Speed Fab-Crete Corp.
1150 E. Kennedale Parkway
Year founded: 1963
Primary business: Commercial general contractor and precast concrete manufacturer. Speed Fab-Crete is the oldest continuously operating precast concrete manufacturer in the Southwest
Number of employees: 120
Gross income in most recent year: $41.5 million
The creative process is always a thing of beauty, with ideas coming seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes the person who had the idea didn’t realize it was revolutionary because it seemed so logical.
Consider the Erector Set
It hit the market in 1913, the invention of Alfred Carlton Gilbert, who among other things earned a medical degree from Yale University, held more than 150 U.S. patents and won the Gold medal in the pole vault at the 1908 Olympics in London.
Gilbert got the idea for the wildly successful toy construction set by watching steel girders being erected for the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.
Fast forward to 1968.
David Bloxom’s father – David Edward Bloxom – had given him an Erector Set for Christmas.
The elder Bloxom was in the Army in special services during World War II, coaching recreational football and a serving as a photographer. “And then he went into Dachau and Auschwitz, which he never would talk about,” Bloxom said. “But he was no fan of the Germans or the Japanese.”
David Edward Bloxom played one season for Texas Christian University’s Horned Frogs before joining the Army. After the war, he returned to TCU and graduated in 1949. He briefly toyed with professional football with the now-gone Los Angeles Dons.
“He stayed about six or eight weeks and realized he couldn't make a living and support a wife and a baby on the way, which was me, and he came back to Fort Worth,” David Leon Bloxom said.
His father had been an entrepreneur while in college, owning a drive-in grocery, a cleaners and a pool hall across from TCU. “But you remember, those guys went to war. When they came back to finish their college, they were 26 or 27 years old. So he was playing football and 26, 27 years old,” Bloxom said.
His father then started a construction company, building sticks and bricks facilities around Fort Worth. And in 1968, in cooperation with what was then Texas Industries Concrete, he began making the first precast panels.
Proving the Process
Back to the Erector Set.
For the uninitiated, the toy included miniature metal girders and plates and other items that could be hooked together to make buildings and other structures. That Christmas, playing with his son and the new toy set, Bloxom’s father got an idea while they were assembling plates to make a structure: he could do the same with precast concrete wall panels.
“So that's what spurred that idea, and he cast them in a little old plant out on Alta Mere,” Bloxom said. “His first building was Jobi’s El Campo out on Lake Worth, which is still there today. It's held up well over 50 years.”
Speed Fab-Crete today is owned by three partners: Carl Hall, who is CEO; Ron Hamm, president; and Bloxom, who is chairman of the board. They bought out other family members in 1998. Bloxom’s son Brad, 26, works for the firm as an assistant business development person.
There were skeptics of the precast process – panels cast in one place and assembled at another. The City of Fort Worth made the senior Bloxom post a five-year bond on the first building in case it collapsed. Making buildings out of concrete wasn’t a new idea, but previously they had been poured in place in forms.
But the resistance died away and Speed Fab-Crete began building larger buildings including schools, and that’s when the founder decided he needed to be associated with an architect.
He had an office next to a friend, Gordon Smith, who was an architect, and they started doing what today would be labeled design/build construction.
“They didn't call it that. They just called it, ‘Hey, you need an architect? He can design it, I'll build it, and we'll build a concrete building.’ That's how he started early on in doing design-build,” the younger Bloxom said.
Bloxom was born into the company. But not so the other current owners.
Hall, the CEO, joined Speed Fab-Crete in the fall of 1982 and managed the plant where the company made its products. When a buyout was offered to the founder in 1998, Hall moved into a partnership to buy the company.
Hamm, the president, joined the company in June 1987 after he learned of an open sales position from his father, who learned of it from a business associate of Speed Fab-Crete.
“When it became apparent in 1998 that an ownership change was going to occur, I was asked to participate in the buy-out as an equal partner,” Hamm said. The deal was done March 31, 1998.
While it took some time and some proof of the viability of precast concrete buildings for them to be accepted, that’s no longer an issue.
Schools and public buildings have become a big section of the company’s business, in part because of deadly tornadoes in the central United States and regulations that new construction must provide a safe room that can house all of the building’s occupants in case of a tornado.
For many years, schools would save on construction costs by building light steel-framed buildings using metal studs and sheathing and covered with brick on the outside.
“That’s basically residential construction,” Bloxom said.
