Brooks Construction Company Exemplifies Safety, Innovation, Industry Growth
BY Sandy Lender
How does a 110-year-old company in Fort Wayne, Indiana, keep itself innovative and garner a national safety award from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) in 2018? It’s a long and storied family history with an emphasis on asphalt, quality construction and safe practices.
Family History of Innovation
According to the Brooks Construction Company Inc. website, John Foster Brooks began selling liquid asphalt cement (AC) for the Barber Asphalt Company around the turn of the century. By the age of 26, John F. Brooks was ready to get financial backing to start his own business. In 1909, he launched Brooks Construction and built the now-historic Forest Park Blvd. for the City of Ft. Wayne using asphalt. To do that project, according to the company website, “Brooks had to go door to door and sell each homeowner on the virtues of paving over the more traditional brick.”
The company’s been innovative ever since, purchasing its first asphalt plant in 1917. Now they have six. They win awards on the state and national levels every year for quality highway construction and specialized commercial work with mixes that come out of those plants.
Bill Knopf, the recent executive director of the Asphalt Pavement Association of Indiana (APAI), spoke highly of their quality and involvement.
“The Brooks ‘Quality First’ team has historically been heavily involved in both our board of directors, our extensive and very active committee structure, and with our partner organizations such as the Build Indiana Council and the BIC-PAC,” Knopf shared. “And I’m not just referring to one or two company principals; I mean more than a dozen key middle and senior management employees who freely share their knowledge, experience, and vision toward improving the performance of our products, workzone safety, asphalt market share, and our workforce recruitment efforts in order to raise the playing field for all.”
In fact, Brooks Construction was actively involved with the testing and construction of one of the first Superpave highways in Indiana. The company created the first private American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) accredited lab in the state of Indiana, according to the website.
In 1963, John F. Brooks’ sons—Bob and Jim—hired a salesman to increase business for the company and helped create a marketing department at the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA) to promote asphalt as the pavement of choice for government agencies and commercial contractors to specify and use. In the 1970s, John F. Brooks’ grandsons—John R. and Andrew F.—joined the team as laborers, working their way up through the ranks. Andrew graduated from DePauw University with a degree in economics and is now the president of Brooks Construction, responsible for finance, administration, human resources, equipment and the all-important safety. The newest generation has joined the company in recent years—Margi Brooks and Andrew Brooks—and look to continue the company’s legacy of quality, safety and innovation.
Recent Innovations for Sustainability
To decrease its carbon footprint and environmental impact, Brooks Construction uses recycled content, recently unveiling its high-recycle product (HyRAP). The plant making the HyRAP mix is a parallel flow drum and pugmill, custom-built by ALmix of Ft. Wayne. Brooks fractionates RAP for its recycle mix production, using a combination of Pro-Sizer and a CEI screen.
Bill Stevens, vice president, explained they include an additive from Crowley Chemical in the mixes. “It replaces parts of the asphalt molecules that have oxidized or hardened.”
Their plant manager, Tony Robinson, worked with his team to get the HyRAP system perfected. “Tony along with other personnel made many adjustments to balance airflow, air temperatures along the air-flow path and mix temperature. Crowley was involved with the adjustments, and we continually adjust depending on the products we are using and the conditions at time of use.”
The paving crew has made adjustments as well to get optimum compaction of HyRAP mixes, Stevens explained. “Being higher in fines than our typical conventional mix, very prompt compaction efforts benefit the finished product. We keep the roller right behind the paver, and get to any hand-work right away.”
RAP isn’t the only environmentally friendly agent in Brooks’ arsenal. The company also has the ability to include steel slag in mix designs. “Steel slag is used as specifications require. Both INDOT and private customers have required it depending on the project’s need and design.”
A truly innovative fuel idea came to fruition in 1997 when the company began its Landfill Gas Energy Recovery Project with National Serv-All. According to Brooks’ website, “This clean energy approach utilizes natural gas produced from the decomposition of the landfill as fuel burned at the Ardmore plant location for asphalt production.”
