Launch Slideshow

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A Tale of Two Families

A Tale of Two Families

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    Jenna Bodnar/Getty Images

    Bill and Debbie Harper say all 50 employees of Harper Concrete Inc. have the same opportunities as family members.

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    Jenna Bodnar/Getty Images

    Dale Garrett bought an existing ready-mix plant and started Garrett Ready Mix in Sparwood, British Columbia. His wife, Judy, is company president and Dale is secretary.

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    Garrett Ready Mix

    Once a mining community, Fernie Snow Valley has become a major ski and golf destination. Garrett Ready Mix pours footings for a restaurant at the Fernie Alpine Resort.

Small concrete producers make up a significant portion of the industry, often serving markets that large, international producers would not touch with a portable plant. Many of these are family-owned businesses, which brings its own set of challenges and advantages.

Although we are familiar with “mom and pop” businesses, family-owned concrete producers each have unique situations that contribute to their success. This is the story of two such families, and their secrets to success.

Harper Concrete Inc. / Draper, Utah

Debbie Harper never dreamed she would have three careers. She began as a successful buyer for McLane America, a specialty food distributor, until she decided to raise three children (now a 15-year-old and 9-year-old twins) full time. During those years, her husband, Bill, was building the concrete construction business he had started in 1984.

“I had always been involved with Harper Concrete no matter what else I was doing,” says Debbie, 45. Then, five years ago, she became Harper Concrete's vice president and CFO.

Today, the producer is one of the largest in its market, specializing in heavy highway slip-form paving. Harper has solidified its reputation with the Utah Department of Transportation; its Interstate 15 New Ogden Weber (NOW) project was used as the basis for a standard state specification for Cast-in-Place Constant Slope Barrier Walls. (For more, visit www.harperconcrete.com.)

To become successful, the couple quickly learned to compromise. “When Debbie first started working here, it was hard for me to give up some of my control. I'd been doing it by myself for so long,” says Bill, 54.

Debbie also had to adjust to balancing work and family life. “I realized I would probably never get the same appreciation I would have from another employer,” she explains. “When it's your family business, you're just expected to do your best. Probably the hardest thing though, is to leave the business, stress, and disagreements at the office.”

The Harpers have found the key to making their arrangement work. “Debbie is very skilled, so I let her do what she does best,” says Bill. “She's much more help than anyone I could ever hire.”

“Once we realized we made a good team, we did much better.” Debbie adds.

Investing in the future

Debbie's involvement also opened the door for the next generation of family members: Bill's nephews, Josh, 24, and John, 19, and his niece, Alexis, 29.

He hopes each one will become an expert in a different area of the business, and he sees their training as an investment. The Harpers are quick to note that all 50 employees have the same opportunities, regardless of their last names. They require everyone without concrete construction experience to start as a laborer and advance from there.

Josh has worked his way from laborer to superintendent over the past nine years and was recently promoted to the estimating department. John also began as a laborer and is learning how to read hubs and lead a line crew. He does this while working on his business degree.

Alexis, who has a business degree, is the company's office manager. Her responsibilities include human resources, contracts, and invoicing.

Bill appreciates his family members' dedication, but cautions them about running the company someday. “If they don't have the same passion I had when I was building the business, it could become the biggest nightmare of their lives,” he says. “Maintaining our reputation and professionalism is a 24/7 job. They need to have a realistic view of what it takes because the last thing I'd want is for it to be a burden.”

Josh Harper seems ready for the challenge. In his view, being a family-run business gives them an advantage. “Because you're a family, you are more inclined to help the business succeed in any way possible,” he says. He has advice for other families who work together: “Business is business and family is family. You can't take the business end personally.”