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Leadership

Forward Thinking and Resilience Help Ozinga Weather Challenges

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Ozinga is one of the nation’s largest family-owned and oldest construction materials companies.

Is it better to take a risk and try to jump-start a trend, or to cautiously follow the lead of others? While many of us at this moment feel like we’re merely reacting to trends outside our control, there are certainly times when it makes sense to take a chance and get out in front of the rest of the field.

That’s what Ozinga, one of the nation’s largest family-owned and oldest construction materials companies, did a few years ago. The concrete industry is a historically slow adopter of new technologies. However, Ozinga’s fourth-generation leadership, which had recently formed a six-person research and development team, felt the time was right to introduce a new concrete product to its market that would help reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2).

“We’re always doing new things with technology and the materials,” notes Ryan Cialdella, vice president of R&D. Ozinga was an early adopter of CarbonCure, a technology developed in Canada that embeds CO2 into concrete while also improving its compressive strength.

How far ahead of the curve was Ozinga with its embrace of CarbonCure? Well, not only was it the only company offering this type of product in Illinois and south Florida at the time, but most of its customers weren’t even asking for it — yet.

But Ozinga knew CarbonCure had legs, and its leadership didn’t want to wait for the industry to catch up. “It wasn’t clients at the time” who were asking for it, Cialdella explains. “It was more of a business decision, as part of our mission to continue to find ways to produce more sustainable concrete, as well as ‘let’s look at what the industry is going to need in the near future.’” But bringing engineers up the learning curve so they would feel comfortable specifying CarbonCure in their new projects required some old-fashioned persistence on Ozinga’s part.

“It was a challenging task,” Cialdella says. “Some would be interested in it, right? But then you go in there and talk to them and then they just would never put it in a job. [The attitude was] ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ You know, ‘keep us up to date on where it’s going,’ because the concrete industry is just such a conservative industry.”

That began to change for Ozinga when CarbonCure was specified on some major projects, including a flagship McDonald’s location in downtown Chicago in the late teens. Use of CarbonCure allowed McDonald’s to embed about 30,000 pounds of CO2 in the concrete on-site, the equivalent of a 16-acre forest.

That appealed to the client, which sought to make its new location a showcase for sustainable technologies such as solar panels and energy-efficient kitchen equipment. The fact that restaurant guests and employees could walk on one of its greenest features was icing on the cake.

“There are so many environmentally friendly aspects of the design of this project — some are visible, some are not visible,” Mike Ceferin, a senior lead architect for McDonald’s global development group, commented at the time. “But who would think that concrete was also sustainable in reducing CO2 emissions?”

Carol Ross Barney, design principal at Ross Barney Architects, was not surprised that Ozinga had brought this innovation to their attention. “I have worked with Ozinga for a long time,” she said. “They’ve been great at suggesting new technologies to us and letting us know where the industry and the market is — they [Ozinga] suggested CarbonCure, which turned out to be a great answer for McDonald’s.”

In all, approximately roughly 430,000 yards of CarbonCure concrete has been installed on dozens of projects, and the concrete industry’s attitude to the sustainable product and the company’s R&D work has evolved, to say the least. “What’s interesting now is we have people coming to us and asking, ‘What have you guys been working on?’” Cialdella says. “So the script has kind of flipped in the last eight to 10 months. They’re literally cold-calling us

“It’s a really interesting time right now and, yeah, it’s been fantastic because that’s the kind of stuff that we eat up.”

Speaking of eating (and with a nod to client McDonald’s, which coined the phrase), R&D and its early adoption of new ideas might be Ozinga’s secret sauce. “With the focus on the R&D group, it allows us to be brought in [projects] and to look at [solutions] more thoroughly,” Cialdella says. “We’re asked to come to the table more often than we used to be, and we’re just starting out. I think our competitors may have to jump on board [with their own R&D] just to keep up.”

Finding a Purpose

CarbonCure might have taken some of its clients by surprise, but Cialdella insists that it was par for the course for the 92-year-old company. “They’ve always been very progressive thinkers who want to push the envelope,” he says of the leadership. “Marty is very forward-thinking.”

Marty Ozinga IV is the president of Ozinga and a great-grandson of the founder. He calls products like CarbonCure “a real opportunity” for the company, but he insists the real strength of the organization isn’t represented solely by its concrete and other products such as compressed renewable natural gas.

He says that, to him and other Ozinga family members, “It’s our people that are most important.” Ozinga says he tries to communicate to the workforce that they all “have something valuable to bring that only they bring. When people are aligned and engaged, that’s when powerful things happen.”

In perhaps another example of being ahead of trends, Ozinga began to blog on the company website about the organization’s “purpose” and what that means for every employee — weeks before the existential threat of coronavirus sent business leaders searching for answers.

“The idea [behind the blog] is ‘why do we exist?’” he says. “Someone has to ask that individually, but organizations have to ask it, too. We want to have a positive impact on individuals and communities for generations.”

Ozinga’s blog spells out “seven daily disciplines for leading with purpose,” ranging from being mindful of what really matters in life (hint: yes, concrete is important, but it’s the people who use it that really matter) to showing generosity to others in thoughts and deeds.

Asked which discipline was helping him in particular during the current crisis, Ozinga cited No. 2: “communicate relentlessly.” “As leaders, we have to be out in front relentlessly communicating to the point it seems overkill. [We must] be as transparent and forward as we can with this communication.”

The current message he is communicating “is to stay healthy and safe. Lives depend on it, particularly the elderly and vulnerable.”

As of mid-April, the company’s operations, which had been deemed essential, were up and running. “We’re trying to do everything we can that is in our control,” he says. This includes assigning drivers to only using one truck to limit exposures.

Thing is, responding to adversity is perhaps as big a part of Ozinga’s makeup as the aggregates and portland cement in its concrete. Shortly after its patriarch founded the company as a coal-delivery service, the Great Depression began. (It was tough going, but fortunately, coal delivery was considered an essential service at the time.)

Later, right about when the business was handed off to the next generation, America entered World War II. The sons who had been groomed for leadership roles were drafted. “All three of them survived and came back,” Ozinga reports. “They dusted off the equipment and started up again.”

More recently, the Great Recession of 2008 temporarily took away about 60 percent of the company’s business volume. “We draw upon these experiences,” Ozinga says. “We say, ‘Hey, we will get through this. We’ve survived tough times, and we will survive this.’ As our tagline says: ‘We know that together, there’s nothing we can’t handle.’”

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