Fulton businessman Rod Tanner said concrete doesn't have to be ordinary. If fact, he prefers that it not be.
"We don't like to be ordinary," he said. "Why be ordinary? Why be the guy that goes out and pours a manhole or a concrete block?"
President and co-owner of Mid America Precast, Tanner and his crew are particularly proud of a project done for Montgomery County Schools. They used shape and shadow and concrete "fins" to create the school's wildcat mascot on the side of the new gym's concrete wall.
Both Tanner and his senior project manager Nathan Green said the more interesting — and frankly, the more difficult — the architectural design is, the more interesting the job is for them.
"We're all aesthetic driven," Tanner said. "We're concerned about how cool it's going to look."
He added his company loves creative designs, materials and ideas.
"There's more risk, but there also can be more reward if you're good," he said.
The company started in 1989 in Jefferson City, and Tanner's business partner, Steve Adrain, joined up a year later.
"I ran the front end, and he's always been the plant person," Tanner said of the partnership.
Then, the Missouri River flooded in 1993. This set in motion a chain of events that motivated the company to uproot and go north to a new home. It was a good move, Tanner added.
"Fulton has been very supportive of us," he said.
A photograph hanging on a wall in Tanner's office shows the flood, which ripped buildings from their foundations, destroyed sections of U.S. Highway 54 and forced a community and eventually a jail to evacuate. The rain and the current caused a levee to break, unleashing the Missouri, Tanner remembered.
"It rained for 30 days straight," he said.
Usually the Missouri travels three miles an hour through Jefferson City. During that flood, it was traveling at twice that speed. Tanner can point to a spot on the picture where his business used to be.
"When the river shifted, the main current of the river basically went through our site," he said. "About 60,000 to 70,000 cubic yards of fill was washed out, so the river under washed everything."
Tanner and Adrain still had promises to keep, however.
"We were eight to 10 weeks out of our manufacturing facility," Tanner said. "We went in and barged out all of our equipment so we could finish our contracts."
After that disaster, Tanner said he and Adrain began to seriously think about moving operations. Tanner said he spent about three years creating a new business plan, and they settled on precast concrete.
Mid America Precast started life as a ready-mix operation with concrete-mixing trucks people see traveling to job sites.
"It's a very competitive business; it was hard to make money," Tanner said. "We could batch (ready-mixed concrete) into trucks, which had about a 30-mile radius. We wanted to do something more regional."
The flood provided that opportunity.
"We started looking (for a new business home)," he said, adding the dusty nature of the concrete business made some communities unsupportive.
Not Fulton, he said. The company relocated to 2700 Westminster Ave. — on the north side of town — in 1996.
"We made a decision to move to Fulton because of the highway locations," Tanner said. "It was a good deal."
Now the company manufactures its own concrete and creates concrete slabs for projects — plus a few other products including sinks and counter tops, Tanner said.
"We design, build and manufacture," he added. "We travel about a 300-mile radius from Fulton; basically, any state that touches Missouri. We do a large amount of work in St. Louis."
Green said every project is completely a custom build. Like a cake, the recipe for the concrete is developed, bearing in mind the end product's texture, shape and color. Then the concrete is poured into wooden forms, dried, delivered and erected.
"We do everything from schools to hospitals to office buildings to military bases and bridges," Green said.
Somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons of water goes into the new concrete every day. The company spends $40,000 to $50,000 a month on wood, used to create frames for the concrete slabs.
"We try to stay green and reuse as much as we can," Tanner said.
Everything from rebar to poured concrete slabs is tested again and again for durability.
"We overdo everything," Tanner said.
A 12-inch thick slab of concrete gets better as time goes on.
"It takes six years to cure, and over 20 years it gets harder and harder and harder," Tanner said. "We build for the long term."
Since its inception, the company has grown from six or seven employees to 10 times that.
"We're hiring again," Tanner said. "We're up to 60, 65 and we need to put another 10 people on, at least."
Plans are solid for 2016 with 12 projects currently underway, and the next several years are looking busy, too, Tanner said. Recently, the company completed concrete walls for a multi-tiered parking garage at the Veteran's Administration hospital in Columbia.
"It was a 500-car garage," Green said. "We erected that garage in seven weeks. If it had been poured in place, it would take six months to do."
If one stands at Fulton City Hall and gazes at the white concrete on the outside of the building, they will be looking at a Mid America Precast product. A dental school at the University of Missouri campus also was recently completed, as well as concrete cladding for the new Boone County emergency communications center. An upcoming project includes work on the new Fulton State Hospital.
"We have the contract to build all the walls for the structure," Tanner said.
If things keep going like this, there's no telling where the company may go.
"We are considering an expansion," Tanner said. "If we do, we could add another 30 employees."
Mid America Precast already has expanded three times, each expansion costing $800,000 to $1.5 million. The company added to the plant and offices, and grew like crazy after coming to Fulton, employing as many as 120 people from 2005 to 2009 before the housing bubble burst.
"From 2009 to 2013, we were in a recovery," Tanner said. "We lost 60 to 70 percent of our revenue. We went from 100 employees down to 20. When you lose 65 percent of your revenue, it's tough."
Tanner said the company circled its wagons and rode out the storm.
"Then by 2014, we were back up to semi-normal revenues," he said. "In 2015, we came back with a vengeance — we came back with a record year, and 2016 and 2017 are looking really nice."
Although the company is involved in huge projects, Tanner said they are also interested in small jobs.
"Anybody that wants concrete, come see me," he said. "We can do just about anything."
Tanner said he never envisioned a business like Mid America Precast when he was a kid in high school.
"I was going to be a coach," he said. "I was going to go into education. But you can't make money in education."
Although the depression in the construction market slowed down Tanner's plans for the business, he said he's on his way again.
"I was shooting for bigger things, to be honest with you," he said. "But now I'm on my way back. I'm going to sell this to my employees when I get done, and that's the way it's going to be. We have the best employees. But I'm going to retire and lay on a beach some place — maybe the (Florida) Keys."