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Bill Gwin - Gate Precast

July 2007

 Name: Bill Gwin

Date of Birth:
July 29, 1938

High School: Murphy High School, Mobile, Alabama

College: University of Alabama, BS Civil Engineering, 1961

Family: Wife, Pat, and four children: Shannon, 43, is a hospital administrator; Vern, 41, is a civil engineer with the Corps of Engineers; Dean, 37, is the president of marketing for Gate Precast; Patrick, 33, is a forester with Georgia Pacific.

Hobbies: Fishing, reading, and repairing his waterfront home and piers after the hurricane.

First position in Concrete Industry: Sales engineer for Underwood Concrete Products, Mobile, Alabama.

Most Significant Mentor: Joe Luke, president of Gate Construction Materials of Gate Petroleum Co., who taught Gwin the business end of manufacturing precast concrete.

Greatest Project: Jefferson Pilot Insurance Building, Greensboro, North Carolina.

Most Significant Improvement to Precast Industry: Computers, trade associations, and the improvement of concrete ad mixtures to give them superior strength and water absorption rates.

Challenges for the Industry: Managing the economic ups and downs of the construction industry.

Advice to future Industry Icons: Once you find talented employees invest in developing them or they will go to someone else who will.

Bill Gwin’s Formula for Precast Success
From childhood, Bill Gwin liked to design and build things, and took he great satisfaction in seeing a project through to completion. When he graduated from the University of Alabama in 1961 with a civil engineering degree, he took a job at a large structural engineering firm where he thought he’d be able to put his dreams of building into action. Within a few short months however, he discovered that in structural engineering, much of his work life would be spent sitting at a desk doing the same tasks every day.
“It was so boring,” he says of that first job. “There was too much sitting and I never got to see the results of my work.”
He stayed in the job for a few years but eventually got out and discovered precast when he was offered a job at Underwood Concrete Products in Mobile. He began as a sales engineer and was eventually promoted to the vice president and general manager.
“I was very fortunate to start in precast in the 60s, when it was still in its infancy,” he says. In the early days of precast, there was no specializing. Everyone was involved in the whole project, which meant Gwin got to participate in every aspect of the business, from making samples and presenting proposals to doing the work and collecting the money. “It gave me great insight into all phases of the business,” he says.
Gwin’s learned a lot in his seven years at Underwood, and that experience made him an attractive prospect to start his own business.
In 1972, Jim Lazenby invited Gwin along with Alan Hudgins to open their own precast company, called Lazenby Precast. Gwin couldn’t resist the offer.
“It was a great marriage of partners,” he says. “Alan was very production oriented, Jim was engineering oriented, and I was marketing oriented. We worked well together.”
The company was a success, and in 1984 Gwin and two others from the company, including Alan Hudgins, bought Lazenby out and continued to grow the business. At that time they had 70 employees and the industry was booming. Four years later when they sold the company to Gate Petroleum Company, it had 300 employees, however Gwin is unwilling to take too much credit for the company’s success.
“It was dumb luck,” he says of the business’ growth. “We bought the company when there was a downturn in the economy and sold it during an upturn.”
Despite his modesty, Gate Petroleum had enough faith in the skills of Gwin and Hudgins to ask them to stay on and help Gate develop the precast side of the business.
It was in that role that Gwin met Joe Luke, the owners representative who became Gwin’s mentor.
Luke taught Gwin and his partners a lot about good business practices, such as the importance of formal record keeping and how to determine what jobs will be most profitable. “We knew a lot about production and engineering and marketing,” says Gwin. “Joe showed us the business side. He was a tremendous business manager.”
It was during this time that computers entered the workplace, making Gwin’s business life even easier. “The advent of the computer was one of the most significant improvements to everyone’s business. It took the drudgery out of our work.”

Some Triumphs
Throughout his career in precast, from his early days in sales at Underwood, to the day he retired in 2001 as president of Gate Precast’s Monroeville plant, which was one of seven precast facilities the company owned and operated, Gwin loved the precast business. “We did so many exciting projects over the years,” he says, noting that there was one particular project of which he is especially proud.
That project was the Jefferson Pilot Insurance Building, built in Greensberg, North Carolina in 1986.
“It put Gate on the map,” he says.
The project, which won PCI’s outstanding building award, was exciting because it was so intricate, involving complicated form work, and requiring a finish that would compliment the Terrazzo exterior of the adjacent building that was built in the early 19th century.
“That building proved that we could successfully compete doing intricate precast work and it helped launch many bigger and more intricate projects in the years to come.”
Gwin enjoyed the challenge of these complex and often award winning projects, although, he notes, they weren’t always profit makers. “After a while we realized that maybe we should go after a few profit makers, along with the award winners.”

Challenges He Faced
Despite his ongoing success, Gwin admits that he also struggled in his career, especially as a business owner, to manager the fluctuations of work of the precast business. “It was a problem I never solved – how to make a steady business in an industry that has so many up turns and downturns.”
He hated having to hire and train staff during an economic boom only to have to lay them off when the economy softened. “It’s a challenge for the future of the industry,” he say. “I wish I had a solution.”
He was also challenged by the varied skill sets of many new employees coming into the industry. “We were hiring people who had trouble reading a ruler or doing the basic math needed to do the job,” he says. But this problem was solved.
To create a baseline skill set, the company developed a precast 101 course to teach new employees the basics of production, including math and measurement skills. Every employee who completed the course received a diploma. “It ensured that our people had the skills necessary to do the job, and it showed them that the company cared,” he says.

Advice for the Future
Gwin thinks the work done by trade associations, such as PCI and the Architectural Precast Association, has dramatically helped to improve the industry by facilitating information sharing among different companies and disciplines. He encourages new people in the industry to take advantage of these valuable resources.
He also encourages them to try to recognize talent in young employees early on so they can promote and develop them and not lose them to other organizations. “In my generation, you got promoted based on time served, but now, it’s all about talent,” he says. “If they aren’t challenged and rewarded early on, they will go somewhere else where they will be.”
And when you find the great talent, he urges business owners to give them the chance to train, and to participate in all aspects of the business so they can learn the nuances of the operation, just as he did in the early 60s. “You need to go through all of that before you can choose your specialty.”

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