Rob Larsen and Chad Kane, proprietors of Northern Concrete of Denmark, Wis., started their business in 1996 in the residential flatwork market. Larsen's background was in concrete construction while Kane's background was with a concrete producer; neither had experience in the business of concrete. The two borrowed a skid steer from Larsen's father by day and repaid the debt by night in the currency of farm chores. "The concrete business is sort of like farming," Larsen says. "You know when work starts in the morning but you never know when you'll be done at night."
"In those days we didn't know if we were making money," Kane adds. "But we were aggressive, worked weekends and made sure our vehicles looked nice - not necessarily new, but painted, clean and running well."
Those early years spent honing their skills on their friends' and families' driveways, welding their own forming baskets to save some bucks, and building a list of clients who respected their quality service gave Northern Concrete the momentum it needed to bring the right people into the company and put systems and processes in place that would help the organization grow despite a downturn in the economy.
Becoming a one-stop shop
Northern Concrete's start in residential flatwork quickly expanded into the multi-family market. From there Larsen and Kane saw an opportunity to expand into walls when a customer pushed them to become a full-service concrete company. "Another reason we started walls was with some of the jobs we were bidding on we noticed the competition could offer a full concrete package," Larsen says.
Early days in the walls division were challenging. "We were about ready to quit walls at one point," Larsen recalls. "But we got someone on board who was a stickler for quality and liked rules. He knew how to get product in the ground right and we knew the scheduling side of the business so together it worked out."
Further diversification came for Northern Concrete when Larsen found himself on a long waiting list for a pool installation at his home. "We were already pouring decks for pools, so we learned how to pour pools with our concrete forms," Larsen says. The addition of decorative concrete around the same time gave the company the opportunity to offer a full pool package. Before taking their pool and decorative services to the public, however, Northern Concrete installed projects at their own homes and on site at the company headquarters, getting employees the training they needed for quality end results.
A big jump for Northern Concrete happened four years ago with the company's foray into commercial and industrial flooring. They had the equipment in house to do floors but were missing other elements. "We did not have the talent to do big commercial floors. It bothered me, so I sent some employees through training," Larsen says. "But we found out you can't learn to do big floors like that without actually pouring."
To prevent some of the learning curve they initially experienced on the walls side, Larsen connected with a local concrete flooring contractor experienced in industrial and superflat floors and convinced him to train a crew at Northern Concrete.
In the first year, the two companies worked together on three large flooring projects, two of which had F-Number requirements. That type of on-the-job education proved to be very valuable to Northern Concrete, even resulting in one of the projects winning a Golden Trowel Award in the "random traffic" category.
Using its skills from the commercial and industrial fields, Northern Concrete is also looking to the agricultural market for projects. The company is currently building an industrial plug flow digester, a system that turns food and animal waste into fertilizer. The project includes a 160- x 90-foot plug flow digester with 20-foot walls, an 80- x 90-foot mixing building to house gensets and green energy, and a 5.2-million-gallon water tank with 20-foot high concrete walls and a 216-foot inside diameter.