Sometimes it’s the little things in life that keep
us going strong. We can toil all day and a lifetime doing what we love
to do in our jobs, and maybe we can even make some money at it. But
that doesn’t always scratch the deepest itch of gratification.
There’s something more that needs to be seen than your name on a
product, something more to be felt than a tidy profit in your pocket.
Sometimes you just need someone to take notice, someone to recognize
the drive and determination that got you to the head of the class,
something to make it all worthwhile. It’s the feeling of
accomplishment, the point of highest achievement – the raison d’être –
when someone says, “Wow.”
Mike Vaughn, president of Vaughn Concrete Products (VCP) based in
Henderson, Colo., puts forth an unusual amount of effort to hear that
word, or some variation of it, from his customers. For him it all
starts with a quality product and unrivaled customer service. More than
just a company slogan, everyone at VCP strives to equate their name
with reliability and the Wow Factor.
Vaughn makes his point by telling the story about a deal he struck a
few years ago on a box culvert project. Although his bid was 20 percent
higher than another precaster’s, Vaughn told the contractor he could
save him a lot of money by using his two-piece precast box culverts.
The contractor didn’t believe him, so Vaughn promised to meet the
competitor’s price for the culverts if the contractor would split the
difference of the installation costs. Compared with the 13 days and
$480 per hour required for the competitor’s product, Vaughn placed 540
feet of box culvert in 10 working hours on site.
On the day of installation, VCP was ready. “We had everything lined up
the night before,” he said. “We started there at 5 in the morning. We
had three people just hauling with trucks, so we always had something
to unload.” Our crew knocked off at 4 that afternoon, then finished the
job early the next morning. “Then (the contractor) said, ‘Wow,’”
recalled Vaughn. “And that’s what we want, is the customer to say,
‘Wow.’ And they only have to say that once. That was just pretty neat.”
It’s common for Vaughn or his employees to hit the road early. In fact,
few other precasters claim to have sleepers on their trucks. With two
other precast plants in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Amarillo, Texas, his
operation is spread fairly wide, and VCP products often have to spend a
little more time on the road than those of most other precasters. But
distance isn’t the only driving factor to leave the plant early with a
delivery. VCP wants to have the product on site and ready to unload
before the contractor’s workers arrive.
“Our trucks hit the road the night before or at 2 or 3 in the morning,”
said Vaughn. “We’re there when (the contractors) show up to work.” By
doing this, VCP trucks are the first to get unloaded. “If we show up at
9 or 10 o’clock, first off it disrupts the contractor’s production, and
second it takes us a lot longer to get unloaded.”
With the Cheyenne plant about 90 miles to the north, the Amarillo plant
about 435 miles to the south-southeast, plus factoring in the wide-open
spaces of the West and the long distances company trucks often drive,
VCP’s trucks may conceivably be 1,500 miles apart on a given day. Yet
VCP employees communicate with the office so everyone stays informed
and on top of all the operations so that they can be assured the Vaughn
name is living up to its promises.
Vaughn is not one to sit in his office all day, unless you consider his
truck a mobile office. He is a hands-on kind of guy who has no
hesitancy to jump inside his own truck to make a delivery or crawl
under it for a little maintenance. The outside of the Kenworth semi
brandishes his name on the door; the inside is equipped with a laptop
with a satellite internet connection (the cell phone with a fax machine
attachment were put out of service at the end of 2007).
This is the environment in which he learned the precast trade. While
growing up, he would help out on the family farm and in the plant.
“When I turned 16 and was old enough to drive, I was a delivery person,
because I could make deliveries and still come back and work,” he said.
At 17 years of age when high school let out for the three months in
summer, he hit the road. “I would easily put 50,000 miles on a semi
truck. And that was good experience.”
Those were the years when Vaughn also learned his mechanical skills. A
small company such as VCP owns only so many trucks, so if one went down
for repairs there was little choice but to get it back on the road as
quickly as possible. The same was true for other equipment such as
forklifts. “When a truck went down back then, it was in the shop and it
would normally roll out the next morning,” said Vaughn. “That was a
good learning experience as well.”
These days, trucks are just as much advanced technologically as they
are complicated, with computerized components that often require
factory-trained technicians and expensive diagnostic equipment. “The
older trucks we can still work on,” said Michael Greenrod, plant
manager, explaining that they take the newer ones to a local
dealership. “We used to just take them apart and fix them and put them
back together,” said Greenrod, a 23-year veteran at VCP.
Still, Vaughn can usually tell what’s wrong with a rough-running diesel
engine just by listening to it. “That’s one thing that’s a little bit
different about our operation. There isn’t any one of the trucks or
trailers or boom trucks or piece of machinery I couldn’t tell you where
we got it and where we would need to get parts for it,” he said. “I’m
proud of that. There are not a lot of people that know much about their
machinery; that’s what I do.”
He has performed every job at the plant, and since the company
fabricates its own forms, he has had a hand in building most of those
as well. “That makes a lot of difference in how successful you are and
how well you know your costs.”
