The Big Leagues
As the largest aggregate producer in the United States, Vulcan Materials uses an assortment of community outreach tools to impact thousands.
By Therese Dunphy, Editor-in-Chief
With more than 300 aggregates sites, Vulcan Materials, the nation’s largest aggregates producer, has a broad footprint across the United States. Its sheer size is reflected in the number and variety of its community relations programs. For example, in the East Region, alone, an estimated 11,000 to 12,000 students toured Vulcan facilities in 2012 through its Adopt-a-School programs.
“With the economic downturn, we scaled back a little bit on what we were doing,” says Jimmy Fleming, vice president of human resources, Vulcan Materials Co. – East Region. “With the economy being in the shape it’s in, the schools have cut back on the number of tours they allow kids to go on.” Buses and other expenses that are considered non-essential have been cut from school district budgets throughout the United States, including some that participate in Vulcan’s Adopt-a-School partnerships. At its “high water mark,” nearly 20,000 students per year visited operations throughout the Region.
Despite fewer tours, however, the number of participants in its schools program is growing. The East Region now has 110 formal partnerships. “Despite the downturn, we consider strategic partnerships with schools as one of the things we need to continue to do,” Fleming says.
Based on each state’s curriculum standards, Vulcan works with targeted grades of students, particularly those who are studying earth science. While that might be third and sixth grade in one state, it may be eighth grade in another. College programs focused on earth science and geology also participate in the program.
One distinct advantage students in the Vulcan school partnerships enjoy is access to some of the operator’s unique sites. Within the East Region, Fleming says that Vulcan has 27 Wildlife Habitat Council-certified wildlife habitats and seven Corporate Lands for Learning sites.
“It dovetails very nicely with these tours. These Corporate Lands for Learning are basically wildlife habitats that have really, really active tours going through them,” he says. “It enables us to talk about the whole earth science curriculum when we have a tour. We’re not just talking about mining anymore. We’re talking about mining and reclamation and conservation and wildlife on a much more total earth science curriculum basis.” Teachers like it, he adds, because they get a lot more out of the tour when it’s more broadly based.
As curriculum and textbooks continue to focus on resource management and sustainability, school tours offer an important opportunity to balance theory and real-life application. “It’s one of the reasons why we continue to emphasize the Adopt-a-School programs and tours,” Fleming explains. “We can help provide that balance by letting kids in there and seeing what it is we actually do.”
Equally important, he adds, teachers learn about the mining process. “Letting teachers know what we do is imperative; that has been our number one goal for years,” he says. “If we can get people early enough and let them understand what it is we do and how important our product is to the environment in which they live and their quality of life, that’s a win.”
Showcasing student work
Vulcan’s first formal Adopt-a-School partnership, with Meadowcreek High School, began more than 25 years ago and has an influence on areas outside the more common earth science curriculum. “It has a very good art program, so we were looking for a way to capitalize on this tremendous art program and enhance it,” Fleming explains. “We asked them if they would consider doing some art work for us on a commission basis.”
Students visited the site and created artwork based on their perceptions of the operation. Numerous watercolor paintings were done based on student trips to the site, including works featuring haul trucks, conveyors, and other equipment throughout the plant. “We still have a lot of artwork in the building here and, probably, throughout the company,” he says. “A lot of times, people who move on to other jobs in the company take those pictures with them.”
Eventually, Vulcan decided to commission Christmas cards to be sent out to its customers. Students submitted Christmas artwork into a contest. Monetary prizes were given to the top entries, and supplies were given to the winning students’ classrooms or departments. The artwork was then used to create Christmas cards, which were mailed with the student’s name and background printed on the back of the card.
“It became a very popular thing,” Fleming says. “We got some great artwork over the years.” In fact, the program expanded from the high school down to the elementary school level. Winning entries ranged from everything from pictures of Santa driving a haul truck to a clever card with three bells and a rock captioned Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Rock.
