Five. That’s how many customers Don Brock, chairman of Astec Industries, tries to reach each day. It’s a daily goal for Brock, and one he encourages others within his company to achieve each day.
“Don is an engineer and technical by background, but he has a great business acumen,” says Joe Vig, president of KPI-JCI and Astec Mobile Screens, one of 18 Astec companies. “His real love is selling the product to customers. I’d venture to say that of any corporation, no chairman talks to more customers than Don Brock does. He’ll ask each of us if we’ve talked to our five customers, and I’d be the first one to say I do not talk to five per day. I talk to as many as I can, but I guarantee you he does talk to five per day.”
Brock’s passion and dedication to sales is one of many reasons why he’s been inducted to the Pit & Quarry Hall of Fame. His crowning achievement is Astec Industries, which he founded in 1972 with partners and expanded over many years. Now, Astec is roughly a $1 billion company, Brock says. It didn’t reach that mark overnight, though.
Instead, a series of periodic acquisitions brought products such as pavers and crushing equipment to the company. One key acquisition that launched Astec into aggregates occurred when the Barbara Green Co. and the Telsmith brand were brought into the fold. The opportunity Brock saw in acquiring such companies was to vertically integrate Astec to bring the aggregates, asphalt and concrete industries together.
“Entrepreneurs who want to sell their businesses come to us versus us going to them because we keep the same management; try to put the money in they need; and give them the technology to grow their business,” Brock says. “Yet we let them stay in the town where they started. We’ve hardly done any merging or moving from one town to another. I think that model attracts entrepreneurs because many are more interested in seeing their people continue to have jobs and see the business stay in the current town.”
Brock’s first exposure to engineering was through his father, a welder who did boiler repair work. According to Brock, he was re-tubing boilers with his father by the time he was 14 years old. Asphalt plants, which used to contain boilers, were one machine Brock re-tubed during his early years.
Brock later earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from the University of Tennessee, and he obtained a Master of Science and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Astec Industries was founded seven years later as a company that built heaters and asphalt plants.
Equipment for the aggregates industry was eventually integrated into Astec Industries because Brock saw an opportunity to unite industries.
“Aggregate people don’t understand asphalt and they don’t understand concrete,” he says. “And the concrete people don’t understand aggregate. They all talk but they don’t understand. We saw an opportunity to be vertically integrated. We could not only build equipment to crush the rock, but we could make the most efficient mixes and get the most utilization out of the aggregate.”
For Brock, the most exciting part of expanding into new areas and acquiring companies is watching them grow.
“When we bought Telsmith it was doing $18 million,” Brock says. “Now it’s doing $100 million. Kolberg-Pioneer went from $20 [million] to $80 [million]. All of these have been able to grow.”
Astec has grown, too, in part because of its investment in and commitment to modular plants. The FastPack system, which Brock fathered, demonstrates the company’s growth well. FastPack is an innovative combination of crushing, screening and stockpiling. Brock’s vision was to provide producers with a system they could set up in a matter of hours without a bunch of stationary structures and timbers. Brock saw his vision through with the use of hydraulic drives and other elements that were ahead of their time.
“He dreamed of setting up a complete crushing and screening plant anywhere you wanted in a matter of hours, without a whole bunch of stationary structures, timbers and so on,” Vig says. “
Investment in people
As mechanically minded as Brock is, he is also a man of the people. Brock believes in educating employees and customers, as a number of his companies have facilities dedicated to training and innovation.
“He’s a great teacher,” Vig says. “He really believes in training. He’s got a beautiful training center in Chattanooga, [Tenn.] at Astec. He pushed us and didn’t have any problem with spending millions of dollars here at KPI-JCI and Astec Mobile Screens on building a nice training center so we could train our customers and dealers – and our people.
Although chairman is Brock’s title, Vig says the teacher in Brock continues to emerge.
“He’s great at pointing out a suggestion,” Vig says. “He doesn’t grab you by the shirt collar. He’ll throw out a suggestion for you and hope you latch onto it, and he’ll help you come up with a solution. Once he throws out a solution he will ask you about it again later to see if any action has taken place.”
Vig recalls one story at an Astec factory that further illustrates Brock as an effective teacher.
“We were walking through a factory one time and there was a simple chain drive,” Vig says. “Kind of a roller chain drive. Basically, when you put on one of these chains, there’s a forward way and a reverse way of doing it. If you do this the correct way it will not wear as quickly as if it were put on the incorrect way.
“Don says to [the worker], ‘I think you may have the chain on backward. He stopped and demo’d how it moved over the sprockets; how you could have more wear going one way versus another. He’s done things like that just observing. He’ll point it out as a suggestion.”
Brock, who’s been battling mesothelioma for a couple of years, remains active with the company.
“I’ll be chairman as long as I’m able to, but I don’t want to be in the way,” Brock says. “I still like to be in R&D, and I’m still a peddler at heart. I still sell a few asphalt plants and crushing plants per year. I’ve been blessed to have a lot of customers whose dad and granddad I knew.”