November 1, 2008
Family-owned business marks a century of industry entrepreneurship and leadership.
In 1908, Ralph Rogers went into business for himself, crushing rocks on the side of the road in then-rural Bloomington, Ind. From a humble beginning, his business evolved into a major force in creating Eisenhower’s “ribbons” across the nation, a solid place of employment for thousands throughout the years, and a living legacy for himself and his family.
Ralph Rogers built Rogers Group into one of the country’s most formidable builders during World War II, a company dedicated to getting the job done right. It served as a support to a military that was drawn into conflict virtually overnight. His company helped build, from the ground up, part of the Eisenhower Interstate System, the very fabric of America. It endured two of the most trying economic times in American history – the Great Depression of the 1930s and the recession of the late 1970s. Rogers Group has always been a company that thrives on partnerships and mutual success.
With strong planning and a willingness to adjust its business model to fit current market needs, Rogers Group Inc. continues to grow, producing a quality product, meeting a variety of challenges, and achieving high levels of customer satisfaction – all while maintaining high safety standards.
Despite the level of influence Rogers Group would have on the transportation industry, Rogers’ view of his place in life was simple. When meeting someone new, he would say, “My name is Ralph, and I’m a rock cracker.”
A grade-school dropout, Rogers learned the business while working with a local man, “Uncle John” Rogers (no relation), who knew rocks – where to find them, how to crush them, transport them, and turn them into roads. Rogers carefully observed his mentor and partners, and learned the craft that would become his legacy.
“I would drive their buggies, hold their horses, and lug in their samples,” Rogers recounted. “Every time they looked at a rock, I looked to see what they saw in it. When they were drilling, I looked at the cores and studied the land formations. I wanted to learn to evaluate stone: some too soft, some too hard.”
He was an apt student and developed his instincts for the business. One of Rogers’ uncanny abilities was to spot good locations for new quarries. Before the advent of modern technologies, Rogers could survey an area and determine the best place to drill. Another of Rogers’ abilities was to accurately estimate the cost of a road project. Before the company grew to include a team of estimators, Rogers prepared its bids. According to Rick Rechter – Rogers’ grandson, a former RGI president, and current chairman of the board of directors – Rogers would study the plans, walk the job site, and say, “This looks like a $3.2 million job.” Rechter recalls, “When it came in, it was $3.24 or $2.9 or something. How he did it, nobody knew.”
Rogers also knew the value of having a team of good men working with him. Although he had little formal education, he hired educated men that he could trust. Some would say he was a difficult man to work for; however, he was said to respect the common man and to encourage workers to look for ways to improve themselves and their quality of work.
“If you did a good job, you could always tell he was pleased, but he always said, ‘Is that the best you can do?'” long-time partner and one-time President Gus Sieboldt said. “He always demanded a little more all the time. However, he was right there working with you or on some other job all the time. He never demanded more than he would do himself.”
Southern expansion, military collaboration
By the 1920s, Rogers had expanded his partnerships and opened quarries in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama. In 1942, Ralph Rogers & Co. was the first subcontractor signed to help build Clinton Engineer Works, the home of the top secret Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear weapon. It was the beginning of a long, mutually beneficial relationship with the military.
When Fort Campbell, base of the U.S. Army’s legendary 101st Airborne Division, needed a new runway from which to launch troops and supplies for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 1991, Rogers Group played a pivotal role.
To limit the airfield’s down time, only 60 days were allotted for the renovation. To meet the tight timeline, 300 people worked seven days a week to remove the existing asphalt and lay 16,000 cubic yards of concrete and nearly 190 tons of asphalt. The project – completed a day early – earned Rogers Group an Outstanding Performance Award from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It now serves as a stopover landing for NASA’s space shuttle when it travels from coast to coast.
Other military installations with large projects completed by Rogers Group include the Naval Ammunitions Depot in Crane, Ind.; Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.; and Camp Forrest in Tullahoma, Tenn.
After World War II ended, the nation’s economy boomed, and nowhere was that more evident than in the road building industry. In an effort to mobilize equipment as quickly as possible, the government lifted all weight restrictions on trucks, and roads showed the battle scars. Consequently, “all our highways were crying for stone and sand, for asphalt and concrete,” Sieboldt said.
The post-war years pushed Rogers into a building frenzy, and Rogers, at 56, led the charge. “He seemed to be at the height of his mental and physical powers,” Sieboldt noted. “We began to expand in every direction.”
As construction projects took off around the nation, Rogers expanded its business to meet new market opportunities. Additional dormitories were built on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, and Rogers added a block business to supply the material. In Louisville, Ky., both ready-mix concrete and block were added.
The real backbone of Rogers’ business, though, remained crushed stone. “All of the other enterprises we entered were outlets to sell stone from one of our quarries,” Sieboldt said. “The sand and gravel, the ready-mix concrete, the hot-mix asphalt, and the construction businesses were all for this purpose primarily. Each company helped to feed the others by providing a market for some product from another Rogers enterprise.”
As President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed bills in 1954 and 1957, authorizing funding for the interstate highway system, Rogers saw an opportunity to improve the nation’s infrastructure and its business.
The interstate boom spurred numerous public works projects, and Rogers Group handled several major projects on what would later be known as the Eisenhower Interstate System. Among those projects were portions of all four major Tennessee highway arteries I-24, I-40, I-65, and I-75. Regardless of whether they actually laid pavement, the interstate system and related road work has kept Rogers Group employees busy for 50 years.
