In the concrete business, Tim Becken says, being a family-owned company is a competitive advantage. Cemstone, which Becken’s great-grandfather founded in 1927, now battles for market share with multinationals with headquarters in Europe. But “we have the ability to move quickly or make moves without the level of bureaucracy other firms have,” says Becken, Cemstone’s senior vice president of operations and one of four Becken family members who run Mendota Heights-based Cemstone Cos.
Cemstone president Thor Becken chimes in: “A lot of our customers are very family-oriented,” which means they prefer working with a concrete supplier that provides a direct response to their needs.
The Beckens continue to build on a durable foundation nearly 90 years old. And even though Cemstone is now the largest concrete firm in Minnesota, and has more than 70 locations across five states, the Beckens still work to provide a family feeling. Cemstone’s customers range from large construction firms and state highway departments to homeowners who hire contractors to use Cemstone Dura-Crete for their patios and driveways. Cemstone mix designs are formulated to withstand harsh winters and the long lengths of service that states are increasingly demanding from roads and bridges, particularly after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007. Cemstone concrete was used in the construction of the new bridge completed a year later, and is being incorporated into the St. Croix river bridge now being erected near Stillwater. Those bridges have been designed to last for 100 years, Thor notes—and the concrete must withstand a century’s worth of wear.
To meet such ever-increasing demands, Cemstone has its own technical center, where its engineers conduct quality testing and develop lots of different types of concrete mix designs, Thor says. They have also worked closely with some of their strategic suppliers of materials to develop new products, including colored concretes and specialized materials for parking ramps and other applications. (One project using Cemstone concrete is the new Vikings stadium.) A lot of ready-mix companies don’t have such capabilities, says Steve Becken, vice president of the company’s ready-mix concrete business. “It’s a big deal for Cemstone.”
1927 – Hammon Becken founds a concrete block manufacturing firm in St. Paul.
1929 – Company named Cemstone Products Co. as sand and gravel production were added.
1957 – Introduces Handi-Crete packaged concrete mix for the residential consumer market.
1965 – Cemstone expands its ready-mix concrete business into Wisconsin.
1966 – Cemstone acquires Certified Concrete Co., St. Paul, the first of 50-plus acquisitions during the next 45 years.
1987 – Cemstone moves to its current headquarters in Mendota Heights.
1990 – Hammon Becken’s grandson Tom Becken becomes Cemstone’s CEO.
2011 – Cemstone develops and intro- duces its Rapid-Pave “ultra-fast-setting” concrete for the highway construction market.
2012 – Cemstone signs a license agreement with Houston-based U.S. Concrete to manufacture its proprietary technology, Aridus Rapid Drying Concrete for commercial applications including schools, data centers and hospitals.
Cemstone receives the Charles Pankow Award for Innovation for its custom-designed concrete used on the new I-35W Bridge.
2015 – Cemstone presented with the Excellence in Quality Award by the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) for the fifth year.
In a sense, Cemstone is a family business comprising many other family businesses. Beginning in the mid-1960s, it began to acquire other small concrete firms, mostly in the Upper Midwest. About 30 years ago, the pace of acquisitions increased—more than 50 companies have become part of Cemstone, and most have been family-run.
“Our industry as a whole has been consolidating more and more because of the high cost of all of the assets or all the equipment you have to buy,” says CEO Tom Becken (who is Steve’s brother, and father of Thor and Tim). “So a fella that had a half-dozen trucks can’t survive.” In other cases, he adds, there are no successors “and the owners just got tired.”
These acquisitions have allowed Cemstone to develop a network of concrete facilities that are closer to project locations. “A single-plant company can’t do that,” Tim says. “That’s what caused the industry to consolidate.” As Tom says, “To survive, we had to expand or get really small.”
Proximity to projects is crucial in an industry where there’s a “60-minute window,” Thor says. Once ready-mix concrete has been combined with water, it has to be laid quickly, whether that application is the foundation of a new house or the lanes of a new roadway.
