P&Q Profile: Masters RMC’s Bob Housel

By |  February 1, 2021
Bob Housel


Bob Housel, who oversees a ready-mixed concrete company (Masters RMC) and a sand and gravel operation (Red Oak Sand & Gravel) in northeastern Pennsylvania, celebrated his 30th year working in his family business in 2020. With Housel being elected chairman of the Pennsylvania Aggregates & Concrete Association (PACA) for 2021 and 2022, P&Q reached out to learn about the leadership work awaiting him. But our conversation also steered to the market’s current conditions and Housel’s entrepreneurial grandfather, Richard S. Masters, who started the family company that’s now in its third generation.

Tell us about the three generations of your family business and how Red Oak Sand & Gravel fits into the equation.

Our sand and gravel plant, Red Oak, exists primarily for our own use. We don’t sell to the outside customer because it exists primarily to supply aggregates to our ready-mix concrete operations

My grandfather was Richard S. Masters. He started in business in 1932, and he had a lot of different businesses – not just ready-mix or aggregate quarries. He was involved in coal stripping. He had motor freight lines, did heavy highway construction, and actually built a lot of the roads and bridges in this part of the world. He had truck stops and a heavy hauling business. In the 1950s and ‘60s, he had as many as 500 employees.

Some of those businesses fell by the wayside. It consolidated primarily back to the ready-mix business, sand and gravel, and we have a precast business with an ornamental rail shop that we take care of.

As an entrepreneur, my grandfather started from nothing and grew the business into a pretty big empire. He was a very dynamic individual. He worked in the business until he was 95 years old. He lived to be 101. I had the good fortune to work alongside him for 20-plus years. That was one of the blessings of my life.

Wow, so your grandfather must have worked for almost 80 years?

Red Oak Sand & Gravel exists primarily for Masters RMC's own internal use. Photo: Bob Housel

Red Oak Sand & Gravel exists primarily for Masters RMC’s own internal use. Photo: Bob Housel

He started his business when he was 18. It’s quite a story. He was also a great family man. When my grandmother passed away, they had been married 82 years. At that point, they were the second-oldest married couple in the United States.

There is a middle generation. He had a son named Richie Masters. Richie started out in the business as a very young man and worked his way up to become the president. He’s since retired, and that’s where the third generation comes in.

Richard C. Masters is my cousin Rick. Rick and I are the third generation running the business.

As a ready-mix and sand and gravel producer, what was your 2020 experience like?

I will tell you we had a really good year in 2019. We started off 2020 really well and had every expectation for a similar type of year. When the governor of Pennsylvania shut down all construction in late March (2020), it very much impacted our business.

Interestingly enough, the ready-mix industry, cement and aggregate industry were considered ‘life-sustaining,’ but the governor shut down construction. So we had no customers other than a few other essential businesses, such as farmers.

All of our other businesses’ customers weren’t able to do anything. We had to shut down our businesses. We did keep the aggregate/sand and gravel plant going because we did want to build inventory. In the ready-mix business, we laid off virtually all of our employees because we didn’t have anywhere to sell it.

We had a couple of things that allowed us to come out of that difficult position. Through the efforts of PACA and other industry groups, we were able to get construction back up in late spring. PennDOT (the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) started jobs going again, and eventually, we were able to bring our people back.

Also, we were able to get a Paycheck Protection Program loan. That allowed us to bring all of our employees back. We were able to raise their wages for a temporary period of time to offset some of the hardships faced from a very sudden and unexpected layoff.

Business was starting to ramp up. There was some pent-up demand. The shutdown lasted for plus or minus two months, and it was hard for these companies to suddenly turn the switch on and immediately go back to full work.

What impacts did you see in northeastern Pennsylvania by market segment?

A lot of the larger projects either got postponed or shelved indefinitely. The residential market was very resilient, and it has remained strong through [2020]. They are smaller projects, so they’re not as efficient as a larger job. But they’re driven by favorable mortgage interest rates. Homeowners had some cash in their pockets because they couldn’t spend it on vacations, dining or ballgames.

With Philadelphia and New York, there has been a movement to get out of those cities to get into our part of the world. That push to the suburbs and rural areas also fueled the residential market. Really, that’s what propped us up.

Do you have any expectation of what 2021 will look like?

For 2021, we do expect a very slow winter season. It’s going to be a tough winter, but our best guess is that things are going to pick up late spring or early summer. We expect that to be a fairly robust return to strength.

If we just make it through the challenges of the pandemic this winter and spring, we’re already seeing strong interest in pricing requests for later next year. Some of those jobs that were previously postponed are starting to come back. We will probably have gone through a total of a year of less-than-desirable work, but we’re looking forward.

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