Blending Pragmatism with Business Savvy
Focus on people, products and processes drives opportunity
for Riverbed Concrete, Inc.
David Harris, CEO and President of Riverbed Concrete, Inc., credits his company’s success to its people, products and processes. But, it is his unique and savvy business approach that has helped propel the business’ growth and innovation.
Riverbed Concrete, which is based in Boerne, Texas, and is the 2013 Boerne Chamber of Commerce Innovator of the Year award recipient, provides polished, stained and sealed, burnished and decorative concrete flooring, as well as concrete countertops, sinks, tiles, panels, fireplace surrounds and concrete ledges.
The firm has tackled a long list of notable jobs throughout Texas and serves a variety of markets, including municipal, retail, commercial, K-12 and higher education markets. The team has worked on education projects for Texas State University, the University of Texas at San Antonio, Trinity University, Boerne Independent School District’s Fabra Elementary and Van Raub Elementary, and others. Riverbed Concrete has been a key contractor for a variety of other facilities, such as the Boerne Public Library; PetSmart at The Rim in San Antonio; a Microsoft Corp. data center in San Antonio; various Walgreens stores and Willie's Grill & Icehouse restaurants; and Castle Hills Church and Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church. The company also has a single-source national contract for CST Brands, Inc.’s Corner Stores.
The path to success for Harris came from an intuitive, two-pronged process: be ready to act quickly to take advantage of business opportunities as they arise and learn important lessons along the way. He adds that optimizing efficiency and setting the correct goals for each quarter are key.
“We have grown the company on a strictly cash basis—no debt,” explains Harris. “I equate it to driving a car with a manual transmission … redlining the engine, or maximizing the utilization of staff, facilities and equipment to the highest level of performance or limits, before shifting gears, and expanding.”
He points to his company’s nationwide contracts with CST Brands, which is known predominantly for selling Valero fuel, as an example of strategically taking advantage of the right opportunities.
“When I began talking to Valero, the idea of polished concrete was still very new to the industry,” recalls Harris. “We were invited to provide a sample for the Valero executives to look at. Though we had never installed a polished concrete floor, nor did we own any of the necessary equipment, we had performed market research. With Valero seeming to be a good fit, David Forren and I sacrificed all that we had to come up with $90,000 in cash to buy our first polisher and the diamond tooling. This was during a time when we were making personal incomes of maybe $10,000 a year. Opening a new path for our business was a huge (but strategic) gamble and a big sacrifice. Fortunately, it paid off and led to further growth in our company. This investment has shaped much of what we do today.”
Forming a Partnership
Harris earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural development from Texas A&M University, where he ran track for the school, and played in a rock band to earn money. In 2001, he began working as an independent contractor right out of college. Harris met his current business partner, Forren, when they played youth football together in grade school. Forren worked with his contractor dad from an early age and relocated as a young adult to Montana where he worked his way up in the log home industry. While their careers initially went separate ways, the two Davids stayed friends and, together, in 2003 founded Riverbed Concrete, where Forren today serves as Vice President.
“We saw a growing demand for customized, decorative concrete products with a relatively low cost-to-entry and had similar ideas on how best to structure and run a company to meet that demand,” says Harris.
As often happens with rapidly growing markets, many providers look to quickly enter or expand their offerings in hopes of garnering added revenues. Concrete, however, is unforgiving to the inexperienced, who may not have a complete understanding of the nuances and investment required to produce and maintain long-term product quality and consistency.
“By growing more slowly than we would have if we had outside investors, David and I chose to not only run the business but also do 100 percent of the labor ourselves. This afforded us years of hands-on experience that is invaluable in managing our jobs and employees today,” notes Harris.
A Dedicated Staff
With improved technology and tools, polished concrete flooring and counters started to gain popularity in the early 2000s, offering a customizable, durable, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly alternative to more expensive natural wood, stone, tile and manufactured options. A variety of grinding, honing, polishing and densifying steps are required to achieve a durable, easy-to-maintain and architecturally significant component to a facility.
