The grandparents were schoolteachers. So were the parents and a sister.
But Mark Towe did not follow in the family footsteps. At least not in the occupational sense.
Towe, who currently serves CRH Americas as chairman, took an interest in the aggregate industry 46 years ago after spending a summer as a scale operator at a Vulcan Materials Co. quarry. At the time, Towe had no idea those few months in Manassas, Virginia, would someday steer him into the operational ranks at Vulcan and later the executive ranks at Meridian Aggregates Co. and Oldcastle Inc.
At the outset of his career, Towe also couldn’t have realized the impact he would eventually have on the aggregate industry in capacities he would fill outside of the companies he served. Over the years, Towe’s influence not only guided those who reported to him, but the leaders of other aggregate-producing companies as well.
In instances with industry leaders, Towe’s influence was felt largely through national association work that was geared toward the greater good of the industry, including the development in 1998 of the Rocks Build America Foundation.
The foundation project, which Towe spearheaded from an industry standpoint, brought to life The Rocks Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The gallery features an interactive exhibit that illustrates how rocks are vital to the everyday lives of the general public, emerging at a time when the public knew very little about the aggregate industry.
“Mark strengthened the integrity of our industry and established credibility through the Smithsonian Institution,” says Rick Feltes, a Pit & Quarry Hall of Famer who built a career for himself at family-owned Feltes Sand & Gravel. “That spoke volumes to the United States and the world that we were an industry people needed to know.”
Setting a foundation
Consider, too, that Towe tackled such projects while helping to build Oldcastle into one of the top aggregate companies in the nation. But the work Towe did and the successes he ultimately achieved came after years of experiences. He started from the ground up at that Vulcan scale house and even learned some life lessons in the U.S. Army along the way.
In fact, after first serving Vulcan during the summer of 1971, the Vietnam War draft lottery pulled Towe away from the company and into the Army for nearly two years. While Towe was not deployed, he met a number of people in the military who proved influential to him.
“It really helped my career,” Towe says. “I worked alongside people with diverse backgrounds, and we worked as a team. That experience taught me an invaluable skill.”
Upon his discharge, Towe returned to Vulcan and ran a company office. Later, he participated in an 18-month Vulcan training program that laid the foundation for his work to come. The program exposed Towe to areas ranging from accounting to blasting.
The company provided other opportunities for Towe to learn and grow as well.
“They had great operational people,” says Towe, who often turned to longtime Vulcan executive Bill Grayson for advice. “If you had the skillset to listen, you would learn from some great people.”
From Grayson, Towe took away the value of molding good employees.
“He (Grayson) had a vision for good people,” Towe says. “He could see talent. He was very patient, but he was stern too. If you went in the wrong direction, he’d call you out in a positive way. He also made it clear that you couldn’t do certain things if you want to be successful.”
The next phase
By 1987, having dedicated 15 years to Vulcan, Towe departed on a new journey at Meridian Aggregates Co. The decision to leave Vulcan was a difficult one, but the job at Meridian, a startup company, was a unique one.
“I was 37 years old,” Towe says. “The executive who came to me said, ‘I don’t know much about the aggregate business, but you have a great reputation and I’ll provide you what you need to do to build this company.’”
So, Towe moved to Denver and helped to launch the company, which was a subsidiary of Burlington Northern. Perhaps Towe’s biggest takeaway at Meridian, which he served as CEO, was the value of the customer.
“Our largest customer was the railroad, and they were demanding but fair,” Towe says. “I used to take the concept for granted because I was an operational guy, but the customer really makes your business successful.”
At Meridian, Towe also learned the value of a board of directors. He learned to take their advice related to developing a strategic vision.
“Sometimes, you get so close to the business that you don’t even see it,” he says. “But most outside directors don’t know the details of the business. I always try to tap into their ideas and suggestions.”
Towe’s tenure at Meridian extended into the mid-1990s, when Oldcastle engaged his company in discussions about purchasing Meridian.
“I used to compete against Oldcastle at Meridian and had a good experience with them,” Towe says. “We used to compete against Oldcastle in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. They were a small company at the time headquartered in Los Angeles.”
Ultimately, Meridian bought the Oldcastle assets in those states. But Towe saw how honest and professional Oldcastle’s representatives were as negotiators.
“I remember thinking this is a company that is going to go somewhere, which they did,” Towe says.