There’s no structural strength to the walls other than the internal studding and that is likely to blow out during a tornado. Research shows, he said, that people are killed in tornadoes not so much by the collapse of the building but by the flying bricks and other debris.
Solid precast walls change that equation. And the company has developed a technique of internal concrete bracing with a double T-shaped brace that allows the roof to be made with concrete panels as well.
Speed Fab-Crete has used the technology in two Lancaster elementary schools and another in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where the building that houses the school’s fine arts department also serves as the storm shelter.
New safety regulations in Texas and Oklahoma require that a safe room has to be large enough to house the total population of a campus, Bloxom said.
He’s referring to the 2015 International Building Code provision that requires storm shelters in Group E Occupancies – that includes pre-K through 12th grade facilities with 50 or more people. The building must be able to withstand winds of 250 miles per hour. That describes an EF-4 tornado, similar to the one that killed seven elementary students in Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013.
“It can't just house 12 people. It's got to hold all 600 people, so obviously those are going to be big areas,” Bloxom said. “We're seeing a lot of interest in our system that we've developed.”
It’s not proprietary, but he thinks the company is the only one currently making that kind of roof support system. And the system is approved by the Texas Tech Tornado Research Center at a 360 mph safety factor.
Hall also sees that a “great short-term opportunity” for Speed Fab-Crete because “we have all the necessary equipment and means to provide them.” The greatest long-term opportunity “will be providing buildings, structures and precast concrete components for needs that are just
developing. We’re always looking forward to doing something new,” he said.
Bloxom also sees changing energy code requirements as an opportunity.
“The days of going out and building a barn-like shed and opening your business in it are over,” he said. “Unless you are out in the country, or you are in an unincorporated area, you have to meet the energy code.” Precast buildings have the energy efficiency factor built in by the nature of the construction.
Legacy Products, Customers
In the meantime, the company continues with its legacy products of precast building panels as well as sound barriers that line major roadways to protect the nearby neighborhoods from traffic noise.
The company also manufactures and installs a three-sided concrete arch bridge system approved by the Texas Department of Transportation for pedestrian or vehicular traffic. Made off-site and then positioned at the building area, the arched bridges greatly speed up construction and reduce the time roads must be closed for construction.
Hamm points to the company’s reputation and longevity as a competitive advantage.
“The strength is our strong name as a general contractor and manufacturer of quality precast wall panels and products,” Hamm said. “We have developed many repeat customers in our 60-plus years in business.”
The customers, he says, are the best sales force but it is Speed Fab-Crete’s employees who are the true backbone of the company.
Hall also stressed the work force, citing the depth of talent. “No employee or situation in need of help or assistance will dangle long before assistance from several sources brings resolution,” he said.
And, businesses must be nimble.
“Speed Fab-Crete is no different than any other successful business and that is to determine what we can provide to our customers better than the other guy and then do it, knowing that what worked last year probably is not enough for the present,” Hall said.
One issue all the owners worry about is workers, not only for their business but for the construction industry in general.
“We don't have people going into it. It's going to be a ripe field for people who are interested in the building trades,” Bloxom said. “You're always going to need shelter. That's what my dad used to say. They always need to eat and they need shelter. So go in the grocery business or the building business or, I guess, health care. But it's changing.”
But people graduating from universities in construction science aren’t interested in working in the field.
“They want to be the thinkers and the supervisors,” Bloxom said, “but we've got to have workers, too. Everything hasn't been so modernized that you don't need craftsmen. And that's what we're struggling with in our industry.”
Industry groups have set up training programs where willing workers with a high school education can become craftsmen and move into jobs where the pay is excellent.
“Right now, it's kind of name where you want to work,” he said.
And that leads to the issue of immigration.
“How much longer can you depend on the labor from south of the border? Until we get some kind of sensible immigration policy, they're going to continue to round these workers up,” Bloxom said. “You go out on a big concrete job right now, if half of them are legal, you're lucky.”
He says he’s with the Trump Administration on border control, but there also has to be a worker program. “There are jobs in our industry that are very difficult to get people to work in,” he said.
Hamm agrees when considering challenges for the future. He cites health care reform and tax reform, but says the immediate crisis is immigration reform.
“The work force is depleted and there are very few applicants available to fill semi-skilled and unskilled positions. We need foreign-born men and women to bolster the work force. This is an industrywide challenge and problem,” Hamm said. “Congress needs to act now.”