Opening Its Doors
Through a variety of community relations programs, Silvi Group strives to be an asset to the communities in which it operates.
By Therese Dunphy, Editor-in-Chief
Nearly 15 years ago, Fairless Hills, Pa.-based Silvi Group Companies began its foray into community engagement by sponsoring a Little League team near its Eagles Lake Reserve sand and gravel operation. “We wanted our mine and the community to have a mutually beneficial relationship,” explains Larry Silvi who, with his brother John, co-owns the Silvi Group Companies. Since then, it has expanded its community relations efforts and its business — to the benefit of the communities in which it operates. Today, the company includes seven ready-mix plants (Silvi Concrete); four sand and gravel operations (Sahara Sand); a cement and aggregate import terminal (Riverside Construction Materials); and one hard rock quarry — with an additional greenfield site undergoing permitting (Gibraltar Rock).
Building the diverse business requires both an excellent reputation and strong ties to local communities, particularly with regard to Silvi’s mining operations in New Jersey, which is a home-rule state where local townships grant operating permits.
“In my opinion, a good community relations program has to be grounded in reality, innovative, and the commitment has to be long term,” says Uday Patankar, P.E., the company’s vice president of environmental and public affairs. “One-and-done overtures tend not to be successful.”
Rather than focusing on one-time events, Silvi Group has taken a systemic approach to working with its local communities. For example, one initiative that began in 1998 and continues today is the annual donation of approximately 400 turkeys to volunteer firefighters near each of its locations. Timed for distribution around the winter holidays, Patankar says the idea stemmed from the company’s relationship with local fire departments.
“MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) rules say that you have to have an infrastructure of local help in case of emergencies or accidents,” he says. “EMS is usually tied to the fire department’s mission, so as a matter of course, we deal with them and get to know the captains and fire fighters. We observed that most of these guys are volunteers, not paid participants, so we thought the turkeys were a nice way to say thanks for their help and for volunteering.”
Fire departments also benefit from proceeds raised at what may be Silvi’s most popular community event, its annual motor bike races. Twice a year, in the summer and fall, the company hosts the races at its Eagles Lake Reserve operation. With thousands in attendance, each race raises approximately $5,000, and the Eagleswood Volunteer Fire Department and the Eagleswood Township Recreation Fund receive the gate sales.
In addition to inviting the public onto its property for the bike races, Silvi also participates in a number of local events such as Eagleswood Township’s fall festival and Stafford Township’s community day. Patankar says that the company has equipment on display at these events, as well as staff on hand to talk to participants. “Kids love to climb up and down on loaders and concrete trucks and sound the horn,” he says. “As long as there is a driver there keeping track of the safety of the kids and the kids don’t fool around with the equipment, it works out well.”
To draw people into its equipment display, instant photos are taken of the kids on the equipment, printed on site, and given to the kids before they leave. “That creates a buzz at any event we’re participating in,” Patankar says. “It’s how we attract some young crowds.”
The community events not only provide positive interaction with area families, they also are often attended by local leaders. Elected officials often see these events as an opportunity to be visible among their constituents, and that can lead to informal conversations that help build relationships between the mine and community leaders.
As it entered the hard rock mining business with its 2009 acquisition of Gibraltar Rock, Silvi started to grow its relationships with its new neighbors through a series of interactions. The first began shortly after the acquisition, when a local scout leader approached the operation about allowing a small group of Webelo scouts to visit the site as part of their effort to earn their geology badge.
“We took it as a great opportunity to get to know the community and let the community know us,” Patankar says. “The focus is on the boys, who are 8 to 12 years old, but they are always accompanied by parents, who we certainly want to reach.”
During one- to two-hour tours, the quarry manager, the mining director, and Patankar meet the scouts at the scale house parking lot and arrange tours for them and their parents via a series of SUVs. Some basic safety training is provided before the troop tours the quarry, processing area, and stockpiles.
“We let them take samples of the rock and ask questions. They are very inquisitive about how the rock is mined. They always use the word ‘dynamite,’ and we have to tell them, ‘no, we don’t use dynamite,’” he says. “It’s good for us and the community. In the last three years, we’ve hosted 60 to 75 scouts and twice that number of parents.”
In another outreach effort, company representatives — including Patankar — joined the Rotary Club of Montgomery and began to attend meetings there. The bulk of the organization’s funding for community assistance activities is generated through an annual event called Run with the Rotary. The company has grown its support of that event over the last three years. Initially, it was a financial supporter, but as rotary involvement grew, so did participation in the event. In addition to financial support, several members of the operation’s team now participate in the 5K event, and the site is helping out in an unusual way: bottled water is being served from the ice-filled bucket of a brand new wheel loader. Placed along the runners’ path, they can simply grab a bottle and go on with their race.
“Our local Caterpillar dealer was delighted to supply us with a brand new demo loader, so it was spotlessly clean,” Patankar says. The operation added a magnetic version of its logo to the side of the wheel loader, and it was a hit. “They want it back every year,” he laughs.
Memorable ideas such as this are key to an effort’s success, he says: “We try to do something innovative with every event we participate in. When you put your mind to it, your participation is well received.”
Inviting the public in
As Silvi grew the outreach efforts around its Gibraltar Rock operations, it also focused on upgrading the plant, with a number of the improvements designed not only to improve production, but also community relations. Noise, dust, storm water, and process water runoff were all taken into consideration as the plant was modernized.
“At all of our facilities, we try to integrate environmental and community concerns as part of our decision-making,” Patankar says. In fact, as soon as Silvi acquired the operation, it set aside approximately 720 of the 1,440 acres for future protection. “From the get-go, we wanted to show the community that even though we are a quarry, and therefore an extractive operation, we’re also very concerned about keeping land that is pristine — untouched by development.” To achieve that goal, it sold the property to the Somerset County park system which, under the New Jersey Green Acres program, protects it from development in perpetuity.
“We felt very good about doing that,” Patankar says. “I think that helped us establish, to some extent, that we are what we say we are.”
Once the plant was upgraded, Silvi opened its doors to the public via an open house at its Belle Mead Quarry. Approximately 90 neighbors and public officials attended. The company set up a 7,000-square-foot temporary building where it served food and beverages. Staff members answered questions about the site as well as the mining process. Two vendors, Vibratech Inc. and KDC Solar, were invited to answer questions about blasting and a proposed solar project for the site. Attendees then boarded luxury shuttle buses to tour the site.
“The open house is an opportunity to bring all of the people in the community that we are involved with and give them a behind-the-scenes view of what goes on at the quarry,” says John Silvi. In fact, he takes the role so seriously that he and Larry acted as tour guides, describing the operation and its processes to visitors and fielding questions.
“The tour of the facility was absolutely fascinating,” says Hugh Dyer, a neighbor and chairman of the Montgomery Veterans Memorial. Dyer, whose memorial project received donated materials from the company, has firsthand experience with the mine’s positive impact on its neighbors. “Gibraltar’s contributions make a big difference to everyone in the community,” he says.
And while the open house may have been the company’s latest community engagement activity, it won’t be the last. “It was a success, and we achieved our purpose, but that’s not the end-all,” Patankar says. “We have to continue with ongoing community engagement efforts.”