Journal of Business
By Kim Crompton
Curtiss and Laura Grenz, who own the 15-year-old business, attract a lot of repeat customers.
SPOKANE, WA-After living and working for a time in northern California, Spokane Valley natives Curtiss and Laura Grenz were eager to return here, and they found a concrete way to do that, literally. They founded a business through which they used an initial handful of molds to begin producing concrete fountains and other items used for yard decorations.
That endeavor has evolved into a 15-year-old company, Concrete Works Statuary Inc., that now employs a total of 12 people - about half of them year-round and the rest seasonally - at a retail location at 205 S. Pines and at a 14,000-square-foot production facility in the Spokane Business & Industrial Park.
The business now has roughly 1,000 molds it uses to make concrete products ranging from classic fountains and water features to statues, tables, benches, planters, stepping stones, and animal figurines. Though its sales have dipped over the last couple of years due to the recession, Curtiss Grenz says he's pleased with the overall growth of the enterprise.
"I think it's been satisfactory, most definitely," Grenz says. "People have enjoyed our products, and we have hundreds of repeat customers. Spokane has been a great place to start our family business."
Concrete Works' retail facility on Pines, which occupies a little over an acre of land, is open April 1 through mid-October. The company, though, also operates temporary stores in the Spokane Valley Mall and NorthTown Mall during the holiday season, and sells its products through exhibits at home-and-garden shows from the end of January through early March. Its production plant runs year-round.
It plans to open an unstaffed booth shortly at the Columbia Center mall, in the Tri-Cities, where it will display some of its products and have literature and ordering information available, Grenz says. "If that goes well, we'll try the Missoula market and probably the Boise market with the same idea" soon thereafter, he says.
Also, he says, "Our goal now is to really put some time and effort into the Internet," and build up sales through the company's Web site.
Grenz declines to disclose Concrete Works' annual revenues, but says they've fallen about 20 percent since peaking in 2007, and before that had been trending upward at a rate of 5 percent to 10 percent a year. The recent decline has been softened by the upswing in stay-at-home vacations, which has contributed to sales of decorative yard items, he says.
The downturn still has taken a toll on the company's revenues, though, and Grenz says customer hesitancy has convinced him that he shouldn't expect a quick recovery.
"They're very cautious, looking for a great deal. We're having to run sales when we normally wouldn't have to," Grenz says. Of the near-term market outlook as it relates to the business, he says, "I think we have another year to be cautious," because it likely will take that long for consumer spending to regain any momentum.
The Grenzes, both University High School graduates, moved to northern California in 1986, and lived in Lodi, northeast of the San Francisco Bay area, for 10 years before returning to Spokane. Curtiss Grenz was employed there by Martin-Brower Co., a distribution business that serves McDonald's Corp.
He says, though, that, "This was always home. I always wanted to be back in Spokane if there was an avenue to get me there."
Grenz says the opportunity to move back here emerged when he crossed paths with someone who offered to teach him how to make concrete decorative products if Grenz would buy from him the molds needed to pour those pieces.
The Grenzes initially bought a truck-load of finished products to sell, then began buying molds. When they returned here in 1996, bringing the molds with them, they immediately began pouring concrete products in his parents' backyard, using a small, half-cubic-yard mixer and mostly destroying the yard, he says. Initially, they sold their products just at temporary street-corner locations and at craft fairs, they say.
In 1997, they moved the manufacturing operation to a leased 1,200-square-foot space near the intersection of Park Road and Broadway Avenue in the Valley, and then in 1999, they moved it to a 5,000-square-foot space at 9517 E. Fourth in the Dishman-Mica area, where they also had enough room for a retail shop.
In 2000, the couple moved the retail outlet to its current location on Pines and the manufacturing operation to the Airway Heights Corrections Center. There, the plant operated under a Washington State Department of Corrections' Correctional Industries program through which businesses could set up facilities inside a prison and employ inmates, though they were required to pay market wages.
"The labor force and everything was incredible," but keeping the manufacturing operation there ultimately proved inconvenient, due partly to its distance from the retail outlet, Grenz says. So in 2004, Concrete Works moved the operation to the Spokane Business & Industrial Park, and that location has worked out well.
The company has a 2-cubic-yard concrete mixer there that's capable of adding stored ingredients by volume, allowing for concrete to be poured continuously. It also has a 20-ton-capacity silo that holds the cement used in the concrete, he says.
"All of it is automated now, compared to when we were dealing with buckets and shovels," Grenz says.
The company uses in its concrete a special blend of sand and gravel that it buys from Spokane Rock Products Inc., and it uses the equivalent of seven 94-pound sacks of cement per cubic yard of concrete, compared with a typical five-sack mix used in driveways, he says.
The extra cement, combined with air, fiber, and a plasticizer that are added to the mix, boost the strength of the concrete and help it to withstand damage due to the dramatic outdoor temperature changes that occur in the Northwest, Grenz says.
Concrete Works' retail lot includes an 800-square-foot main building, where customers can place orders and buy accessories and retailed supplies such as water pumps, tubing, accent lights, and concrete sealant, and a couple of smaller support structures. Most of the lot, though, is devoted to working displays of some of the company's fountains and other water features, as well as a selection of its smaller products. Prices range from less than $10 for a small animal figurine to more than $1,300 for the Monster Triad, a triple water fountain that resembles three natural basalt rock columns, stands more than 5 feet tall, and weights close to a ton. Though the Spokane area has a lot of native basalt, all of the angular basalt-like water features sold by Concrete Works are made of concrete.
Grenz says he oversees retail sales there, and his wife handles the office management. Two of the couple's three children help out there as needed. The company's other employees work mostly at the plant. Despite the recession-caused dip in sales and his expectation of little recovery this year, he say he feels good about Concrete Works' future.
People increasingly seem to want to make the outdoor spaces at their homes more useable and aesthetically appealing, which translates into long-term demand for concrete decorative pieces, including possibly for items such as concrete fire rings and outdoor fireplace surrounds, he says, so, "There's definitely room for growth."