It is widely known that mixing and installing concrete requires a unique set of skills that combine both art and science. “You can study or read about concrete, but the best teacher is trial and error as well as firsthand experience in the field,” explains Harris. “Custom coloring and polishing adds a whole new level to the equation.”
Forren adds, “We treat each concrete floor or counter as a special project and tailor our installation strategies for that specific slab. The employees use extreme care and have great pride in their work, ensuring each client receives the best service and end product.”
Harris describes his team of 15 employees as passionate and dedicated to the company mission of providing a distinctive set of outstanding products and services to select, targeted markets.
“We are fortunate to work with amazing employees. We try to only hire top-notch individuals who are dedicated to our mission. We strive to create an environment where everyone who works for Riverbed has a sense of ownership and pride in what they create. We provide direction and then let individuals shine with the skill sets to which they are best suited,” says Harris.
He adds that most of the staff has been with the company for seven to 10 years. Together, they work to set strict production rates, formal procedures and a standardized approach to their jobs, as well as quarterly production and profit-level goals. “The process more closely resembles a manufacturing operation rather than a construction company,” says Harris.
“Marsha Bell, who is in charge of estimating, scheduling, marketing and administration, is the heart of our office,” says Harris. “She is a true leader and takes care of the administrative side of things so David and I can focus on the products, services and processes.”
As the company began to explore and hone its lean, process-driven manufacturing approach to concrete installation, Harris and Forren began to look at ways to take full advantage of the developments and innovations that they were making, specifically with their concrete counters. “We developed a very high-performing concrete, but counters require a ton of craftsmanship and customization and, therefore, take a long time to produce,” Harris explains. “There were also geographic limitations to the growth of our concrete countertop division. Concrete counters are heavy, requiring skilled installers, and do not ship well. To grow our precast division, we began looking for markets with opportunities outside our immediate region.”
The result was the founding in 2012 of Slick Rock, Inc., which provides custom-designed and fabricated commercial and industrial-grade concrete planters, fire bowls, bollards, water features, and benches. “The Slick Rock product line, and its bowls in particular, allow us to take our proprietary concrete mix to high-volume production levels and offer nationwide distribution,” explains Harris.
“These aren’t just any bowls,” he adds. All precast concrete products are individually made with extreme attention to detail. Skilled artisans custom color each concrete piece, making every one unique. “These products are huge, and our process, which took 12 years to develop, yields a very strong 15,000-psi product, while most others on the market are manufactured to just 5,000 psi,” he says.
It didn’t take long before the company received its first commercial orders. The Austin-Bergstrom International Airport called for custom-designed bollards that fit three objectives: express the passenger-experience brand for the east terminal gate expansion project; protect the facility from a potential vehicle crash (up to the size of tractor-trailer truck); and serve as pedestrian seating.
The specially produced concrete is poured into custom-designed fiberglass molds that are handmade either in-house, in the Philippines or in Mexico to Slick Rock’s specifications. The company can make thousands of copies from each mold, making the process extremely cost-efficient.
Each of Slick Rock’s pieces is fabricated at the company’s 15,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Boerne. “It’s a central location from which to cost-effectively ship our products, which weigh anywhere from 350 to 6,000 pounds, all over the country,” says Harris.
The Slick Rock line of products includes concrete planters, fire bowls and directional traffic elements for multifamily and retail developments, such as for the Aura on McKinney, located in Dallas, or the Park North Shopping Center in San Antonio.
Looking ahead, Harris has plans to add additional crews to meet the growing demand for the firm’s decorative concrete floor installation and maintenance services. He also is in the process of setting up a contract with a nationwide distributor for the Slick Rock product line, focusing on the fast-growing fire bowl and water element vessels market.
In the case of Slick Rock, the transformation of people, products and processes doesn’t just further Harris’ and Forren’s mission to provide a distinctive set of outstanding products and services to niche markets. This expansion effort also serves to maintain the business’ competitive advantage in terms of consistently delivering high-quality products that endure.