National Precast Concrete Association Chairman of the Board Ron Sparks constantly looks for ways to push himself, his company, the association and the industry forward
Ron Sparks doesn’t mince words when he describes himself. He’ll be the first to admit that he loves to compete and ultimately win. He’s always looking for new ways of doing something, how to improve and what else can be done to come out on top. That mindset has shaped his precast concrete career and is how he is approaching his year as National Precast Concrete Association Chairman of the Board.
Sparks has been around construction his entire life, with both his grandfather and father being involved with above-ground projects. Working a day job at an oil refinery, his grandfather would spend nights building homes to pursue a goal of being a general contractor. Sparks’ father started his career as an operating engineer but continued the family tradition of having a second job building homes.
“Like my father, I grew up with a hammer in my hand,” Sparks says. “If there wasn’t a job to work on, there was a project around the house I was working on with my dad.”
He learned from his father’s and grandfather’s work ethic and knew he wanted to build and do it the way they did with hard work, persistence and making the most of what he had. His first job was as a warehouse worker for a WaterWorks distribution company. Starting from the ground up, Sparks learned how to do a little bit of everything and was promoted to an outside sales position.
“I went from how to pull an order and put things in stock to, two-and-a-half-years later, I’m selling to customers,” he recalls. “Being at a small branch, you learn a lot because you have to do everything.”
Sparks learned the hard and soft skills needed to run an operation. After eight years, he moved to a precast pipe company and went from a sales manager to being a vice president and general manager for the Northwest. “Between my background and my family’s background in construction, everything just came together when I got into precast,” he explains. “I was building something. I like to sell. I like to push things forward.”
His background with technical water treatment projects helped him as he transitioned to the precast concrete industry. “I never really shy away from anything that seems overly technical or that is perceived to be more difficult than ‘core business’ because that’s the world I came from,” he says. “As I got involved with precast, that part of me never really left. That’s just how I think because it’s how I was trained.”
Fast forwarding a few years, Sparks started Columbia Precast Products eight years ago to push the envelope and fill a market void. He knew there was more need than he could meet in a short timeframe, so after a year he brought on an ownership group to help develop the business further. Columbia Precast exploded with growth and built a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility.
Sparks loved watching the business grow and the wins that came with it. Eventually, the desire to get back into ownership and building something new grew larger. Now, he’s the owner of Vancouver, Wash.-based National Precast and is helping to build and grow that business. “Whenever I say it, it sounds a little corny to me, but I like to build stuff,” Sparks affirms. “I like to build new things, and that just comes from a desire to constantly improve and be on the front of things.”
THE GREATER GOOD
Another constant in his precast career has been membership in NPCA. He has served on committees, built a network and eventually was invited to serve on the board and move into the leadership ranks.
“Getting involved with NPCA has allowed me to accomplish several things I am proud of and to push toward the ideals I hold in the highest regard,” says Sparks. “Ideals of service and giving back to the industry and the people who have given so much to me over the years.”
NPCA has allowed him to expand his professional network and turn those industry contacts into lifelong friends. Despite his route to the industry being more circuitous, Sparks felt he was welcomed with open arms by other members.
Continuing education has also been a big part of his NPCA membership. He not only pushed himself to learn more but encouraged his employees to attend in-person education at The Precast Show and NPCA webinars.
Now, serving his term as chairman, Sparks is bringing his mentality of seeking out improvements to the association. “The bottom line is I just want to win,” he says. “I like to win. I like to compete. I’m always looking for an opportunity for an edge—whether that’s winning a bid or anything. I am always looking for a competitive advantage.”
Sparks has many ideas on how NPCA can advance and further benefit the industry. First and foremost, he wants to push the needle and expand educational offerings on sales and how to combat alternative materials in the marketplace. He touts NPCA’s education offerings as they relate to engineering, safety and leadership, but feels more could be done on the sales side of business.
“Our business is changing because there are more competitive materials out there, and that game is played at the sales level,” he observes. “It’s won and lost at the sales level.”
Watching septic products and concrete pipe come under attack from other materials, Sparks sees an opportunity for the concrete industry to come back with more information. “If we’re going to win that battle or get into it enough to fight, we need to be more educated and have avenues through NPCA to train and educate those folks that are out there,” he says. “We really need to understand the nuances of the alternative materials, because they are not our equal.”
During Past Chairman Mike Hoffman’s term, Sparks led the move toward taking a more formal approach to research projects. This initiative led to the formation of the Research and Development Advisory Council during Immediate Past Chairman Jon Ohmes’ term, as well as the expansion of NPCA’s marketing efforts.
Now, Sparks wants to add the third piece and help train NPCA members on sales, noting, “All three components must work in tandem for our industry to be successful in the years to come. I believe this to be vitally important to the future of our industry, and we have a lot of work to do.”
AN INDUSTRY WIN
Sparks hopes that this initiative allows the precast industry to work together in responding to alternative materials. As an example, he cites the collaborative relationship NPCA shares with the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute and a desire to see such collaboration continuing not only with PCI, but also with other sister associations.
“We want to build on what we’ve done in the past and keep that momentum going, and we hope all the precast-related associations collaborate together,” he affirms.
Whether it’s more education, government affairs or an evolving version of The Precast Show, Sparks hopes the precast associations will work together toward having one, unified voice on the industry’s important issues.
From his earliest days, Sparks always has sought out ways to improve, push himself and grow the industry. It’s the mindset that has fueled his growth since he entered the workforce and it’s what he is hoping to bring to NPCA because, at the end of the day, he’s looking for the next win.
“Everything just comes from a desire to constantly improve,” Sparks said. “I like to be on the front edge of what’s new and what’s coming. I don’t want to be two years behind or three years behind so I’m always looking for an opportunity for an edge.”
NATIONAL PRECAST CONCRETE ASSOCIATION At-a-Glance
Founded in 1965, NPCA has grown to become an international trade association representing more than 900 companies and suppliers that manufacture hundreds of precast, prestressed and reinforced concrete pipe products for underground and above-ground applications. 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.
Led by President Frederick H. Grubbe, MBA, CAE, NPCA provides members with the latest technical and industry information through a host of publications, educational seminars, product committees and meetings. It promotes high quality standards and safety through its education component and ANAB-accredited Plant Certification Program.
Today, NPCA has grown its Plant Certification Program to more than 350 operations and The Precast Show to the largest annual trade gathering specifically targeting the precast concrete products industry. In 2015, the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute joined The Precast Show as a partnering association. NPCA is located near Indianapolis at 1320 City Center Drive, Suite 200, Carmel, IN 46032. Phone numbers are 317/571-9500 or 800/366-7731; email is [email protected]; website is precast.org.