Stevens explained, “Our Ardmore facility utilized landfill waste gas for years, but now all current gas production is being consumed by a local General Motors plant.” The asphalt plant was running, on average, 280 TPH, serving both commercial and Brooks’ crews. “Landfill gas required modifications to our burner since it has only about one half the BTU content per CF as natural gas. We have had no issues with using it.”
Innovations for Workforce Development
In 2001, the Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana inducted Bob and Jim into the Greater Fort Wayne Business Hall of Fame, and the company remains an engaged supporter of JA. This is merely one indication of the company’s commitment to recruiting young talent into the construction industry.
“There are a lot of new and innovative ideas being tried in Indiana, and Brooks Construction has eagerly participated in both industry-wide and local efforts to encourage young people to see the great opportunities in the asphalt industry,” President Andy Brooks said.
“At the heart of our efforts is our belief that Brooks Construction is and should always be the ‘employer of choice.’ We believe in working hard for fair compensation in a safe environment where there is mutual respect, enjoyment and satisfaction among coworkers. We recognize that although our wages are very competitive, not all new millennials are looking at just compensation. They want to be respected, listened to, taken serious for their contribution, recognized for their contributions and part of the team. We continually look for ways to tweak our compensation model, mentoring and training efforts, and career path models to meet the needs of the newest generation of workers.”
Brooks Construction management has worked with more than 40 schools local to the company to get industrial trades included in school curriculums. More than a dozen Brooks ambassadors go to the schools and discuss the construction industry with high school students. In 2018, Brooks Construction employees had attended 15 community workforce development, college and high school job fairs.
The company also worked with APAI and the Future Farmers of America (FFA) to promote the construction industry at the Indiana FFA Leadership Center on May 2, 2018. At that event, 160+ students got to see an asphalt parking lot being repaved while Brooks Construction and other contractors talked with them about the career opportunities within the asphalt industry.
In addition to reaching out for the industry in general, Brooks employees look at ways to incentivize and invigorate its own workforce. APAI’s Knopf commended them for these efforts also.
“The firm really embraces training and education, and enrolls teams of employees in virtually every program the Association [APAI] offers. They invest in their people continually and place a high value on industry networking. Well respected by industry peers, suppliers and customers alike, I perceive this well established, family owned firm as a vital component of the asphalt industry within our state.”
“Brooks Construction has an internal referral program that incentivizes employees to send qualified candidates to Brooks Construction and if they are hired, provides additional rewards if the new employee stays through the season,” HR Director Monty Richmond explained.
“We have worked with four local high schools in developing a job shadowing program, which allows students to go onto a job site to see the work that is being done. …We also use the Indiana InterNET site to promote our internship programs. Since 2015, we have had 13 interns come through this program. …We are also part of the State of Indiana’s Next Level Job opportunity that started this year. The state wants to help companies train and promote employees in a new skilled trades industry. This year, we currently have seven new employees and two newly promoted front line supervisors in this program.”
Brooks Construction’s commitment to bringing new workers into the construction—and asphalt—industry is strong. Andy Brooks commented, “With U.S. unemployment at a 50-year national low, recruiting those new to construction is crucial for the entire construction trades/skilled trades industries. We know that there are fewer and fewer candidates out there with heavy highway experience who don’t already have a job. So we have started screening applicants for work ethic, learning capabilities, attitude, job longevity and attendance, and not just for construction experience. We understand there may not be a ‘perfect candidate’ and work to determine what other prior experience could yield a successful construction career (such as farming, sports, landscaping, manufacturing, military background, etc.).”
Innovations for Safety
Once new employees are in the Brooks Construction family, they are part of a team committed to safe work practices. That has been proven time and again through corporate initiatives and now through the ARTBA 2018 Safety Award.
Brad Sant, senior vice president of safety and education for ARTBA, stated: “Brooks’ safety stood out because it achieves safety performance not often seen in smaller contractors. Its comprehensive program rivals that of companies many times larger, with more resources and more dedicated safety personnel. It was also apparent that the safety culture of the company is led by the top company officials who take a very personal interest in the well-being of their employees.”
