USGunite is a nationwide provider of pneumatically applied concrete resources – both shotcrete (wet) and gunite (dry) – to pool construction companies, commercial developers, engineering firms and government contractors. David Soyka reports on a company whose organic growth is now unified under a single brand identity that builds on over 30 years’ commitment to concrete craftsmanship.
The time-honored expression that something is “written in concrete” conveys an unwavering steadfastness. Once you’ve set something in concrete, it isn’t going to change.
Since 1977, USGunite has had a commitment to quality and craftsmanship that is as concrete as the product it provides: pressurized applied shotcrete (wet) and gunite (dry) concrete applications for use in commercial and residential pools as well as general commercial, industrial and government projects. From its start up origins in Dallas, Texas, the company grew to include more than 30 locations nationwide and over 75 yards of loading facilities. “We’re somewhat unique in that 90 percent of our growth has been organic. The advantage is that we can provide coast-to-coast service with the same consistent quality and service,” explains Jim Kinnebrew, business development. “When you acquire, you can run into issues about getting them up-to-speed to how you want them to operate and even then there can still be some inconsistency in standards. Since we’ve typically started from the ground level up in moving to a new market, our high standards for service, people and products are set immediately. That’s key for success in this business.”
Until recently, the various locations operated under separate identities while incorporating the Gunite name, e.g., Bayou Gunite, Prestige Gunite of Nevada, Midwest Gunite and so forth. “We’ve just done a rebranding resulting in all the companies operating under the USGunite name,” Kinnebrew explains. “We’ve adopted a partnership model similar to law firms. We have a CEO, Managing Partner, Leroy Hess, who represents the company as a whole. In turn, each operating company is led by individual partners who have ownership in the particular company. The advantages of this approach are twofold. On the one hand, we have established local, home grown relationships that a national centralized company isn’t going to have. At the same time, if we need to pull resources from one location to another, or if we need to pool resources from multiple locations to cover an area we’re normally not in, we’re able to do that with the confidence that we’re providing the same professional quality service our customers expect from us. We are scoped to handle any sized project, large or small, with a custom fleet of mixers and 70 crews that can provide timely cost-effective solutions nationwide that draws upon local cost-effective resources. We offer the largest team of qualified resources for pneumatically applied concrete in North America.”
According to Kinnebrew, although the terms shotcrete and gunite usually distinguish between so-called wet and dry processes, the terms are frequently used interchangeably. “The term ‘gunite’ is derived from the ‘gun’ that holds dry material that is conveyed with pressurized air to a nozzle, where it is wet with the appropriate amount of water to blow concrete onto a frame. Hence it is a dry process. Shotcrete uses pressure to force a stiff mortar through a hose, with air being added at the nozzle, and is thus considered wet. But, shotcrete equipment can be used with either dry or semi-dampened materials, so the distinctions aren’t always quite as clear cut.”
USGunite maintains its headquarters in Keller, Texas and employs a workforce of 450. This past year, the company as a whole took on about 11,000 projects. “That’s off from our highs of a few years ago, but we’re still profitable even under the current economy,” Kinnebrew says. “Some markets are experiencing significant declines more than others, but overall as a company we’re handling the economic downturn fairly well.”
He attributes this to USGunite’s expansion from its core commercial and residential pool market into industrial and commercial segments. “Some of the federal stimulus package is going to infrastructure projects and that creates opportunities for us. In addition, in this economy a number of contractors have had to reduce their workforce; as projects do arise, and as the economy improves, they want to focus their resources on what they do best, and look more to subcontract competencies that aren’t their strengths. That creates further opportunities for us.”
He adds, “I want to stress that we’re not moving away from our core business, we’re adding to it. The same skills sets and capabilities, as well as the time, logistical and cost savings achieved from blowing concrete for use in a commercial pool located on the seventh floor of a building – and you might be surprised at how many of those kinds of projects we do on a regular basis – applies to any industrial or infrastructure project that requires concrete.”
By the same token, Kinnebrew is quick to point out that the same in-house engineering and design expertise USGunite offers for pool construction is equally up to the most formidable industrial application. “The general public doesn’t realize how precisely engineered a pool has to be. Take any Olympic pool, for example, used for sanctioned meets. A tenth of a second can be the difference between a medal winner and an also ran. So there’s no room for error in any dimension of the pool. You can’t have a point on one end that’s even one-tenth an inch shorter than the other or you’re going to give someone enough of an unfair advantage to make the difference between a world class finish and second place.”
SHORING UP BUSINESS
Kinnebrew notes that most of the non-pool applications involve temporary as well as permanent shoring solutions. “We’re seeing a lot of potential growth in providing hurricane and sea wall protection, particularly in the Gulf Coast area. When you need a hurricane, erosion control or sea retaining wall, or any kind of underground tunnel or jetty structure, pour-in-place is one possible solution. However, pneumatically applied dry or wet mix is the ideal process to achieve significant savings in terms of both time and cost. It is ideal for construction of portions of structures, repair of concrete structures, encasement of structural steel members, ditch and tunnel lining, and soil-nail walls, among other applications. It provides early ground support after blasting or excavating and early strength development that provides flexibility to allow for ground stabilization and stress relief. It also offers the ability to conform to the natural irregular profile of the ground without formwork.”
A case in point is a USGunite project performed for Linbeck Construction in building an Embassy Suites Hotel in downtown Houston, which involved pneumatically applying concrete to 30-foot-deep retaining walls comprising 250 linear feet. Rather than install cast-in-place retaining walls, construction teams installed wood shoring secured with tiebacks into the wall face and reinforced with steel. Shotcrete was sprayed on and around the steel at a rate of about 40 to 50 yards per day, completely encasing it in concrete that ran as thick as 18 inches. A further inch of gunite was sprayed on parts of the wall that remained exposed as part of the below-grade parking garage; this covering was then trowelled into a smooth finish.
According to the project supervisor, Ches Bromley, “Using cast-in-place, we would have had to monopolize the crane operator’s time to handle form placement, leaving him no time for other lifting assignments.” Using the shotcrete/gunite process cut around two weeks off the project schedule. At an estimated $20,000 a day for construction costs, this resulted in significant cost savings.
Kinnebrew emphasizes that for every project, USGunite partners with the building contractor to provide precise engineering design expertise and on-site craftsmanship. “When we say we’re customer focused, we mean that we listen to what customers want to meet their expectations. There is no one-size fits-all solution. Everything we do is crafted to the needs of the specific project. We aim to work with our customers as efficiently as possible to maintain their time schedules and budgets, while at the same time providing the quality of highly durable and consistent applications that provide peace of mind. In addition to the advantages of our pneumatically applied concrete solutions, our professionalism and dedication creates further value for our customers.”
He emphasizes the experienced expertise of USGunite crews as critical to a successful project. “When you’re applying the concrete, nozzling technique is crucial. Good technique by the nozzleman can mean the difference between a dense high-strength material or one that looks good on the finished surface but actually has underlying sand pockets, voids and poorly encased reinforcing steel. Poor application technique results in a higher probability of cracking and its negative ramifications.”
As the economy improves, Kinnebrew anticipates new opportunities in both its core pool business as well as in industrial/commercial segments. “It feels as if our national economy has hit bottom and things are flattening out. Sometime in 2010 we expect not only an increase in our traditional commercial and residential pool markets, but also to apply our core strategies to further expand by capturing new markets with industrial and commercial customers.”
Based on USGunite’s demonstrated success in the past, that’s a concrete expectation for the future.