A company’s growth
By 1997, Towe had joined Oldcastle, the North American arm of CRH, as COO of the Oldcastle Materials Group. He arrived a year after CRH’s $323 million purchase of Tilcon, which, at the time, represented the company’s largest acquisition. The transaction provided Towe the opportunity to dive right into a major transition of an acquired company.
“The largest challenge was the transition from a big acquisition and how the company blends into the system,” he says.
Oldcastle’s interest in local autonomy – allowing acquired companies to retain their name and brand – has always been a little bit of a different approach. But the more Towe thought about that approach in his early years at Oldcastle, the more he embraced the concept.
“Aggregate companies are local businesses,” he says. “They have good reputations, and if they didn’t have a good reputation or good people then we wouldn’t buy them to start with. But that name means something.”
Names represent heritages, some of which stretch back a century or more. And heritage, Towe says, is something to appreciate.
Still, the integration of a smaller company into a larger one requires two companies to really understand one another. Developing that understanding is essential to integration, Towe says.
“You have to be very sensitive to what an acquired company thinks,” he says, “but they also reap the benefits of having a big, powerful, financially backed company that can help an acquired company be better at what they’re doing. From day one, we tell the ownership we acquired that safety is the No. 1 priority for us. Also, as part of a public company, they will have to adhere to our accounting and IT systems.”
At the same time, the acquisition of a new aggregate-producing company by Oldcastle means the acquisition of best practices that can benefit others. Towe helped to share best approaches across Oldcastle companies through five best practices committees, including those dedicated to aggregate, asphalt, equipment, ready-mix and safety.
The committees distributed key information across the company in an effective, organized fashion.
“You find out that some of the other companies may be more efficient than you were,” says Towe, who became president of the Oldcastle Materials Group in 2000 and CEO in 2006. “The idea is to sit down at the table and discuss what’s working and what doesn’t. The [committees] afforded the chance to meet new people and tour operations you wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to see.”
Leading the Oldcastle Materials Group to new heights in the mid-2000s, Towe was promoted as chief executive of Oldcastle Inc. and appointed to the CRH plc board of directors in 2008. He was named chairman of CRH Americas in 2016.
“It was a great opportunity for me to get involved in the international side of CRH which now has businesses in 31 countries and employs over 89,000 people worldwide,” says Towe, referring to his appointment to the CRH board.
The years in which Towe served the Oldcastle Materials Group were also some of the years in which he made his greatest impact on the aggregate industry at large. However, Towe’s efforts to improve the overall industry through involvement in the National Stone Association (NSA) go back as far as his days at Vulcan and Meridian.
Bob Bartlett, the former NSA president who joins Towe as a member of the Pit & Quarry Hall of Fame this year, first encouraged Towe to join the association board, which Towe ultimately did.
Towe was involved in a number of NSA (and later National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association) projects over the years, including the International Center of Aggregates Research, based in Texas. Industry peers say Towe was also instrumental in the discussions about merging NSA with the National Aggregates Association.
Towe even served as NSA chairman in 1998, after the transition at the association from Bartlett to Joy (Wilson) Pinniger.
“That was a good year to be chairman in the sense that we had just gotten a six-year highway bill that gave the industry stability,” Towe says. “We had a good future, and a good transition with Joy. I thought it was great to bring somebody in away from the industry.”
Towe’s voice was particularly valuable during association transition periods.
“In terms of the NSA-NAA merger, personalities sometimes clashed,” says Kim Snyder, the former president of Eastern Industries. “Mark was key in helping ease any clashes between people. If it wasn’t for him, God knows where that merger would have gone.
But perhaps even more valuable to the greater aggregate industry was Towe’s commitment to the Rocks Build America Foundation in 1998.
“He was the guy behind all of that,” says Paul Mellott Jr., chairman at Mellott Company. “One of his legacies is the Smithsonian, and he still raises money to continue to tweak it.”
Feltes agrees Towe’s efforts on the Rocks Build America Foundation have served the industry well.
“Our industry was lacking a message, and Mark, through the Smithsonian Institute, was a broadcaster of an image that we didn’t have before his efforts,” Feltes says.
Astoundingly, Towe led the effort in 1998 to raise $5 million for the project – and he raised the funds in only two or three weeks.
“I was really proud that the industry supported the efforts of this project,” Towe says. “We had to get it done – everybody understood that.”