Laura Huch Kerckhoff has taken all the right steps toward success. In the last five years, Huch Kerckhoff has repositioned a thriving family-owned precast producer from a strong local business into a nationally recognized leader.

It began with the introduction of a new process control system based on lean management. This was followed by the design of a new brownfield production facility that has been recognized as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) structure.

But perhaps the most enduring portion of Castcon-Stone's transformation has been the management team's focus on risers. That's because this Saxonburg, Pa., producer has become one of the strongest leaders in one of the precast industry's fastest growing markets—stairs.

In the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, architects and designers have focused on the design of egress structures. The result has been a revitalized acceptance of concrete as a preferred building material. This interest corresponded with Castcon's redesign.

Huch Kerckhoff, company president, says her recent success was based on some well-defined research conducted as her team looked over the design options for her new production facility. “We searched for every piece of information on the use of stairs we could find, and discovered that it was going to be a strong market,” she says.

While a portion of her team's strategic plan was based on a strong forecast for commercial structures needing stairs, a significant influence was the increasing number of governmental rules and stronger building codes. Building codes for commercial structures have changed significantly since the late 1990s. These include the full implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into the IBC2000 building code, as well as regional changes. “It's a major part of my job to keep up-to-date on these changes,” says Huch Kerckhoff. “We are continually alerting the architects with whom we work.

“I wouldn't say one code change over another has had the most impact, but the federally mandated ADA did provide focus and started the trend toward more universal building and fire codes,” says Huch Kerckhoff. Like the building codes that recognized the importance of concrete and masonry structures for fire protection, recent reports have emphasized concrete stairs. Other recent design guideline changes include the Federal Transport Agency requirements for blast-resistant design in mass transit, as well as public and government structures, she adds.

“I regularly remind all our employees that lives of our customers' customers literally depend on us doing our jobs correctly every moment of every day,” says Huch Kerckhoff.

A strong niche market

Castcon-Stone has a successful legacy for developing profitable niche markets. It began as a local supplier of quarried sandstone blocks. Soon after its founding in 1954, Huch Kerckhoff's grandfather directed his workers to wetcast retaining wall elements to keep them working during the winter. In time, the producer entered the architectural precast business.

The family-owned business decided to take a step upward to stairs in 1962. They had bid on a very large residential complex that required hundreds of precast stairs. Castcon hasn't looked back.