All in the family
Ralph Rogers never planned for his grandsons to enter the family business, but like their grandfather, the next generation set its own course. Rogers stepped down from day-to-day operations in 1967. At the time, grandson Rick Rechter worked in the company while he attended Purdue University, but his older twin brothers, Ben R. and Sam, both worked for other companies. Ben worked his way up the corporate ladder at a metal distribution company in Alabama, and Sam worked for an electrical equipment distributor in Chicago. However, when Rick asked for their help in running the company upon Rogers’ retirement, the twins responded.
Although the Rechter brothers were relatively young men when they took over operations, they had amassed a good bit of education. Rick knew the Rogers operations inside and out, while Ben and Sam offered fresh perspectives from their experience in other fields. Those insights and educational experiences became vital assets as the company faced the tough economic times ahead.
Meeting economic challenges
Although the mid-1970s into the 1980s was extremely difficult for businesses of all types, road builders were hit particularly hard.
Just as Rogers always believed in hiring good people, the Rechters looked for outside help in guiding the company through these tough times. Their search led them to New York City where they found Bob Adelman, former chief financial officer for Rockefeller Financial. He agreed to work with the Rechters as a consultant to help solve the short-term crisis and put together a forward-looking business plan. Eventually, the Rechters asked Adelman to move from consultant to chief executive officer to help oversee the implementation of the changes he recommended. Adelman accepted and served as CEO of Rogers Group for four years, with the Rechter brothers serving as co-presidents of the company.
With a clearer, revised infrastructure and a renewed sense of cooperation throughout the company, the company was on its way to recovery. By the end of 1988, the company’s finances were in positive territory.
Safety: Priority #1 . . . always
Even before hard hats were required, Ralph Rogers made them available to all employees on construction sites and quarries. Today, safety is cultivated within the DNA of every manager, supervisor, laborer, and administrator.
When former CEO Frank Warren retired, he said that the accomplishment he was most proud of was the company’s safety improvements during his tenure. “I believe that as important as being the best in all these other categories is, and as ‘feel good’ as that is, we have an ethical and moral responsibility to employees of the company to provide them with a safe working environment and to demand that they abide by safe daily practices.”
“For decades, one of RGI’s core values has been ‘placing the highest value on people,’ and our constant focus on safety is based on this core principle” says current RGI President and CEO Jerry Geraghty. “Throughout the industry, Rogers Group is known as a leader in safety. After all, we have to do whatever we can to protect our greatest asset, our people.”
Rogers Group’s safety efforts have not gone unnoticed by its trade associations. They have received numerous safety awards from various trade organizations, including the National Asphalt Pavement Association, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, and the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association.
Commitment to core principles
There may be changes, challenges, and surprises in coming years, but there are also staples about Rogers Group that won’t change. According to RGI leadership, these principles define its core values: unwavering integrity, excellence in every undertaking, and placing the highest value on people.
“We have to make sure that some things, such as being involved in the community, are being done,” says Ben L. Rechter, son of Ben R. Rechter and RGI board member. “We take a lot of pride in the way our facilities look. We, as a family, have to make sure that there are no shortcuts taken just to make money.”
And no shortcuts are taken with people either. “Going forward, it’s not about reinventing the wheel,” says Dave Rechter, son of Rick Rechter, who serves on the RGI board and as vice president of Eastern Tennessee operations. “It’s treating people with dignity and respect. When you really get down to Rogers Group and its core, it is the employees. We’ve had some wonderful CEOs and other leaders over the years who have given us some great direction. But it comes down to the everyday execution. Some of the best and most successful ideas have come from employees on a paving crew or at a quarry. That’s who we are.”
Ready for the next 100 years
As Rogers Group celebrates its 100th anniversary, it is important to acknowledge just how rare a family-run, privately held company is in today’s business climate.
“Most family-owned businesses don’t make it past year five,” says American Road & Transportation Builders Association President Pete Ruane. “To make it to 100 as a family-owned business is a milestone. It shines by comparison.”
There is no reason to believe it won’t continue to survive and thrive, according to Geraghty. “The brothers have positioned this company and established a governance structure that will not only reap substantial benefits from the last 100 years, but will allow the company to grow and prosper the next 100 years. They’ve built on what they inherited and created an approach to governing the company through the commitment to Rogers Group’s core values that has allowed the company to prosper and attract the talent that will continue to make Rogers Group successful into the next century.”
Whatever the future holds and wherever Rogers Group goes, there are things that won’t change. The core beliefs put into place by Ralph Rogers and embraced by his descendants – work hard, bid fairly, and treat people right – will remain the base on which all other aspects of the company are built.
And those principles will remain as rock solid as the stone that has served the company well these past 100 years.
“For years, Rogers Group has been at the forefront of the aggregates industry taking a leadership role in safety, environmental, political, and community relations advances. The national association has turned to Rogers Group again and again for leadership – in fact, three of our national chairmen have come from Rogers Group: Sam and Rick Rechter and Frank Warren – and as an example of a company that continually sets the best practices bar very high. Whether it’s helping the industry forge a cooperative alliance with the Mine Safety and Health Administration and leading the development of an industry-wide Safety Pledge, growing our participation in the political process and demonstrating strong grassroots advocacy, establishing meaningful and effective community outreach standards, or proving a commitment to environmental stewardship, Rogers Group embodies the ideal of sustainability for our industry.”
– Joy Wilson, president and CEO of the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association
Rogers Group employees have planned a variety of events and programs to commemorate its centennial year.
Article and photos are courtesy of Rogers Group. Portions of this article adapted from the book From the Ground Up, by Sandy Smith.