Quality begins at home
VCP originally took root in the excavating business that Vaughn’s
parents, Johnie and Pat Vaughn, started in 1962. Business came in the
form of Johnie grading houses, installing water lines and septic
systems, and Pat keeping the books. After a few years they realized
that they were putting in more and more septic systems, which
eventually led to supply-and-demand problems as well as quality
“We couldn’t get quality tanks, and we couldn’t get tanks when we
needed them,” said Vaughn. “And we had years where we put in an awful
lot of tanks – we put in as many as a couple of thousand a year.” And
so began Vaughn Concrete Products. By 1970, the company was
concentrating heavily on the precast side of the business. It continued
with the excavating business until the early ’80s, and then it was all
At about the same time, Johnie and Pat decided that if they could
cast septic tanks successfully, they could manufacture other products
as well. A decline in building construction resulted in less need for
septic tanks, but the agriculture industry was strong, so they started
producing precast agricultural products such as feed bunks and cattle
guards. The Cheyenne plant was in full production by 1983, and they
started operations at the Amarillo plant in 1989.
Today a large portion of the business centers on utility vaults. “We
build utility vaults from 2 feet by 2 feet on up to 16 feet by 30
feet,” said Vaughn. “The biggest piece I think we’ve ever built was
142,000 pounds.” Other offerings include grease interceptors, oil field
products, storm shelters, landscaping items and transportation products.
Despite the growth, VCP employs a total of about 60 people and has kept
its small-business mentality. Everyone on staff is focused on customer
service. A phone call to the office, for example, will be answered by a
live person rather than a recording – there is no voice mail here. And
typically the caller won’t have to speak to more than one or two people
to get immediate answers to their questions.
When NPCA plant certifications came into existence back in 1987, VCP
quickly jumped on board. “We were the 14th plant to become certified,”
said Vaughn. At the time, it was a bold statement to show that the
company had indeed set itself apart from other plants. “That was before
the time DOTs were requiring it or even knew much about it.”
In 1991 VCP won the Wyoming Governor’s Quality Award, which focuses on
leadership, management, customer service and results. “That was pretty
nifty for a small business like we had,” said Vaughn.
Despite the company’s small size, VCP is very innovative – not only
with its customer service, but also with the products and forms it
manufactures. The Water Mill, for example, is a windmill-shaped,
decorative water vending station that has proved to be a popular item.
It consists of a precast kiosk that contains water purification
components for a company that sells and services them across the
country. “We’ve got them in Florida, we’ve got them in California, we
even have some up in the northeast part of the country,” said Vaughn.
“They had started with wood, and they needed something that would
satisfy, at that time, the Uniform Building Code so they wouldn’t have
problems getting permits and so forth. Now we’ve got them in all areas
of the United States.” Vaughn explained that other precast
manufacturers scoffed at manufacturing the water mill buildings because
of various engineering obstacles, such as figuring out how to get the
product to release from the unusual configuration of the form.
Above-ground storm shelters represent another product that has done
well for VCP. “They are made to go in people’s garages or on their back
porches,” said Vaughn. “We also make free-standing units that can go
out in somebody’s back yard.” The above-ground storm shelters are
available in four standard sizes and meet all the requirements of the
National Storm Shelter Association standard.
Yet another product that has caught a lot of attention is Vaughn’s
entry in NPCA’s most recent Creative Use of Precast (CUP) Awards
competition. VCP tied for second place in the Above Ground category.
Vaughn’s entry, titled “Vertical Axis Wind Energy Turbine Structure,”
consists of one 32-foot-tall curved airfoil section comprised of four
4-foot-wide by 15-foot-long by 8-foot-tall solid sections stacked
together and two 12-foot-wide by 32-foot-tall by 12-inch-thick solid
panels that channel wind into a turbine to create an energy system that
“We’re pretty diversified,” said Vaughn. “We’re not the big-volume
people – we try to be the details people. We cross t’s and dot i’s very
well, and that’s what has been a success for what we do.” That plays
into the whole VCP concept. Vaughn is comfortable with the fact that he
knows his customers can rely on VCP. “They know they’ll get the
response and they’ll be taken care of.”
Johnie and Pat Vaughn are still very involved in the day-to-day
operation of VCP. Mike Vaughn’s wife, Karen, and children Ann (a high
school senior) and Adam (a college freshman) work part-time for VCP.
Daughter Sydney, 3, “just livens the place up,” the Vaughns said. “It
is definitely a family owned and operated business.”
Mike Vaughn is a registered engineer in seven states, but he isn’t
taken in too much by the fact. “Those seven engineering licenses on the
wall aren’t really where I’ve got my education,” he explained. His
parents taught him, “Education comes from knowing what people’s
problems are and knowing what our problems are and being able to find a
solution to fix them,” he said.
But it’s really more than that. “The thing I like people to say is
‘Wow.’ When somebody says, ‘Oh, that’s neat,’ then that made the whole
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Fri, August 1, 2008
by Ross Ingram filed under