhaust packages in EPA 2010-compliant trucks, prompted Best R-M to hold mixer fleet upgrades four to five years. After steady investments over the past three years, the producer has returned to customary fleet metrics. More than 30 of its mixers are 2013 or newer, as are three quarters of the dump and tanker tractors.
Drivers embrace the Allison automatic transmission-equipped T880s (note page 37 sidebar). That factor is not lost on Roger Bertling, who has been recruiting drivers and plant staff through traditional advertising channels the past five years. “We have kept drivers as well as anyone during the Texas market peak, and are always conscious of pay and benefits,” he observes. “Limited availability of qualified drivers has affected growth prospects.”
A few new drivers accompanied the 2012 acquisition of a small operator in Conroe, site of a second satellite. Best R-M rebuilt the operation with a Stephens Mfg. transit mixed plant—mirroring Hockley and Kindred equipment. The Conroe plant is pacing a four- to five-year schedule for establishing a firm presence. It positions Best R-M in growing markets north of George Bush Intercontinental Airport, anchored by The Woodlands.
Best R-M logged annual growth from 2012-2015, prompting the next major plant project: A transition from the 3.5-acre flagship site to a nearly adjacent six-acre plot. The second Kindred property includes a tilt-up concrete-built garage better suited than the existing shop for the Best R-M mixer and BRM Transportation tractor fleets. The schedule calls for a new Stephens transit mixed plant running by year’s end or early 2017. Existing equipment, installed in 2000, will be maintained for back up production.
The current plant and fleet investments fit the Best R-M success formula. “My whole career has been one of ebb and flow,” Bertling notes. “You struggle a while, have a good window to buy equipment, prepare for a slowdown, and then start rolling again. It’s one of the keys for an independent to survive in a big market.”
|Dee Dee Harris|
On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is it to Dee Dee Harris to drive a comfortable truck? “It’s way past 10, I can tell you that,” she affirms. With 25 years in trucking, the last four as Best Redi-Mix senior driver, she has operated numerous heavy-duty makes.
“When you’ve been around them as long as I have, you know the difference between trucks after sitting behind the wheel up to 11 hours a day,” says Harris, adding that at 5 ft. 11 in., “I have long legs and it’s no fun bumping your knees getting out of the truck. The Kenworth T880s we have in our fleet are making a difference. There is more room, better visibility, and the model has a smooth ride. It’s the nicest truck I’ve ever driven. I physically feel better at the end of the day.”
Harris mentors and trains new Best R-M drivers, who are required to have at least two years’ experience hauling building or construction materials, or operating a Class 8 vocational truck. All recruits have a two-week break in period with senior drivers.
Best R-M added 10 Kenworth T880s in the fall of 2014, continuing a fleet upgrade that had been delayed partly for market reasons, but also to see if post-2010 trucks’ advanced exhaust treatment systems would present fewer problems than those on models complying with the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2007 diesel engine emissions reduction phase. The mixer-bearing T880s have Paccar MX-13 engines rated at 380 hp and driven through Allison automatic transmissions. The T880 tractors have MX-13 engines rated at 455 hp and driven through Eaton UltraShift PLUS automated manual transmissions.
In addition to the MX-13 performance, notes Best R-M President Roger Bertling, “We like the fact that the trucks and engines can be taken to our dealer for service. There’s no finger pointing between engine and truck suppliers. And our fuel efficiency has gotten better. Compared to the few non-Kenworth mixers we still have in our fleet, we’re getting a 10 percent boost in miles per gallon. Tractors are seeing up to 20 percent better fuel efficiency—a big consideration since some of them average close to 100,000 miles per year.”
Beyond positive fuel factors and driver reception, Bertling credits engineers’ attention to detail in making the T880s easy to maintain. “I know our shop appreciates having color-coded air lines and electrical systems. They make a mechanic’s life easier,” he says, citing the additional ease and economy of repairing the model’s five-piece hood.