P&Q Profile: Dyno Nobel’s EJ Burke

By |  September 10, 2018

With 23 years at Dyno Nobel and a career that’s kept him close to the aggregate industry for 50 years, EJ Burke has had a front-row seat to watch the evolution of crushed stone, sand and gravel operations. P&Q caught up with Burke to capture his perspective on the industry today.


Headshot: EJ Burke

Burke

How did you get your start in the aggregate industry?

I got started in the explosives industry – not so much the aggregate industry, although I have served the aggregate industry and know it well. My career over the last 20 to 25 years has been across all of our industries: coal, metals and aggregate.

Fifty years ago, I went to work for the DuPont Co. in the explosive products division. It was so long ago that Martin Marietta didn’t exist and Vulcan Materials was a much smaller company.

I did my training in Georgia and North Carolina. I graduated from school and went right to work for DuPont, and it’s been a wonderful ride.

What drove you into the industry to begin with?

I went to the University of South Carolina. I was going to go to law school. My father died suddenly and I had to support my mother. I had to go to work for a company.

I can remember the interview with the fellow at DuPont. He said, ‘Why do you want to work at DuPont?’ I said, ‘You could pay me big bucks, and I need it.’ That’s how I started.

It was a challenge and a disappointment at first to go in a different direction. But you make the best of it. You’re going to get curveballs in life. How you react to change is going to make you successful and happy.

What have you enjoyed most about your career?

It’s the people. Ward Nye, Steve Zelnak, Don James. This industry has some of the highest quality people today. When I started out, I realized this industry has quality people.

From your vantage point, what are a few of the most noticeable changes aggregate producers and their businesses underwent over the last 50 years?

One is an improved focus on safety. A second is automation. Third: industry consolidation.

You used to have far more small producers, but consolidation changed that, particularly in the last 15 to 20 years. Generations change.

We also had foreign companies come to this industry. CSR came in and bought Rinker [Materials]. Lafarge and Oldcastle arrived. This all brought about consolidation.

I think consolidation is for the better. [With] family-owned businesses, the next generation doesn’t always have the same fire and passion for it. They want to go do something else outside the business. The owner says, ‘If my family doesn’t want it, I want to do something else.’ Also, some families don’t have that second generation.

I have to say it’s better [with consolidation]. You want good competition. We talked about being a good king and a saint. Other people have to be good kings and saints to compete with you. I think the new competition has come in and raised the bar. Everybody has had to get better.

According to EJ Burke, the most noticeable difference in blasting today versus 50 years ago is there are better products and technology available. Photo by Kevin Yanik

According to EJ Burke, the most noticeable difference in blasting today versus 50 years ago is there are better products and technology available. Photo by Kevin Yanik

How about the evolution of blasting? How has the nature of this vital area evolved in your time?

The most noticeable thing is there are better products and technology today than there were 50 years ago. You had dynamite. That moved into water gels and emulsions. That evolved.

We have electronic detonators today. You have more precision in your timing than ever before. Now, it’s plus or minus one millisecond as opposed to a scatter of delays. That is tremendously important.

We have 3-D profilers and laser profiles to measure the face so you know exactly how deep the hole is.

We have vibration technology. Most of us in the industry are faced with encroachment by neighbors. Years ago, quarries were out in the boondocks. Now, they’re all around. It was important that vibration technology was developed so we don’t harm people’s houses and become bad neighbors.

Some producers continue to do their own blasting, but blasting is often an outsourced component. Do you see this changing in the years to come?

You will have a mix here. It won’t be black or white. When I came into this company and industry, [producers] had their resident blasters. What my value was: I went in, augmented the technical service and made sure the designs were right. I wasn’t directly responsible for the shot.

What happened: As years went by, those men retired and the company (the producer) has been replacing them. They then began to contract out the services because they couldn’t provide the blasters.

Other distributors started providing that service. Retirements caused that. That really kicked in in the ’80s to where people then sub-contracted their drilling, as well. As the driller wore out, then there was no one to run that drill. So they looked at others who had economies of scale who could do it more cost effectively.

Take some of the top producers: Vulcan Materials, two or three years ago, went to a program where they want to do it themselves. They feel it’s an advantage for them because they can control the blasters and send them to any quarry.

Luck Stone is another one. They have always developed that in-house talent. That’s something that’s driven them.

They’re two of the better examples of those who do their own.

Finish this sentence. The aggregate industry in 2018 is …

… in a very strong position to benefit from increased infrastructure spending. I’ve got a feeling that when it all sorts itself out in Washington, there will be an infrastructure bill. That will be a great opportunity for all of us.

They (producers) are in a good position because, starting in ’07 when the bottom fell out, everybody started streamlining their operations. In 2007, everyone had a quarry manager, and he took care of one quarry. Now, that same guy is taking care of three quarries. I think these companies are really poised to benefit.

Everybody is for a new infrastructure bill, but nobody can agree with how to pay for it. I think 37 states in the last three to four years have increased their fuel sales tax because they’re not waiting for the federal government.

People are so divided in Washington on party lines that nobody wants to find a middle ground. The most success I’ve had in life was a result of compromise. This is what needs to take place.

Everybody is distracted by President Trump and his issues – what have you – but I hope there are people in Congress like Bill Shuster and others who are going to provide leadership to get something done. If anything’s going to happen, it will be [after] the mid-term elections. I think we’ll get it, but how you pay for it will be a challenge.


FIVE THINGS

BEST ADVICE RECEIVED: My parents taught me early on that life was a gift from God, and what I did with my life was my gift back to God. They said I should always do my absolute best because of that fact. You can’t be perfect, but you do the best you can. … Another piece of advice: Treat everybody, be they a prince or a pauper, with the same respect and care.

HOBBIES: Running. I like to run on the weekends to stay fit. Also, my daughter is a Methodist minister. Here in Dallas, she’s founded a ministry for special needs people. I’m active in her ministry, I’m a member of her choir and I do a lot of work for special needs.

LAST BOOK READ: “Lilac Girls.” I got it from my wife who is in a book club. It was excellent. I keep a book alive wherever I’m traveling.

TRAVEL SPOT: Sydney, Hong Kong, Paris. [My wife] Barbara and I love New Orleans. We love going to the [National] World War II Museum. Barbara’s father was a navigator on a B-24 in World War II. He flew 50 missions over Europe.

FIRST JOB: Out of high school, I worked for Reynolds Metals Co. in Richmond, Virginia, where they make the [aluminum] wrap. My job was to keep 700 lbs. of aluminum above every machine. I had to make sure each machine had a roll above it. That was a great job for me. I made a lot of money relative to the time.

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