Founded locally in 1906, Wilbert Precast continues to provide quality precast products to the Northwestern United States. Well known for its burial vaults, the family-owned business has expanded over the decades to produce a full range of wares for a variety of industries.
The story began over a century ago, when the company founders went west to seek their fortunes. “My great grandfather and his brother came out from Indiana and started building burial vaults, horse watering troughs, hitching posts, and laundry sinks,” says President and CEO Dan Houk. In 1961, the company bought into the Wilbert Burial Vault franchise, solidifying the firm’s dominance in the burial vault sector.
The business remained focused on burial vaults until 1977, when the team adopted a wider vision. “We really did nothing but burial vaults until 1977. And from 1977 until today, we have added a product line per year for 40 years.” The steady, sustained growth has been nothing short of remarkable. “We’ve grown at a very steady pace, at an average rate of 10 percent per year for over 35 years. That is a pretty exponential number.”
Today, Wilbert Precast operates manufacturing facilities in Spokane, Yakima, and Lewiston, serving a broad swath of customers throughout the Northwest. The company’s products include septic tanks, oil/water separators, grease traps, catch basins, drywells, manholes, the Redi-Rock retaining wall system, wall panels, steps, meter and valve utility vaults, and parking bumpers. The team continues to roll out new product lines and the most recent additions are light pole bases, window wells, and raised garden beds. Wilbert Precast also specializes in custom designed products for customers such as Boeing, the Department of Defense, and other government agencies.
The company’s growth and success was not achieved in the traditional way. “We have not sat around a boardroom and planned a ten or fifteen percent growth rate and what products we are going to add to this list so we can continue this growth,” Mr. Houk reports. “That is not what we have done.” Instead, the team relied on common sense, paying careful attention to the market and quickly responding. “We pick up the phone, answer customers’ requests, keep our eyes and ears open for what product lines are not currently serviced in this market. It is really just not being afraid to move forward… So many times it is what comes to us or walks in the door or calls on the phone that determines the next expansion.” A talented team of designers, architects, and engineers enables the company to take on virtually any demand that the market may throw its way.
No matter what the product, the company’s focus is always on quality. “Our company motto is ‘serving our customers, one quality product at a time.’ That means we pay attention to every product, every day, every minute.” Each product, no matter how basic, is given the utmost care and attention. “There is no special emphasis on one [product] that is more complicated than on something that might just be a parking bumper.”
All of the company’s products are made using self-consolidating concrete (SCC), which utilizes a high range water reducer to achieve concrete strengths of 8,000 PSI. This is double the strength of standard cast-in-place concrete, so the product is higher-value and longer lasting than the industry standard.
Mr. Houk has intentionally sought educational opportunities that would help the company maintain the highest standards. “I [became] chairman of different committees at NPCA (National Precast Concrete Association) and learned and paid attention and implemented best practices throughout my time with NPCA. I did end up being on the executive board and I was the chairman of NPCA in 2011. So I attribute the quality [of our products] to what I gleaned and learned and implemented from the educational opportunities through NPCA.” Wilbert Precast has been NPCA certified since 2003.
Making a difference
Wilbert Precast is a strong supporter of the Sawla Children’s Home in the West African country of Ghana. In 2012 Mr. Houk and his wife, Lori Houk, helped the orphanage build a brand new facility that includes a boys’ dorm, girls’ dorm, and central pavilion on ten acres of land, allowing the home’s 50 children to move out of a cramped, rented duplex. The new site is big enough for the home to grow some of their own food, which helps to keep costs down. “We implemented farming operations and we cut our food budget by a third,” Mr. Houk recalls.
Now, the couple is spearheading a building project that will help the orphanage become more self-sufficient. Recent infrastructure improvements are bringing more travelers through the town, but there are no hotels or restaurants to accommodate them. “This area is now a crossroads town where, over the past seven years, they have paved roads in the area making it a little bit more accessible. We are ahead of the curve in establishing a very nice hotel and restaurant. It is going to be the only game in town and it probably will be for a long time.”
The Sawla View Guesthouse and Restaurant will create a much-needed source of income for the orphanage. “With the income from the guesthouse and restaurant we will have enough funds that will help support the children’s home on a regular monthly basis,” Mr. Houk explains. “This will provide everything for them; that has been our intent. [Our goal was] to figure out a self sustaining method of keeping the children’s home solvent and alive forever in the hands of the Ghanaians without necessarily needing monthly contributions to do it.” A little bit goes a long way in Northwest Ghana, where “their average wage there is about $60 a month.” The children’s home is able to make do with just $5,000 a month to feed, house, and educate all 50 children living there.
The project will help fund the surrounding community as well. “We will not only raise enough funds to do everything we need for the children’s home, but it is a large enough project that we will be able to drill wells in neighboring villages, and we will be able to fund Christian churches and schools.” In addition, the hotel and restaurant will provide locals with needed jobs.
The project is already off to a strong start and the hotel building is nearly finished. “We are very, very close to making this whole thing self-sustaining. We are only $100,000 short of our goal, so we are really very close. Structures are complete. We just need the finishing touches of the tile work and all the plumbing fixtures, wardrobes, office equipment and those kinds of things.” Mr. and Mrs. Houk have set up a Fund Easy page to help raise the rest of the money. (Go to fundeasy.com and search for the Houks.) Ninety-four percent of donations go directly to the project. “We appreciate the great support we have received so far from our friends in the precast industry.”
Looking ahead, Wilbert Precast plans to continue to respond to the market and add new product lines. Just last month the company acquired a competing business in Idaho that specialized in underground utility products, solidifying Wilbert Precast’s leadership in the sector. The team plans to take some time to merge the two company cultures and settle into a new rhythm before embarking on the next expansion. But, as soon as the market demands something new, Wilbert Precast will be ready to add yet another product to its repertoire, providing customers with exactly what they need.