As the largest ready-mix producer of cement in the St. Louis region, with 30 operations spread across the Missouri and Illinois markets, Breckenridge Material Company has beefed up its engineering talent over the past decade to achieve a technical edge that is setting itself apart from its ready-mix competitors. In this Middle-Market Executive interview, Breckenridge CEO Nathan McKean explains why his 350-employee firm is placing a big bet on R&D.
McKean: Well, we’ll admit that there’s nothing terribly sexy about the ready-mix concrete industry. The answer for us lies in the aggressive application of several technologies. We did this by taking a business that utilizes rock, sand, water, and — starting with the design side — looking at how we design and make the products that we deliver to the market. When you combine our investment in people and facilities with our R&D, we can now do things that none of our competitors can do, and here’s where we get a return on investment. Breckenridge has the only ready-mix facility that has a DOT (Department of Transportation)–certified lab in the state of Missouri; no other producer in our market has such a facility.
MME: How has this type of lab helped to trigger innovation?
McKean: Well, we’ve now been able to take some of the R&D that we’ve done for the commercial industrial market and apply it to the heavy highway and public sector. For example, trying to figure out how to build a better parking garage has allowed us take what may have been a 50-year bridge deck design and make it a 100-year bridge deck design. Having our resources allows us to spread our R&D findings across all of our sectors of construction.
MME: How will we see building materials change?
McKean: I mentioned how innovation is something that for us is being driven by the design side of our business. One of the things that we’re looking at carefully these days is recycled materials and the ways that we can use by-products from the power industry and from the steel industry. We are asking ourselves: How do we reach some of these more technically challenging specifications in a more sustainable way? We’re obviously big consumers of energy, so sustainability is something that has always concerned us. There are some things that we’ve designed that can really help architects, engineers, and builders to get LEED points just by utilizing some of the products that we can now create. The continued growth of green construction is something for which our technical expertise will now position us well.
MME: Some of that expertise was recently applied to the St Louis Art Museum …
McKean: It was a project that quite frankly scared the living daylights out of everyone, and none of our competitors would touch it. There was a technical specification for the ceiling that was for strength, but also the architectural finishes called for light reflectivity, so we had to add a number of different products into the mix design to achieve these specifications. We were able to produce the offering across a period of 6 months and 10 separate placements. There was a consortium of contractors that had originally engaged two of our competitors, who had attempted to produce it and failed. Ultimately, they came to us and we jumped on it. Certainly, there was some internal debate, but we discussed it at length and concluded that it was something we were willing to do. This decision really fed into the culture that we have now created, which says that we can build anything. It really involved every aspect of the organization, so this was a real leadership challenge.
Read our related article: In the Land of Ready-Mix Giants, a Middle-Market Independent Plants a Deep Footprint