Jim Vlcek: Mike, please give me a brief background of Stief Concrete.
Mike Martin: Stief Concrete was actually founded in 1958 by Edward B. Stief. He remained the president until he passed away in1973. The company is now a third generation business.
JV: Tell me about the evolution since 1958 and then after Mr. Stief handed the reins over to his successors.
MM: Stief was founded in 1958 mainly as a residential contractor doing mostly curbs, sidewalks, basement slabs, driveways and so on. After about five to seven years, the company started evolving into more and more commercial projects in the mid-to-late sixties and early seventy's. The jobs became larger and larger and more complicated as the company grew larger.
JV: When did you start employment with the company?
MM: After Mr. Stief passed away, company ownership was transferred to Bonnie Stief-Hollinger, his oldest daughter and her husband, Jim. I started with the company in 1982 and Shawn Hollinger, Bonnie's son, in 1994. Company ownership was transferred to Shawn and myself in August of 2011.
JV: Can you tell me who your customers are and what concrete construction projects they represent?
MM: They are basically medium to large sized general contractors who are involved in the commercial, industrial and institutional businesses and construction.
We still do a small portion of our business with custom home builders and remodelers, but, by far, we have evolved into the commercial-industrial side of the business.
JV: How have you differentiated your company from other concrete companies in your region, and how are you positioning your company for growth and success, or survival?
MM: Since the late seventies until around 2008, our specialty was medium to large distribution centers with tilt-up walls. We specialize in a lot of tilt-up work, but unfortunately, after the recession hit in 2008-2009, that niche of our business almost completely disappeared in our tri-state area. Construction of new distribution centers got put on hold and expansion with most of our existing customers dropped off dramatically. It was a very hard time for us. We then focused into the 'public' arena doing a lot of sewage treatment plant work and city public works jobs. We had done a lot of this kind of work before, but not nearly to the degree that we do now. Right now, we still focus most of our efforts in this category.
JV: Mike, How did you survive through those tough years in 2008-2009?
MM: That was a very tough period. It's always difficult making a transition, even in good times. When the economy suffers, we suffer. It's that simple. When profits are almost non existent it's almost impossible. We made a lot of good decisions and some bad ones, too. We underestimated how bad it really was. We may have had unrealistic expectations, but we were more fortunate than a lot of companies. Sure, we had to let people go and downsize and get leaner. If the business isn't there, that's the only thing you can do.
Back in 2007 and 2008, we had as many as 90 people in our company. Right now, we have a full time employee base of 40 people in the field and about 10 in the office. We'll expand that number as jobs pick up again.
JV: Do you do a lot of 'repeat' customer business with the same relationships/owners/general contractors or do you see that business changing to a more impersonal level?
MM: Yes, we do. We are a relationship-driven company. We have a great rapport with all the people we do business with. We operate in a relationship type of business. If you're not good at what you do in this business, word gets out fast and your business will suffer.
For instance, Vic Scotese is our sales manager from L&M. Vic is always there when we need him and isn't afraid to go out to the job sites if necessary and help solve problems. He's also a link to our L&M distributor, Gatti-Morrison and their reps there also serve us very well. The whole L&M thing, in terms of relationships, is very good for us. And their L&M stocking levels are deep enough to get about anything we need. Being as L&M has a batch plant located nearby in Pottstown, we can get what we need pretty quickly.
JV: What words of wisdom would you have for other concrete contractors dealing with an ever-challenging business climate?
MM: In a typical situation, I look at this business as selling a “product.” From a product standpoint, there are tons more products on the concrete construction market than there were ten to twenty years ago. With the advent of the internet being as strong as it's become, there are a lot of companies that can advertise a lot of products that aren't really all that they say they are. It's more important now than ever before to pick a concrete products distributor (like L&M) that you know is capable, qualified, has the right products that work, and will always be there for you. It's also extremely important to do your homework as to the products you need to do the job. There's a lot of products out there that are being advertised out there that aren't what they say they are. That's a big one for me. If I can't trust a product to work for me, it'll reflect on my integrity and could affect whether my customer is satisfied or not with our work.
With regards to a company doing their homework as to choosing the right sub-contractors to bring into the job, the schedule is of the utmost importance and how you do relative to that ultimately reflects on your company—good or bad. Everything today is being done in such haste. It's easier than ever for details and overall performance to slip through the cracks. I would recommend to other contractors to pay extremely close attention up front. Once you get involved in a job and the schedule starts, very few people want to hear you say “You know, I didn't have the time up front to find that out.” These are the two areas that have really changed drastically from the way things were years ago.
JV: What do you specifically do to increase the market share of your business?
MM: We get out there and visit with people as often as we can. Over the past fifteen or twenty years, the personal touch in this business has been lost. Because of many different reasons, including the proliferation of social media, more of these relationships are harder and harder to create.
We certainly do advertising and marketing, as most successful companies do, but nothing replaces putting our faces out there in front of other people. The personal touch is being lost in this business far too quickly. We keep all of our sales staff, our estimators and project managers, even me personally, out there in the field doing our very best to stay in front of our customers so that personal touch is always involved.
JV: What separates your company now from other concrete companies in your region during these difficult times?
MM: I strongly feel that would be our employee base. We have a very experienced and stable employee base, most of whom have been with our company in excess of ten to fifteen years --- some as long as 35 years. As a business man, that is a huge factor. Getting to really know your employees, giving them the opportunity to know and learn how we work as owners and managers is a strong factor in our employee model.
We also never forget that we are in a competitive, service oriented industry, which takes good, skilled people to make things happen. Many of my competitive company owners have shared with me over the years that their companies have a crippling-high turnover and they're constantly fighting this battle of locating, hiring and re-training people over and over again. We never forget that the people who work for us are the company. We want good people who trust us and we trust them to do the job. For me, personally, this is probably the largest issue that other companies can and must have to be successful.
Mike Martin or Shawn Hollinger at:
STIEF CONCRETE WORK, Inc.
541 Hollander Road • New Holland, PA 17557
Vic Scotese, L&M Regional Sales Manager:
Phone 610-322-6859 • E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about L&M’s complete line of Concrete Construction Products, go to www.lmcc.com or call 203-393-0010
© 2013 L&M Construction Chemicals, Inc. | ConcreteNews Spring 2013.