At Cemstone, business decisions often are made almost as quickly. “We all kind of have our area,” says Steve. “We all work together on making large decisions” such as acquisition and capital expenditures. They also talk together almost every day. Are there any disagreements? “We’re all just a happy group,” he jokes. The other family owners shrug.
“Sometimes, I have to make the final decision,” Tom says. “Someone wants to do something and I say no. A lot of our employees will go [to each of us] until they get the right answer.” Then, he adds, “they might come to me, and I’ll ask, ‘Did you talk to him or him?’ ” If there are major disagreements, they tend to be about capital purchases. “They might want to buy more than the budget,” Tom says. “And I’ll say no.”
One thing all the Beckens agree on: The concrete business is hard work. That’s a lesson the family imparts to each generation. “We’re just starting in with the fifth [generation],” Tom Becken says. “All of us here have worked in all aspects of the business. Our father and grandfathers all had us doing some low-end work . . . . But that’s how you learn what your employees are doing.” Those tasks range from cutting weeds to shoveling under conveyor belts, driving a truck to running a lawn mower. Most choose a different path. One of Tom Becken’s sons, for instance, became a physician. “He said he didn’t want to have anything to do with it because there were too many Beckens in it,” he says. Steve chimes in, laughing: “Tom gave him the worst jobs possible!”
“You either like this business or you don’t,” Tom Becken says,“because it is a demanding, stressful business in more ways than one.”
The Becken Family and Its Business
Four Becken family members are currently Cemstone Companies co-owners:
Tom Becken is CEO, and a member of the third generation of the company’s founding family.
Steve Becken, Tom’s brother, is vice president of Cemstone’s ready-mix concrete division.
Thor Becken (Tom’s son) is president of Cemstone Companies.
Tim Becken (Tom’s son) is Cemstone’s senior vice president of operations.
In the fourth generation, Kyle Becken (Steve’s son) is Cemstone’s south central regional manager and safety director of Cemstone Concrete Materials; Rebecca Becken Gillis (Steve’s daughter) is the firm’s senior accounting specialist.
In many family businesses, members gather once or twice a year to discuss how the company’s doing and to ask questions of those who are working in the business, particularly in leadership roles. That’s not the case with the Beckens. Only the four Beckens working for the company have ownership stakes. The other family members have at best a casual interest. “When the whole family gets together,” Tom Becken notes wryly, “our wives will say, ‘There are other things in the world besides Cemstone.’ ”
The biggest challenge Cemstone has faced was the recent recession, when its business dropped 65 percent. They came through, though not without the pain of layoffs. The Beckens and other top executives took on more responsibilities and duties. Expenses were cut; capital expenditures were deferred. Tim Becken notes that the tough times also pushed Cemstone to become more efficient—for instance, by incorporating digital technology into production processes and driver dispatching.
According to Timothy Kuntz, president of South St. Paul law firm LeVander, Gillen & Miller, and Cemstone Cos.’ corporate counsel, that “openness to engage in technology” in both product creation and distribution is a key factor behind the company’s longevity. He cites the company’s new concrete plant in Rosemount, where “you can run 30 trucks through the plant in an hour. That represents a willingness to do a state-of-the-art design of the plant.” Kuntz also praises the clear demarcation of responsibilities and authority within the company, while at the same time keeping up daily communication among the executive group.
The business that those executives run began to improve in 2012—revenue grew 10 percent from 2013 to 2014—and headcount is close to the company’s 2007 number, though some of that is due to the several additional acquisitions Cemstone has made in the past few years. To build esprit de corps, the Beckens try to meet with as many of their out-of-state employees as possible each year.
“Because of our growth, we’ve asked [employees] to step up because they’re growing with us,” Thor Becken says. They need to keep learning and keep growing because of the pace of new products, new equipment, and new state and federal construction and environmental regulations the company needs to manage.
For the Beckens, Hammon Becken remains a guiding spirit. Thor remembers his great-grandfather as someone who “didn’t put himself on a throne. He saw himself as a servant to other people and to his customers.” During times like the one Cemstone just came through, Thor Becken says, family pride drives family members to “dig our heels in deeper.” You could say that this is a concrete company with a foundation that looks to last at least 100 years.