“Management’s commitment to safety continues to grow each year,” Richmond shared. He’s the Brooks Construction director of human resources and safety, and he’s an authorized 10-hour and 30-hour safety instructor. “We continue to look at new ways to encourage safe practices and find new ways to enable our employees to work safely.
At management’s request, each and every company meeting is kicked off with a safety discussion, from our board meetings through job-site huddles. We open the start of each job each day talking about safety and the hazards at the jobsite with all employees. This keeps the topic on the forefront of our minds and fosters creativity regarding safety.”
This mindset encourages innovation.
“We are always looking for new ways to improve safety for our employees,” Richmond shared. “For example, our IT team worked with a field crew to develop an early warning system last year that notifies our crews of any traffic that enters our construction zone. This system uses laser sensors that are triggered when a vehicle breaks the construction zone and comes into our work area. When the transmitted beam is broken, the system sets off an air horn near our employees so they have time to react before the vehicle is upon them.
“To get more employees involved in safety and build our safety culture, we created a new program this year called Safety Before Anything (SBA). This program is intended to highlight our employees’ right to stop work and talk with the foremen if they see something unsafe. We want them to have the opportunity to openly discuss their safety concerns and to come up with solutions. It also outlines certain safety items that we have a ‘No Tolerance Policy’ for while working here at Brooks Construction.”
As part of the new effort, Brooks Construction ran a contest asking employees to create and present their ideas via a poster of what safety meant to them. “This campaign encouraged employees to create a digital poster with pictures of their friends, families and favorite hobbies. We are using these digital posters on our company website and social media to show what safety means to our employees.
“We also created in the last two years an online safety suggestion box that allows employees to submit their safety suggestions, ideas or concerns to the company anonymously. We have found that some employees are hesitant to speak up when in a group or do not want to be recognized for their comments. This approach gives them the opportunity to bring up safety concerns anonymously and allows Brooks Construction the ability to address their concerns.
“We research and find industry-specific safety talks (toolbox talks) that apply to heavy highway construction. We used to talk about any construction topic but found that our employees became disengaged when the topics were unrelated to our industry. When we started toolbox talks, they were given by foremen only, but we weren’t getting the desired engagement. Now, foremen select a different employee on their crews each week to give the toolbox talk. This keeps the employees engaged and makes them more active participants.”
Management has also found that messages “hit home” more often when it’s a peer talking “because of the trust and experience the crew members have with each other on the job site each day.”
Management also encourages positive reinforcement for good safety practices. They offer “Brooks Bucks” to be used at the company’s online store in exchange for Brooks apparel, lunch bags, mugs, hats, additional safety items, etc.
“Managers, supervisors and even coworkers can award Brooks Bucks for a lot of different safety practices, such as stopping an unsafe act, coming up with a new or improved way to do something, stopping someone from being injured, or saving them from an injury,” Richmond shared.
“On the other side, we started a Safety Point system about three years ago, which was designed to address individuals with poor personal safety practices. Points are given because of observation or report of failure to perform within the Brooks safety guidelines.”
With the point system, lesser infractions are assessed one point; severe infractions are assessed four points. The points will accrue up to 12, with stages allowing management the opportunity to address and correct behavior along the way.
“For example, not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) will get you one point,” Richmond explained. “If you are observed not wearing PPE again, the assessed points double, and will double again each time we have to discuss that topic with you again. A higher penalty is assessed for more dangerous actions, such as horseplay at the job site, which is given four points. The consequences of the point system increase as points accumulate. One point will get you a verbal warning; at five points, you get a written warning and a conversation with the vice president of operations; and at eight points, you get a two-day unpaid suspension and a face-to-face discussion with the owners of Brooks Construction. At 12 points, an individual’s employment with Brooks will be terminated. Fortunately, we’ve never had to go that far.”
“The Brooks program demonstrates that high safety performance can be achieved even by small contractors,” Sant shared. “They have a model other similarly situated contractors should seriously try to mimic.”
The Brooks Construction family has grown for over a century now with quality, environmental excellence, innovation and safety as staples of their daily best practices. As they continue to achieve awards for their good work and safety culture, it’s a testament to their efforts to grow the industry as a whole that they’ve shared so much of their philosophy.