A new employee at the Ruby Concrete Company in Madisonville, Kentucky, struggled to understand how to operate its high-tech production line that essentially mixes sand, rock, cement and water to make a host of concrete products.
“Think video games,” Kent Waide, company owner and president, told the 20 year old.
“It was like a lightbulb popped on,” Waide said. “He could suddenly see, ‘Yes, there is a progression or flow of production. It’s like a video game. You go from one level to the next, to the next, to the next.’”
Waide talks video games and workplace technology to connect with young employees and help keep his small family-owned company up and running in Kentucky’s western-coalfields region.
While many businesses come and go within five years, Ruby Concrete is nearing its 150th anniversary. The company is proud of its history as a scrappy innovator and survivor with primary markets in commercial and residential construction—and as a modern manufacturer that welcomes young workers wanting to learn.
Waide draws inspiration from those who ran the company before him, starting with John Ruby. An entrepreneur, Ruby began the operation in 1869 as a lumber company that obtained a contract to provide all the wooden ties to a railroad expanding through town.
Ruby’s family inherited the company and navigated it through the “Great Depression” by diversifying with a variety of new divisions, including ones for heating, plumbing, appliances and construction.
Waide said he again thought of the Rubys a decade ago when he struggled to survive the “Great Recession.” “If the Rubys could figure out a way to get through the ‘Great Depression,’ I could figure out how to get through the ‘Great Recession.’”
So, he took a hard look at his company and decided to build a high-tech plant that could run two shifts instead of just one and manufacture several new lines of concrete products.
It worked. Ruby Concrete became far more efficient. Its output soared 50 percent.
And the company transformed with the help of not just technology but also people.
“The employees we need now are different,” said Waide. “We need ones with specialized skills,” such as “mechatronics,” a technology combining electronics and mechanical engineering.
To help hire workers with an interest in creativity, teamwork and technology and ease the industry’s nagging “skills gap,” Ruby Concrete engages in joint ventures with area schools, including an annual robotics competition.
“Employers want young employees willing and able to work, and there are training programs in place to advance these young people to good, high-wage jobs,” said Waide.
On average nationwide, a trainee can earn from $35,000 to $40,000 a year while a skilled worker can get between $75,000 and $100,000 a year.
“Some people in the business are frustrated with the young people of today,” Waide said. “They say they just don’t have the same work ethic as they did years ago. But what we find is that they just go about things differently. You need to get them excited about work and things that they can relate to. This is a generation of video game players. And that is one way that we can relate.”
Waide points out that the story of what evolved into Ruby Concrete is the story of three generations of the Ruby family, followed by three generations of his family.
In the early 1940s, John Ruby’s grandson, Clyde Ruby, returned from World War II and began Ruby Concrete. In 1965, retiring family members closed the lumber company and transferred its assets to the concrete company.
When Clyde Ruby retired in the early 1970s, Waide’s father, Harry Waide, became president. Harry had begun work there in 1953 as a laborer. In 1982, Harry became the owner.
In 2012, Harry Waide’s son, Kent Waide, took over as president. His son, Jonathan Waide, 20, is just getting started, having worked there in recent years during his high school and now college breaks.
“We’re proud. We’re grateful,” said Kent Waide, who hasn’t yet figured out how the company will mark its 150th anniversary in 2019.
But he knows this: “We’ve been able to survive and remain independent through technology. To last this long, you need to endure a lot of hard knocks. You need to be tough. You need to take advantage of the innovation of the day and try to make the most of it.”
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