Sunrock, Sykes Supply leaders reflect on the industry (Part 1)

By |  November 1, 2023
Sykes Supply’s Steve Zelnak, left, and The Sunrock Group’s Bryan Pfohl offered P&Q an exclusive interview late this summer. Photo: P&Q Staff

Sykes Supply’s Steve Zelnak, left, and The Sunrock Group’s Bryan Pfohl offered P&Q an exclusive interview late this summer. Photo: P&Q Staff

Representatives from The Sunrock Group and Sykes Supply visited with Pit & Quarry late this summer at Sykes Supply’s office in Burlington, North Carolina. The visit provided a platform for aggregate industry veterans Bryan Pfohl and Steve Zelnak to get together.

Pfohl, who currently serves as chairman of Carolina Sunrock and Sunrock Group Holdings Corp., as well as Sunrock Canada, has been involved in the Sunrock business his entire adult life. He represents the second generation of his family company, which supplies construction materials from quarries and facilities in North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham area.

Zelnak, now a partner in the business at Sykes Supply, is the former chairman and CEO of Martin Marietta. As Martin Marietta CEO, Zelnak grew the company’s annual revenues from $150 million to $2.2 billion. He also guided the company as it went public in 1994.

With careers that took off in the 1980s, Pfohl and Zelnak ultimately became business rivals in North Carolina. The two executives, however, developed a fondness for one other and an appreciation for how the other did business.

During the visit in Burlington, Pfohl and Zelnak reminisced about their early years and discussed the industry to which they dedicated their careers. The comments that follow were edited for brevity and clarity. They also represent Part 1 of a two-part series that will continue in P&Q next month.

P&Q: What are the biggest differences between the aggregate industry you came into and the industry as it stands today?

ZELNAK: It was an industry with a lot of guys who had learned what was then proven [to be] an art. There was not that much technology involved. The education level wasn’t there.

But, over time, that’s changed. There’s a lot more technical input now. Some of that comes from regulation. Some of it comes from evolution. And I think we’re getting better at what we’re doing.

It’s a much more sophisticated industry today – by far. There’s no comparison. The quarries are bigger today than when I started, and they are increasingly automated. My desire is to see a quarry that is fully autonomous. We talk about it and strides have been made. The fully autonomous quarry is a ways off, but it’ll come.

PFOHL: It’s going to create another opportunity for employment. Employment is going to be of a more technical nature to keep equipment running. It will attract other people, but it’s going to take an entirely different bunch of people to keep the quarry running.

If you go back to the 1960s, a 500-tph plant might have 40 people in there. Maybe 50. Today, you can do it with eight or 10. And if it’s portable, maybe less. The principle of how we operate is the same, but how we do it is different.

ZELNAK: The equipment is certainly much better. Equipment improvements have been remarkable.

PFOHL: Also, a lot of the drudgery that came with the jobs is gone. That’s key for us to get people. As we bring people in looking for employment who don’t know anything about what we do, I’ve yet to find somebody who has walked away from the place not totally fascinated. They have no idea what we do.

P&Q: Do you believe the industry is making a dent with hiring and retention?

ZELNAK: There’s more focus on trying to find the right people. The work ethic is absolutely key. You can’t be in this industry and not have a strong work ethic. You’re going to get run off quickly.

In terms of the visits [Pfohl] was talking about, the thing I always found that people were fascinated with was the scale of the equipment. They’re standing there and they’re not as tall as the tire. They’re just fascinated by that.

PFOHL: They’re also fascinated by what the equipment can actually do. In our lifetime, we went from 20-ton trucks to 100-ton trucks. There were no hydraulics. There were no wheel loaders. When we started, we used cable shovels and things like that.

The drudgery in the things you had to do is all gone. Now, you need people who actually want to learn about what we do in order to do the job.

P&Q: You’re saying once you expose somebody to what the job is or what the company does, they tend to take to it if they put a little bit of time in?

PFOHL: I think the perception of what we do is misconstrued by most people. If you’re a technically driven person, the issue is really going to be do you like outdoor work or indoor work. And we have the outdoor work with the technology.

If you like the indoor environment, a nice clean place and you want to go to a restaurant at noon, that’s not what we have. But we also have a lot of things like a team environment for people.

ZELNAK: The nature of the people that wind up in this industry for careers is different. The way I express it is that the aggregates industry and its people are the solid core that holds the two ends of this country together.

They are very different people. They’re molded differently. They’ve got a lot of the right characteristics personally. And they love to work. They love to produce. They get excited about it – and take a lot of pride in it.

When I came to Martin Marietta, we had some of the most awful-looking quarries I had ever seen. My approach to that was to really get engaged in awards. The National Stone Association had an award system, and we got our people engaged in that. Every time they punched out another level, they got trucks rolling up that had shrimp and other good things to eat. We’d invite the families out and make it a big deal. And we gave cash awards, which was popular.

As I went around motivating people, I said: ‘Look, we have a lot of quarries and I may not be back to see you for six months or a year. But when I come the next time, this place better not look like it looks today.

There was no misunderstanding. I don’t think we fired a single plant manager. We explained it to them, and they got it. Actually, they relished it because they didn’t want to work in a junk hole, either.

P&Q: How were the two of you introduced to each other many years ago?

ZELNAK: Bryan’s team was smart enough to come south. The growth was here, and the growth where he was (western New York) had long since passed.

This marketplace had never been vertically integrated prior to Bryan. He brought completely different ideas. When he says vertical integration, that means any and everything that might relate to the aggregate core business – and he made it work.

It’s heavy lifting to do what he did because this is a crowded market. It’s not a wide-open market with voices where you could just come in. He took that idea of his and put it together. It’s very complex. I think he’s done a pretty remarkable thing.

PFOHL: When we came, as Steve said, the markets we operated in in western New York were continually declining. In the Northeast, quite frankly, we all knew everything was moving south. It was just a matter of when.

I decided after my father passed away that we would give [the South] a try. Of course, we didn’t know very much about everything here. We came to a place where there was a lot of opportunity and freedom, but the market was very consolidated.

So, we started out doing what [Martin Marietta] did. And then we basically figured out that maybe the model we had where we came from was where we needed to be. So, we became vertically integrated. We did it over a period of time, and we worked along with the growth.

We were all fortunate about North Carolina’s growth. I think it’s probably gone beyond all of our expectations back in 1980. It’s been phenomenal. It’s been pretty well managed. And now everybody wants to come here.

Our business next year will be 75 years old. I ran both businesses – New York, and I commuted for 18 years. At the end of the day, I came back and forth. But I lived here.

We had the opposite opportunity to exit the western New York market in a very favorable manner, which we did. And we then continued to grow in North Carolina on the things we acquired and developed. We also now have operations in the Toronto, Ontario, market.

Related: Where Are They Now: Steve Zelnak

Kevin Yanik

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry. He can be reached at 216-706-3724 or

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