An Industry Trailblazer August 2005
Alexander Wagner, Sr.’s Part in Helping Concrete Pumping to Grow
Sturtevant, WI (August 1, 2005): “Our baby is all grown up,” says Alexander Wagner, Sr. as he reflects on the evolution of the concrete pumping industry.
Founder of the Alexander Wagner Company, Inc. in Paterson, New Jersey, 80-year-old Alex Sr. should know. Of his over 55 years in construction, he has spent the past four decades helping bring the concrete pumping industry into adulthood.
Termed a pioneer by his peers and the ACPA, Alex Sr. modestly says he was “just making a go at it.” The truth is, Alex Sr. was one of the key industry professionals instrumental in the advancement of the industry, as it struggled to gain acceptance in the marketplace. According to Alex Sr., a pioneer is “someone who comes along first, sees opportunity and fights to make it work. This thick-headed person never gives up on what they believe should succeed.”
“In its infancy,” says Alex Sr., “pumps were deemed unreliable. Pumping companies often hired inept operators and sent them on jobs without any training. Owners didn’t understand the impact of servicing equipment, and safety just wasn’t addressed. Today, the equipment is highly dependable, operators are better trained, owners fully understand the importance of maintenance, and the industry is highly conscious of safety.”
After serving in WWII, the young 21-year-old entrepreneur began building homes for family members. Then, in 1950, he started his own mason contracting business and built house foundations throughout New Jersey and the metro New York region. By the mid-60s, the business had grown to handling larger industrial and mid-rise commercial buildings.
In 1966, Alex Sr. purchased the first concrete pump in his area for use on a special 12-story “high-rise” project. At the time, little was understood about pumps, so Alex Sr. read the limited information available in manuals and started pumping concrete for his own jobs.
Other contractors, while interested in using the same approach, were leery of purchasing their own pumps. Alex Sr. seized this opportunity and started a concrete pump rental business by purchasing two more boom pumps the next year.
However, the earliest pumps were unpredictable. “When I first started pumping concrete,“ says Alex Sr., “I had three pumps, but I would never rent them all out at the same time so I always had one available as backup.”
While many cursed the initial concrete pumps for being unreliable, Alex Sr. cites additional problems. “Although today’s high performance pumps are by far more superior, the latter day pumps shouldn’t take the full blame for their inability to pump at times. Another major culprit was often the concrete mix.”
Not scrutinized years ago as they are now, it was not uncommon to see mixes with 4-inch stone, sticks, planks, bricks and even a muskrat or two. Ready-mix producers, pumping companies and even the pump manufacturers didn’t fully understand the significance of the concrete mix and needed more information.
With its many high-rise projects, New York City shared an interest in the success of the concrete pumping industry and was a proponent of greater education. In collaboration with the New York Concrete Institute Board, Alex Sr. and Sam Braen, owner of the New Jersey based Sam Braen Concrete Company, worked for almost a decade testing concrete mixes. Through a process of trial and error, the two Jersey natives would spend countless hours developing pumpable mixes, while learning about sand and moisture content.
Initially, they tested the maximum percentage of stone the pump could handle on a continuous basis. Over time, they altered varying amounts of sand, cement, water and admixtures – often by the smallest increments – testing its breaking strength and looking to achieve the ideal end results.
They tested mix effectiveness by pumping it into a nearby quarry, altering the pump’s pressure and performance characteristics to evaluate its capabilities with each mix design. At that time, shrinkage, water content, gradation and a host of other factors were not yet understood.
Based on the findings of these two dedicated professionals, the New York Concrete Institute produced a manual of proven effective mix designs for ready-mix producers. It supported the Institute’s claim that pumping did not weaken concrete.
By 1974, concrete pump rentals were so successful that Alex Sr.’s company was incorporated into Alexander Wagner Company, Inc., and the contracting portion abandoned.
In addition to Alex Sr.’s dedication to developing pumpable mixes, he was also a proponent of educating the construction industry about the benefits of pumping and the importance of service and maintenance. In 1975, ACPA board members Les Ainsworth and Bob Weatherton flew to New York and met with Alex Sr. about the development of a local chapter of the ACPA. As a result, he founded the Metro Concrete Pumping organization.
Alex Sr. recalls an article where an engineer was quoted that “pumping concrete was a fad” and discouraged its use. Even ready-mix companies would charge up to two dollars more a yard if they delivered concrete to a pump. In conjunction with the ACPA and the Metro organization, Alex Sr. would tirelessly organize and present seminars about the advantages of pumping, the proper servicing of equipment and operator training.
Concrete mixes got better and so did concrete pumps. As the fad became the norm, ready-mix companies became eager to discharge into a pump’s hopper.
In 1986, the Alexander Wagner Company, Inc. became an authorized dealer for the Putzmeister-Thomsen boom pump and Thom-Katt® trailer pump equipment lines. They also added the manufacturer’s range of fireproofing pumps and plaster pumps to their dealership, which continues to handle the expanding range of Putzmeister products.
A major stroke in 1992 meant a brief setback for Alex Sr. However, like the previous military welterweight boxing champion he is, he put up a fight. His determination had him walking out of the rehab center two months later – a testament to his strength of mind and body. Unfortunately, while hospitalized, his wife had passed away from terminal cancer leaving Alex Sr. a single man, but not alone.
Wagner’s sons Alex Jr. and Frank jointly handle the company’s day-to-day operations as officers in the company with their father. Alex Jr.’s wife, Patricia Wagner, is also involved in the business. Meanwhile, Wagner’s daughter Elizabeth resides in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Alex Sr.’s recognized achievements include the ACPA Pioneer award in 2003, the R.E. Henry award in 1988, the Metro Concrete Pumping award in 1988, and the ACPA Board of Directors award in 1987 for seven years service rendered as an active board member. In addition, the Alexander Wagner Company was presented with the 2001 Putzmeister President’s award – the highest honor among Putzmeister dealers.
With one of the largest concrete pump rental fleets in the New York metropolitan area, Alex Sr. noted, “It’s an exciting yet difficult time, as businesses are getting more organized, more profitable and more demanding.”
A few simple tips from this wise man: “Learn to be a businessman whose business is pumping concrete. Keep your machines clean and well maintained, and don’t play the cut-throat pricing game, as you can’t pump for nothing if you expect to stay in business long.”
Thank you, Alex Sr. for your contribution to the concrete pumping industry – your countless years in trial and error concrete mix design, your numerous seminars to educate the industry, your active involvement in the ACPA, and your stick-to-it philosophy. You have made a difference, and you are truly a trailblazer.