Sunrock, Sykes Supply leaders reflect on the industry (Part 2)

By |  December 4, 2023
Says The Sunrock Group’s Bryan Pfohl: “When it comes to maintenance, we like to plan for events. And it’s all about the relationship with those you do business with. If they haven’t got it – and sometimes they don’t – it becomes ‘when can you get it?’” Photo: P&Q Staff

Says The Sunrock Group’s Bryan Pfohl: “When it comes to maintenance, we like to plan for events. And it’s all about the relationship with those you do business with. If they haven’t got it – and sometimes they don’t – it becomes ‘when can you get it?’” 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, where aggregate industry veterans Bryan Pfohl and Steve Zelnak had the opportunity to reconnect.

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.

During the visit in Burlington, Pfohl and Zelnak reminisced about their early years and the industry to which they dedicated their careers. The comments that follow, which were edited for brevity and clarity, represent Part 2 of a series that debuted in P&Q’s November 2023 edition.

At the end of Part 1 of this series, Pfohl discussed leaving the western New York market and venturing into North Carolina in the 1980s. Part 2 continues here with Pfohl discussing that decision and what it ultimately took to move the business.

P&Q: How would you characterize the risk you took in the 1980s to venture into a market like North Carolina that already had some established producers?

PFOHL: Well, you have to be someone who really loves demographics. If you don’t love demographics, don’t try this. At the end of the day, you really must have that along with an idea of what the future is looking like demographically.

Most people chase it after the horse has left the barn, but you have to get there before they built the barn – and then put the horse in. Most other industries don’t have to do that.

I equate this business to that program Cheers. Running these businesses is like trying to run 50 or 100 Cheers [bars]. It’s Ted Danson’s bar. If the cook quits, he’s got to cook. If the bartender doesn’t show up, he’s going to do that. He’s got to get along with the police and the neighbors. And then, every night, on that same set of bar stools is the same set of customers. And you’ve got to keep them happy, or they go to the bar across the street.

The way I’ve always looked at this business is how do you find enough Ted Dansons? That’s our challenge. And not only that, but we’ve got to have the crew that Ted Danson has.

ZELNAK: Our business is a bunch of very local businesses all banded together, which is difficult to run just by its nature. You really have to know each location thoroughly. That was something I prided myself on when I was running Martin [Marietta]. It’s a much different management challenge than you have in any other industry.

P&Q: How, then, do you ultimately create a culture that effectively permeates across a bunch of individual businesses?

Zelnak

Zelnak

ZELNAK: You have to start with the idea that you have a particular culture you want to develop. You must be intentional about everything you feed into developing that culture.

Regulation actually has played a key role in [Sunrock’s] success and [Martin Marietta’s] success. One of the reasons why we opened so many new quarries in North Carolina and other places is because the [regulatory] window was coming down.

There are a lot of places where we permitted a quarry in a particular county because North Carolina law was in our favor. Then, the window came totally down, and we wound up with a prime location. It may be one we have to wait on 10 years or more to open up, but you’ve got a location – and this is a location business.

Haul costs are so big. If you do your very best in a quarry versus a guy who just does a reasonably good job, you might with the same rock produce it 25 cents a ton cheaper. This is a mile-a-haul business. That’s how important location is. If you don’t have the right location, you’re going to get eaten up with haul cost.

Kevin Yanik

About the Author:

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

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