March 17, 2006 Les Ainsworth, now 62, has repurchased the truck he used when he started the business.
Les Ainsworth was fresh out of the Air Force in 1965. With $5,000 in savings and his parents' house as collateral, he bought the first truck in Denver capable of pumping concrete onto the upper floors of high-rise buildings. Today, Ainsworth's company -- Concrete Pumping Inc., which does business as Pumpco Inc. -- has more than 300 concrete pumping trucks, about 500 employees and is the second-largest company pumping concrete in the nation. Ainsworth expects revenue to hit about $60 million in 2006 and grow to more than $100 million within a few years. "We had no idea what it was going to develop into," Ainsworth said. Originally planning to retire at age 40, Ainsworth said he never wrote out a business plan for Pumpco but simply followed construction booms around the country. The company also works internationally. The Alameda High School alum keeps the company's headquarters in Denver, at 6560 Vine Court, though Pumpco's operations are centered in Texas and the southeast portion of the United States. The company no longer pumps concrete in Denver, having found the year-round construction season further south to be better for business, Ainsworth said. After 40 years of building his company, the 62-year-old Ainsworth -- like many of his generation in the construction industry -- is working toward retirement. To help prepare for that, Ainsworth hired a chief operating officer, John Carlen, about 18 months ago. Also, Ainsworth hired Denver investment banking firm W.G. Nielsen & Company to help recapitalize the company and find an investment firm to grow it, he said. "I'm excited about this," Ainsworth said. "The stated vision for 30 years was to have a profitable, well-run, perpetual company with multiple locations doing good work. With happy, good employees. That hasn't changed in 30 years. It feels good to know there's all those people out there who get a check from Pumpco." Ainsworth is known as a tireless worker in the name of his company and industry. He's been a member of the American Concrete Pumping Association, based in Lewis Center, Ohio, for nearly 30 years, rarely missing a meeting. After a committee meeting, "He's working on the committee minutes on the plane ride home and has it ready for us when we walk in the office at 8 a.m. on Monday morning," said Christi Collins, the association's executive director.
"Hands down, I think he'd be voted on our board as the hardest-working board member that we've ever had. He is dedicated to the industry and betterment of the industry. And in business, he's a force to be reckoned with. He's not afraid to take anything on." Today, pumping concrete into place -- be it a foundation or a floor dozens of feet in the air -- is standard operation. "We pump from ready-mix [concrete] trucks into inaccessible locations," Ainsworth said. "The ready-mix truck can't go up and down stairs and drive out into holes. Before pumps, they used cranes and buckets and wheelbarrows and shovels to move concrete." But when the industry first started in the mid-1960s, the new equipment was prone to breakdowns -- which Les, a mechanic by nature -- learned to fix and improve. "Les was the premier guy in Denver," said Dale Bone, co-founder of Brundage-Bone Concrete Pumping Inc., the nation's largest concrete pumping firm. Now based in Seattle, Bone and his partner started Brundage-Bone in Denver in 1983. "I remember Les running around like a crazy man keeping the concrete pumps working, like we all did," Bone said. Ainsworth remembers his first concrete pumping job, the tenth floor of a 13-story building in Capitol Hill. Workers were spending eight hours hauling enough concrete to pour half the floor by hand. Ainsworth spent three days figuring out his new equipment and cut the time to three hours to pour an entire floor, he said. "Word got around pretty quickly," he said, recalling contractors who stopped by the site to book jobs. The company pumped concrete at several downtown landmarks, including the curvy, high-rise Wells Fargo Building, Brooks Towers at 15th and Curtis streets, and some work at Denver International Airport. Ainsworth's drive to improve the early concrete pumps was based in part on fear. "I bought one pump and figured just do the one pump," he said. "I couldn't let the thing go back because they'd take my parents' house and they'd move in with me. I couldn't let that happen."
"I bought one pump and figured just do the one pump," he said. "I couldn't let the thing go back because they'd take my parents' house and they'd move in with me. I couldn't let that happen." And as he figured out how to fix the pumps, he bought trucks from other companies that couldn't get them to work. "Before you knew it, I had 17 pumpers," Ainsworth said. When business slowed in Denver, he called around the country looking for work. "Houston was busy," so an employee drove a truck down to open a new office, Ainsworth said. "It was unbelievable how much work was in Houston," he said. "They didn't have a winter and they pour way more concrete than in Denver [to stabilize buildings in the soft mud]." Wherever it went, Pumpco was the first concrete pumping company to put a sales force on the streets to build business, something Ainsworth credits for the company's success. "I've always believed in a sales force, always had a sales force out on the street," he said. "When we moved into Houston, the competition was waiting for the phone to ring. We did the first concrete pumping brochure in the industry." The company operates 11 branch offices in five states: Florida, Georgia, Texas and Tennessee and Michigan. Ainsworth's son Jim -- the only one of his five children to work in the company -- is Pumpco's East Coast operations manager. Ainsworth said one mistake he made was never to write a business plan -- or planning to be in business for so long. "There was a lack of vision," he said. "The original plan was to work until I was 40 years old. I didn't always make the best long-view decision." Another mistake: brand loyalty, Ainsworth said. Another mistake: brand loyalty, Ainsworth said. For years, Ainsworth stuck with American-manufactured pumping trucks while German-made machinery grew to dominate the industry. Pumpco now operates German pumps, but Ainsworth said the company delayed the shift too long. "I wanted to stay with American manufacturers," he said. "I found myself with a fleet of obsolescent pumps. I should have fire-sold them and moved on, but I kept them too long. That's the biggest mistake I made." But though Ainsworth lacked a business background, he brought in several consultants through the years to improve the company. "When they come in, they ask you what the problems are and how to fix them," he said. "We always know what the problem is. The trick is confronting it. They goad you into doing that." He also credits tight money control for the company's growth and survival. "Cash is king. If you don't have the money to pay the bills, then it doesn't matter how profitable you are on paper," he said. And that first $17,500 pumping truck? Ainsworth still owns it -- for a second time. He sold it years ago to a buyer in town, who kept coming to Pumpco for replacement parts as they wore out. "Finally, I just bought it back," said Ainsworth, who had the truck refurbished. "Paid $1,200 for a 40-year-old truck."
Denver Business Journal - by Cathy Proctor Denver Business Journal