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Alan Sparkman: Shaping the Future of the Concrete IndustrySeptember 2004 Industry Leader
Update February 2009: Read Alan Sparkman's updated bio.
Alan Sparkman, Executive Director of the Tennessee Concrete Association (TCA), grew up in the ready-mix business in southeast Kentucky. "I was driving a concrete truck when I was 16 years old," he laughs. After college, Sparkman continued in the industry, eventually owning a ready mix company with his father—a company they sold 10 years ago.
Along the way, Sparkman also worked with insulating concrete forms in manufacturing and construction for about four years, gaining experience while overseeing a crew that installed and specialized in concrete contracting.
After the sale of the ready mix business, Sparkman also worked for the Aberdeen Group (now Hanley-Wood), a company that published several concrete-related magazines as well as producing the World of Concrete trade show. As the director of industry relations, he helped develop an early online community targeted to the concrete industry, and was the chief 'technology evangelist' to explain the benefits of the system to various industry organizations.
Today, Sparkman is tapping the pulse of the industry, and his eye is on what's hot—as well as the future. From a product standpoint, he cites decorative concrete as a hot ticket. "It's arousing a lot of interest," he says. "Generally, that's a good thing. It can lead to more concrete being used for non-decorative applications."
As for broad issues, Sparkman says consolidation is impacting the way everyone operates. "I think there are a lot of things in this industry [that indicate] consolidation may only go so far," Sparkman explains. "Ready mix production is a local business, and although there are a number of folks doing industry rollups, it's very difficult to run a concrete company from afar or with the typical corporate mentality."
"Large states like California and Florida have a lot of large producers as well as a lot of small plant operators that are equally successful," he adds. "The conclusion that increasing consolidation in the ready mix industry is inevitable is one that needs to be taken with a grain of salt."
Sparkman also cites the changing world of work as a trend he sees impacting the industry. "The way people live and work is changing quite dramatically," he says. "It's the falling cost of communication—the effects are slower in our industry, but it's having a major impact and the impact will be even pronounced more in the future." He cites the example of real-time truck tracking systems as one communication technology that might lead to changes in the way ready mix companies operate with regard to sharing more real-time information with their customers, and changing the way businesses are currently organized in what he dubs a "command and control" industry.
As for what's hot in his own proverbial backyard, Sparkman says there's a lot of talk regarding pervious concrete right now, as well as a growing interest on the West Coast. "It's driven by the environmental impact of construction activities on the front end instead of on the back end," he says. Pervious concrete is also commanding a lot of attention from the architectural and public works communities, and getting pervious concrete into a project can often lead to greater use of other types of concrete.
Of his role at the TCA, Sparkman enjoys having the opportunity and ability to impact the future direction of the industry as a whole. "I like being able to focus on the future and get ready for it," he says. His passion for the industry is inherent, since he's the third generation in his family to work in the industry, and he calls his love of concrete an "inherited passion".
One way Sparkman has found to give to the future of concrete and its role in communities is through a cross-country bike ride he organized that raised grants to help build trails and greenways in several areas. The title of the ride was the Count on Concrete Bike Ride – Building Access for All Americans.
What started as an idea for an out-of-the-ordinary vacation soon morphed into an eight-week partnership with several major players in the concrete industry, all with a common goal—raise money that would award grants to build infrastructure (utilizing more concrete, of course!) to help others enjoy the outdoors as much as Sparkman does.
"I want to get our industry to worry about more than just the financial bottom line," he adds. "It's important the industry not forget the essential responsibility we have to local communities. And I want our industry to be recognized for the vast amount of support that is already coming from many local ready mix companies."
He also emphasizes the importance of continual education—what he calls "perpetual learning". "It's important to be exposed to a continual flow of new ideas," Sparkman explains, adding that he is constantly reading new books and periodicals to keep his imagination active.
"There's always time to learn," says Sparkman. "There's an expiration date on knowledge, so you have to stay up and continually assimilate new ideas."