Tri-State Ready Mix

FOUR GENERATIONS OF VAN ZEES KEEP ROCK VALLEY, IOWA, ENTERPRISE ON A GROWING PATH

Jul 2,2010

Sold on quality of Komatsu products

Each morning that cousins Chad and Mike Van Zee come to work, they’re reminded of the foundation upon which their business, Tri-State Ready Mix, was built. Lining the walls of the company’s Rock Valley, Iowa, plant are photos of the four generations of Van Zees who worked, and continue to work, to build the company.

“It’s always in front of us,” said Chad, who is part-owner, President and General Manager of Van Zee Enterprises, the parent company of Tri-State Ready Mix. Mike is part-owner, Vice President and Treasurer. “That motivates us to do excellent work, so we continue the legacy they built for us.”

The legacy goes back to 1922 when the Van Zees’ great-grandfather, Conrad H. Van Zee, and grandfather, Henry Van Zee, bought a cement-block plant in Rock Valley. Years later, when Conrad passed away, Henry and his brothers Richard E. and Alvin took ownership and ran the company until 1972.

It was at that point the third generation stepped in, and Conrad D. and Richard L. took over. Both have since retired, leaving Chad (Conrad D.’s son) and Mike (Richard L.’s son) as the fourth generation of Van Zees to operate the family business. Chad’s sister, Christi Gerritsen, is active in the business as well, working for Van Zee Enterprises as a bookkeeper.

Keeping the books has become an ever-increasing task over the years as the Van Zees continued to build upon the foundation set by Conrad H. and Henry. The father-and-son team added to their concrete-block business soon after buying it by supplying sand and gravel via horse and wagon to customers around northwestern Iowa.

“It was common practice at the time to supply materials, so they jumped into it,” said Chad. “Ready-mix concrete was added to the list in 1953 and rounded out the product offerings. That’s where we still stand today.”

Continued expansion

Tri-State Ready Mix has three locations in Iowa and two in South Dakota. It has 23 ready-mix trucks spread out among its five locations that serve about a 70-mile radius of Rock Valley.

“Our customers run the gamut, from the private homeowner who has a section of sidewalk or patio to put in, to heavy highway contractors that need a unique specification,” said Chad. “In all instances, our focus is on quality products at a fair price. In fact, our slogan is ‘When only the best will do.’ That’s been the motto from day one, and it has been passed down through the years.”

The Van Zees continue to live by the motto and pass it along to the more than 70 employees that make up Van Zee Enterprises’ three businesses. In addition to Tri-State Ready Mix, it includes Valley Sand & Gravel, which supplies much of the aggregate used at Tri-State Ready Mix. It also sells washed sand and gravel and various-size stone to outside customers. In addition, the Van Zees continue to sell concrete block and other precast products, and they have a homebuilding division known as Top Construction.

“We’ve nearly doubled in size in terms of employees and trucks since Mike and I took over about 12 years ago,” noted Chad. “We’ve gotten considerably bigger in the aggregate business, which has been a combination of aggressively pursuing growth and a reaction to the market. Our family has always believed there are two directions you can take the business: growing or dying. There’s no third option, so we’ve chosen to grow.”

Sold on Komatsu equipment

Recent growth has seen the Van Zees do some site prep and basement digs for local builders, as well as demolition. In addition, they’ve included concrete recycling to make a useable end product for aggregate customers. Last year, they rented a Komatsu BR380JG mobile crusher from DMI’s Sioux Falls branch to do the work.

“We believed recycling was another service we could provide that would benefit everyone,” said Chad. “It keeps old concrete out of the landfills and provides a useful product we can sell for base material at a good price. But we needed some help in getting started, so we contacted our DMI Territory Sales Rep Mark Shievelbein. He brought the crusher out and showed us how to set it up and use it. It’s easy to operate and does a fantastic job, so we plan to rent it again when our stockpile gets big enough.”

The Van Zees used one of their four Komatsu wheel loaders — two WA200s, a WA250 and a WA320 — to charge the crusher. They use the Komatsu loaders at Tri-State’s ready-mix plants, a common practice since they tried their first Komatsu about 15 years ago.

“Like the crusher, we noticed right away how easy the Komatsu loader was to operate,” recalled Chad. “What really sold us was how little maintenance and downtime we had with it. Other than routine service, we didn’t do anything to it for the first 11,000 hours. That showed us the quality of Komatsu products, and we’ve been buying them since.

“We especially like the hydrostatic transmission in the newer models,” he added. “It allows us to dig into a pile and get a bucketful of material without slipping, then inch up to a crusher or truck to load without fear of ramming into it. They also work extremely well for stockpiling.”

In addition to wheel loaders, the various entities that make up Van Zee Enterprises use Komatsu PC200, PC300 and PC45 excavators and a D65 dozer. All are mainly used in the sand and gravel pits for stripping, backfilling and replacing overburden.

“We believe Komatsu excavators are unrivaled,” said Chad. “A few years ago we tipped one over in a silt hole at a pit, strictly our own fault. It was winter and by the time we got a crane out to it to get it out, it was frozen in the pit. We pulled it out, cleaned it off and the next day tried to assess the damage. Of course, I thought it was done for, but it started right away and ran as good as ever. It’s the only excavator we’ll buy.”

In addition to Komatsu equipment, the Van Zees have purchased other products from DMI, including a Grove 528C 28-ton rough-terrain crane. They also call on DMI for service as needed. “We take care of routine maintenance with parts from DMI, but for anything beyond that we call them,” said Chad. “DMI has the knowledge and expertise to quickly repair any piece of machinery it sells. We’ve never had an issue.”

Weathering storms

Like nearly all construction-related businesses recently, Van Zee Enterprises and its entities, including Tri-State Ready Mix, have seen a slowdown in work. But with the vast lineage of experience the Van Zees have, they’ve been able to weather the storm without taking a huge hit.

“We saw it coming and prepared for it,” said Chad. “Our dads have been through downturns before, so they’re great sounding boards for ideas and perspectives on how to get through it. With four generations worth of experience, have come a lot of hiccups in the market. We’re still here and plan to be for a long time to come because we know how to deal with it, but more importantly we know how to treat customers so they come back in good times and bad.”

Like DMI, all the Van Zee Enterprise companies have prided themselves on putting the customer first. It’s something each of the first three generations has passed on to the next, and the fourth generation plans to pass on to the fifth.

“I have a son who’s 12 and Mike has one a little younger,” noted Chad. “It will be a few years before we truly know their interest in the business, but it’s here if they want to take it over someday.”