Three years ago, Mary Wilson, CEO and president of Michel Concrete Construction, Inc., Springfield, Ill., bought out her father’s concrete foundations firm. The deal happened shortly before the construction economy took a turn for the worse in Central Illinois. Despite a falling economy, the company’s sales have increased each year since the buyout. She credits the company’s growth and success to diversification and quality products. “One of our company’s strongest assets is that we have been well diversified in residential, commercial and agricultural markets for a long time,” Mary Wilson says. “When the residential market dropped we didn’t have to lower our prices, we just shifted our focus toward the commercial and agricultural work.”
In 2010, the company’s sales were split 45 percent commercial, 30 percent agriculture and 25 percent residential. Michel Concrete’s extensive equipment ownership, field crew expertise and relationships with customers in all three markets allow it to keep those numbers fluid year to year.
A concrete career
Concrete has always been part of Mary’s life, but taking over her father’s concrete construction business wasn’t something she expected to do. For years her father ran his residential foundations company out of his family’s home, giving Mary the chance to observe a concrete construction company in action. “As a little girl I remember everything happening at the kitchen counter or the dining room table, from organizing crews in the morning to working on bids at night,” she says. “It was exciting to watch his business grow. He revolutionized the way concrete work was done in Central Illinois by making investments in both technology and innovative equipment like boom trucks, telebelts, total stations and pump trucks.”
Mary received an Early Childhood Education degree and teaching certificate from the University of Illinois, where she and her husband, Jeff, met. After college, she pursued teaching and then became the director of a child care facility, where she discovered her affinity toward business management. Jeff began working for Mary’s parents at their concrete construction business.
In 1994, Mary left her daycare director position to start a family. Shortly after, Mary and Jeff started an exterior flatwork company, subcontracting most of their work from Mary’s parents’ business.
In 1996, Mary’s parents sold their residential foundation business in order to pursue out-of-state agricultural work. When the bottom fell out of the agricultural market in 1999, Mary’s father began pursuing commercial work locally. Mary and Jeff closed their exterior flatwork business and Jeff again became a full-time employee of Mary’s parents.
When a five-year non-compete on residential work lapsed, Mary’s father expanded his business back into residential but also continued the agricultural and commercial work. Having experienced downturns that were independent across markets he understood the need for diversification.
“All this time I was in the background but not working in the business day-to-day,” Mary says. That changed in 2005 when Mary was looking for a new career. It took an outsider looking in — a community college career counselor — to get Mary to admit to herself that she wanted a career in concrete. “He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I had always maintained a point of contact with my parents’ business, but I never realized how much I wanted to be a part of it,” she says.
Mary’s first job at her father’s concrete business was running job costing numbers over all three divisions of the company. That offered her a bird’s eye view of every phase of a project, from estimating to punch lists. It also gave her the opportunity to see where every employee and piece of equipment was throughout all phases of a project.