The Vee-Jay Cement Contracting Company, established in 1958 and headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, aims to impress its customers to forge enduring relationships. It offers all varieties of concrete work: tilt-up construction, foundations, high-rise concrete structures, parking structures, post-tension concrete, recreation courts, concrete restoration and repair, and concrete paving.
“Look at the Colosseum; it’s still standing,” says Charlie (Chuck) Vitale, referring to the massive Roman structure, completed around 80 AD and still dominating the center of Rome. “Concrete is one of the longest-lasting products mankind has ever developed. It will hold up forever as long as it’s maintained and protected from long-term corrosion.” And this twenty-first century American also knows a thing or two about building structures that last.
As the third generation in the Vitale family business, he and his older brother Sal, both company vice presidents, are maintaining the reputation for quality cement work begun by their grandfather Caesar. “He came from a village near Palermo in Sicily at age seventeen, snuck over on a boat and ate bread and water in a steam room for several weeks and made it to New York. He had family across the U.S., and he eventually worked his way to St. Louis,” says Vitale.
“He and another man founded the company here in 1958, but when that partner left, he faced the possibility of having to close because he couldn’t read or write English and didn’t know much about estimating, so my dad came in sometime in the early seventies.”
The younger Vitale has been working there full-time since 2005, but from 1996 to 2005, beginning at the age of fourteen, he worked for the company every summer, even while at Florida State University earning a degree in accounting and business management. “I started in the warehouse loading trucks, cleaning forms, worked in the shops – or yards as we call it – and I worked on residential projects,” he recalls.
He is still hands on. We caught up with him in the middle of a Friday afternoon, at the end of a busy week, on his mobile phone as he pulled up alongside a company job site on the north side of the Busch Stadium where the St. Louis Cardinals play.
“We’re in the middle of this project, Ball Park Village, building a high rise that will include a hotel, condos, and a bunch of restaurants right outside the Cardinal’s stadium,” he told us. “I want to visit the guys on the job site and talk to some of them about going out of town for work we’ve got coming up.”
While headquarters remain in St. Louis, where Vee-Jay began doing residential work, it has grown significantly. “We’re working primarily in the Midwest, but we’re working coast to coast and have done projects in the northeast, down on the southeast, and some on the west coast. We’re doing close to $150 million worth of projects in a year, and that’s a pretty significant bump,” he says.
Ninety percent of the work Vee-Jay does is by its own people and not subcontracted. Employee numbers vary seasonally, with 400 in winter and up to 500 or 600 in the summer. The staff encompasses a range of construction professionals from engineers and project managers to quality controllers and field employees including iron workers, cement masons, carpenters, operators, and other skilled labor or office staff.
“One of the unique things about Vee-Jay is that we’ll do a job as large as a $20 million contract, or we’ll do jobs as small as five to ten thousand dollars. We have someone who will work with small jobs, go into schools or churches that may have to replace their main entrance, for example, and we will do work like that.” Vee-Jay will also work on healthcare facilities which are challenging because medical work must be able to continue at the same time that renovations or repairs are taking place.
“But primarily we focus on tilt-up warehouses, high rise buildings, and specialty concrete work. We also do a lot of foundations, drill piers, things of that nature, so we have diversified from when I started fifteen years ago. Then, eighty to ninety percent of our work was flatwork and paving or grading structural slab. We still do that, but only about fifty percent now is flatwork,” Vitale explains.
“The company has really evolved – and it’s a neat thing to see, as times have changed – and so has what owners expect from a contractor. They want a one-stop shop, someone who can do the whole package from start to finish, so we had to diversify to keep up with that demand. We’re just wrapping up two one-million-square-foot warehouses, side by side, for the tenant World Wide Technology, with Contegra as the general contractor, and those were the biggest projects in actual volume that we had last year,” he says.
Vee-Jay is now also in the fifth year of a six or seven-year-long project to create the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas. The government facility describes its purpose as ‘a state-of-the-art biocontainment laboratory for the study of diseases that threaten both America’s animal agricultural industry and public health.’
Because of the obvious security concerns and the non-disclosure agreement the company signed, Vitale cannot speak about specifics, but he did speak about the complexity of the work that calls for “over ten different mix designs that we have used for the job, basically everything from slab on grade, slab on metal deck, structural slab, topping slab, low-shrink mixes, self-consolidating concrete, just everything. It’s an 800,000-square-foot building and a pretty impressive project.”
While Vitale was occupied talking with his crew at Ball Park Village, we went online to check out another mammoth project he oversaw as project manager. It was a tilt-up warehouse distribution center for USPS in Portland, Oregon, and the numbers speak for themselves. Over eighteen months, an historic snowfall, and fifty-eight inches of rain, Vee-Jay completed the 818,000-square-foot structure which involved 59,000 tons of poured concrete for flooring, 525 tons of steel, and 166 tilt-up panels. And did it on time and within budget.
We were also intrigued to learn about the role post tensioning plays in creating tennis and other recreational courts, including skating rinks. Post-tensioned (PT) recreational courts do not require as much maintenance as traditional court systems. The concrete is poured over high-stress cables that are then tightened, in effect, drawing the concrete in and preventing cracking.
Vee-Jay, over the years, has received numerous awards and been recognized by professional associations including the American Subcontractors Association and the Association of General Contractors of America.
Vitale says the future looks bright. There is, of course, a labor shortage which companies across North America are facing and which causes concern. “It is an obstacle we have to overcome because when there’s a labor shortage, the cost goes up, so we’re seeing more renovations rather than new construction. Rural areas are a great place to pick up field talent… and we do career days in high schools, and we go to engineering colleges for internships,” he shares.
“I think our business model will stay similar to what it is now. We want to remain flexible, try to be as innovative as possible, try new products, and keep working on research and development. So, summing up, I’d say we will continue to try to grow, to expand nationally, and to exceed our customer’s expectations. Maintaining good customer relationships is what’s really important.”