“As an art student, if your picture was selected, we might have sent out your artwork to 5,000 to 10,000 people,” he notes. “That’s pretty interesting coverage for a budding student artist.”
For the last several years, company-wide cards haven’t been sent out, but specific locations continue to send cards to their customers. “The partnership continues, and we’re still doing artwork,” Fleming adds. “As the economy comes back, we hope to be sending out Christmas cards again.”
Getting into it for the long run
While school programs have been at the root of Vulcan’s community relations efforts for years, Fleming says he’s particularly proud of a new initiative, which recently completed its second annual event: the Quarry Crusher Run at its Columbia, S.C., quarry. “Would we have done this 25 years ago?” he says. “The answer is absolutely not.”
That operation is located near an old mill village in the downtown area of a college town. The mill itself, recently renovated into condos and apartments, is one of the quarry’s closest neighbors. The event is a 3.7-mile race that begins just outside the quarry property, flows down into the bottom of the pit, and winds its way back out. In the inaugural 2012 event, slightly less than 200 runners participated. This year, that number doubled, and Fleming says he anticipates similar growth next year.
The race is held in conjunction with a community event called Olympia Fest, a family friendly event that raises funds for worthy local causes. In 2013, a church was the beneficiary. Some festival goers dressed up in costumes, including runners dressed as Fred and Wilma Flintstone. Others wore ribbons in honor of Boston Marathon runners.
After the race, Fleming says that bus tours are offered through the operation and Vulcan employees can explain how the site operates on a daily basis. “It’s really something that demonstrates how far we’ve come as an industry when we’re opening the doors instead of hiding behind our berms,” he adds.
There are several precautions he recommends for such an event.
• Shut down the quarry for the duration of the race;
• Be selective in terms of the course; and
• Have lots of personnel on site for the event.
Otherwise, it’s a very safe event, he says with the caveat “other than the fact that you’re running and you’re running up hill for a good portion of the way.”
Taking the pulse of the community
Another tool in Vulcan’s community relations arsenal is to perform, as appropriate, community audits. While not an everyday occurrence, Fleming says that he uses them under the right circumstances such as when acquiring a new site, going into a new market, or permitting reserves.
At Vulcan’s Macon operation, Fleming hired consultant Bronwyn Weaver to interview community members and assess their concerns. “The beauty of a third-party audit is that she doesn’t have a dog in the fight, so community members may open up to her when they won’t open up to us,” he says. “We used the information that she was able to gather to hold several community meetings and be able to actually address the concerns in a very proactive way. By addressing the concerns of the community, we were able to obtain permits with their blessing.”
Fleming says that, while not frequently employed, community audits allow him to pinpoint problems, highlight potential pitfalls, and identify pitfalls he doesn’t even know exist. “We have been able to address them up front, before they became problems we were reading about in the paper,” he explains.
Audits can also be helpful for long-term operations. “We did a community audit in a market where we’d been for some years, and we didn’t think we had any issues at all,” he says. “We discovered that the community was concerned about a few things we were getting ready to do. It reminded us that we needed to be meeting with the community. It identified some of the things we should be meeting about, and we were able to sit down, have those conversations, and proactively address some of those issues.”
It’s not always the anticipated pitfalls that actually cause community angst, he warns. In one case, Vulcan was building a berm around a site when he learned that the community was very concerned about it. “We actually thought there wouldn’t be a lot of questions,” he says. But, when people see activity and don’t know what it is, they worry.
“We were able to have a meeting, tell them exactly what we were doing, give them some pictures and create an idea of what the berm was going to look like after it was finished, and explain to them what the purpose of a berm was. They were very satisfied by that.”
It’s important to pay attention to neighbors in all situations, he says, particularly if they’re complaining a lot. “If you’re getting a lot of complaints, that’s an issue, but if you’re not getting any complaints, that might be a bigger issue because those complaints may have gone underground or to someone besides you, which means they may be going to an elected official.”